5 Creative Leaders Share Their Secrets

When it comes to leading creative people, what are the most productive principles? How can leaders inspire their creative teams to do amazing work? I asked some close friends who are brilliant creative leaders for their secrets of motivating talented people to break through barriers. Here’s their recommendations:

From Roger Flessing, Chief Communications Officer – Convoy of Hope:
“Give them the freedom to fail.”

For so many the buzzword is excellence, as in “We do everything with excellence.” So why would failure lead to creativity? Because when we are afraid to make a mistake we stay with what we know works, the same thing we’ve always done. At our creative department we are not afraid to fail, and when we do, we fail fast, learn from that experience, then try something new again. When failure is an option, we have the freedom to think over and under the walls of “we’ve always done it that way.”

A creative environment requires freedom to explore ideas, different ideas, variations of ideas, combining ideas, and new ideas. Being able to make a mistake and live to tell the story, provides the good ground for creativity to grow. The next time someone makes a substantial mistake, celebrate it, have cookies, learn from it, and the entire group will up their collective creative game.

From Rob Hoskins, President – OneHope:
“Diversity Leads to Innovation.”

A crucial principle I’ve learned throughout my time in ministry is that diversity leads to innovation, and innovation thrives in a safe learning culture. The more diverse the set of skills, backgrounds, and points of view you have in the room, the more likely you’ll be able to find and leverage opportunities for learning and innovation.

However, these opportunities will only be nurtured in safe spaces where dialogue is encouraged. People are more willing to disagree with each other —not for the sake of argument, but for the benefit of the team’s work as a whole—when they trust those around them and feel valued and trusted themselves. If there is no sense of safety, then people will likely hide their views out of fear of backlash to their reputation or position, discouragement that dissent wouldn’t be listened to, or apathy towards the outcomes entirely.

The best way to build trust is by modeling the receptiveness to feedback you hope to see in others. Create rhythms in your work where others can feel that it’s a safe place to challenge one another’s ideas and practices for the sake of pursuing the mission. Modeling humility and an openness to learn and relearn, especially in our areas of expertise, is even more necessary when in positions of authority.

No matter how expert we are, the world is changing constantly, and we need diverse voices to fill in our blind spots. In ministry, our work is too important to allow false harmony to weaken our impact.

From Martijn van Tilborgh, CEO – Four Rivers Media:
“Hire the best available talent in areas where I lack.”

Someone once told me to capitalize on my strengths as a leader and to hire the best available talent in areas where I lack. This is exactly what I’ve done when it comes to building my creative team. My default assumption is that they know better than me when it comes to their area of expertise.

Creating a culture of trust in their creative ability and empowering them to push boundaries has been the number one key for true creatives to flourish. As their leader I’ve decided that 95% of the time I’m going to agree with whatever direction they come up with even before I see anything (and I tell them that).

Now, this only works with what I call “true creatives”. Just because someone is part of the team, doesn’t mean they are a true creative. That’s where things go back to what I started to say, “hire the best available talent”. True talent isn’t abundantly available, but when you find it, pay them what they’re worth. It’s going to make your life a lot easier.

From Karen Poth, Creative Director – Museum Of The Bible
“Make sure they’re working on things they enjoy.”

Having worked for years leading creative teams I have realized that one of the keys to keeping talented folks happy and engaged is to make sure they are working on things they enjoy doing. Sounds simple enough! But there are some days it’s not as easy as it sounds. In house creative department “job lists” consist of a lot of day-to-day drudgery. Emails, header designs, headshots, social media posts, and “push here to flush the toilet” signs are all very important things that need to be done.

But if that’s all you have on your list, suddenly the job becomes more work than it needs to be. As a leader of a creative team, it is my job to make sure everyone is still finding the creativity in the jobs they are doing. Everything can always be better. Everything can always be different. It’s up to the director of the department to ask the designers, photographers, writers and videographers the right questions: could we look at this a different way this time?

Certainly I’m not proposing that every job should be questioned. For example, I don’t suggest you have too much fun with the flushing instructions. But if the day-to-day seems to be taking over in a bad way, it may be time to shake it up a little. Change something.

Assign some fun research or propose the right projects to the executive team that will be a win for the company and also create something new and exciting in which your team can engage. We’re creatives … it’s supposed to be fun!

From Trent Dunham, President – Dunham+Company:
“Give them the space to dream.”

There are several ways to inspire your creative team to do amazing work, but one thing that I’ve seen work best is to ensure they have the space to dream. Unreasonably tight deadlines are the number one killer to effective creative execution.

Creatives are not naturally wired to excel at time management, and so one thing we can do for our creative teams is provide appropriate lead time as well as intentional space to exercise their gifts through the creative process.
The reality is that we will always have times of tight deadlines, but if we make that our regular routine we stifle the core talent of a creative team and turn a product that could be great into one that simply meets a need.
If you want to see your creative team flourish, take the responsibility on yourself to give them time and space to deliver the goods!


All of these insights are outstanding keys to leading creative teams. Read them again. Print them out. Digest them. We need more inspiring leaders who understand the creative process and how to ignite the kind of ideas that will impact the world.

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This article originally appeared on PhilCooke.com and is reposted here by permission.

Phil Cooke
Phil Cookehttp://cookemediagroup.com

Phil Cooke is a filmmaker, media consultant and founder of Cooke Media Group in Los Angeles, California. His latest book is Ideas on a Deadline: How to Be Creative When the Clock is Ticking. Find out more at philcooke.com