How to Lead Creative People Effectively

Creative individuals value freedom, are highly specialized, self-motivated, and prefer to develop their own knowledge base rather than be taught. These characteristics can make leading creative people a challenge. So far, most research on leadership has been about objective knowledge, or what is required to be a good leader. However, the how of leadership is more significant when leading ‘creative experts.’


The current study (Abfalter, 2012) conducted 24 narrative interviews on creative artists, which helped build a social understanding of what it means to lead highly creative people. Results showed that leadership is socially different when dealing with a group of artists than when dealing with business professionals. However, important parallels were drawn which can be successfully adapted by all leaders. The following five themes emerged.


A creative person’s success is highly dependent on his or her leader. While artists usually receive acclaim and feedback from the media and public, it is their leader’s approval and feedback they really seek. Leaders who share in the failure and success of their teams provide impetus for continual improvement. While creative individuals seek autonomy in their working style, they need a leader who is available for guidance and genuine feedback.


Authenticity is of utmost value to artistic people; they must remain true to themselves during the good and bad phases. In order to guide them well, their leader must recognize the value an artistic person places on authenticity. Additionally, a leader’s achievements and peculiarities are often the very elements with which creative people will identify. Hence, it is crucial that a leader remain honest and open.


The main foundations upon which creative workers build respect for their leaders is the leader’s expertise, track record, and personality. Additionally, leaders are expected to create an environment of trust and mutual respect, honoring the diversity of a team by supporting the different working styles of varied personality types.


Successful leaders of creative teams provide a solid support system, while allowing autonomy among the team members. Autonomy enriches a creative bent of mind, and strong support provides guidance, creating an environment conducive to nurturing creativity.


In addition to the four positive themes, one negative aspect of leadership emerged that must be considered. Leaders who are concerned with self-admiration and empowering themselves as a result of teamwork greatly dampen a creative environment. Therefore, it is important that leaders bear in mind that only by working with the team and for the team will they really achieve the greatest possible success.


While performing artists might be more creative than your average office worker, in a regular business context these themes can be applied by leaders to deal with those creative experts who usually form a small part of the team. The need of the hour is capturing different styles of leadership in order to bring out the best in the team. A ‘One Size Fits All’ style of leading is passé, especially when leading creative people.


Abfalter, D. (2012). Authenticity and Respect: Leading Creative Teams in the Performing Arts. Creativity and Innovation Management, 22(3), 295-306. doi:10.1111/caim.12004