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The Dynamics of Creative Leadership-Partnership: Forces and Concepts for Transforming Change and Conflict into Creativity and Community

What does it take to be a creative leader? I definitely have been giving this some thought, developing and increasingly applying three programs in the past two years:

 “Transforming Change and Conflict into ‘Passion Power’: The Art of Inspiring Leadership”
 “Does Your Organization Need a Jolt of CPR – Generating Creativity, Passion and Risk-Taking”
 “A Leader’s Greatest Gift – TLCs: Inspiring Trust, Laughter and Creative Collaboration”

A variety of companies and organizations have experienced the leadership programs – each program also having a strong team building component – from the IT department at Booz Allen Hamilton and members of the IT leadership staff in the Dept. of Commerce to senior officers and senior sergeants for US Army support commands and brigades at Ft. Hood and Ft. Leonard Wood.

While many variables are involved, for now let’s consider “Four Fertile and Flowing Forces of Creative Leadership and Partnership”:

1) Designing an expanded conception of team,
2) Harnessing the interrelationship between “creativity,” “conflict” and “change,”
3) Extolling a motivational mindset, and
4) Experiencing the connection between complexity and creativity.

1. Designing an Expanded Conception of Team. You may have heard this common motivational poster-type saying: “There’s no “I” in team.” For me, that’s not sufficient. Consider this amendment: “There may be no ‘I’ in team…but there are two ‘I’s (and ‘eyes’) in winning.” From a linguistic perspective, the two winning “I”s refer to teams that encourage both “individual integrity” and “imaginative interactivity.” (Hey, I wear glasses: two “I”s readily become four “I”s. And an ability to employ self-effacing humor is a key leadership tool. See below.) The challenge of creative leadership is to facilitate relationships and environments that both encourage and expand individual perception, skills and opportunity while building a mindful and heart-filled interactive community.

In fact, when leader and group foster vibrant, give and take communication, then individual difference and member diversity become the fertile ground for uncommon collaboration and enriched integration. I recall a problem-solving study with submarine personnel. Invariably, the most diverse teams came up with the most creative solutions. Of course, diversity-driven problem-solving may be less efficient (it usually takes non-homogeneous individuals more time to reach consensus or get on the same page) but, remember, it’s often more effective. The tension among the individuals as well as between an individual and the group, paradoxically, may generate an expanded whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. For example, think of a well-performed concerto in classical music, with its vital interplay between the soloist and the orchestra (as well as harmonizing among the distinctive sounds of the orchestral sections). Clearly, when a team is flowing with synergy, parts transform into vital partners.

And returning to our “winning” expression, from a poetic perspective, the two “eyes” refer to a capacity to “look back” and reflect on past experience as well as an ability to springboard from the past and “look ahead,” that is, to imagine, explore and/or design a future. Of course, the new or unexpected, to quote an attendee commenting on a recent closing “CPR” program, may be “shockingly different.”

2. Harnessing the Interrelationship between “Creativity,” “Conflict” and “Change.” A “cutting edge leader” recognizes the reciprocal relationship between “change and conflict”: major change often stirs up personal and interpersonal-group conflict and major conflict often challenges parties to “let go” of the tried and (perhaps, once) true.” And significant transition and tension may compel you to problem-solve anew if not innovatively adapt. So dynamic leadership must confront and harness the energy and precious opportunity (while appreciating the potential danger) found in “change and conflict.”

While Shakespeare’s exhortation may be extreme, “There is a tide in the affairs of men which taken at the flood leads on to fortune…omitted all the voyages of their lives are bound in shallows and in miseries,” creative leadership must recognize the transformative – progress or regress – juncture of change and conflict. For example, the 19th century pragmatic philosopher and “Father of Public Education,” John Dewey clearly recognized “conflict” as a change agent, potentially influencing both creativity and community:

Conflict is the gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It shocks
us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at noting and
contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.

