All great human achievements, such as the Great Wall of China and the moon landings, are the result of coordinated group effort. In addition, every organization, no matter how successful, must innovate and adapt to survive. This is why innovation is an important concern for well-run organizations. Furthermore, as economist Joseph Schumpeter noted, innovation is at the heart of all economic progress.1 This raises the question of how specifically to manage innovation or alternatively how to lead a creative team.
The established leadership literature primarily concerns leading teams that have defined objectives and indices of success—usually sports teams, military units, or industrial functions. With these teams, efficiency, precision, and repeatability are often the desired outcomes. But many types of business organizations depend heavily on creativity: TV and movie studios, architectural firms, opera troupes, corps de ballet, intelligence gathering and analysis organizations, marketing and advertising businesses, etc.
Before proceeding, we should answer two questions. First, what is creativity? Creativity concerns finding new solutions to existing problems and then implementing those new solutions. Second, who is likely to be on a creative team? Such teams would not contain creatives like Einstein, Freud, Rembrandt, and Beethoven—geniuses are unemployable. Rather, we are concerned with managing teams composed of employable adults whose jobs are to develop innovative products and solutions.
According to social psychologists,2 the best way to lead a creative team is to create a culture that encourages creativity. But there is more to leading a creative team than fostering a culture of creativity. Social psychology ignores individual differences—not everyone has the skills needed to lead a creative team. So what are those skills?
Skills to Lead a Creative Team
Studying people who have successfully led creative teams can provide insight. One such person would be Edwin Catmull, a computer scientist, a cofounder of Pixar, and a former president of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Another would be J. Robert Oppenheimer, a theoretical physicist, the director of the Manhattan Project (which developed the first atomic bomb), and the director of the Princeton Institute for Advanced Study.3,4 Reading about the performance of Catmull and Oppenheimer suggests that five “competencies” are needed to lead a creative team effectively.
First, leadership should be a resource for the group (and not a source of privilege for the incumbent). This means that leaders need to be genuine experts in the field in which the team is working. Expertise is needed for a person to be credible and to be a resource for the group. Expertise can’t be faked or assumed; it must be demonstrated.
Second, leaders must be good at conflict resolution because conflicts between talented team members inevitably arise. Persuading people to coexist, cooperate, and communicate is an essential leadership task; it is not an add-on or a distraction, even though it may seem to be at the time. As the very smart leader of an engineering team once told me, “You spend 90 percent of your time dealing with people problems and 10 percent of your time actually on task.” Catmull and Oppenheimer were known to be skilled at getting difficult people to cooperate. Oppenheimer had to work with the notoriously challenging Edward Teller, a gifted physicist and incorrigible troublemaker, whereas Catmull had to try to control Steve Jobs.
Drive for Results
Third, effective leaders want to win, be industry leaders, and beat the competition. This means pushing the team for results. Self-expression and self-actualization are the byproducts, not the central objectives, of real work. Considerable political skill is needed to push a team for results without alienating the team members. Catmull is and Oppenheimer was intensely driven and competitive.
Fourth, effective leaders need real psychological toughness because they must deal with pressures from inside the team (e.g., Teller and Jobs) and demands from outside the team. Oppenheimer had to manage the legendary Major General Leslie Groves, US Army Corps of Engineers.
Kenneth D. Nichols, a civil engineer who worked for Groves on the Manhattan Project, described him as “[. . .] the biggest SOB I have ever worked for. He is most demanding. He is most critical. He is always a driver, never a praiser. He is abrasive and sarcastic. [. . .] He is extremely intelligent. [. . .] He is the most egotistical man I know. [. . .] Although he gave me great responsibility and adequate authority to carry out his mission-type orders, he constantly meddled with my subordinates.”5
Similarly, Catmull had to please “the suits” above him at Disney who were focused on cost control. The faceless Disney employees wouldn’t have been as terrifying as General Groves, but they were still capable of making Catmull’s life miserable. Skill and toughness are required to advocate effectively for the team’s agenda while managing internal disputes and fending off external, often politically motivated, challenges.
Ability to Recognize Talent
Finally, and as noted previously, social psychologists hold that effective leaders of creative teams need to foster a culture of creativity. But how do you do that? Consider the example of Deion Sanders, who became head coach of the hapless and winless University of Colorado football team in December 2022. He was phenomenally successful from the start. When Sanders was asked how he planned to change the culture of the University of Colorado football team, he said he didn’t care about the culture, he only cared about the talent of his players and their ability to perform to his standards. He meant that, if you have talented players and they are performing at their best, the culture will take care of itself. The same is true for leading a creative team: leaders need to recruit talented and creative people to the team, give them the resources they need, cut those who can’t perform, and the culture will take care of itself.
This blog post was authored by Hogan Founder and President Robert Hogan, PhD.
- Schumpeter, J. (1942). Capitalism, Socialism, and Democracy. Harper Brothers.
- Amabile, T. (1996). Creativity in Context: Update to the Social Psychology of Creativity. Westview Press.
- Catmull, E., & Wallace, A. (2014). Creativity Inc.: Overcoming the Unseen Forces That Stand in the Way of True Inspiration. Random House.
- Bird, K., & Sherwin, M. J. (2005). American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer. Knopf.
- Nichols, K. D. (1987). The Road to Trinity. William Morrow & Co.