The Paradoxes of Creative Leadership

Creative leadership is rich with paradoxes. Creative leaders are driven by their internal passion and purpose, yet they also have an externally oriented, explorative mindset. Creative leaders lead from the front by envisioning a better future, pointing the way and setting an aspiration, yet they achieve this by orchestrating a creative team, often leading from behind to bring out the best in others.

In this article, we describe the competencies of a creative leader in detail, and invite you to look in the mirror and see how you score on those key competencies. We explore the topic of paradoxes found in creative leadership and leave you with some practical suggestions on how to grow as a creative leader.

Building the creative leadership model

As we began the search for the answer to the question ‘What are the competencies of the creative leader?’, we reviewed the academic literature on leadership, we spoke to multiple companies that aspire to develop their leaders and we worked with firms that specialize in leadership development.

Self-awareness helps leaders to build authenticity, as great leaders think and act from a place of truth within themselves.

From these multiple sources, we learned that leadership is highly context-specific: leaders that are successful in one context (such as a multi-national company) have no guarantee of being successful in another (for example, a public institution). We discovered that self-awareness is the cornerstone of leadership: great leaders are aware of what we call their ‘leadership gifts’ as well as their ‘learning edges’. And we found out that self-awareness helps leaders to build authenticity, as great leaders think and act from a place of truth within themselves.

Yet when we looked for the specific characteristics of a creative leader – the leader who can work in the volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous world of today – we were left wanting. We came across many interesting competency models, such as the ‘Be-Know-Do’ model of the US Military or the ‘Lead Self, Lead Others, Lead Business’ model used in many multinationals. Yet we could not find a compelling answer to the question ‘What are the attributes of a successful creative leader?’

To respond to this challenge, we developed the THNK Creative Leadership Model. As we tested our emerging creative leadership model against some of our favorite creative leaders – leaders such as Steve Jobs, Mohammed Yunus and Richard Branson – we found that our creative leadership model did a good job of pinpointing the attributes of the creative leaders that we are trying to nurture at THNK.

The THNK creative leadership model

First, let us explore the THNK Creative Leadership Model itself. It has five key general competencies that are broken down more specifically. Within each key competency we have identified what we call a ‘signature strength’ or core leadership attribute. The five key competencies are:

  • Acting with passion and purpose
  • Applying an explorative mindset
  • Envisioning a better future
  • Orchestrating creative teams
  • Driving breakthrough change

Passion and purpose

The academic literature on leadership consistently cites passion and purpose as a central building block for leaders in virtually all fields. At THNK, our signature strength in passion and purpose is contributing to a better world – being a servant leader, going beyond personal interests and driving for positive societal impact. Many of the great leaders of history – from Gandhi to Mandela – were leaders striving to contribute to a better world. Next to this, we aspire to build creative leaders who know and follow their inner compass, seek continuous personal growth, exercise self-mastery and are masters of a profession. They have the 10,000 ‘flying hours’ needed to be truly compelling in a field.

Explorative mindset

Creative leaders have a fundamentally explorative and inquisitive mindset, a restlessness to understand why things are the way they are, and how they could be. The THNK signature strength here is seeking inspiration from different sources. This means delighting in the adventure of sparking insights and ideas from unrelated fields, chance encounters and serendipity. In addition, we seek to build creative leaders who master ambiguity, demand gold – relentlessly searching for truly outstanding concepts -, take a disruptive stance and adopt a holistic perspective.

Envisioning a better future

Building from their passion and purpose and explorative mindset, creative leaders envision a better future. They identify the possibility that things tomorrow can be better than today. They articulate the components of that better tomorrow. Through their vision for the future, they draw others to their cause and inspire them to action. Our THNK signature strength here is storytelling that moves to act. Think of Al Gore’s Inconvenient Truth or Barack Obama’s speech to the National Democratic Convention in 2004. Other leadership characteristics that we aim to foster in our leaders include creating big societal impact, articulating a clear vision, finding creative solutions, and having the courage to be a pioneer.

Orchestrating creative teams

Some creative leaders are impactful by themselves; most, however, are successful as part of a creative team. At THNK, we distinguish between a management team and a creative team. A management team typically comprises seven or more members and is charged with running an existing business. By contrast, a creative team has ideally three members and is focused on seeking new solutions. Our signature strength here is casting the creative clash – attracting and engaging the optimal mix of true peers who raise the caliber and diversity of the team. Other competencies that we seek to foster in our creative leaders are the ability to empower others to create, coaching others, unleashing the creative organization and growing and harvesting creative networks.

Driving breakthrough change

Creative leaders do not stop at ideas but they deliver breakthrough change: change that is explosive and self-accelerating rather than incremental and linear. THNK’s signature strength is engaging the whole system for change – finding a system solution beneficial to key stakeholders and being able to rally them to action. Other competencies that we develop include creating a sense of urgency and inescapability, unleashing and accelerating change, dealing with and benefitting from unpredictability (rather than being paralyzed by it) and protecting bottom-line viability. The full model looks likes this:

The paradoxes of creative leadership

Science teaches us that for any given problem there is a right answer. These answers are rational and internally consistent. Creative leadership, in our perspective, is more an art than a science. And unlike in the scientific world, there is often no single right answer; indeed, answers may not even be internally consistent. This is what we call the ‘paradoxes of creative leadership’. In recognition of these paradoxes, THNK’s creative leadership model has a number of built-in tensions. These tensions make creative leadership so interesting and, at the same time, so challenging.

