#583  Innovative Leader     Volume 12, Number 8                    August 2003

The Dynamics of Creative Leadership
by J. G. O'Boyle and Margaret J. King, Ph.D.

Mr. O’Boyle is a senior analyst and Dr. King is Director, Center for Cultural Studies & Analysis (www.culturalanalysis.com).

Sitting in a café in Kyoto with a German/Canadian colleague, we mentioned that we presented on culture at the Creative Problem-Solving Institute. "…back in the States," we added, unnecessarily, it turns out. "Of course," he replied. "When it comes to creativity, where else is there?"

He wasn't being facetious. What he meant was that while a central tenet of Creativity Studies is that everyone can be creative, a quick glance at any bookshelf will confirm that the authorship of texts on the idea of creativity as a learned process to be applied is overwhelmingly American.

There are clear cultural drivers that readily explain the current American dominance of the literature on creativity. American culture has a native bias towards the new and innovative.  As a culture that assumes the future should be radically different from the past, the status quo is automatically the enemy.  “Break the rules” is an American mantra. We believe that anything and anyone can be improved. Therefore it is not surprising that it was an American advertising executive, Alex Osborn, who first popularized the idea that creativity itself was not an inborn talent, but a process that can be taught, and learned by anyone.

When creativity, or its subset innovation, is joined by another culturally sensitive concept like “leadership” to the mix, these cultural biases become magnified. While all human beings are hierarchal, the signs, symbols, and behaviors by which we recognize a leader vary wildly by culture. For example: both French and American politicians for high office are expected to write a book. The French book is likely to be poetry or a novel, the goal being to demonstrate that their true passion lies elsewhere than politics. Americans, on the other hand, are far more likely to write a book in order to demonstrate that public policy is all they ever think about.

Cultural assumptions matter because human beings think using the same language they speak.  The concept of creativity as a learnable process is now a worldwide phenomenon with national and international conferences and programs springing up on all continents. Not surprisingly, a disproportionate number of the creative tools and methodologies are American-based, if not actually developed and presented by Americans.

We are not claiming that there is anything inherently wrong with this strong American presence or the cultural origins of the ideas they present. However, as ecologist Howard Odum once noted, “In order to understand a system, you must first understand the system it fits into.”  This means that before creativity or leadership processes can be effectively defined, analyzed, understood and applied, it is necessary to first to understand the cultural assumptions underlying the prevailing concepts both of creativity and leadership.

These cultural concepts are the invisible framers of our academic and business concepts.  They are assumptions so ingrained that they cannot be readily examined or discussed.  However, all the physics of business, leadership, and idea development behave according to the governing dynamics of culture.  Business and entrepreneurship are a subsystem within the larger cultural dynamic.

Dutch anthropologist Geert Hofstede called culture “the software of the mind” because it determines, at an unconscious level, what we “see” when we look at a person or product, or “hear” when we listen to an idea, political speech, or sales pitch. The cultural beliefs that drive our choices operate below our conscious horizon but they are identifiable, and their influence can be understood and factored into the equation of what we accept on one hand and what we must modify or discard on the other. 

Culture is rarely articulated, but instead is expressed in behavior. By studying American popular culture over generations — what Americans have always “voted” for in the most meaningful way possible, with their time and dollars - we are able to identify consistent patterns of behavior over time. These behavior patterns, repeating consistently by each generation for over two and a half centuries, spotlight not just what Americans value, but far more important, why they value it.

From this database we have identified, among others, the top seven drivers of choice that all Americans share. These are the meta-drivers that make the first cut in the decision-making process — which happens well before the conscious process even begins. We call them “Shoulds” because they reflect American assumptions about how the world “should” be.

“The Seven Shoulds”

Cultural Assumptions that Drive American Choice

1.       Individuals should determine their own destiny.

2.       Individuals should control their social and physical environment.

3.       Actions should be judged in a moral light.  

4.       Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion.

5.       We should have as many choices as possible.

6.       Anything can and should be improved.

7.       The future should be better than the past.

These unconscious assumptions about how things ought to be are what set Americans apart from other cultures, and what drives American choices in everything from public policy to consumer choices to why we value creativity and how we recognize leaders.

Americans share the unconscious assumption that the base unit of American culture is the individual, not the family, clan, tribe, or nation. At a fundamental level, Americans have great difficulty understanding those whose preferred identity is as one a group rather than as an autonomous, independent unit.  By way of contrast, Japanese find it immensely unsettling to deal with American companies whose policies change as personnel shift, and the Dutch consider the standard American business résumé to be personally boastful and unreliable as an indicator of worth, which is measured in social, not personal terms. 

A central concept in the American literature on both creativity and leadership is the need to create a successful vision.  Nearly all of that literature is based on the American assumption that vision is something personal — conceived by a lone “visionary” and wrestled into being by sheer force of will.  However, in Japan, the vision is a negotiated construct — a social contract.  No Japanese CEO would ever think to act on a vision without consensus from middle management on up. In Japan, the leader is the last person to act, not the first, and his role is not to spearhead his own genius but to lead by validating the group vision.

