What It Takes to Be a Creative Superstar

March 10, 2022

What it Takes to Be a Creative Superstar

One of the best parts of my job is that I get to spend time in a variety of organizations and experience their culture. For the last several years, my firm Zenger Folkman has been working with an advertising agency involved in broadcast, digital, social, mobile, and analytics. You can feel their creative energy by just walking into their offices. This culture of creativity did not just happen. It was carefully cultivated and developed by excellent leaders whose behaviors supported this energy from the start. This organization is just as committed to developing people as it is to producing award-winning work. We have collected assessments on their leaders over the years. Recently we asked them to identify their 10 top creative superstar leaders. Our question was, “What does it take to be a great leader in an organization of creative, innovative individuals?”

Are Leadership Skills Important?

When we looked at the overall leadership effectiveness of the 10 superstars compared to other leaders in the agency we found that the superstars were not just slightly above others but were rated as significantly better leaders. Leadership skills appear to be an important element in creating and maintaining a culture of creativity.

Creative Superstars Are Seen as More Effective Leaders

Which Leadership Skills Stand Out

We analyzed the data comparing the creative superstars with other leaders and discovered 13 behaviors where there was a statistical difference between the performance of the two groups. We then factor-analyzed the 13 behaviors and identified the six key capabilities that differentiated these creative superstars from the rest of the leadership pack.

1. Ability To Inspire And Motivate Others.

When we looked at the data, we found that the creative superstars were slightly better at driving for results. Often we refer to this competency as “push.” But in the graph below, note the difference you see in the competency “inspires and motivates others.” We refer to this competency as “pull.” Creative superstars know how to inspire. They create energy in their teams and with clients. While they are effective at setting deadlines and delivering projects on time (push behaviors), the thing that sets them apart is their ability to energize and motivate others (pull behaviors). It’s clear that, especially in creative jobs, the ability to inspire others is critical.

Creative Superstars Were More Inspiring

2. Willingness To Take On Challenging Goals

Creative superstar leaders are more likely to take initiative, go above minimal expectations, and take on challenging goals. Challenging goals put a person at risk. Some leaders look to find assignments that are easy to accomplish, but creative superstars volunteer to take on complex and difficult assignments.

3. Skilled At Communicating Direction

In our data, we found that the creative superstars were much better at keeping both the team and clients well informed and up-to-date. It is easy to assume that everyone knows what is going on and knows the current state of a project, but inevitably some people are confused and need more direction. The creative superstars keep communication flowing and keep everyone on the same page.

4. Anticipating Problems

It is not terribly difficult for people to anticipate problems, but too often, leaders get so caught up in doing the work that they fail to sit back and consider, “What could go wrong?” Creative superstars are excellent anticipators. They pull back often enough to look around the corner and prepare for unanticipated problems.

5. Champions Change

Change is difficult. Many people resist change. Those who resist change prefer predictability and knowing exactly what’s next. While everyone enjoys a steady-state, the creative superstars were always more willing to go a different direction and try something new. They were quick to recognize situations where change was necessary and willing to be a champion for the initiatives required. They are also effective at selling others on the value of changes and getting them on board.

6. Improves On New Ideas Rather Than Discourages Them

Too often, creative people want to be the source of all creative ideas. They want to be the creative mastermind, so they discourage others from sharing. Creative superstar leaders are the opposite of this because they encourage and embrace ideas from others. They believe that the more people involved, the better the solution. They build on ideas from others rather than discourage the input they receive.

As we review the list of characteristics of creative superstar leaders, it is clear that these leaders are highly skilled at bringing people together, working as a team, and making sure that everyone is on the same page. Many creative individuals have the opposite inclinations. They want to come up with ideas independently and have a great deal of pride in their personal ownership of ideas and content. In effect, they want to “sign their art.” Individuals like this are a key part of a creative team, but when they are asked to lead a group, they often fail. The other characteristic that stands out strongly is openness to change. The key to being a successful creative leader, then, involves a willingness to change and a strong desire to work with and through others above all other traits.

—Joe Folkman
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(This article first appeared on Forbes)