Why Big Businesses Must Be Creatively Led

15/03/2012 14:55 GMT | Updated 13/05/2012 10:12 BST

By now it has become rather fashionable in the business and political worlds to talk about the need for fundamental change in the way large organisations are managed and run.

The need for realignment around more socially generous ambitions and for creativity and radical innovation in products, services and business practices have been discussed of late by many, myself included. The momentum for change is gathering, it seems few people disagree, and so we can be confident that some positive lessons from recent failures have been learned.

But the important question is, when and how is this going to happen? The truth is that despite the rising tide of enthusiasm for change, so far there has been much more talk than practical action. Take the banking sector for example, where for some time there has been widespread consensus on the need for improvement.

Surely by now we should be seeing compelling evidence of consumer-centric innovation, tangible upgrades in the quality of services, and a new corporate attitude to underpin it all? But what we have in reality are the same old banks, delivering the same old services, in more or less the same old way. For banks, as for business in general, the call for change appears to be going unheeded. Whilst everyone seems to agree with it, few seem prepared to act.

But why is this? I believe that the desire for change is genuine, not just amongst activists and political commentators but also within the walls of big businesses, and I think it too cynical to suggest that the lack of action is a deliberate ploy. So, I'd like to offer a different explanation.

The biggest problem facing large organisations today is not a lack of desire to change but a lack of know-how. It stems from a fundamental leadership issue: the wrong types of people have been left in charge.

I'm talking here about the skills and personal characteristics of the people that are commonly found in the executive leadership teams of large organisations. It is my opinion that most senior teams lack the necessary imagination and mind-set that is required to move forward to the business models of the future. Hung up on systems and processes at the expense of decisive action, they have built corporate cultures that label innovation as risk, dismiss ideas that are as yet not proven, and prioritise their own interests ahead of the markets they serve. They haven't done this maliciously or entirely deliberately, it's just the way that they have been trained and encouraged for the last few decades.

Unimaginative behaviours have continuously reinforced one another until all vestiges of thinking differently have been lost. It is for this reason that insufficient innovative progress in big business is being made.

So, it's time we reassessed our opinions of what makes for great leadership and shifted to a new paradigm. It's time organisations were creatively led.

It is my contention that if more CEOs and senior leaders in large organisations came from creative backgrounds and exhibited creative skills, the changes that governments, businesses and society are now demanding would come about more quickly, effectively and decisively than the evidence of today's approach shows.

Of course old-school business leaders will dismiss this as nonsense. Creative people, they will claim, are not skilled organisational leaders. But there is plenty of evidence to render their objections absurd. Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, James Dyson, Jeff Bezos; these are not corporate finance experts and not one of them has an MBA. They are creative people. And their companies are amongst the most successful and admired in the world. More importantly, they are in the very small group of companies that fit closest to the vision that enlightened commentators describe of how a contemporary organisation should be. This is not coincidence. It is because, as creative people, they have the skills required to make that so.

To spell it out simply, here are ten reasons why creative people make better leaders:

1. They are open-minded to all the alternatives

2. They learn from everything, continuously

3. They are motivated by solving problems, not personal glory

4. They listen to everyone's point of view, properly

5. They are outcome driven, not process driven

6. They don't just talk about doing things, they actually do them

7. They are motivated by a social purpose

8. They understand how to manage risk, but don't avoid it

9. They put the needs of the market ahead of their own

10. They are extraordinarily decisive when they see a great idea

This isn't hyperbole, it's the way that the best creative people are equipped to think and act. It's at the heart of their inventiveness and their ability to turn imagination into reality. It's how creative people, and the companies they run, are so often able to get things so perfectly right. It's how innovation, consumer centricity and social responsibility come to be deeply embedded in the business model and tangibly brought to life. Yet these are skills that, in my experience, are rarely found at the executive leadership level of large organisations - if they are, it's probably because the creative person started the company themself.

Clearly not every person who can be labelled 'creative' has all of these skills but a number do. And it is these people who deserve to be elevated in corporate structures, given the mandate to lead and to bring about change. The senior-level infrastructure of large organisations needs to open up to accommodate creativity as a fundamental driver of direction setting and decision-making. Given the continued calls from all quarters, including many incumbent business leaders, for more innovative and responsible approaches, this is not just desirable; it is essential to business success.