Creative Leadership Isn’t for Everyone… and That’s Okay

I’ve experienced three distinct types of leadership in my career; business, technology, and creative.  Most leaders are business leaders, coming from a finance or business administration background.  Business leaders are critical to the success of… well, business.  They understand finance. They understand human resources. They understand capitalism, supply & demand and finding the right products for the right consumers.  Necessary, right?  Completely.

Technology leaders are the backbone of most tech-oriented companies and startups.  They keep teams of programmers, DBA’s and network admins on task and working toward a common goal.  Technology leaders are great at what they do because they command respect out of their ability not only to understand what their technologists do, but to also have the ability to do what they do.  Most technology leaders I’ve known will also step in and code from time to time, as a corrective measure, because they’re inspired, or simply because they miss it.

Creative leaders are not terribly different from a core description, but they come from a different place.  Creative leaders have creative backgrounds.  They’ve shown an ability, a capacity, a competency performing a role within a creative field.  Typically, they’ve excelled.  This is often how a creative leader is initially offered the opportunity to move into a management role, to hone their leadership skills.  The assumption is that because someone is a great designer, they’ll be a great leader. This doesn’t always hold true.  Leadership is an additional skill-set, beyond what designers, writers, and architects are typically taught.  Some people find they just don’t enjoy leadership and would much rather move into a more intense version of what they already do.

Their past work is what gets their foot in the door, but it doesn’t command respect.  A creative leader has to show that they understand the process the team works in, and then have the trust in the team to let them do that work. It’s not trust in the vein of “Don’t tell anyone my secret.” It’s not grade school.  It’s trust in the sense that your team was hired because they’re capable.  Let them be capable.  More challenging for most creative leaders is that they have to step away from the work.  Particularly in designing experiences, the creative leader should be coaching and guiding, but not directing.  The work is the work of the creative team, collaboratively generating a solution.  The creative leader is there to keep it on track, but not to lay the track for the team.

Good leaders share common traits, and there’s plenty written about that.  Good leaders treat employees like people.  They treat customers like people.  They understand multiple facets of the business.  They inspire.  They see the big picture.  I’m not challenging the notion that a capable leader isn’t a capable leader, but good leaders have a good understanding of those they lead.  Without some additional education and true practice in the craft, I wouldn’t expect anyone to put me in front of a finance team, given my background emphasis on creative and technology.  The same should hold true for creative leaders.

Gone are the days where a manager was a manager; a director was a director.  It is possible, of course, for some leaders to transcend the inherent roadblocks associated with not understanding the core disciplines behind what they lead, but it’s particularly challenging.  Associates want leaders who understand what they do and can be a coach and a mentor, as well as someone who approves their vacation time.  As technology and creative disciplines generate more prominence in today’s companies, so should those who lead them.

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