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Four Fatal Mistakes Creative Leaders Make

by | Leadership

Leadership is hard. It’s a lonely role, you face crushing uncertainty with elevated stakes, and you’re expected to deliver not only on your own work, but also to corral the creative minds of others and parade them into the promised land. (Oh, and did I mention that it’s often thankless?)

However, leadership is also a tremendous opportunity. You get the privilege of helping others unleash their best work, and you get to have a level of influence on decisions that will often determine the success or failure of the organization.

When the pressure is on, and uncertainty is rearing its ugly head, there are traps that even the most experienced leaders fall into. When you fall into one (or more) of these traps, you put an impediment in your team’s path, and introduce dissonance into the organization.

Here are a few that I’ve seen leaders succumb to in a moment of weakness:


This means that you’re pushing important decisions into the future until you are more certain about the right direction. While this initially seems wise, it has a ripple effect through the organization as others wait for you to act so that they can determine their own course of action. You will never be certain about any decision you make as a leader, but you must be crystal clear about what you expect from your team. Is there a decision that you need to make, but you’re deferring?

“What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” — Gretchen Rubin


When things go awry and your team comes to you for answers, it’s easy to shoot arrows at the people above you. After all, if it’s really not your fault it’s a natural instinct, and it feels like a way to maintain the trust of your team. However, while temporarily maintaining your team’s trust in you as a leader, this tactic erodes their trust for the organization. Therefore, when the organization makes promises to your team in the future, the promises will be met with skepticism.

You must hold the line as a leader and do your best to build trust on both sides. Fight actively and fiercely for the needs of your team, but also fight the urge to protect yourself by disparaging the people above you, even in their incompetence. It’s unfair, but leadership isn’t about fairness. In the end, you will earn the trust of both sides, and you will be better positioned to accomplish your objectives.

To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved.  — George MacDonald


Creative work is highly qualitative. It’s difficult sometimes to determine whether the product fits the original objectives, and it’s often a matter of opinion. As such, metrics for creative work can be tricky to establish and even trickier to implement and track. However, when and where there are metrics in place, you cannot bend on them. You have to make your expectations clear to the team, and you must be diligent in demanding they hit the metrics.

Why is this important? Because there’s enough uncertainty in the work itself without your team having to constantly deal with shifting objectives and metrics. Help your team by defining objectives and standing by your metrics.

Be a yardstick of quality. Some people aren’t used to an environment where excellence is expected.  — Steve Jobs


You’ve hired great people, yes? Then don’t smother them by constantly hovering over their work. It communicates a lack of trust, and it may ultimately lead to a dependence on your feedback, or worse to under-performance or under-thinking. If you enjoy being a part of the process, that’s fantastic, but you need to establish some parameters so that your team feels permission to experiment and take small risks in between their check-ins. You will never get the best work out of the people on your team if they feel like you are constantly looking over their shoulder.

A leader takes people where they want to go. A great leader takes people where they don’t necessarily want to go, but ought to be. —Rosalynn Carter

These are just a few of the (many) traps that I’ve seen creative leaders fall into. Leadership is about establishing the playing field, setting the rules, defining success, and unleashing your team to do what they’re wired to do. Avoid these common traps so that you don’t stand in the way of your team’s brilliance!


What other mistakes have you seen creative leaders make? Comment in The Collective.

Todd Henry

Todd Henry

Positioning himself as an “arms dealer for the creative revolution”, Todd Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of five books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers, The Motivation Code) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.

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  1. Stacey B

    I was given great feedback today that as I leader I may not give enough positive encouragement as I am someone who could be defined as a “yardstick of quality”. I worry my encouragement will be seen as superficial…a means to getting even more work/creativity/improvement. Perhaps lack of giving postitive feedback is another “fatal” mistake – at least a blindspot.

    • Todd Henry

      That’s a tough one. I agree that you want to hold a standard for excellence, but at the same time you need to be fostering growth by encouraging effort even when things fall short. I agree that a lack of encouragement could be seen as an additional fatal mistake.

  2. Richard K

    Great article Todd! My bosses don’t give any deadlines, budgets or goals so my coworkers and myself are confused as to what is the highest priority jobs or how much can we spend on this or that, not to mention when they need to be completed. They have an expectation of get the job done ASAP, as inexpensively as possible and without mistakes. These high expectations and lack of communication leads both the manager and the employees frustrated with each other.

    • Todd Henry

      That’s a really tough situation. Establishing no boundaries creates a lack of accountability for leadership.

  3. Micah Yost

    Great read, Todd. The idea that what we do everyday matters the most was a great reminder to me this morning. There are some decisions I’ve been waiting on for “more information” that will probably never really come. It’s time to move forward and get some direction on those. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Erin Feldman

    I like the third point a lot. It reminds me of an article I read about how to encourage creativity in kids. The idea was that you set boundaries and expectations but let the kids figure things out for themselves. A foundation is necessary. It gives you somewhere to rest.

  5. Kylie Wilson

    Hi, I am bit confused whether to opt for Scrum credentials or attend a
    PMP prep course /
    PMP classes
    preparing to take PMP certification exams . Any tthought?


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