The cure for creativity and innovation.

What is leadership? I mean, really, what does it mean to you?

I was recently speaking with an executive at a creative agency who was frustrated with his team. No one was bringing any ideas to the table, at least none that he felt were worth seriously entertaining, no matter how many times he invited, enticed, or even demanded that they do so. He felt that no one understood his vision and they weren’t contributing to creative growth of the firm. He would make suggestions or reference certain sources to provide creative inspiration, with little to nothing to show for it. In the end, he usually ended up providing the final idea himself after shooting down anything submitted by his team.

Having worked together in the past, I had an idea about the potential cause of his dilemma but I wanted to unpack it a bit further to see if he would come to his own realization.

Q. How much autonomy does the team have to produce their own work?
A. They have total autonomy. I want everyone to contribute.
Q. And are they talented and capable enough to do the job?
A. Oh yeah, they’re brilliant. I’ve seen their other work and it’s really fantastic.
Q. Ok, great. And how well do they understand your vision?
A. Of course they understand it, I’ve told them a million times. I want to be the biggest, most successful and brilliant creative agency in the world!
Q. So you’ve told them where you’re trying to go. Do they understand what it looks like to get there?
A. Yeah, I mean I told them what I wanted, so…
Q. You told them. And when they came back to you, did the work meet your expectations?
A. No. It wasn’t even close. I end up rejecting their ideas and doing most of the work myself because they just don’t get it.
Q. Sooo…
A. …


It may or may not be obvious here, but what happened here was that my friend was inwardly deeply and painfully clear on his vision. So much so that it never occurred to him that others might not be on the same page. In fact, he was so convinced that his ideas were obvious that he couldn’t see where his external communication hadn’t been clear in the first place. And he certainly wasn’t making the connection between his taking the reins on every project and the team not bringing fresh ideas to the table.

Setting a vision is a vital step in building a resonant culture. Leaders should absolutely have a clear, compelling, brilliant picture of where they would love for their business to go. The only way to orient toward a goal is to have at least a representative image of what it would look like to get there. But far too often, we see people thinking that dictating an outcome with vague expectations is the same thing as communicating a powerful vision.

Leadership requires investment – we have to invest the time to gain an understanding of our audience in order to deliver our message in a way they will be able to receive. We have to share in the power of communication. If I tell you “I want something magnificent,” that’s aspirational but also pretty vague. If I give you some examples, “Here are some things I think are magnificent,” that’s a little better but still leaves room for misinterpretation. If I get clear on what I really want to convey, “What I find magnificent about these three examples are quality A, quality B and quality C,” then I’ve given you some details to emulate or design around. More focused, and likely will produce better results. But even still, I’m substituting tactical and technical considerations for actual values-based leadership.

The often overlooked element of communication is action. What I say will not inform you nearly as much as what I do, or don’t do, to support my words. This is where impact is either achieved or lost. The leader who says “bring me great ideas!” but consistently responds with “your ideas are no good!” will never be able to elicit brilliant work from his teams no matter how emphatically he insists on greatness. He creates a power vacuum by failing to bridge the gap between his vision and the lived-in experience of his team, and then further assures failure by conditioning the team to believe that their work doesn’t meet these ill-defined standards. The team becomes disempowered, and so relinquishes all capacity for innovation and creative ownership.

I have seen this play out countless times in many businesses. The leader assumes ultimate control and authority, and may even be the most skillful or talented individual in the organization to execute on the vision. So they are high achievers with equally high standards, which they brandish like a weapon. They then fall victim to a common dilemma – confusing the idea of leadership for that of power. They hope to create productivity by exerting force and dominance, but generally do more harm than good. Teams become demoralized, reactive, and generally disengaged. Creative energy is diminished and the people become dependent on the power of the leader, rather than the empowerment of their leadership.

