Transforming Creative Leadership


Think of the most famous leaders you’ve ever heard of. Or the most effective leaders you’ve ever met. Are they people in business, politics or sports? Chances are they aren’t in a creative profession. Most creatives are known for creating, not for leading. The fact is, a lot of creative people just don’t truly understand leadership. Why is that? If you stop and think for a minute, it’s an easy problem to diagnose but a harder one to solve.

How do creatives ascend to leadership roles in the first place?

Typically, we start out as junior level cogs helping the creative factory crank out work. We gain experience with our agencies, knowledge of the brands we work on and expand our mastery of technical skills for designing, writing, stitching, whatever it may be. We burn through late nights and weekends in hopes to produce ideas. Along the way, our creative directors help guide their ideas and make the work better. Creative directors are most often an excellent source of expert knowledge and as creatives gain experience, we develop a thorough understanding of that expert knowledge until we reach that level.

So en route to a creative leadership position, most of the knowledge and experience gained is idea and skill-based. We learn how to identify good ideas vs. bad ideas. And we learn how to execute on those ideas to turn them into great work. A creative director operates as an idea expert. And hopefully, they can sell too. The problem here is that many (not all) creative directors haven’t completely learned to be leaders of people. In fact, strong creative leadership is arguably the most valuable asset for an agency.

Why haven’t creative businesses haven’t done a better job of developing leadership?

Twenty Best Companies for Leadership

Twenty Best Companies for Leadership, from Businessweek

Other industries appear to cultivate leaders much better than we do. Renowned training programs at companies like Procter & Gamble, GE, 3M and others have been well documented in business school case studies. Those places breed leadership. Admittedly, most creative organizations don’t have vast resources to invest in expensive training programs, nor the luxury of time to groom individuals for leadership. But for an industry that claims to innovate more intelligently and efficiently than any other, should these obstacles matter?

Let’s make better creative leaders.

Leaders make the world a better place. Although there are many types of styles, theories and characteristics, true leaders make an impact by transforming the people and environment around them in the process in a positive way.

Where do we begin? Significant transformational leadership can be rooted within three primary and three secondary components that work together to create change. The primary and secondary components lie at opposite ends of a connecting vein of correlating characteristics.

Transformational Leadership Model


1. Inspirational Motivation
Successful leaders greatly inspire the people around them. They create positive energy, imbue ambition and incite everyone to buy into a vision and strategic plan for an organization. Consider this quote from Crispin, Porter + Bogusky’s employee handbook:

“People who work at car companies know that the car they build today will be exactly like the car they built yesterday. That’s not the case with us. What we did yesterday has no bearing on what we will do today. Some days we’re pretty good. Other days, we’re an unstoppable force. The trick is to string together more of the latter. To be successful, we have to approach every single day like it will be our defining moment. Because that is the reality.”

That message exudes vision and inspires motivation. But not in a manner bogged down by superficial corporate-speak. It’s written in a fun, lighthearted way that makes you want to buy into it. It’s about changing the world and it’s something you want to be a part of.

2. Accountability
Effective transformational leaders hold themselves personally responsible for themselves and their organizations. Good creative directors don’t throw their creative teams under the bus when projects don’t turn out well and they don’t point fingers at the client, the strategy or anyone else. The Innovators DNA from Harvard Business Review’s Innovation Issue earlier last year sums up the approach to accountability:

“At most companies, top executives do not feel personally responsible for coming up with strategic innovations. Rather, they feel responsible for facilitating the innovation process. In stark contrast, senior executives of the most innovative companies – a mere 15% of our study – don’t delegate creative work. They do it themselves.”

We all don’t want to be working for people who do everything for us. But we certainly want to be led by people who do feel responsible for what we’re doing and who could do it themselves. Personal accountability works best when instilled equally across an organization so everyone feels not just personally accountable to themselves but also to each other.

3. Individualized Consideration
Personal connections drive the human spirit. The power of human connection is immeasurable and a necessary component of transformational leadership. Individualized consideration fosters mentor-mentee relationships that encourage personal growth. Many of the best creative directors I’ve ever had are also people I keep in touch with outside of work or even if we no longer work together. It becomes a mutually beneficial relationship that is bigger than the job.


