Catalyzing Relational Creativity for Transformative Leadership

Recently, an organizational leader expressed to us a frustration we’ve been hearing a lot lately: “These days, I can’t seem to get it right. On the one hand, everyone is tired and overwhelmed, so they want me to make all the decisions. But on the other hand, these same people rebel against any decision that doesn’t include them in the process.”

This is a tension we’re seeing many leaders grappling with. It reflects a larger pattern playing out in North American society (although not limited to it). We see many leaders tired and worn out, fatigued from the burden of their position, holding it all together, with the pressure to have the “right” answers. And it’s no wonder. The uncertainty, chaos, and contradictions of current times continue to amplify what futurist Zia Sardar calls postnormal times, a global phenomenon. Inevitably some look to finding certainty in a traditional, strong leader, often a father figure who can fix what ails us (or make it great again). Leaders of organizations have to navigate the pandemic, political leaders to address economic instability, climate change, and historical redress, and business leaders to ensure profitability as well as positive social and environmental impacts.

Most leaders are tired, the burden untenable. At the same time, we are seeing essential and important demands for inclusion, equity and participation, and a clear message that “if it’s about us, don’t do it without us.” These competing demands can be difficult and exhausting to untangle for the responsive and caring leaders we work with and coach.

The reality is that many of the challenges faced today can’t be addressed by one leader, one organization (or even one nation) alone. So while the lone hero leader archetype can be seductive in its allure and simplicity, it is insufficient for the times we find ourselves in — whether in a boardroom or zoom room, in our kitchens with our families, or our town halls with our communities.

As scholars and researchers of leadership, alongside our work as coaches and strategists with leaders across sectors, we are interested in illuminating the shifts needed in leadership to meet these evolving conditions and supporting leaders in building the capacity in themselves and others to do so. We call this aspirational practice transformative leadership.

We are not talking about replacing an exhausted heroic leader with another heroic leader. Nor do we mean creating an organization where everybody now thinks they are the boss, leading to uncoordinated chaos. Instead, we mean mobilizing individual and collective collaborative creativity in the context of responsibility for the organization’s goals and vision. For example, in a jazz performance individual soloists express their own creativity in the context of the individual songs as well as the band’s larger vision, its identity. In other words, a soloist doesn’t play a crazed heavy metal guitar solo during a sensitive ballad (unless that’s part of the larger vision of the group!). All the players support each other when it is someone’s turn to solo.

The kind of relational creativity we propose is not just about the end goal of creating new products or strategies. It is also (and perhaps primarily) about creating better ways of working together, better ways of communicating and collaborating. It means understanding the larger context one is working in–its interconnections and interdependencies–and having a sense of a shared direction of travel and how best to contribute to it. It also means coordinating our creativity with others to create win/win outcomes.

Transformative leadership is about the capacity to (re)create together relationships even– especially–when faced with differences of opinion. Transformative leadership also means taking responsibility for our creativity. We can approach an interaction on automatic pilot (“there they go again”) reproducing old patterns, or we can take responsibility for our contribution and channel our creativity to better outcomes. We can lead our lives and take the lead in how we want our relationships to be.

When we give talks about this concept, we notice that many light up. It can provide a much needed opening of possibilities into a future that is more generative, with a sense of possibility alongside the hardships.Transformative leadership is an invitation to everyone, everyday, everywhere leadership. The complex issues of the times require as many engaged people as possible. When people see themselves as leaders in everyday ways, it can revitalize relationships, organizations, and communities. This doesn’t mean leaders can abdicate responsibility and accountability. It’s a recognition that we all have a contribution to make toward the futures we want to see.

At the heart of transformative leadership is a journey of creativity and exploration. It is a journey into the unknown, where the path is laid down by walking and requires ongoing inquiry. It is a view that human beings, our cultures, institutions, policies, relationships, and traditions are all a large part of an overarching creative process. It is an ongoing self-reflective inquiry into creation and transformation at various levels–personal, relational, organizational, structural, and societal.

There are ways that executives, leaders, and coaches can create enabling conditions to shift conditions quickly, to enhance them into collaborative, vital, and creative spaces and interactions. Together, personal creativity and relational creativity are doorways to transformative leadership.

Inviting creativity into one’s leadership practice can lead to tangible shifts. We love to introduce the idea of how cultivating creative attitudes provides a valuable counterpoint to authoritarian styles of leadership, expectations of leaders, and cultures within organizations. The authoritarian attitude (first researched by Theodor Adorno and colleagues in the 1950s) is characterized by either/or thinking, imposing rigid frameworks, demanding conformity, creating outgroups, and an unwillingness to entertain ideas and possibilities.

In contrast, cultivating relational creative attitudes has the potential to disrupt rigid expectations, creating space for everyone to take on leadership–whether as a formal leader or not. The creative attitude includes tolerance for ambiguity, independence of judgment, openness to experience, preference for complexity, paradoxical both/and thinking, and challenging assumptions.

As leaders, we can engage in developing these orientations and provide opportunities to cultivate them within those we work with–to create a collective culture that better reflects the world we want to see. What is needed to bring this relational creativity and responsibility into organizations is a holistic educational process that includes reframing creativity in a more relational way, and developing the skills to create generative relationships and interactions.

While this approach may not resolve the tension our client expressed to us recently, it can help build the collective stamina within organizations and contexts to hold and grapple in generative ways when wicked tensions come to light. Most of all, it can lift the (heavy) duty on singular leaders and move into a sense of shared creativity and responsibility, inviting more agency and more possibility–more forward movement.

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