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Creative leadership: Getting into the creative mindset

Everyone knows creativity is important in business and innovation, but what does the research say?

4 min read


Creative leadership: Getting into the creative mindset


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Lead Change is a leadership media destination with a unique editorial focus on driving change within organizations, teams, and individuals. Lead Change, a division of Weaving Influence, publishes twice monthly with SmartBrief. Today’s post is by Jeff DeGraff


According to the 2020 LinkedIn Learning Report and the 2010 IBM CEO Study, creativity is the most important of all the leadership skills. This may be because these studies were conducted at the onset of big recessions. 

In times of great change, creativity isn’t your best friend. It’s your only friend. It’s what makes innovation happen.

Creativity is not just a useful novelty. It’s how we make things new and improved. It can be as simple as a variation on a family recipe or as complex as the development of a radical new therapy for a previously incurable disease.

“Creativizing” is a neologism, a made-up word, to describe how we routinely transform the ordinary into the extraordinary. Consider that person in your life who spots opportunities that others overlook or seems to turn a bad situation into a favorable one with a few clever maneuvers. Typically, they are not remarkably intelligent by conventional standards, but rather, they think differently than most other people. There is a great deal we can learn from these creativizers about developing our own creative mindset.

Research on creative thinking provides some clues on identifiable traits. Simplified and paraphrased, some of these include:

Pay attention to who and what gives and takes your energy

 It’s not creativity on demand. Rather, it’s creativity when creativity demands it. Perhaps you are creative in the morning or when you are working out or when you are talking with your offbeat friend. 

Stop planning to be creative at a specific time and place. Rather, make room in your schedule for the people and practices that give you the energy to be creative. When, where, and how are you creative?

 Consult the muses in your mind

The ancient Greeks believed that creativity and innovation was brought to individuals by goddesses called the muses. They arrived when they were least expected, so one had to be mindful of their whispered messages. 

For example, have you ever had a difficult problem to solve and a song kept playing in the back of your mind? When you listened, it may have provided guidance toward an answer. Pay attention to your intuition. What is your creative mind trying to tell you? 

Look for signs, incongruities and anomalies

We make sense of the world by imposing complex frameworks on it — time, science, culture, etc. This produces habit-bound thinking. Consider where these structures don’t make sense. 

For instance, given the ubiquitous access to the internet, and our newfound abilities to time shift and cross boundaries, why do we live in cities, go to college, work in business, sleep at night, and belong to a single nation-state when we are unbound? Take a higher point of view to think about your thinking. Consider the assumptions you are making about the way things should be. How can you free your mind to create alternatives?

In addition to a creative mindset, creativizers master six essential creativizing skills. These are described using the mnemonic device CREATE:

  • Clarify: Getting the challenge right
  • Replicate: Mimicking and reapply ideas
  • Elaborate: Multiplying ideas by adding new ones
  • Associate: Connecting ideas with analogies
  • Translate: Creating stories from ideas
  • Evaluate: Selecting the best ideas

Each of these creative leadership skills requires the development of a creative mindset as well as the mastery of several tools and techniques. All learning is developmental. When we learn something new, like a foreign language, whether eight or eighty, we advance through the failure cycle. Mastery is developed through guided practice — see-one, do-one, teach-one. 

Creativity requires a growth mindset and a wide array of associated skills that can be learned and applied everywhere, every day, by everyone to make innovation happen.


Jeff DeGraff is a professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and the founder of the Innovatrium Institute for Innovation. He has consulted with hundreds of Fortune 500 companies. DeGraff is a frequent contributor to Inc., Wired, Fortune, PBS, and NPR. He is the author of several books, including the bestseller “The Innovation Code.” His new book is “The Creative Mindset: Mastering the Six Steps that Empower Innovation.”

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