How to Lead Creatives

Is your leadership creative?

A recent question:  What does it take to be an effective leader in creative industries?  Short answer:  Good leadership is good leadership, no matter the industry.

How to Lead Creatives - Is Your Leadership Creative? Mike Russell

Furthermore, leadership tailored for creatives will fail long-term if based on a weak foundation.  Period.

Let’s look at some ways to take leadership basics and tailor for creatives.

  1. Motivation.  The motivation foundations of purpose, autonomy, and mastery apply to any leadership situation.  Autonomy and mastery are usually high on creatives’ list of workplace preferences.  Thus there are few problems there unless those two factors are missing or weak.  Help creatives connect their creativity and purpose by constantly and consistently communicating the “why” of the work.
  2. Alignment.  When you need more than one person to get the job done, you must also add an extra foundation – alignment.  Alignment is crucial to help everyone head in the same direction and dissipate efforts.  An essential leadership balancing act is achieving and maintaining both high alignment – focus on common goal(s) – and high autonomy – freedom in how the goals are achieved.  Balancing autonomy and alignment can be more difficult with creatives.  They may see any reduction in creative autonomy as micromanagement.  Therefore, a leader should help creatives understand both how the business functions and why teamwork – aligned work – is necessary.  The more creatives know about the need for alignment, the easier it will be to balance alignment and autonomy.
  3. Value.  Anyone can get lost in just doing work they love.  Creatives are no different and can be especially prone to “creating for creation’s sake.”  However, in a business the act of creation alone does not have value.  The value is in solving a problem, delivering a product, or some other function that provides value besides individual gain.  A key leader role is in helping creatives understand and deliver value, not just creation activity.
  4. Creative work is often a high form of knowledge work.  Therefore, work “progress” is often in the brain of the creative rather than visible.  This makes the balance between creation for value and creation for creation’s sake that much harder to achieve.  A method to gain balance is to work in short increments of time and demonstrate results (value) at the end of each increment.  The autonomy comes from allowing freedom in reaching the increment goal.  The alignment comes from the opportunity to check real progress, integration with others’ work, and contribution to end goals.
  5. Brand.  In any industry, part of a leader’s role is to design productive work environments.  Also in any industry, work environments are part of brand statements.  In creative industries, this is even more explicit.  Therefore, leaders must pay more attention to work environment and brand alignment.  For example, would you trust a business that designs office interiors if their own office interior did not promote awesome design work?


  • Are you a leader in a “creative industry”?  Have you thought about the similarities and possible differences of good leadership anywhere and in your industry?
  • Are you a leader not in a “creative industry”?  A thinking point for you:  most knowledge work has some “creative” work element.  In many businesses, the creative elements have been marginalized or eliminated in the name of efficiency or by misunderstanding “standard work.”  In the age of innovation and need for responding to change, creativity in any knowledge work is needed to survive.  What can you do to reintroduce creativity in productive ways for your business?


By Mike Russell