Likewise the value of creativity itself is personal to Americans — an individual attribute. When asked what is valuable about creativity, they tend to describe how they personally feel at the moment of inspiration – using terms like “Breakthrough,” “Exciting,” “Aha!” and “Discovery.” They rarely speak about process or application. To be thought of as being “creative” is personally fulfilling – one more step in the “pursuit of happiness” enshrined as a human right in the American Declaration of Independence. Canadians, by contrast, use words like “Teamwork,” “Group,” “Ideas,” Team,” “Advancement,” and “Solutions.” The value of creativity in their culture lies not in how it makes them feel personally, but in the outcome for the group.

This basic distinction indicates a fundamental difference between two similar-appearing but very different cultures. It also serves as a warning that the most difficult cultures to negotiate are often not the ones that are obviously dissimilar, but the ones that appear to be the most like your own. In the first instance you are consciously aware that you are dealing with a different dynamic so you tread cautiously. In the second, you are unaware of any distinctions and therefore behave “naturally.”  In this case, your first awareness of the different cultural dynamic may be when you unknowingly violate it at great social or professional cost. 

The Rule of Systems declares: “Change one part of the system and you change the whole system.” Culture is a complex adaptive system. Change one cultural driver and the Law of Unintended Consequences comes into effect.  This is particularly true in the field of Creative Leadership because culture determines, at an unconscious level, not only how we go about solving problems, but what we consider a problem to be solved in the first place.

For instance, we've asked hundreds of American executives at companies such as GM and Disney "What is the goal of business?" To a man - and they were nearly all men - they said either "to make money" or "to increase shareholder value."

When we asked the same question of executives from Novartis, the Swiss-based multinational, there were no fast answers. Instead the executives, representing many countries from every continent, engaged in discussion. Some of their conclusions: "To build a secure platform," "To grow and prosper," "To discover new markets and fill them."  In other words, to this group the first goal of business was to stay in business; the second was to grow and prosper by providing ongoing and recognized value. "Making money" was not considered a goal, but instead as an inevitable and consistent outcome of getting the process right. This single difference in cultural focus has enormous implications: both for the type of creativity tools and processes you choose to put into effect, as well as for the attributes of the leaders you choose to guide the process.

Cultural factors affect every level of creativity and leadership. "Don't just stand there, do something!" is an American expression. So is "Shoot first, ask questions later." No thinking is called for in either scenario. For American business leaders — the ones who write the books on leadership — another American expression sums it up: “Actions speak louder than words.” This cultural bias towards quick and decisive action permeates American literature on leadership. “Make your presence felt immediately” is a common bit of advice and the suggested tactics include revising policy or firing a couple of people.  Whether the policy needs changing or the personnel needed firing is irrelevant. The goal is to demonstrate leadership by taking rapid and decisive action. Try that in Holland, Sweden, or Japan and see what happens.  In cultures where consensus is a long-term, hard-won commodity, such interventions are considered intrusive, egotistical, and impolitic — not signs of leadership.

There is much to be learned from the American literature on leadership and creativity, but cultural considerations must be taken into effect before importing any methodology into another culture.  Instead, these should be used as a platform for developing your own culture-specific tools and processes. In some instances, it can be as simple as rearranging the stages of a process, or making a shift in focus. As a culture, Americans have a strong intuitive preference for the idea-generation stage over the front-end groundwork of idea acceptance, and our literature, research, and training reflect that bias.   In the Osborn/Parnes Creative Problem Solving process (CPS), Americans tend to perform most strongly at the divergent thinking stage while the Dutch tend to excel at convergent thinking. Americans begin with “Problem Finding,” Perhaps the Dutch should begin with “Consensus Finding,” for this has higher value culturally.

We offer no answers here, but we can pose some questions that should be asked when evaluating any tool, technique, or process. The first step is determining the cultural climate index. Am I comfortable with this idea? If the answer is no, there may be a cultural issue. Few people can articulate the core assumptions of their own culture because these operate so far below the conscious horizon. But everyone recognizes them instantly when they are violated. Gut responses are often your culture telling you that something is wrong, even before you can recognize it intellectually or administratively.

Then follow the specifics of social structure, values, and change. Who is more important, the group or me?  Is change good for its own sake? Is the status quo something to be defended or something that holds you back?  What is the preferred method of persuading others to your point of view — by the power of argument, logic, persuasion, hierarchy, or negotiation?  Where does the leader sit at the table — at the head, in the middle, or off to one side? How do you become a team member — by assignment, volunteering, audition, or are you born into the role?

What you measure is what you get. The tools, methods, processes, and techniques of leadership you choose and create will, to a large extent, determine your outcomes. Understanding the pre-conscious assumptions behind your own thinking as well as the publication lists in both fields should be the initial step to creating your own culturally compatible methodology for Creative Leadership.

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