What comes to mind when you think of creative leadership?
For me, it was the first day of my experience with the Great Lakes Leadership Academy in 2014. The program kickoff began on a frozen Saturday in Tawas City, along the coast of Lake Huron in Michigan. About 40 of us cohort members were in attendance. We held different political views and roles as state government employees, elected officials, and industry representatives, all from very different fields, ranging from health to agriculture to technology to sustainability.
During the opening remarks, the program leader, Mike, stood before us. He shared that his creativity was the leadership trait he was most proud of. This surprised me. An interdisciplinary government program isn’t what I considered creative at the time.
Why do I now reflect back on this experience as an example of creative leadership?
Mike turned out to be a highly creative leader. His whole team was visionary. Their form of creativity was in convening very different people and growing compassionate connections between them. We came together on weekends for a year and explored our vulnerabilities, dreams, and fears. As these sides of ourselves became more transparent, we forged bonds at these seams. Our personal connections paved the way for business connections.
To me, the living definition of creativity is finding new ways for people to connect, share feedback, and explore compassion at work, together. The Great Lakes Leadership Academy created safe spaces and conversations for us to build trust with one another. This helped us find ways to listen to each other better. This was a trailblazing leadership practice of the time.
Since my days in Michigan, I’ve had the privilege of gaining exposure to several transformative leadership communities. For several years, I served as a member of the Transatlantic Core Group, a German-U.S. leadership government-industry network facilitated by the BMW Foundation, Atlantic Council, and Bosch Foundation. As an Aspen Ideas Fellow, I experienced the power of the Aspen Institute’s Community Leadership forums.
Most recently, my team has facilitated influential leadership learning labs with the White House Leadership Development Program and the U.S. General Services Administration CXO Fellowship Program.
Bringing different leaders together to listen to one another across what typically divides us matters more now than ever.
What are some ways that creative leaders act with compassion to foster trust within the communities they lead?
- Create a Safe Space to Evolve
Maintaining a culture of trust is an integral leadership capability. It’s a creative leader’s role to design a safe environment in a supportive community. These are the conditions we need to begin to listen to ourselves and each other. Creative leaders find ways to create psychological safety, permitting us to evolve once we understand where we need to go.
During times of change, it’s essential to be together, not face the unknown alone. Exceptionally creative leaders can speed up the way trust builds between people. This happens by designing more thoughtful, high-quality, and compassionate experiences for employees, from the frontlines to C-suite, and the customers they serve.
- Grant Permission to Listen and Learn
Many organizations strive to grow — grow new capabilities, align to new business priorities, or simply grow in scale or revenue. If you and your organization are planning to grow, it means you must plan to listen and learn along the strategic journey. Being part of a leadership community is often what people need to gain permission (and space) to open up and learn.
Listening to feedback is important as you reimagine yourself for new possibilities. Doing this work in a community space creates more accountability. Oftentimes, before leaders begin to process feedback and lead successful change, they need time to ask themselves big questions and learn self-compassion towards one another. Suppose you cannot learn to be compassionate with your immediate leadership peers that are different from you. In that case, extending compassion to the rest of your employees will likely be quite difficult.
- Reassemble in New Ways
We all have the power to adopt new leadership mindsets. As we grow and learn to listen more, it’s essential to test our new ways of being in a safe community. Unpacking your identity alongside others with different viewpoints helps you understand how you might reassemble the pieces to evolve.
Too often, when we bring people together with different views without compassion and expect them to achieve results together, the space becomes a battleground. In contrast, leadership programs like Great Lakes Leadership Academy or the White House Leadership Development Program create a common ground that elevates the human experience. This is what fosters a trusted, transformational testing ground.
Leadership is an ongoing learning journey. Our nation requires more creative leaders who build compassionate experiences that foster trust between different people. As a society, we face problems of increasing intensity. These problems can feel insurmountable.
But there is a solution, and that solution lies in bringing different people together. While it seems simple in theory, in practice it requires creative leadership. We must try new and more innovative ways of working to find new solutions. Technology can help with these challenges, yes. But it is only when people get better at collaborating that we will begin to solve our nation’s challenges sustainably.
The future of our nation depends on creative leaders. How are you creating safe spaces to evolve, learn, and reimagine who your team can become?
Nina Bianchi focuses on transformative culture experiences. She served as Chief of People and Culture at the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and with the General Services Administration’s (GSA) IT Modernization Centers of Excellence (COE). As a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow (PIF) with the Biden Cancer Moonshot at the National Cancer Institute (NCI), she led collaborative work experiences to drive personalized patient experiences. Before serving in government, Nina led a social innovation consulting firm with a network of high-impact public-private partnerships. Her teams designed transformation solutions for city governments across the globe, philanthropy, nonprofits, Fortune 500 companies and institutions like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).