John was hired into his company as a Creative Director. The company was one that made software, and it was not a traditionally creative organization. On top of that, the company was a bit behind the times and knew that change was necessary. They wanted to build an internal creative culture. “If you can come in and help us to make this much-needed change within our organization,” John was told, “the sky’s the limit for you and your career.” John was a fantastic designer with a long history of excellence in his field, so he jumped at the opportunity.

Three years later, after a lot of hard work and successes, an executive position opened up on the Strategy side of things: Vice President of Strategic Planning. John had already helped to create so much positive change through his role as Creative Director, and he was now eager to move into a more strategic role within the organization where he could effect even greater change. This Vice President of Strategic Planning position had his name written all over it—he was smart, focused, business-minded and incredibly innovative. John possessed all of the qualities one looks for in a leader.

But John didn’t get the promotion. Instead, it went to a colleague with an equally strong résumé and a traditional business background who was decidedly less creative.

Now, one could argue that there may have been any number of factors for why John didn’t get the promotion (John is a fictional character, by the way). But for the purpose of what I want to explain here, let’s assume that John did everything exactly right during the interview process. Let’s assume that both John and his colleague had the exact same number of years experience as directors and would command the exact same salary and benefits. And let’s assume that both John and his colleague are white males in their early forties who have similar personalities and are both well-liked throughout the organization.

I’m mad that John didn’t get the promotion and he’s not even a real guy. He’s got everything his more traditional colleague has plus one thing his colleague doesn’t—a creative and innovative, if not daring, outlook on effecting change. I’m mad because that’s exactly the kind of leader everyone says they want.

Here’s why John didn’t win in this case: our idea of what a typical creative person is like is completely at odds with our idea of a typical effective leader.

I’ve written here before about the tendency for our colleagues in more traditional business-minded positions to turn into creative directors when working with creative professionals. It’s a universal habit and I’ve always suspected it is, in part, a result of stereotyping.

I just started reading social psychologist and Associate Director of Columbia's Motivation Science Center, Heidi Grant Halvorson’s, No One Understands You (And What to Do About It) and I’m already glad I picked it up. After breezing through the section on why it’s so hard for all of us to understand each other, I found some proof to back up my creative stereotyping suspicions.

Halvorson cites a few sources—mainly studies published in psychology and social psychology journals and magazines—to tell us what I fear the most: despite research showing that leaders who are more creative are better able to effect positive change in their organizations and to inspire others to follow their lead, we unconsciously assume that someone who is creative can’t be a good leader. Apparently any evidence of creativity (and keep in mind that this is not always the case, but the overwhelming possibility does exist) can diminish a candidate’s perceived leadership potential. More than one study among colleagues showed creativity and leadership potential to be strongly negatively correlated.

Halvorson ends the section with an assertion and warning that bears repeating:

“Even though creativity is a much-admired quality, perhaps more so today than ever before, there is a very clear, unconscious bias against creativity when it comes to deciding who gets to be in the driver’s seat, thanks to stereotyping. And because of the bias, organizations, believing they are picking people with clear leadership potential, may inadvertently assign leadership positions to people who lack creativity and will preserve the status quo.”

If John’s company wanted to see change in operations and at it’s very core, John would have been the right man for the job. Unfortunately, with a less creative colleague in the driver’s seat, they may just be preserving the status quo.

That’s not to say John still can’t effect change—he’ll just need to do it from a position reserved for creative professionals. Let’s say he went on to see his team win numerous creative industry awards and was promoted to Executive Creative Director, where he excelled so much the company created the position Chief Creative Officer and promoted him there.

But this serves as a cautionary tale for any company wanting to effect change and instill a true culture of creativity and innovation at it's core. Sometimes, against our unconscious feeling, a creative type with a humanist approach, who will toss order out the window, is exactly the man (or woman--and often it should be a woman, but that's another story for another time) needed to get the job done.

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AuthorAlyssa Yeager