Do you lead creatives? Todd Henry affectionately likens this challenging leadership position to “herding tigers.” Henry says leading creatives involves some counterintuitive principles that have the potential to transform your team and give them the incubator they need to create the best work of their lives.
“Trust is the currency of creative teams. Without trust you can’t do wild, imaginative, world-changing work,” Todd Henry said from the stage of the Global Leadership Summit 2019.
What Makes a Good Creative?
There are three qualities good, productive creatives possess. Todd Henry says they are prolific, brilliant, and healthy. A leader of creatives needs to ask whether his or her team possesses these qualities.
Prolific – creatives are required to produce a lot of work, sometimes quickly.
Brilliant – a creative’s work needs to be good. Otherwise, it won’t accomplish what it should.
Healthy – creatives need to work in a sustainable way.
Henry says when a creative or a creative team lacks one of these qualities, chaos ensues. Well, maybe not chaos, but let’s just say things aren’t being done properly and the team isn’t producing what it needs to produce. Specifically, if a team or a creative is:
Prolific + brilliant – healthy = fried (burned out)
Healthy + brilliant – prolific = unreliable
Prolific + healthy – brilliant = fired
What Creatives Need From Their Leaders
It might be counterintuitive, but creatives need stability. Creatives need a stable environment in which to do their “wild, imaginative work,” Henry explains. If there are no rules and absolutely everything is possible, no one will know what to do. Absence of limitations is the enemy of art, Todd Henry says, quoting Orson Welles.
“To produce stability, you have to earn the right to be followed every day,” Henry says.
Leaders have to take the first risk by giving their team of creatives direction, even when they’re not entirely sure what that direction should look like. Another thing a creative team needs is clarity of process. They need to know where they’re going and a loose idea of how they’re going to get there. Additionally, they need to be protected from anyone or anything who’s going to derail the project. Henry gave the example of a team who was commissioned to do a project, and who work on the project diligently, only to have the project scrapped at the last minute by someone (likely outside the team) saying “it’s not working.” In a situation like this, if the leader of the creatives doesn’t protect them from such an outcome, the leader will lose trust, which Todd Henry likens to the “currency of creative teams.”
Secondly, creatives need to be challenged. Creatives need permission to push the boundaries. Todd Henry admits it can be tricky to strike a good balance between a stable environment and challenge since stability and challenge are often in tension with one another. Challenge isn’t simply setting a high bar above a creative. Rather, it involves calling out their potential.
A leader of creatives must understand that the proper mix between challenge and stability is going to be different for each person, and it might take some tweaking to get it just right. To illustrate this point, Henry employed an x/y axis graph and explained:
High challenge and low stability = anger. The team will be upset you challenged them but didn’t provide direction or protection as they work.
Low stability and low challenge = lost. A lack of challenge and no clear direction will produce a team that doesn’t know what to do.
High stability and high challenge = stuck. Creatives don’t want to be micromanaged. This will kill their creativity. They will resort to the phrase you never want to hear from them: “Just tell me what to do.”
— Global Leadership Network (@GLNsummit) August 9, 2019