The Two Things That Creative People Need From Every Leader

by | Leadership

What does it really take for teams to produce brilliant, creative work over and over?

Is it just talent?

Is it the result of having a vibrant, fun culture?

Or, maybe it’s just sheer will and hustle?

While all of those things play a part, none of them are sufficient to sustain great work over time. Even the most talented teams will burn out if their pace is unsustainable. (I call these “shooting star” organizations.) Sheer will and hustle won’t produce a great idea when you need it most. And a fun, vibrant culture can feel frivolous when deadlines are stalking you.

So what do creative teams really need most in order to produce their best work? In the course of my conversations with creative pros and leaders over the past several years, two themes consistently emerged: stability and challenge.

Creative people need stability

A commonly held myth about highly creative people is that they just want complete freedom. They don’t want to be fenced in. However, for most experienced creative pros this isn’t really true. They recognize that they need boundaries, because without them they can’t effectively channel their time and attention. As Orson Welles once famously quipped, “The absence of limitations is the enemy of art.”

However, many leaders overstep their role and try to control the work of their team. When this happens, their team is likely to push back on the overly-constrictive boundaries, which creates conflict and frustration, and probably sub-par work.

Leaders need to provide clarity about expectations, process, and strategy, then allow the creative people on their team to do what they do best. They also need to protect their team’s time and attention from the endless parade of meetings, out of date policies, and pointless requests. These things only rob their team members of the precious attention they need to solve the problems they’re actually being paid to solve.

Leaders need to provide clarity about expectations, process, and strategy, then allow the creative people on their team to do what they do best.

Creative people need challenge

Stability alone isn’t sufficient, because with too much of it highly creative people will grow bored. They also need to be given permission to take risks, to experiment, to develop their craft, and to tackle new and more challenging work. They need to know that their leader has faith in them, and that they’ll be protected if they fail.

In short, challenge is about establishing expectations, clearing the path, then getting out of the way and allowing your team to do what it does best. And, providing the resources, coaching, and support they need along the way.

The problem is that stability and challenge exist in tension with one another. As you stabilize the team’s work, you also tend to increase predictability which can lower the degree of challenge. And, as you amp up the challenge you tend to de-stabilize the environment. Managers are uniquely positioned to be able to dial in the right amount of stability and challenge for members of the team, and to ensure that they aren’t burning out or getting bored.

So, as you consider your team’s current work environment, are you providing the right level of stability? Is there a clear playing field, and have your expectations been concisely communicated? And, are team members being challenged by their work and feeling permission to take risks and grow their skills?

If you get both of these right, you’re creating an environment in which creative people can thrive.



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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