Leaders have to be attuned to their own strengths and weaknesses, and the extent to which they tend to over- or under-utilize their core traits, before they can hope to influence, inspire, and move others. Truly great leaders are not those who solely dictate outcomes or activities. The best leaders do relatively little of this. The most resonant leaders will define and communicate the vision, and then help create or illuminate the path for their people to achieve it. They build value in the relationship between the mission and the individual, and create alignment between personal purpose and business success.

There will always be times where power is required. But if your goals are creativity and innovation, the question is: will you be in a position to know the difference, and make the difference, when leadership requires a loose grip and a nuanced approach, or will you be left standing there with smoke rolling out of your ears wondering why nobody understands the vision you failed to inspire by beating them into submission?

A discussion series on mindset and methodology for strategic organizational culture; Pt.1 – What’s your problem?

The problem with problems is that we often don’t start working on them until it’s too late.

This is especially true of organizational culture. By the time an issue becomes big enough to demand attention and real effort, the symptoms have usually been coursing unchecked through the system and wreaking havoc for quite a while. It’s not that we’re negligent and irresponsible (I mean, we might be, but diligent, attentive people have problems too.) It generally has more to do with our capacity for strategic thinking and the efforts we invest in that process. We may be good at solving problems, we’re just not so great at preventing them.

Some problems are obvious and the solutions easy to recognize. Others may be more subtle, hidden within subsystems that generate indirect symptoms. In operations we can easily see when a conveyor belt isn’t moving, a door is jammed or a process is breaking down and causing waste or inefficiency. With culture, we have to rely on a deeper level of insight and awareness in order to get to the true cause. What may initially seem like marketplace or management issues such as losing a contract or declining productivity more likely have their roots in unexamined culture.

This isn’t exactly breaking news; it seems like culture is the hot topic everywhere you turn these days. So much so that 82% of respondents to Deloitte’s 2016 Human Capital Trends report consider culture to be a potential competitive advantage. But when it comes to culture, most organizations stumble along in the status quo until something happens rather than seek improvement before its collapse. The reason? Sadly, the answer often comes down to the fact that we just don’t know what to do about it.

In the same survey, fewer than 28% of surveyed executives and HR leaders believe that they truly understand their own culture, and 19% believe that they have the right culture in place.

Take a minute to think about that. 82% believe culture is a key to success. Only 28% understand their culture and only 19% think they’re getting it right.

So we agree that culture is important, and we don’t think we’ve mastered it. But if we don’t understand it, how can we hope to change it?

Social psychologist and organizational theorist Kurt Lewin observed that “to break open the shell of complacency and self-righteousness it is sometimes necessary to bring about deliberately an emotional stir up.” Similarly, noted psychologist Carl Jung commented in his work with the early members of Alcoholics Anonymous that “huge emotional displacements and rearrangements” were critical in propelling alcoholics to experience an internal transformation capable of sustaining them through the stages of change required to achieve permanent sobriety.

The practical wisdom of such claims shows itself in our organizations daily. In most cases, cultural change occurs only when driven by outside forces – a merger or acquisition, the exit or entrance of a notable leader or influential player, a corporate downsizing; something happens, and we react. Sometimes that something is mild, like a new person on a team with a fresh set of ideas that cause us to rethink the way we do things, and sometimes it’s more drastic like a loss of market share and the grim specter of imminent layoffs that causes us to scramble our resources and react out of self-preservation. Or maybe it’s the rising tide of Millennials in the workforce that we’re struggling to properly engage. Whatever the case, it takes a wake up call to get us moving and by that point we’re forced to address damage control and forward motion simultaneously.

The downside of all this is that if we wait until we’re in crisis to implement change we’re stuck in a reactive mode, and living, working and operating in a state of reaction sucks. It costs us momentum, morale, and often money. But what if we could bring about a level of self-awareness sufficient to prompt action in the absence of a crisis? What if we could, as Lewin suggests, bring about a stir up intentionally and with strategic forethought in order to avoid tragedy later on?

