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How to Learn from the Best Creative Leaders

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How to Learn from the Best Creative Leaders

Creative leadership is an evolving new domain at the intersection of leadership, individual creativity, and innovation. For more than 7 years, I have run creative leader development programs based on my Genius Journey method that teaches participants about the mindsets of top creative leaders. 

When creative leader candidates undergo a longer, intensive Genius Journey program, I ask them to find themselves a “genius mentor”. The candidates commit to study the life, ways and achievements of their inspirational creative leader in parallel to the program. At the penultimate session of the course, all candidates give a presentation on their chosen creative leader, thus allowing the cohort to learn about the lives, success strategies and achievements of up-to two dozen creative leaders. Today, let’s understand more about how to best learn from accomplished creative role models — and why it is so beneficial.

What is role modeling?

A role model is a person looked to by others as an example to be imitated. Role modeling can be a powerful learning tool for learning about the knowledge, skills, values, and success strategies of top achievers and leaders in a given domain. Thereby, the idea is to adopt and adapt those attitudes and behaviors that are beneficial, while ignoring negative traits and non-conducive activities that many of those top achievers display at times, too.

How to include role-modeling in creative leader development?

Nowadays, many business leaders realize the importance of creativity in leading an organization successfully. Twenty-first century leaders need to be creative to effectively respond to rapid changes, mounting complexity, increasing risks, and daily surprises. Moreover, organizations need to develop more creative leaders to seize the opportunities of the fast-paced innovation economy. One way to do this effectively and creatively is to embrace the Genius Journey methodology. 

The Genius Journey approach sends creative leader candidates on an experiential journey to learn how to adopt and adapt the creative mindsets and action routines of geniuses and outstanding creative leaders in business, the sciences, politics, sports, and the arts. Thereby, studying a role model is one of a dozen pedagogical tools I use to internalize the creative leader mindsets of the Genius Journey method.

Why is it beneficial to learn from creative role models?

Studying the ways and lives of outstanding creative leaders allows you to “get into their heads”: It enables you to find out how they tend to think about things (mindsets) and how they usually tend to do regular activities (routines). Equipped with these deeper-level insights into the ways of creative leaders, you may discern their success strategies and then adopt and adapt these. 

Moreover, studying role models allows you to realize that for most famous creators, the road to success wasn’t an easy cruise on a straight highway. Instead, it was a rather bumpy ride on the path less traveled. It was a journey full of challenges, trials, twists, and turns that eventually led to mastery and outstanding accomplishments. (As such, most success stories follow Joseph Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” model that is also a conceptual framework underlying our Genius Journey approach). 

Finally, getting intimately familiar with your favorite “genius guide” provides an opportunity to do a reality check on the creative mindsets and routines advocated in our Genius Journey model.

How to study creative role models?

In an ideal world, you would seek out and meet your favorite creative leaders in person and spend time with them. Unfortunately, in the real world, this isn’t normally a feasible option as most genius leaders are either difficult to reach — or, sadly, already passed on. So, what’s the next best way to study the ways of creative leaders and understand what’s going on in their minds? Reading biographies. And if you’re lucky, your favorite genius even wrote an autobiography that gives you direct access to her mind. 

Other source materials you can immerse yourself in to learn more about the mindsets of  creative role models include semi-biographical books, videos and interviews, articles, and of course their own creations (such as books, music, movies, art pieces, videos on competitive events, products, and even organizations that they founded or shaped).

Who are suitable role models of a creative leader?

Creative leaders are outstanding creative personalities who’ve led an organization or a particular domain and contributed novel, original, and meaningful concepts that created significant value to their environment. What are examples of creative leaders that past candidates of our Genius Journey programs adopted as their “genius mentor”? 

  • Universal geniuses such as Leonardo da Vinci, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, or Benjamin Franklin.
  • Creative business leaders such as Thomas Edison, Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, David Ogilvy, Coco Chanel and Elon Musk.
  • Scientists like Albert Einstein, Steven Hawkins, Richard Feynstein, Charles Darwin, and Marie Curie.
  • Artists such as Pablo Picasso, Salvador Dali, John Lennon, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Steven Spielberg.
  • Political leaders such as Abraham Lincoln, Nelson Mandela, Mahatma Gandhi, and Thomas Jefferson.
  • Legendary sports icons like Muhammad Ali, Bruce Lee, and Ayrton Senna. 

How to find the right role model for you?

Many creative leader candidates already have a “favorite hero” in mind who they admire and know a bit about, and they eagerly embrace the opportunity to study the life of this person in greater detail. However, perhaps an even better way to find a fitting role model is to settle on a creative leader who has a comparable personality like you and prefers similar cognitive styles. How can find a “cognitively fitting” role model? Complete a personality assessment test (such as MBTI) or a cognitive profiling tool (such as our TIPS innovator profiling test) that link famous role models to different profile types.

For example, in TIPS, Winston Churchill or Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton are suitable role models if you profile as an Organizer, while someone coming out with a Conceptualizer-profile may want to study Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. In the TIPS profiling report, we suggest a list of role models who exemplify each TIPS profile type.

How do we know that it really works?

Research projects that we conducted to test the efficacy of the Genius Journey methodology and pedagogy confirmed the value of our Genius Mentor-approach. For example, one study revealed that four out of five creativ eleader candidates (very) strongly agreed that the Creative Leader Studies & Portrait Creations added great value to the program. Although it meant a lot of work for them, still two out of three learners (very) strongly agreed that they also enjoyed creating and presenting their genius mentor portraits.

When asked for qualitative feedback on this pedagogical tool, one learner commented:

“I enjoy the creative leader portraits. I think it’s the best way to see and realize that the tools and methods used in the program are practical. Learning through studying the lives of real creative leaders is important.”

Another creative leader candidate commented the following on the value of the assignment:

“Asking us to talk about our creative leader was a relevant idea. It made me realize that even the most prominent and most influential leaders went through darker moments before accomplishing outstanding achievements. If I take the example of Yves Saint Laurent, he managed to be one of the most influential fashion designers of the 20th century despite several faults such as the lack of self-confidence and shyness. That’s why we have to keep dreaming and believe in our future.“ 

Yet another candidate summed-up both his approach chosen and benefits achieved as follows: 

“I highly enjoyed preparing the presentation on Salvador Dali. For a long time, I’ve enjoyed his art and have several replicas of his paintings in my home. I also visited his museum and his house in Spain, which both gave me good insights into his person. By doing this project, however, I was able to view him from an entirely different angle than I had viewed him before. I learned several new things about him and now see how he and I can relate to one another. Seeing how he faced different challenges in life, how he harvested his creativity, lived with his ego, etc. gave me a lot of insights into how I can become a better leader and what things I will have to focus on in the future.” 

Conclusion: Learn from the best, forget about the rest

Role-modeling is a powerful pedagogical tool that can legitimize the mindsets and routines of geniuses and outstanding creative leaders. Unfortunately, the candidates need to do secondary research on their chosen “genius mentors” in our role model assignment instead of going into a real-life apprenticeship with them. But fortunately, they can observe and question the creative ways of one weird creative leader while undergoing the creative leadership program — and that’s me.

© Dr. Detlef Reis 2019. 


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