An Eye for Leadership

Recently a friend challenged me to begin writing about the intersection of creativity and leadership. As I originally shared with him, I’m sure my leadership expertise could fill a single blog post, but likely not much more. Now that your expectations have hopefully been adequately lowered, here’s my first (and perhaps only) blog post on “Right-brain” leadership.

Several years ago I read the book “A Whole-New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future” by Daniel Pink. He demonstrates the trend for businesses to seek out creatives by documenting the increase in companies hiring those with an MFA (Master of Fine Arts) over those with an MBA (Master of Business Administration). What’s the cause for the change?

Pink argues that creatives bring a fresh and necessary perspective to the leadership equation. I agree. Creativity, however, can be wrongly thought of merely as artistic ability. It’s more. This is the topic I will tackle in this new blog category “Right Brain Leadership.”

This is a principle I thought about a lot while serving as VP for Communications at Southern Seminary in Louisville, KY. Our team led the school through a complete rebrand, established and built an advertising series around a new school tagline “We’re Serious About the Gospel,”  and put together a comprehensive campaign for the school’s 150th anniversary. It was a lot of work and a lot of fun.

We hired a number of very talented full-time folks and worked with even more independent designers, creative directors, copywriters, voice-over artists, videographers, et cetera. We pulled all-nighters, rented coffee shop conference rooms to do all day design retreats, nailed deadlines, made mistakes, made improvements, and accomplished some things that in the end we were all pretty pleased with.

I mention my previous experience leading a creative team to highlight a leadership principle that I think is well illustrated with artistic qualities: having an eye for it. You can call it intuition, but there seems to be a “sixth sense” that some have, born leaders you might call them, where they see the picture long before others. I prefer the term instinct to describe this trait. Some people have better leadership instincts than others.

For example, to go back to graphic design, it is usually clear when someone has an “eye for good design.” These people might not be the best technically trained person. They might not know the nuances of every Adobe Creative product. But they can play design like a fiddle. They can make it sing. They have the artistic instinct.

I think leadership is similar.

A leader can have good technical training, solid character, and impressive credentials yet be a poor leader. John Maxwell describes this as the “Law of the Lid.” This is where a person’s credentials far outweigh their leadership capacity. They have a good resume but they don’t have an eye for leadership. They lack leadership instincts.

The bad news is that it is really hard to teach instinct. Just like it is difficult to teach someone who doesn’t naturally have an eye for aesthetics, the same is true for someone who doesn’t intuitively know how to inspire others and lead well. The good news is in the midst of the ongoing “nature v. nurture” debate there is always potential for a person to grow. But even this requires a healthy dose of instincts.

The instinct to see the need to grow, to be motivated to greater service and impact, is essential. If you have that, you’re in a good place to learn from others. Where can you find them? Normally it isn’t hard. Their influence of others is generally easy to spot.

If you’ve every been around a high-capacity, high-productivity, creative leader, you know they tend to rub off. In your organization they might be above or below you on the flow chart, but it will be worth your time to try to learn from them. As Pink says, the future belongs to right-brainers.