Why is tapping into and expressing your creative side important for leaders today?

Let’s clarify what I mean by “tapping into and expressing your creative side”. As you know, we have both a left and right brain. The left brain is associated with logic, structure, language, words and rational thought; whereas the right brain is associated with creativity, emotion, “big picture” thinking and intuition. We tap into both sides of our brain for a variety of our daily tasks; however, we are usually right or left-brain dominant. Someone who is right-brain dominant is more adventurous, creative and emotional. An example of someone who is left-brain dominant is a person who is orderly, logical and analytical. When we tap into and express our creative side we are tapping into our right brain.

Since the Second World War, our organizations, educational systems and what we value have largely been structured around and based on left-brain logic and values such as “doing” more than “being” and valuing “competition” over “collaboration”.

Faced with increasingly complex issues such as climate change, systemic racism, and the rapid rate of technological change, authors such as Daniel Pink (in A Whole New Mind) and Sir Ken Robinson (in The Element) have made the case that we need to shift our emphasis away from valuing mainly left-brain traits/functions. They encourage us to change our organizations and educational systems so they encourage, stimulate and reward the right-brain functions of creativity and innovation.

Today’s leader needs to have a vision and inspire others based on that vision. Visioning a desired future involves tapping into your right brain.  During these times of intense change and uncertainty it’s important to let go of old ways of thinking and acting and explore new paradigms and ways of thinking and acting. A creative leader encourages innovation and new ways of thinking and acting.

An example is rather than the senior management team in an organization sitting in a room on their own with a consultant developing a strategic plan and then communicating it down through the layers of the organization, there is much value in facilitating the creation of a shared vision where people throughout the organization are part of the process and can see themselves in and have ownership for the strategic plan.

From my own experience consulting with organizations in various parts of the world, I have experienced the power of facilitating a shared visioning process and enabling people through various levels of an organization to participate in that process. While working with the Ministry of Public Health in Afghanistan to develop their first strategic plan and build the capacity of a planning team I was assigned, we conducted group consultations across the Ministry. The findings from these consultations fed into a process that included a national level workshop where other key stakeholders were engaged to identify the Strategic Directions and key activities they believed were important to move them toward their shared vision.

Shared visioning is also powerful when designing a new project or program. I have used this strategy; for example, while leading a design team for a donor-funded project in Nigeria, where we facilitated a planning process in the 2 states where the project was being implemented, one in the Muslim North and one in the Christian south. Key stakeholders from each state created a shared vision, identified the key challenges and opportunities in their current situation and key areas that needed support to move from their current situation to their desired future vision. These 2 visions were shared by state representatives (selected by their peers) at a national level workshop with other national level stakeholders. The power of this process led to increased understanding among the two groups and laid the foundation for them to work more effectively together over the 5 year project.

In order for shared visioning and the exploration of new ideas and solutions to occur, you need to believe in your people and create a safe environment/culture where new ideas are encouraged, and mistakes are accepted and viewed as learning opportunities. Engineers without Borders is an excellent example of an organization who have created such a culture. A number of years ago they instituted an Annual Failure Report. As part the process, Project Managers from their various projects around the globe were interviewed and asked to openly share their lessons learned (what worked and what didn’t) in the previous year. These lessons were then built upon and fed into the next year’s planning process. Rather than only report on the positive outcomes of the year, they were encouraged and supported to share and learn from their mistakes. This is the way to improve; to create and share with others the challenges you have faced and explore how you can learn from and prevent them in the future.

As a leader in your community, workplace, business  … ,  you know that change begins with you, as you are a role model for others. So how can you learn to cultivate and tap into your creative side? One way is through the following exercise.

Sit down in a quiet place, free from distractions. Take a few deep breaths to relax yourself and close your eyes for a couple of minutes if you feel comfortable doing so. Ask yourself the following questions and write down your responses to them. Write down the first thing that comes to mind without judging or editing it.

  1. Do you consider yourself a creative person? If yes, why? If not, why not?
  2. Are there any creative pursuits you did as a child but haven’t done for years? If so, what are they?
  3. Are there some creative or artistic pursuits you would be interested in exploring?/trying out?
  4. Commit to either starting to integrate a childhood “passion” into your life or choose a new one such as “learning to play the piano” that perhaps you always wanted to do as a child but never had the opportunity to pursue. Identify the next steps for taking action to integrate a new or “old” creative or artistic pursuit into your life. It’s helpful to use a two-column table with “activity” heading one column and “timeline” the other.
  5. Support is important for many of us when starting something new and continuing with it. Enlist the support of a friend, colleague or family member to encourage and support you in your new endeavor or invite them to join you in doing it.

There are a number of other practical strategies for “tapping into and expressing your creative side” in Chapter 5 of my book Learning to Dance with Life: A Guide for High Achieving Women.

What tools and strategies have helped you get in touch with your creative side? Do you agree that creativity is an important leadership quality for these constantly changing and uncertain times? I welcome your comments and experiences below.

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