Volume 12, Number 8
Dynamics of Creative Leadership
O’Boyle is a senior analyst and Dr. King is Director, Center for
Cultural Studies & Analysis (www.culturalanalysis.com).
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?"
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.
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.
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.
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
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
concepts are the invisible framers of our academic and business
concepts. They are
assumptions so ingrained that they cannot be readily examined or
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.
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.
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.
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.
Assumptions that Drive American Choice
Individuals should determine their own destiny.
Individuals should control their social and physical
Actions should be judged in a moral light.
Authority or “bigness” should be viewed with suspicion.
We should have as many choices as possible.
Anything can and should be improved.
The future should be better than the past.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.