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Get Noticed

The Bias Against Creatives as Leaders

Bad news: studies show that creatives are often overlooked as leaders. Good news: the bias can be overcome.


Two candidates are being interviewed for a leadership position in your company. Both have strong resumes, but while one seems to be bursting with new and daring ideas, the other comes across as decidedly less creative (though clearly still a smart cookie). Who gets the job?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually the less creative candidate. This fact may or may not surprise you – you yourself may have been the creative candidate who got the shaft. But what you’re probably wondering is, why?

After all, it’s quite clear who should be getting the job. Studies show that leaders who are more creative are in fact better able to effect positive change in their organizations, and are better at inspiring others to follow their lead.

And yet, according to recent research there is good reason to believe that the people with the most creativity aren’t given the opportunity to lead, because of a process that occurs (on a completely unconscious level) in the mind of everyone who has ever evaluated an applicant for a leadership position.

The problem, put simply, is this: our idea of what a prototypical “creative person” is like is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical “effective leader.” 

Creativity is associated with nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality. It conjures visions of the artist, the musician, the misunderstood poet. In other words, not the sort of people you usually put in charge of large organizations. Effective leaders, it would seem, should provide order, rather than tossing it out the window. 

 

Our idea of a prototypical creative person is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical effective leader.

Unconsciously, we assume that someone who is creative can’t be a good leader, and as a result, any evidence of creativity can diminish a candidate’s perceived leadership potential.

In one study conducted by organizational psychologists Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, and Dishan Kamdar, employees rated the responses of nearly 300 of their (unidentified) coworkers to a problem-solving task for both creativity (the extent to which their ideas were novel and useful) and as evidence of leadership potential. They found that creativity and leadership potential were strongly negatively correlated – the more creative the response, the less effective a leader the responder appeared.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed – if evaluators have a charismatic leader (i.e., someone known for their uniqueness and individualism, like a Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Carly Fiorina) rather than an effective but non-charismatic leader in mind.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed.

So what can you do in an interview to fight the creativity bias? You have some options:

  1. Be armed with evidence of your leadership abilities. Bias is most powerful when there is nothing else concrete to go on – that’s when our brains (unconsciously) fill in the blanks. 
  2. Don’t just focus on your past experience. Talk about what you see as your leadership potential – the kind of leader you see yourself becoming. Studies show that interviewers are drawn to candidates described as having potential (often more than actual achievement.) They’ll spend more time thinking about you, and that extra thinking results in more accuracy and less bias. 
  3. Try to counteract the bias subtly by talking about the charismatic, creative leaders who have been role models for you in the past. 
  4. Tackle the bias head on. Acknowledge that creative types aren’t often chosen for leadership positions, while arguing (nicely) that your ability to offer fresh and innovative solutions to problems is essential to effective leadership, rather than at odds with it. 

How about you?

Have you ever faced bias as a creative leader? What happened?

Comments (116)
  • tannerc

    This is something that even businesses that chase creative thinking and innovation struggle with today.

    It’s not easy to look at a creative individual and associate their uniqueness, their ability to see “what’s next,” and their ability to inspire team members, then compare those attributes to their ability to forecast or make smart judgements when large numbers are on the line.

    I think that’s going to be the next big struggle for companies as we move into a day-and-age where creativity really does matter and computers more or less take care of everything else.

  • Gina Fredenburgh

    Fascinating article. I’ve been in the midst of this battle for virtually all of my professional life. I have been the person in charge much of the time, and I performed well in this regard, according to the various accepted metrics being employed, and have helped my staff promote themselves. However, did I really, truly, in my heart, like being in charge? The answer, honestly, is no.

    Ideally, I would be a thinker, an idea generator, a researcher, a catalyst. I am an introvert (INFP) with all manner of other metrics that seem to support this type. My very weak point: a seeming inability to promote myself.

    Now, that is not to imply that I am unhappy in my current roles. Not at all, in fact. I get to interact with wonderful, fascinating, intelligent people on a daily basis. I have stimulating conversations almost every day – how fortunate is that? In my academic environment, I have more freedom that may be the case in many corporate positions, and that intellectual freedom is more important to me than would be the, albeit attractive, rewards of private consultancy.
    In general, however, we struggle with putting a monetary value on academic contributions. How do we measure inspiration? How do we track the stream of consciousness that might arise from a post? How do we value the contribution of a free environment for exchange of ideas?
    So, with apologies for the length of my rant-ish post, I say to my fellow introverted (potential and current) leaders: Rock on. Dare. Be as eccentric as you can allow. When eccentric means considering that which lies outside the middle, well, I think we can agree it’s a good viewpoint to examine, no?