First, there is an inherent tension between being driven by passion and purpose and having an open, explorative mind. Both are important attributes of a creative leader and yet fundamentally oppose one another. Passion and purpose frequently surface from the inside; an explorative mindset requires an engagement with the outside. Passion and purpose can be all consuming, leaving scarce time for free exploration; by contrast, an explorative mindset requires ring-fencing time for exploration of and play with the outside world. The paradox is having a sense of a path from within and being open to new discoveries from without, knowing what to go for and why, while remaining curious and critical.

The paradox lies in leading from the front and leading from the back; showing and telling people where to go and giving people the space to let a new vision emerge from within the team.

Second, envisioning a better future and orchestrating a creative team are also frequently in tension with one another. Envisioning a better future is about direction setting, big ideas, thought leadership; it requires what could be called masculine leadership from the front. By contrast, orchestrating the creative team is about creating the enabling conditions for creativity and empowering others to create; leading from the back. It is, in a sense, a more feminine leadership trait. The paradox lies in leading from the front and leading from the back; showing and telling people where to go and giving people the space to let a new vision emerge from within the team.

And, third, envisioning a better future and driving breakthrough change are frequently in tension with one another. Envisioning a better future requires taking the long view; leading breakthrough change frequently requires addressing short-term realities. Envisioning a better future requires a resilient and dogged belief in the vision and the end state; driving breakthrough change requires adaptability and opportunism and a willingness to be agile and malleable. The paradox is having your head in the clouds and your feet on the ground: to be a dreamer and a realist at the same time.

At THNK, we are comfortable with the tensions inherent in the creative leadership model and we encourage our participants to explore those tensions. These tensions and paradoxes reflect the real world and they are what makes leadership human, interesting and difficult. These paradoxes mean that leadership is not a ‘tick-the-box’ exercise and are why short leadership program are rarely impactful; indeed, our flagship program at THNK is 18-months long, because we believe that this is the time required to fully process and make sense of these paradoxes.

Being a creative leader is not just a matter of possessing a number of competencies. Creative leadership requires the ability to deal with these tensions, to be able to keep both approaches open at the same time, to thrive on these paradoxes. It’s a singular art that requires practice and self-awareness.

Avenues for cultivating creative leadership

THNK’s 18-month, part-time Executive Program centers on helping our participants build their creative leadership. Our participants learn about the creative leadership model, they explore the paradoxes inherent in the model and they build their creative leadership competencies through one-on-one coaching and targeted exercises such as storytelling and casting creative teams. Yet for those who do not have the opportunity to attend THNK’s Executive Program, what other opportunities exist for building creative leadership ‘muscle’? How can you cultivate creative leadership in yourself?

First, we recommend exploring the creative leadership model and building self-awareness around your own ‘leadership gifts’ and ‘learning edges’. An excellent way to do this is to fill in our 360 Mirror. The Mirror allows you to conduct a self-assessment of where you stand on the five dimensions of THNK’s creative leadership model. You can also ask others who have worked with you to conduct the 360 degree assessment. The Mirror only takes about 20 minutes to fill in and our participants have found that it makes an excellent foundation for subsequent actions to build creative leadership muscle. In particular, comparing your self-assessment with the assessment of others typically opens up a rich stream of data to reflect on what you can do to become a better creative leader.

Second, based on the outcome of the Mirror, we suggest building a personal growth plan. This personal growth plan captures where you are today on creative leadership, both your ‘leadership gifts’ as well as your ‘learning edges’. Spend at least as much time documenting your leadership gifts as you do your learning edges. We know that great leaders spend as much if not more time on building out their strengths as working to rectify their weaknesses. The plan will provide you with an outline of where you want to be in the future and of actions you need to undertake to get there.

Third, depending on where you personal growth plan takes you, there are a number of tailored exercises that you can conduct to further strengthen your creative leadership competencies. For example, copy the practice of creative artists who keep an ‘Everyday Book’ to capture interesting thoughts and new ideas. This will strengthen your explorative mindset. Other tailored exercises to build creative leadership muscle can be found in reflecting on TED talks on creativity and leadership, and in recommendations found in articles. By way of example, Simon Simek’s TED presentation provides compelling insights into how to tell a story in a way that moves others to act. Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs provides penetrating insights into the minds of one of the most famous creative leaders of our time. At THNK, our participants have access to a library of such resources to help them grow on each dimension of the Creative Leadership model.

Finally, we encourage you to document your journey in creative leadership by journaling every day. Use the journal to record your daily reflections on your leadership. What are you working on today to become a better creative leader? Where are the paradoxes of creative leadership showing up in your life? What will you try to do differently tomorrow? What challenges will potentially come your way and how will you overcome those challenges? How will you use your insights into the paradoxes of creative leadership to change the world?

By Rajiv Ball

About the author

My professional life has been shaped by the 13 years I spent at McKinsey & Company. For most of that time, I worked in oil and gas and retail – I used to travel the world, turning around gas station networks! – before I found my passion in leadership development. During my last years at McKinsey, I was responsible for the leadership development of our 1,500 Partners globally. As you can imagine, it was a major pivot in my professional life to move from strategy consulting to leadership development (would love to tell you the full story over a coffee one day!), but I’ve not regretted at all. Today I get tremendous high from working from my strengths and passions and building an institution – THNK – that will hopefully be lasting legacy. Within THNK, I’m responsible for the Quest (our leadership curriculum), as well as our Corporate Programs and new locations.


  • Isaacson, Walter. Steve Jobs.
  • Obama, Barack. Speech to the National Democratic Convention, 2004.
  • Header photo: Dream of mirrors, by smif. Photo source: Retrieved on December 23, 2013
  • This article was originally published at
  • Main image: Walking man with shadow walking to the opposite direction from
  • Graham Ward

    Great article from a real thought leader in the field of leadership development. Thanks for posting Rajiv.