Before we dive into such depths of organizational psychology, let’s step back and look at a simpler example to illustrate how change occurs from a practical standpoint using a fairly universal metaphor: fire

If we haven’t encountered fire before, we may reach out and touch the flame out of curiosity. We get burned, it hurts, we pull our hand away. Cause, effect, reaction. But maybe we didn’t really get burned all that badly. Perhaps we’re so fascinated by the warmth and flickering light that after a while we try again. We reach out into the heat a second time only to be met with the same result. We maybe get singed a bit more harshly this time around and we give up our heroic notions of conquering the mysteries of the flame once and for all.

It all really comes down to a simple proposition: at what point do the negative consequences of dysfunctional behavior outweigh the effort and discomfort required to honestly identify the source of the problem and put a solution in place? Put simply – how bad does it have to get before we get honest and do something about it? The answer to that question typically boils down to a matter of pattern recognition, resource allocation and where we fall on the functional-pain spectrum.

  • Pattern recognition – can we see what’s really happening? Just because it hurt the first time, we weren’t convinced that it would always be that way. The second time around we learned our lesson: fire is always hot, and getting burned is no fun.
  • Resource allocation – what will it cost us to change? Do we have, or can we create, the capacity to stop reaching into the fire? Yes. We don’t need any special tools or additional personnel. In fact, it would take less energy to stop than it would to continue; the benefit seems obvious.
  • Functional vs. Painful – what are we willing to tolerate? Here’s where the decision really gets made. The first burn was just a quick, mild hit. It was a shock and there was discomfort, but it wasn’t catastrophic. It may have even felt like a challenge, increased our need to master the fire and claim victory over it. We could tolerate the pain (and the memory of the pain) and continue to investigate. The second burn told us that we couldn’t beat the heat. It may have felt a bit stronger on our already flame-kissed skin, and we were hurt and sick enough of these results to change our actions and avoid future pain.

Now we had a second memory that compounded our initial discomfort, the needed resources to change our behavior, and a couple of data points as evidence that the fire will burn us every time. From this we establish an enduring perception based on our experience and we opt to change our behavior.

If change were easy or comfortable, there wouldn’t be so many books, workshops, consultants, and resources dedicated to it. We’d simply change whenever we needed or wanted to and that would be that. But while it is rarely such a simple proposition, the solution needn’t be overly complex. The fire example presents an overly-simplified reduction of a change process, but it contains the key elements we need to begin an effective transformation effort. The first phase always requires objective observation and reflection. If we dive headfirst into action, we miss the entire point of strategic thinking. If we think without acting, we’re equally ineffective. Significant effort is required to initiate and sustain change, but if we’re prepared to spend a little time developing a strategy then the process can be our guide on the path from where we find ourselves to where we envision that we must go.

In the coming weeks we will continue this discussion to dive deeper into models and strategies for cultural transformation, but for now let’s simply familiarize ourselves with the concepts and begin to generate awareness for the work ahead. What are the patterns that you think you might find as you begin to analyze your organization? Where do you think you’ll meet with resistance, and where will the idea of cultural change be the most strongly supported? Take just a minute to write down your initial thoughts, while not getting too caught up in the details or expectations.

Questions for reflection:

* Pattern Recognition: What is my current practice for identifying problems as they develop? Do I generally acknowledge when an issue is developing or do I tend to avoid the early signs?

* Resource Allocation: What would I have to invest (time, effort, $) to address this situation differently? Can I afford to do so? Can I afford not to?

* Functional vs Painful: How do I define “pain” as relating to the culture of my organization? How might I measure this in order to understand what is tolerable and what is not?

Feel free to comment below with questions, thoughts or experiences that come to mind along the way!


When I was in my early 20’s, strung out and living in Las Vegas for the second time, I met a girl named Carol. A homeless prostitute from New Jersey, she was sweet and funny in a gruff, streetwise tomboy sort of way. We met through the circle of transient addicts that I was spending my days with at that point, and formed the fast bond of street-siblings that often occurs among the desperate and the damned.