1. Goal-Oriented
Write down your goals every day. Yes, really. We’ve all heard the parable: “Great leaders remind themselves of their goals on a daily basis.” But who really does that? Maybe we should. Goals operate as a means to guide towards a vision and to tactically strategize assignments to achieve them. Scott Belsky identified this as a systemic problem with creative people. He details this finding in his book Making Ideas Happen and developed a platform solution to it through his company Behance. In the book he notes that Bob Greenberg, co-founder of R/GA, keeps a notebook and developed his own system for staying on track to reach goals:

“”I believe if you don’t write it down, it doesn’t register,’ he told me [Scott Belsky]. ‘I know it sounds painful, but it helps me know exactly what to do. I do a new version every day, I transfer the old items every morning and I’ve been doing this for over thirty years.’ Greenberg confides that his approach is ‘admittedly obsessive’ but it works.”

This method has clearly worked well for Mr. Greenberg.

2. Work Ethic
The most rewarding accomplishments are also the ones that you’ve had to work the hardest for. Leaders who work hard set an example for the agency and establish the pace. Hard work also spurs a competitive environment which drives innovation. It isn’t a huge surprise that the best creative shops around the world are also ones known for working hard. Not that we should turn our workplaces into sweatshops but putting passionate people into an enthusiastic environment will almost always lead to better results.

3. Team-Based Leadership

Team-based leaders effectively guide towards a goal while fostering a collaborative climate and establishing structure within the group. It’s about putting the right people on board and then figuring out where to drive the bus. Fostering a collaborative and participative environment is important. Exceptional creative leaders listen to everyone’s opinions and consider them before making a decision. They also credit the entire team with the success of a project and know that each member is as important as the next.

A call to lead.

At its best, creative leadership has the power to change the world for the better. And it begins with every individual. What you did in the past defines you in the present and what you do in the present defines you in the future. So let’s start today.

What attributes do you value most for creative leaders? Who has made you not just a better creative, but a better person? We’d love to hear your thoughts.

Article Info
Posted by: Steve Peck
Thinking About: Leadership / Strategy
Location: New York City
Twitter: @stevenpeck
  1. Lynne Levesque

    Hi, Steve…

    When I think about creative leadership, I think about leaders IN ALL ORGANIZATIONS who “produce different and valuable results.” It appears to me that your call for more creative leadership is asking for leaders in “creative” fields (popularly — marketing, design, etc.?) to be more transformational? I would argue that they also need to be more creative as well — pull on their own creative talents (see and those of their team to think and act differently about the future, about the way they are organized, how they work together, make decisions, how they execute on those decisions, etc.

    Are we on the same page?

    Regards, Lynne
    Lynne C. Levesque, Ed.D.

    • Steve Peck

      Hi Lynne, some really good thoughts here.

      I think transformational leadership can go beyond the practical results and change the surrounding people and environment for better. Of course, your definition could definitely include those things. Lots of people (myself included) have worked for someone who has produced valuable results and good creative work, but we hated working for them. Practical results are definitely a given for leaders to succeed, but how those results are attained can be just as valuable.

      The model is based on an approach that transcends the job itself and goes deeper. Being a good creative is the definitely bar to get in. But once there, how can we create the largest positive effect for everyone involved? That’s the ultimate challenge.

      I definitely agree that fostering innovation and focusing on the future are important characteristics as well as organizing teams and executing decisions. I think those things serve as critical nuts and bolts elements to instill a vision and process in the organization. And they can’t be taken for granted either – executing on a leadership plan is equally important; a lack of execution will always lead to a lack of results. This leadership model simply suggests a trajectory on how to reach that destination.

  2. Jason Gramke

    Nice, Steve.
    As you’ve pointed out in your essay, there are many ways and styles to lead. Some more effective than others. Two components that I think are also necessary come before the leader and the led are in their positions. I think a prerequisite of being a great leader is being a great follower. Now, not like a lemming but in a true team-based, forward motion way. And it’s always easier to lead a team you’ve hand picked. Perennially successful college sports teams live by this tenet. So successful leaders are usually great at attracting and hiring the right team.

    You’ve got good stuff here. Thanks, Steve.

  3. Caprice Yu

    The best creative directors I’ve had and am very thankful to know are the ones that listen.

    It’s very easy to cram your own thoughts into someone else’s head and it takes a very unique kind of person to listen to someone else’s idea, no matter how muddled and pull out the grain of a good thought.

    The second part of that skill is to take the grain of thought and help someone develop it into a full fledged idea without taking it over completely.

    Wrap all of that up in a positive attitude where no one ever feels stupid or silly for sharing an idea and you’ve got a great leader.

    A rare breed indeed.

  4. Steve Peck

    Hey guys, thanks for your input. Great insights as well. Jason, I definitely agree with your comment about attracting and hiring the right team. Alex Bogusky was a master at that. And Caprice, love the note about listening. It’s a very valuable skill in an industry that is paid to talk!

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