Giving creative leadership its rightful place

29/05/2020 02:51 PM
Opinions on topical issues from thought leaders, columnists and editors.
By :
Zulkifli Musa

One of the most famous quotes in the modern leadership era, arguably, can be gleaned from a speech delivered by Stephen Elop as the (then) CEO of Nokia. As Microsoft’s acquisition of Nokia was announced, Elop, with tears rolling down his cheeks, ended his parting speech by saying, “We didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost.”

I used to own a Nokia 3310, one of the Finnish multinational corporation’s bestselling phones of all time and, boy, it was a thing of beauty with legendary durability. But the once-mighty Nokia, with its string of market-dominating products since the ‘90s, crumbled into oblivion in 2013.

Ed Catmull celebrates ideas

In 1985, Steve Jobs bought Pixar, a fledgling, lesser-known company in animation. As he had just been ousted by Apple and was “wandering in the wilderness”, Pixar appeared to be a fitting place for him to start over. But the all-conquering boss sensed leadership talent in Ed Catmull, Pixar’s co-founder, and decided that Catmull should run the company, while Jobs oversaw things as the board chairman.

Catmull is a computer scientist, the nerdy type as some might say. But rather than the archetypal geek, he is a man who celebrates ideas, viewing and doing things differently. As a leader, he fosters “craziness” in the workplace; he does not suppress it. Pixar is today a place where a billion dollars can be made from the wackiest of ideas.

Under Catmull’s leadership, Pixar grew from less than US$10 million in value to over US$7 billion when it was acquired by Disney, becoming one of the most successful animation companies of all time. Catmull’s leadership approach is immortalised in his book, Creativity, Inc. – an amazing book that I highly recommend.

What is creative leadership?

Creative leadership is the ability of a manager or leader to work collaboratively with their team members to cultivate new ideas that help address challenges, increase efficiency, optimise resources, strengthen competitiveness, bolster sustainability and ensure relevancy.

While the term creative leadership first entered the management lexicon as early as four decades ago, the two words have not always been taken in harmonious companionship. To many, creativity is highly intangible, elusive or even risky to associate with organisational management, and many leaders today are still apprehensive about being associated with this trait.

Another big misconception about creativity is that it should only be confined to organisations specialising in creative products or services such as graphics, animation, media, product design, broadcasting and entertainment. But the reality is that creativity is a highly desired trait almost everywhere, from architecture to business, education, hospitality, publishing, civil service, sciences, sports and so on.

Creative leaders transcend tradition

On a positive note, in recent times, many organisations in Malaysia – mine included – have begun reforming their talent management agenda, making creativity a part of the criteria when identifying and nurturing talents. Creative talents often end up as creative leaders. This is certainly a welcome shift and an encouraging development.

Creative leaders transcend tradition. They embrace the culture of differences. They take risks, navigate around ambiguity and are willing to experiment. Their decisions are not always made when everything is in the know as they understand the consequences of lagging behind the competition. But such leaders are also ready to shoulder the responsibility when things do not go as planned.

Nevertheless, should everything click, the outcomes are remarkable, often disrupting the norms and transforming the work ecosystem and culture. As we have been witnessing in recent history, many of these creative and innovative ideas have given rise to entirely new industries.

In this time of crisis, creative leadership is needed more than ever as businesses and society endure this period of uncertainty and rapid change. Such leadership is expected to remain essential even after things have “normalised”.


Zulkifli Musa is a Senior Publications Officer with Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM).

(The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of BERNAMA)