3. Extolling a Motivational and Mirthful Mindset. A passage from Adam Gopnik’s recent publication, Angels and Ages: A Short Book about Darwin, Lincoln and Modern Life (Alfred A. Knopf, 2009) captured my imagination: “Repetition is the law of nature but variation is the rule of life.” That is, in the long run creatures most fit for survival are not necessarily the “strongest” (by sheer physical strength). No, superior fitness evolves for the species (and in my model the leader-partner team) that best responds to or harmonizes with the various dynamic forces in a changing-challenging environment thereby developing novel, even a bit strange, yet ultimately effective adaptation traits and uncommon problem-solving capacity. Surely this is another formula for becoming a “winning leader-partner team.”

And my new motivational mantra definitely reflects this notion of survival. Actually, I want more than “variation.” Are you ready for “deviation?” Let’s push the creative envelope or, at least, the creative adage. My mantra is not content to simply “think out of the box.” No, to be cutting edge “Think Out of the Box, Perform Outside the Curve – the Bell Curve, (though when deviating significantly from the norm sometimes you risk performing Inside The Bell Jar) and Be Out-Rage-ous!”

And I especially like to be playfully “Out-Rage-ous,” by following the conceptual footsteps of a great American humorist. Mark Twain illustrated a notion of mind play that captures a desired motivational (and deviational) mindset for a cutting-edge leader. Talking about “wit,” Twain’s vivid descriptor gets to the head and heart of being a thought-provoking motivator: “the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation!”

Perhaps not so surprisingly, in his groundbreaking work on Emotional Intelligence, Daniel Goleman has found that the best managers – those effective and innovative problem-solvers and motivators – use humor three times more than their less talented peers. And as I once penned: “People are more open to a serious message when it is gift-wrapped with humor!” We are now ready to connect theoretically the seemingly unconnected and to practice my “thinking, perceiving and being” motivational mantra.

4. Experiencing the Connection between Cognitive Complexity and Creativity. To determine if the audience is ready to walk the “Creative Leadership” talk, I lead them through a thought-provoking and, possibly, unsettling exercise. The exercise was inspired by the research of Dr. Albert Rothenberg, as reported in his book The Emerging Goddess: Creativity in the Sciences and the Arts. (The title evokes the mythic imagery of Athena, Greek goddess of both war and creativity, being born from the head of her almighty father, Zeus.) This Yale Psychiatrist and Cognitive Psychologist found that subjects who responded with more opposites or antonyms in a word association test – e.g., “wet” to the word “dry” or “fast” to the word “slow” – had higher scores on certain creative personality measures than subjects generating mostly synonyms or “original” responses. (My informal workshop trials suggest that usually less than ten percent of the audience free associate predominantly with antonyms.) While his sample was small and the results can only be suggestive, why might there be a correlation between contradictory association and personality differentiation? To expand your worldview and leadership vision, consider these Seven Cognitive Complexity-Creativity Keys:

a. Challenge the Conventional. To think oppositionally reveals a willingness to confront the conventional and the accepted or even “the respected authority.” You will not be confined to obvious assumptions or expectations. As von Oech wryly noted in his classic on creativity, A Whack On the Side of the Head: “Sacred cows make great steaks.” Or more potently and paradoxically, consider the pioneering 20th century artist, Pablo Picasso’s refrain: “Every act of creation is first of all an act of destruction!” (Guess sometimes to “think out of the box” is not sufficient; you have to blow up the sucker to start fresh and be fertile.) So things that appear oppositional or contradictory may, in fact, conjure a complex or ironical, volatile or subtle relation that yields a higher truth.

b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective. This Eastern symbol depicts a complex truth: that seeming opposites don’t necessarily result in division or separation, but potentially flow into each other forming a greater, interconnected whole. Also, the symbol illustrates how a small circle of contradiction embedded in its opposite (as represented by a small black dot in the largest part of the white flowing amoeba-like space or a small white dot in the largest part of the black flowing amoeba-like space) is seeding the emergence of its counterpoint, that is, the white space ultimately transforms into black space and the black into white.