  • Anne Miles

    I think this is spot on, but I do also feel that some creatives actually don’t make good leaders. They’re too stuck on their own process, can’t take their hands off the work/wheel, and have a fixed idea of what the end product must look like – only their vision. These are issues that face the hands on person in any business though.

    Many other good leaders are overlooked too, as this article identifies. I agree.

    It is certainly possible to be a good leader and a creative.

  • JuanIsidro

    Yeah, except Jobs was never hired as a CEO to begin with… And as unlikely as it is for him to be hired today, it’s even more unlikely for him to have been hired back then. His image and ethos was much more clashing with the establishment in the 70s/80s.

  • K-eM

    Your description fits as many “non-creatives” as creatives. I work for a person who fits your description perfectly and she is not a creative one little iota.

  • JamalLe

    There are certainly a lot of details like that to take into
    consideration. That?s a great point to bring up. I offer the thoughts
    above as general inspiration but clearly there are questions like the
    one you bring up where the most important thing will be.

  • John Di Frances

    This is very interesting to me as my newest book, Minding The Giraffes: The People Side of Innovation (released Nov. 12th) has a chapter entitled, ‘When Giraffes Lead,’ which addresses the benefits and dangers of having creative, innovative individuals at the helm of our organizations. Yes, it can be problematic when such leaders are strictly entrepreneurial and incapable of growing with the organization and thereby, become the limiting factor. But there are also many highly creative and innovative leaders who already possess or develop the skills necessary to take the organization far beyond where the ‘technically’ focused leader can. Charisma is important, but it needs to be coupled with vision. I have known charismatic leaders who offered little more than short lived motivational ‘rah-rah.’ Truly charismatic leaders, as demonstrated by Steve Jobs and many others, impart a bold vision of the future and ‘what can be.’

    Thank you for an excellent article that points out again the disparity in perceptions regarding effective leaders, If America is to once again become a world leader economically, we will need to change this perception, especially in our board rooms, so that we have more real, aggressive, risk-taking innovators vs. care-takers leading our companies.

  • Chris Kelly

    The issue with creative leadership is less about being picked and more of a lack of authority within an organisation. Offering creative solutions or different approaches to the same problem are treated negatively because of having the status as ‘the creative’ or that your creative ideas are different to the head of UI and by default are of less value. I think creatives and creative leadership are undervalued across the board, not simply in an interview setting.

  • Guest

    I’ve been referred to by executive leadership in my organization as a “serial innovator”, and have provided many ideas over the course of the last decade that have been incorporated organization-wide. Yet, I still remain in the same position as an administrative assistant, with the same raises as every other average employee I work with. I must admit, this has taken its toll on my enthusiasm. I’ve begun using my creativity to enrich my own personal life, rather than spending my best creative energy on something that has become only moderately satisfying.

  • Stephen Abbott

    Creativity is a valuable skill set; it’s the ability to merge previously unrelated ideas (imagination) into practical solutions that meet real objectives. But too many people let it become a defining character trait; whimsy without application. Creativity is something to nurture in leadership—a skill to channel and leverage as required, right alongside all the other skills of leadership, such as communication, analysis, decisiveness, and the ability to inspire/empower others. It is important in presenting yourself as a creative professional that you focus on past results, why creativity worked, as well as confidence in facing new challenges.

  • Douglas Eby

    “People often avoid the uncomfortable uncertainty of novel solutions regardless of potential benefit.” That quote comes from the Forbes magazine article Managing The Psychological Bias Against Creativity by Todd Essig. In her post Why Creative People Are Rarely Seen as Leaders, Susan Cain says Jennifer Mueller, assistant professor of management at Wharton and lead author of a study, “speculates that out-of-the-box thinkers tend not to do the things that traditional leaders do…” – From my post Creative? Introverted? Then You’re Probably Not Seen As A Leader
    http://blogs.psychcentral.com/

  • Dewc

    It is one of the greatest missed opportunities in recent times. People who possess little or no creative/innovation/inventive skills are intimidated by those who do. I have seen this working all over the world over the past 30 years. Because pragmatic/process-driven/analytical people just don’t trust the idea of following and taking instructions from someone who hasn’t read or wishes to follow the manual. I trained as a creative/designer and had to reinvent myself so many times, in a manner with which other people could see me in a context with which they felt comfortable entrusting me with running the team or company on their behalf.