I liked her. She was rough and crude, but with a dream still left inside her. She would get excited about simple things; a few extra bucks from a generous client or a nice outfit scored from the discard container out behind the Savers thrift store, and her face would light up with a smile and a contented laugh. Sometimes we’d talk about our lives before the streets and she would seem happy, recalling projections of her past the way she wanted to remember it. Skirting the conversation around most of the treacherous dark water and clinging giddily to the highlights, the times of carefree independence and joy. There was a kind of knowing sustenance in it; we would breathe life into the present by repurposing our transgressive past.

Most of the people I knew in the streets were like that, actually: frayed and weary, but vital and possessed of a particular kind of survivor’s optimism. Many of us had put ourselves in the position to be there — we didn’t want to work, didn’t want to try, didn’t want to grow up and participate, but preferred instead to scuttle around the edges of society, pilfering what we could to survive and protecting our drug-lust like a sacred idol no matter what the cost. But there were so many others, too, who were out in the cold through no fault of their own. The sick, the crazy, the shadow dwellers — all those who had slipped through the cracks while no one was looking, who had gone untended or unseen while the neglectful mechanics of the civilized world were playing themselves out in homes and schools and institutions all across the many cities and states and towns that reared them. Yet even these poor souls would flash a cragged smile and their eyes would light up with life if you took the time to talk to them, to share something as simple as a conversation and a hand rolled cigarette or a 39 cent taco from the stand up the street.

I was staying in a shabby apartment house a few blocks off the strip, which I was paying for by way of a succession of manipulative, guilt-laden phone calls to my mother who had not as yet figured out how to ignore my narcotic insanity. Carol and I struck an arrangement in which I would let her sleep and take shelter at the apartment in exchange for contributing money for food, drink and drugs. We quickly found an easy rhythm — I’d spend my days out hustling and scavenging with the homeless junkies and Carol would spend her time turning tricks for the various Johns on her roster, then we’d meet at my place where she’d shower and get cleaned up while I made some sort of beggar’s meal. We’d get high, eat, and talk a while before nodding off next to each other on the cheap full-size mattress that was included in my weekly rent.

We were never physically involved. It was a relationship of emotional proximity and guarded vulnerability that allowed us to share in a measure of solace, each clinging to the ballast of momentary companionship as we struggled to survive the madness our disparate afflictions. She was a child of abuse and violence, and I one of willful self-loathing and faithless defiance. We were, truly, a gift to one another. In that time and space, each was the only one who really “saw” the other, and in that we were afforded a reminder of our humanity in contrast to the monochromatic pallor that hung heavy as a shroud all around us.

Often in the night I would wake to hear her grappling with the carnivorous demons of her dreams. She would jolt and thrash, protesting in a low moan and muttering echoes out of her past.

“No, no, Momma, stop it!”

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be bad, I won’t do it anymore!”

I would lay there, horrified and helpless to assist, holding the fragility of these unseen traumas in my mind and heart. I dared not put an arm around her for fear of sending the wrong message or triggering a physical outburst, but my every instinct was crying out to take action, to help, to console; to fix. And there was my own fear and emptiness to contend with. I was also weak, longing for relief and understanding. In the absence of a means by which to truly alleviate this turmoil, my divergent sadness seemed to suggest that physical comfort was the only token at my disposal, that if I could open my arms and absorb her pain in some way I could somehow show her that it was ok, as if I could protect her and we could both be safe and free from the tyranny of our fermenting grief.

These thoughts came and went quickly, and they troubled me. I pushed them away, recoiling from the impulse and knowing that it wasn’t the right answer, that you can’t fight a chemical fire with an electrical fire, but still feeling that I should do something. 

As I lay there in my paralytic state of sympathetic existential uncertainty, I somehow found the space to contemplate the greater scope of the moment. She was caught in the psychic damage of her experience and I was drowning in a deluge of emptiness and there we were: lost, human, together. Who was I to say that she needed to be saved? Or that my instinct to exchange comfort was to be rejected as necessarily wrong? What value judgments was I placing on things that were beyond my control or understanding, and why did I feel compelled to rush to action? Here were two fragile, wounded people trapped in the shadows of our dereliction and living outside the frame of normal society in a fugue of fear, pain and isolation, and we knew each other. Did that knowing require an attendant solution? I was her witness and her safety, and she mine. Perhaps silent recognition was all we had been called there to provide.