A Yin-Yang perspective was articulated by the pioneering actor and comedian, Charlie Chaplin, who, for example, believed the “light-hearted” emerged from darkness: “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and in order not to go crazy.” And the pioneering humanitarian, Helen Keller, also recognized a poignantly similar paradoxical truth – how crystals of delight live within the darkest corners or caves of man’s mind or milieu: “The world is so full of care and sorrow it is a gracious debt we owe one another to discover the bright crystals of delight hidden in somber circumstances and irksome tasks.”

c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy. Oppositional thinking is not simply reactive: by definition it’s positioning one concept in relation to another – such as by quality, e.g., “wet vs. dry,” quantity, e.g., “large” vs. “small” or by position, “above vs. below” or “hill vs. valley.” That is, oppositional perspective challenges you to see multiple points of view. Grappling with polarity encourages the rejection of simplistic “black or white” and “good or bad” thinking. A capacity to make discriminations, to see shades of gray and, especially, for examining both sides of an issue is critical for being a guide “on the leading edge.” (And remember, these days, “If you’re not living on the edge you’re taking up way too much space.”)

Additionally, creative leadership requires some feel for details (the trees), but you also want a sense of the big picture (the forest); and you often need to be fluent in and flexible with both short-term tactics and long-term strategy. For example, a dynamic leader employing oppositional thinking, goes into the forest, cuts down a few trees (as few as necessary, and thinking ahead, plants new ones), then uses the trees to build conceptual bridges between him- or herself and a perceived opponent or rival. By reaching out both parties now have opportunity to communicate; to see how the other side thinks if not lives. Having a bigger picture helps you appreciate better where the other person is coming from, that is, a paradoxical perspective may facilitate empathy by transcending differences and finding common ground between “self” and the seemingly alien “other.” And this piece of wisdom provides a natural lead-in to section d.

d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic. For me, oppositional processing also means building a mind bridge within, bringing an androgynous perspective, that is, integrating the masculine and feminine, the head and the heart, or cultivating brain-wise, according to one neuropsychological researcher, “bi-hemispheric peace of minds.” Of course, the different sides of the brain-personality are not always in perfect harmony. On a personal level and in the performance arena, I need time and space for my manic-like, “out there” and charismatically relating to others stage persona. But I also must have room for being a sometimes melancholy or a frequently introspective and analytically insightful cave dweller. (Alas, sometimes one soars then crashes or at least burns or runs out of energy before the rejuvenation cycle kicks in.) But when I have both these energy, ideational and relational sources smoldering and interacting…then I’m “Touched with Fire” (the title of Johns Hopkins psychologist and best-selling author, Kay Redfield Jamison’s book; its subtitle – “Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament”). Again, the cutting-edge leader needs to be able to talk the language of the verbal and the visual, the logical and the psycho-logical, and the tough and the tender. (For example, how about this thought-provoking notion of TLC: “Tender-Loving Criticism” and “Tough-Loving Care.”)

e. Pay Homage to Janus, F.Scott and A. North. Many in the arts and sciences have recognized the importance of reconciling seeming opposition to achieve a sense of wholeness or enriched integration, what Albert Rothenberg called “Janusian Thinking.” This cognitive process was named for the dual and opposite profiled, Roman deity, Janus, whose image was often found on gates and doorways. And appropriately, Janus was the god of “beginnings and endings” and of “leavings and returns.” Consider my Janusian-like linguistic loop of beginnings and separations: “One must begin to separate…one must be separate to begin.”

