Humanity’s imperative: heart-based creative leadership

Bruce Cryer, President, The Graduate Institute; Founder, Renaissance Human

Published in JHH 18.3-Shifting the paradigm

Seeking positive resources

There is already greatness out there, but it’s unevenly spread. So where are leaders helping us find common ground and new solutions to these enormous shared problems? Where are creative leaders working to empower societies to find new solutions to the ‘wicked’ problems they are facing? Where are creative organisations learning the value of genuine care for employees; who work to empower and value staff at all levels, who promote high levels of creative collaboration and fun. These are all elements of vibrant resilient organisations. Wherever they are, we have to find them now and spread their good news.

But too many leaders and organisations are too busy racking their brains to figure out how to survive an era of unprecedented uncertainty and the breakneck pace of change. Yet slowly but surely many are realising that the people of their organisations have abundant stores of creative energy. Their insights and practical ideas should be harnessed and implemented for the good of the organisation and, by rippling out, for the greater good.

Creativity inside

The reaction to spending hours sitting staring at Zoom screens could be birthing a hunger to be creative. Within each human being, a vast supply of creative energy is waiting to be tapped. At the heart of every human being is a genetic powerhouse of creativity. The coding to create another life is programmed into our DNA so the species can produce at least one more generation at a time, depending on survival and therefore timelessly dependent on a healthy planet.

Life’s creative impulse is expressed not just in procreation, but in the power to make creative choices at every moment of our lives, changes that could support our growth and evolution (as a species) or weaken it. But this innate creative power is not the exclusive province of ‘the creatives’ – artists, designers, writers and poets who contribute their vision to the world. True creativity expresses wherever solutions are found for complex artistic, scientific, professional, or personal predicaments. A single mother working two jobs to make ends meet and make a warm and nurturing home is arguably far more creative than someone skilled with Photoshop or posting TikTok dances.

‘Life’s creative impulse is expressed… in the power to make creative choices at every moment’

Still, the task of the arts is surely to release our creative imagination. Sadly though, many of us as children were discouraged from expressing our innate creative artistic impulse, warned not to sing or dance or paint or write, to steer clear of soft pursuits that would be professional dead-ends, and save the artsy stuff for retirement. Too many children have had their surging creative spirit squashed.

In my experience in corporates most organisations lack creative fire and passion, and most leaders are totally bereft of it, even though (so I believe) our fundamental nature is to be creative. We are made of and can thrive on creative energy, for that is what we are all made of. When I speak of heart-based creative leadership I am naming a cluster of qualities that can be an antidote to the mundane, self-oriented, competition-driven leadership style that most of our leaders are stuck in.

I’m suggesting that the generation of leaders we need today – and will need even more as we head into climate crisis – see every member of their school or hospital or corporation or government agency as profoundly creative. These leaders would communicate in word and deed that creativity is welcomed, and that they want to enhance, amplify and reward it. A heart-based creative leader will understand that every single person alive now – whether or not they have grasped the facts and the feelings – is caught up in a collective process of planetary grief. This is not due just to the pandemic, to which there seems no end in sight, but because we are all at some level touched by the imminent collapse of climate systems, soil death and species loss. Only if we can create safe supportive environments can one’s true creative nature flourish, become grounded, and then expressed. In these apocalyptic times the heart-based creative leader understands the need to create supportive environments where people can come together to have their grief and gratitude witnessed. In organisations and communities such circles will help us face the challenges because we feel safe enough, and encouraged, applauded, listened to, valued, and loved.

Leaders we admire and why

Throughout history, female and male leaders who have been most admired were revered for their depth of courage, compassion, inspiration, inclusivity, flexibility, and perseverance – all traits we commonly associate with the heart. Nelson Mandela, Greta Thunberg, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Albert Einstein, Princess Diana, Mahatma Gandhi, Maya Angelou, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Malala Yousafzai … the list goes on. Our heart warms just to hear these names uttered. Courage, compassion, inspiration, inclusivity, perseverance, passion. The unmistakable qualities of a heart-based creative leader.