For a brief time we found something between us that was greater than the sum of our fears. In our own peculiar way we became family, lending to one another’s survival.

There are any number of meanings I could extract from my experience knowing Carol. I will most likely never know what became of her or where she is now. In the years following I would think of her from time to time, wonder if she made it out and found a life she could live with as so many I knew during those years did not. I have also thought of my own shift in that experience, traversing the spaces between the purgatory of fearful isolation, the conflict of polluted empathy, and the acceptance of powerless solidarity.

When I began to transpose these experiences onto my current life, and onto the realm of coaching and leadership work in which I now find myself, they at first seemed an ill fit. In fact, I’ve spent a great deal of time and effort coaching myself to overcome the idea that I don’t belong in this new world, that a person with my background could hardly be one to make a meaningful contribution to a field populated with such experts as I have encountered in the realm of business and leadership, people who really know how to create, manage, and sustain success.

But given a space of objective curiosity, I began to see that the core values and operating principles I assimilated during those long dark years were frequently absent in the professional world I grew into after my emergence. There was often little in the way of shared purpose or mutual support beyond the essential task at hand. All too often I would encounter results being sought to the exclusion of a drive for sustainable principles, or a lack of attention directed to deepening the connection between the passions and attitudes of the individuals and their ability to lead, thrive and contribute to the greater picture.

Sometimes the work of leadership is to look inward. Sometimes the work is to join. Sometimes the work is to witness. All these require us to continuously develop our capacities to listen, to learn and to concern ourselves, to make ourselves available – in the right way at the right time – to those who might be carrying a weight which we can not feel, can not fix, and can not comprehend.

Watch your language

I was having lunch with a good friend the other day and he was telling me about a trip he recently took. We hadn’t seen each other in a couple of months, so we were enjoying the opportunity to catch up and soon slipped into the familiar rhythm of well-acquainted banter.

During the majority of the trip he had felt very much at ease and in flow. He was relaxed, happy to be one with those around him and everything just seemed to float along nicely. He met some interesting people and came home feeling inspired and renewed. But soon after returning home, he was troubled by the way this state of flow seemed to melt away upon reentry. Within a few days he noticed that he was no longer riding the wave of serenity that had seemed so effortless during his time away. He was sinking back into routine, and along with it some of the distractions and habits that he’d been free from on his trip. As he noticed this happening, he started paying attention and trying to figure out what it was that made that fluidity so hard to hold on to. He had one revelation in particular that really struck me.

After being home for a week or so he went into a deli and ordered some food. When asked if he needed help he told the counter worker “yeah, I’ll take a turkey and Swiss.” (I don’t recall exactly what he really ordered, but turkey & swiss is what I started craving as I was writing this…) At that moment the realization dawned on him: While traveling, he had been in unfamiliar territory and acting graciously. He is typically a polite and thoughtful guy, so it was very much “please” and “thank you” and “let me hold that door for you” all throughout his travels. Asked for his preference from a variety of servers and clerks numerous times on his trip he had inquired “could I please have” in return each time. And yet here he was at home, in his own community, declaring “I’ll take.”

We discussed this for a while. He was focused primarily on the timeline and external circumstances of the event. For me, the language and the location were the interesting aspects. In the space of a few days he went from a traveler full of gratitude and grace to a resident possessed of entitlement and demand. Why was it that when out of his familiar surroundings he found himself defaulting to courtesy, but when in his own community he lapsed into this language of entitlement? It’s a subtle shift, but a significant one. In the interest of keeping things digestible, I’ll take these on one at a time.

I’ll save location for another article, so for the time being let’s stay focused on the issue of language. In asking, the interaction is about the other, whereas in stating it is about the self. “I’ll take” doesn’t require us to act with empathy and consideration for the person on the other end of the transaction. By the same token, it also fails to require the sandwich maker to concern themselves with the level of service they provide.