    It is a simply a mute point of view, not to value the people in the workplace with highest levels of creativity, one only has to look at the most successful companies around at present to know that, even if they are not led by creative people their products or services are led by highly creative talent.

    A cautionary tale – look at what happened to the antithesis of creative skills and talent – the global banking industry, you only sell emperors new clothes for so long.

  • Dan Gilliland

    The corporate world purges creativity. The top-down dominator culture of don’t ask why just comply, rolls over creatives..

  • broacher

    I’d like to know the role of humor, or rather the fear of humor, plays in this bias. Most creatives I know have a keenly developed sense of humor and playfulness in all their communications — quite the opposite for many of the execs I’ve come across. Many who do have a wickedly comic side — but the healthy expression of this is considered too risky for public (or shareholder) consumption. Political leaders struggle with this constantly. The higher you go, is there less room for the funny side?

  • Christian Guthier

    The creative isn’t seen as the ‘safe pair of hands’. Which may hold some truth… 😉

  • JMillerBoston

    Seems to me there’s a glut of opportunity for creative leadership positions out there – the trend seems to be toward full-time employment of UX and design people (like me) in particular. I’m in Boston, but I have stuff coming in from all over the place.

    Most creatives aren’t interested in being CEOs, unless it’s a small company with a specific product. So it could be we’re part of the problem, projecting an overall disdain for non-creative realities in business 🙂

    Being an idea person is a wonderful way to live. The fact that it’s at odds with traditional corporate ideas of leadership is inevitable – I’m not sure it needs to be reversed. Why? Because someone’s influence shouldn’t be limited by their role or title in an organization. We need to embrace people, not roles and titles.

    As a creative/ux director, for example, there’s no reason in the world that I can’t be a strong voice – and ultimately an influence – in the broader business arena for my company, and reap the rewards, financial or otherwise.

    Traditional business models and practices are the issue here – organizations that are hip to flatter structures and multidisciplinary collaboration won’t struggle with all this “identity” crap. They’ll just make great stuff, and succeed.

  • Joshua Bull

    This was awesome.

  • Ben Korsi

    Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.” – Albert Einstein

  • wolffbites

    I could argue that DDB under Bernbach, Scali-McCabe under Ed McCabe
    BBD&O led by Allen Rosenshine and then Phil Dusenbury, and Wells Rich
    under Mary Wells were the 4 best agencies thru the year 2000 of all time.

  • Sean

    Subconsciously, not unconsciously. At least, I hope nobody is passed-out in the interview process.

  • derekdj

    Carly Fiorina?!?! I would never list Fiorina in the same league as Jobs or Branson, the person responsible for wreaking the HP brand, offshoring thousands of American jobs and the defender of outsourcing as a creative leader? I guess you should do a follow up to this “Charismatic leadership versus Good leadership”.

  • wolffbites

    One more name to add to the value of having a Creative Soul at the helm…
    STEVE JOBS

  • Chung Liang

    This was an interesting read. I agree with the statement that creatives are often overlooked in roles of leadership. The reasons described also make sense but I think there may be another element to the story.

    Being creative is hard work. It requires focused, uninterrupted concentration. And lots of inspiration, spontaneity, and free association. The nature of really good creative people facilitate this and in doing so, we must sacrifice administrative and organizational responsibility. Often times, it’s our need to be creative that keeps us away from the leadership roles.

    Do you want to manage schedules and talk to clients all day?

    Non-creatives know this and that’s one reason why creatives may be overlooked. Ideally, we want a non-creative leader to be aware of the power of the creatives and pay, utilize, and value the potential that they can bring to a group.

  • mpenver

    I’ve worked for a creative leader who in turn was led by non-creatives. I think it takes a creative leader to lead creativity and understand the full advantages it can bring. Non creatives to me tend to be shy of change and what they know and in todays world of growing technologies and interaction it’s killing companies one by one.

    – Non-creative leaders tend to see something and follow the buzz
    – Creative leaders tend to see something and ask if it’d suit the business or what else could they do that’d put them ahead of competition.

  • Keverene Eason MAPP

    This is a brilliant point of view,as I have often wondered why some opportunities tend to slip by….thinking that I’d been a little to flamboyant in proposing some of my creative concepts.Now I’ll think along these lines.
    Thankyou for this insight into being considered differently.

    Keverne E.MAPP

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