Interesting too that there are no billionaires on that list. I’m not suggesting that billionaires lack creativity: the sheer operational and strategic creativity that is required to grow a business and then see it mature in the face of daunting challenges and competitive pressures takes remarkable skill and is absolutely essential to their survival and success. But does the way billionaires tend to think – putting themselves and their enterprise first, while the social good, community wellbeing, even the survival of the human species may not make their top five – give us any sort of hope for the future of planet earth?

When you look at the life of Nelson Mandela, it would have to be considered a supreme feat of creative energy for him to be able to transmute his aggression and animosity toward the white oppressors and even his guards, into forgiveness. This act of creative transmutation established the inspiration and then the foundation for a young nation to begin to ‘reconcile’. Was this not a remarkable creative act? Did not the release of this formidable creative energy awaken the same power in millions of South Africans to create change that would have been unthinkable only a few years before? The fact that the young nation is not beyond crisis in its own maturing process should in no way diminish the power of Mandela’s gift to his nation and to millions of his people who ‘awoke’ in ways they couldn’t have imagined before his release from prison.

Madiba could have easily been eaten alive by the poisonous energy all around and inside him. Instead he chose the path of creator, and not just to create a rich life for himself, but to inspire the healing of a nation.

Creativity is an essential element of all great leaders. Great leadership requires the ability to understand deeply the gravity, scope and full potential of a moment in time. Rather than be ruled simply by past history, dogma or rules, the great leader turns such a seminal moment into a creative future.

In more than 40 years in various business leadership roles, including teaching leadership skills at the Stanford Business School, I have observed in myself and in many others five catalysts that can trigger creative energy in an individual, a team, or an entire organisation.

Five catalysts

Mindfulness is essential to the creative awakening. It takes a measure of self-awareness to identify blocks in any creative process and reflect on how to move these blocks out of the way. Mindfulness is also essential for the individual and team to be constantly fine-tuning their own creative process.

Movement is essential for flow, that state of creative inspiration that neuroscience has shed new light on. Movement itself is more important to creativity than is generally recognised. In the long periods of lockdown and working from home, our usual ways of moving and enjoying regular exercise shrank dramatically. Simply moving joyfully on a sunny day, or dancing to a favourite song, playing a favourite sport or strolling by a lake or river. Simple movement can release us from fatigue and allow creativity to start flowing again. In addition, movement is fun, and fun catalyses creativity.

Nature though suffering like never before, is also our tonic, our elixir, our soothing bath when the soul is dry and weary. We must protect nature for the future of our species but if we are to take meaningful action to save her we must be grateful for her many gifts. Day to day, time spent attuned to nature sensing its creative life-force yields a flow of gratitude and creative energy.

Playfulness is the essence of creativity. Observe children lost in a world they have created through blocks, Lego, dolls, or miniature creatures and you will have entered a creative playground of the highest order. Notice how differently you look at life while in the child’s energetic world. Notice how your voice changes and your body relaxes. Notice how you start to exhibit some of the childlike traits you never completely lost. Playfulness is the wonder drug of creativity.

Artistic expression ‘primes the pump’ of creative energy in all ways. Attempting a new artistic practice of any kind catalyses a release of creative energy. Our neural circuitry lights up to link the brain hemisphere and our body’s neurochemistry changes as we attempt new artistic feats. No matter how ‘good’ the outcome virtually any artistic discipline creates new neural circuitry.

The problems of our world can feel terrifying and impossible to resolve. A new era of heart-based creative leadership would be one of the key solutions. I believe that if heart-based creative leaders in corporations and communities were to embrace these catalysts they would be welcomed and widely honoured. Then, as co-creativity begins to flow, cultures, values, missions and visions will harmonise in chain reactions of blossoming creative capacity.

Seven billion creators are waiting to be activated.