You could argue that it’s merely an issue of semantics, or that the worker’s job is to provide the service (sandwich) and there’s nothing wrong with stating your order as such. But there’s more to it than that. The language we use is a reflection of our values, and provides the contextual lens through which others will view their interactions with us. In declaring our intent to take, we essentially abdicate responsibility and possibility from the service provider and claim it entirely for ourselves. If the goal is for me to take, to conquer or claim, then a satisfactory outcome would simply be that I came into possession of my desired item. I got the sandwich. I defeated the individual and won the object; no art was required in the act of the exchange. The quality of the interaction becomes irrelevant, secondary to my ability to triumph over the circumstances: in this case, to avoid making myself lunch by using money to leverage someone else to do it for me.

We also create an environment of conflict, however subconscious. We are demanding a service, thereby challenging the autonomy of the provider. It becomes an exercise of power – “I have the money, so you have to do the work” – rather than a partnership or shared experience – “I’d like to exchange some of my money for some of your service.”

So, you ask – “who cares?”

Well, you, for one, if you intend to be a leader of people or thought in any capacity at all.

The craft of leadership is an alchemy of sorts, aimed at harnessing human dynamics in pursuit of a common goal. But the goal doesn’t always start out as a shared one, and that is often where our work must begin. Part science, part psychology, part creative experimentation – there is no perfect formula. The good news is that our own human nature can supply the data we need to successfully and effectively navigate the process of creating shared purpose.

Think of it like this: If someone approached you, say a neighbor or a friend, and said “I’ll take a cup of sugar,” or, “give me your lawnmower,” how would you be likely to respond? And really, has anyone ever come to your door to borrow sugar to begin with?

But if, on the other hand, that friend asked, “could I borrow your lawnmower, and possibly a cup of sugar,” you’re likely to have a much more harmonious exchange. They’ve given you a choice, rather than a directive, which lets you assume the role of benefactor in granting the request. You lend the mower or give the sugar because you have decided to do so, which also has the unintended side-effect of making you feel pretty good about yourself (despite any reservations you may have about the abuse your lawn equipment may be about to endure.)

What happens in this exchange is actually a bit of a psychological bait-and-switch. By asking a question, the friend gives you the freedom and authority to do exactly what they wanted you to do – almost as if it was your idea in the first place. And they get it with much less resistanceAll it takes is a subtle shift of language to place you in a position of empowerment.

Now, I know these examples may seem a little silly. Of course the clerk is going to make the sandwich. It’s their job, and presumably they’re not going to refuse to make anyone’s sandwich if asked because they need to earn a living. And you are by no means required to loan out your lawn & garden equipment or distribute your baking supplies to anyone who comes knocking. But the principle gap that they illuminate is highly relevant when it comes to successful leadership.

Where the domains of Emotional Intelligence are concerned, you can refer to these examples and ask yourself a few simple questions to bring focus to all four quadrants:

  • Self-awareness: “Am I seeking to make a contribution or a withdrawal in this interaction? Am I approaching this situation as a leader with intention, or as a dictator on autopilot?”
  • Self-management: “How can I empower this person to do what is needed, in a way that reduces resistance and increases positive output in the system?”
  • Social-awareness: “What effect will my approach to this interaction have on those around me? In what ways might it be possible to find common ground for the betterment of the system in the process of meeting my objective?”
  • Relationship management: “How can I demonstrate my greater vision of leadership within the context of this situation, to build trust and partnership for the future?”

As an exercise, think about taking this lens and applying it to yourself. Try it for a week, keeping these questions in mind with each interaction you have. Take note of your observations, and at the end of the week look back at what you find. Don’t make corrections on the fly, at least not yet. The point here is to gather information before we start implementing change.

Are there any patterns you notice? Anything stand out? Comment below or email me, let’s explore your findings!


Up next: Location, location. location.