Lead Naked

Why vulnerability is a great leader’s superpower.

Image source: Adobe Stock

by Steve Gustavson

posted on 01-10-2019

As a creative leader, the number of hats you wear is becoming difficult to manage. You know how to create great work, give smart, actionable feedback, and collaborate with others. You also recognize the strengths (and weaknesses) of your team and how to utilize them best.

But how do you continue to excel in these areas while also allowing your teams the room to grow and develop into stronger, more committed creatives?

Here are three aspects of creative team management that not only build good work but, more importantly, great creatives.

Let them fail

Regardless of where we’re at in our creative careers, we routinely stand on the edge of a creative precipice, not knowing if we’re about to ascend to new heights or fall to lower ones. As gratifying as creative wins can be, failing can be the most beneficial for our creative journeys.

As we’ve all learned throughout life, the bumps and bruises are the things that help us develop most. Even the great Michael Jordan talked about how many games he lost and game-winning shots he missed. He said, “I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

As creative leaders, we have to create an environment that allows for failure. It’s our job to set expectations with our internal colleagues, as well as our clients, that the creative process is a course of exploration and not immediate perfection (albeit, oftentimes an expedited course).

When building this type of culture, there’s a fine line between development and competitiveness. It’s been shown that a culture based on too much competition creates an atmosphere of survival of the fittest — which, in turn, leads to attrition. An atmosphere of support and development, on the other hand, leads to growth and greater overall innovation. Creative leaders need to work with other leadership counterparts to understand where failure can best take place.

Organizations are designed to minimize risk and failure. Policies, structure, and processes are put in place to safeguard the company but can inversely suffocate creative ideas. Identifying areas for flexibility is a key role for the creative leader within the organization.

Try this: Creative leaders can work with their account and finance counterparts to understand which current projects have profit margins higher than the company’s benchmarks. These projects become better opportunities for experimentation with the creative teams, and a safety net for failure knowing that any extra time spent will hit the profit but still stay within the company’s profit margin benchmarks.

Creative thinkers, not doers

Early in my career, I heard an ad exec declare that there are two types of people in the agency. He matter-of-factly stated: “There are thinkers, and there are doers.” As cold as this may sound, he and other upper management had placed nearly every employee into one of these two categories — adding that “doers” are a dime a dozen and easily replaceable.

Over the years, I’ve learned that one of the greatest job satisfaction components is the ability to grow. Creatives may be more hardwired to grow than any other job role. And while rare is the agency that is void of any grunt work, I’ve yet to come across any creative (or any other role, for that matter) that wants to be viewed as merely a “doer.”

But as creative leaders, we often manage our teams as doers. It’s easy to lose sight of developing our teams in favor of hitting a deadline, having a successful meeting, or winning a pitch. The interesting thing is that if anyone should be a doer, it should be the creative leader himself or herself. As former Herman Miller CEO Max De Pree once said, “The first responsibility of a leader is to define reality. The last is to say thank you. In between the two, the leader must become a servant.” The old aphorism that a “rising tide lifts all boats” can be easily applied to a creative team. As a creative leader helps instill confidence that each of the team members is a “thinker” contributing to the team’s output, the overall tide rises — and everyone benefits from each other’s success.

Try this: Undoubtedly, you have one (or more) team members burning a little too much midnight oil. Identify the grunt work that is monopolizing a portion of their time and step in and alleviate some of their pain by personally doing it. If that’s not a reality, allocate a discrete fund for key team members to outsource work at their discretion. Providing them the resources to autonomously manage their projects will bolster their resolve in themselves and in you.

Show vulnerability

Most creative leaders are in their positions because of their excellent work and craft. The typical promotion ladder is based on their ability to do great work, not because of their management skills or business acumen. Yet, creative teams look to their creative leaders for answers and support for most everything. Acknowledging that you don’t have all of the answers can actually create more loyalty and trust from your teams.

The ability to be vulnerable, as hard as it may be, shows your willingness to collaborate with others to find the answers. As a leader, don’t confuse strength and resiliency with pretending to know everything. You can lose the trust of your teams by faking it rather than by saying, “I don’t know. But let’s figure this out together.”

Try this: If you’re struggling to create a connection with one of your team members, ask them for help. Identify a strength they possess and ask them to help solve a problem you’re challenged with while utilizing that particular strength. Afterward, publicly acknowledge their contribution and role in solving the problem and what you learned from working with them.

As you continue to lead your teams, allowing them (and yourself) to fail will give everyone short-term pain but long-term growth. Developing each person as a thinker and not a doer will give them the confidence in themselves and trust in you that they are of worth to the team. And showing vulnerability in your own capabilities will build stronger trust and collaboration with your team — enabling everyone to grow and achieve greater things together.

Topics: Creativity