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“Be a Laser Not a Lighthouse” & Other Creative Leadership Essentials

by | Leadership

A few weeks ago I was privileged to hop a plane to St. Louis to spend some time with a great group of creatives wrestling through organizational growth and how to establish new systems to deal with it. After a morning session with the large group, I had the chance to spend about 90 minutes (before hopping a return flight) with a handful of the team’s leaders. We discussed the essentials of creative leadership, and I was asked to distill down what I’ve experienced about great creative leaders as fodder for discussion.

Here are the five principles that I believe every (EVERY!) leader of creative teams must live by if they want thriving teams.

1. Be a laser, not a lighthouse.

Many leaders are so concerned about safety that they spend much of their time talking about what not to do versus what to do. They operate more like a lighthouse than a laser. A lighthouse can only tell you where not to go, but can’t provide any kind of precise direction or alternative. Creative teams need precise, focused direction. Like a laser. A laser is an offensive tool, not a defensive one. (Unless you’re Han Solo in the cantina. Apparently, Greedo shot first.)

Your team needs you to tell them what to do, not what not to do. Be a laser, not a lighthouse.

2. Encourage dissent, foster discontent.

Healthy teams have a level of dissent in their strategic conversations. You know your team is in trouble when there is no disagreement. It means one of a few things is probably happening:

  • People are too comfortable to risk speaking up. Things are cushy.
  • No one is really thinking. There is a lack of true ownership of the vision. People are just doing their jobs.
  • There’s a general lack of accountability for the work. It’s spread too thin.

You encourage dissent on the team by rewarding strong, focused opinions. If you want something to happen, reward it. Encourage people when they speak a contrary opinion. Change your mind and admit that you were wrong, publicly. Foster strong conversations about direction and fuel the passion of your team members.

At the same time, you must foster discontent with the current level of the work. You do this by re-framing the conversation. Instead of comparing your work with other, similar work by other companies or teams, re-frame expectations by expanding the team’s view of what’s possible. Instead of being the best brand design firm on the block, re-frame the goal as being the best at creating customer experiences or capturing marketplace attention. Instead of being the best copywriter, re-frame the goal as being the best at framing marketplace narrative. Always (ALWAYS!) be pushing your team to new heights. Don’t allow them to settle.

3. Defend your team to the death.

What’s the fastest way to permanent failure as a creative leader? Sell out your team. No amount of subsequent action matters. Once you’ve lost their trust, you will never regain it.

Here’s a principle worth writing on your hand: the leader gets to take the most arrows. If you’re going to lead the team, you are responsible and accountable for the final work, including the creative choices made and the execution thereof. Everyone wants to be the leader, but few really want to lead. Your team must see you defending them when it counts most. If they do, then they will be there to defend you when you make a risky choice that fails or when you over-extend on your interpersonal bank account.

The leader goes first. Defend your team to the death.


4. Remember the spilled blood.

Closely related to principle #3, we must remember that we are not the only ones expending ourselves to make things happen. People on your team have poured their blood, sweat and tears into their work. They die many deaths in the pursuit of brilliance. But as leaders, the only thing that often matters is “what have you done for me lately?”

Do NOT cheapen the sacrifice of your team. Many of them have poured themselves intensely into their work in order to help the team succeed. Don’t forget that in a moment of weakness, whether yours or theirs.

5. Clarity trumps certainty.

Here’s a dirty little secret for leaders: you don’t have to have all of the answers. (In fact, if you think you do, you’re probably not as good of a leader as you think.) But even when you don’t know the answer, you MUST be clear about your expectations of the team. When you aren’t your team is likely to spin out into misery-land. You must be clear about your expectations even when you’re not certain.

Vision diffuses, meaning that it disperses through the air and gets less precise as the project proceeds. You must, therefore, begin with incredible precision. You need to make sure that the 5 W’s of project strategy (Who, What, When, Where, Why?) are answered before moving on to creative strategy (how?). Then you must communicate these objectives clearly and precisely, even when you’re not certain. Many leaders leave room for ambiguity because they’re insecure about their own abilities. This lack of clarity trickles down and makes things unnecessarily complex.

We had a great conversation around these principles with the group in St. Louis, but I know that there are also many leaders in the AC community with extensive experience in leading creative teams. What principles would you add to this list?

Photo credit:  Randy Le’Moine

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. Lewis LaLanne aka Nerd #2

    “Can I let go of being so smart and allow it to be other than what I think is?”

    This is the question that came up in my mind when I read #5. It’s something I ask myself when faced with a situation I feel I have to figure out and when I say “yes” to this and release all the built up tension in my chest and stomach, it allows for my mind to clear up and answers to come forth that were always there but being blocked out by negative self talk.

    And these answers might come from me, or, they might come unexpectedly from someone on my team. I love them either way, although I will admit to liking the feeling of being the know it all who cracked the code! Hehehe!

    This is magnificent list you’ve put together Todd and I trust many, as I have been, will be served by it!

  2. Tom Hagerty

    I would add “Results are up to YOU!” As a leader, if you have communicated fervently, executed efficiently, and embraced diversity of thought… now it’s time for you to sell the result. I have seen many creative directors and account execs become a mouthpiece for the whims of the client. Little else is as frustrating to a team than knowing that the leader is a fraud or a doormat. If you expect great passion and creativity surrounding your various projects, then it’s up to you (the leader) to bring home the bacon!


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