Moving from the mythic, to the more contemporary, thinkers of all stripes, including Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Alfred North Whitehead, and acclaimed 20th century author, F. Scott Fitzgerald, have embraced the latter’s ideas about the significance of grappling with opposition: “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the capacity to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. For example, one should see things as hopeless yet determined to make them otherwise.” Sounds like another leadership mantra!

f. Explore and Express Text and Context. As a “word artist” – both on the page and on stage – the importance of grappling with “text” and “context” is inescapable. “Text” is the “on its face” data or “utility” of a message while one notion of “context” is the envelope of personal, interpersonal, cultural, historical background or circumstance in which the message is embedded, thereby providing or coloring it’s full meaning and “significance.”

Another way of thinking about this “text-context” distinction, especially as a leader or educator, is through the lens of “style” and “substance.” As Francois La Rouchefoucald, the 17th century French classical writer, observed (quoted in Kay Redfield Jamison’s Exuberance: The Passion For Life, Random House, 2004), “Passions are the only orators which always persuade. They are like an act of nature, the rules of which are infallible; and the simplest man who has some passion persuades better than the most eloquent who has none.” As a sales manager in one of my workshops noted, “Logic tells and passion sells.” And I believe the paradoxical and passionate cutting-edge leader who knows how to share his or her personal story “compels.”

The best leaders understand that both text and context, in yin-yang and forest-trees fashion, must be accounted for if real meaning is to be gleaned, or if “message sent is to be message received.” Can you relate to this vexing example of one-dimensional information flow: have you ever received directions for assembling a product with only verbal instructions and no supportive images? GRRR!

Of course, accurately receiving a message is only half the battle. The cutting edge leader is not simply passionate but also knows how to deliver a message, especially by telling a story. According to Daniel Pink, in his book, A Whole New Brain, most of our thinking and our knowledge are organized as stories. Storytelling is the ability to place facts in context and to deliver them with emotional impact. A story blends high concept and high touch (see “Blending the Analytic and Empathic” above). Stories are high concept because they sharpen our understanding of one thing by showing it in the context of something else, a basic tool for understanding.

Finally, as James Lukaszewski, founder of The Lukaszewski Group Inc., a crisis communication firm, observed in a recent speech: “Telling stories is far more powerful than all of the studies, analyses, data, and information piled together on any given subject you can name. Data is debatable; stories permit everyone who hears, sees, or reads to make up their own minds from their own perspectives. Great leaders tell great stories. Stories help others learn to be leaders…Be a storyteller and you’ll become known for being helpful, memorable, and a source of inspiration, insight, as well as self-evident truths.”

g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension. When trying to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable you may experience what psychiatrist, Richard Rabkin, called a state of “thrustration,” which I defined thusly: “Thrustration occurs when you’re torn between thrusting ahead with direct action and frustration as you haven’t quite put together the pieces of the puzzle.” Some are not able to tolerate such tension. A truly classic New Yorker cartoon, playing off the opening lines of A Tale of Two Cities, forever lampooned the dangers of self-righteous rigidity in the face of contradiction. A nattily attired, pompous looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat in hand Charles Dickens: “Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!”

However, if you can stay with such cognitive tension and confusion, the angst just may fire the right hemisphere of your brain with the potential for sparking metaphorical images and analogies along with surprising and paradoxical visual puns. The reward may be worth the risk. Here’s a personal illustration of how the tension between thesis and antithesis yielded a creative and integrative “Aha!” Back in the early ‘90s, I wound up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don’t ask. I had periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called “The Burnout Boogie.” Email [email protected] for any and all.) One morning, shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: “If you write and “Shrink Rap” ™ it…they will come” (creative synthesis). Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy. Again, a pretty good recipe for a cutting edge leader!

Closing Summary and Strategic Story

This article conveys “Four Fertile and Flowing Forces of Creative Leadership and Partnership”:

1. Designing an Expanded Conception of Team,
2. Harnessing the Interrelationship between “Creativity,” “Conflict” and “Change,”
3. Extolling a Motivational Mindset, and
4. Experiencing the Connection between Complexity and Creativity

The latter was further differentiated through “Seven Cognitive Complexity-Creativity Keys.” These keys help cultivate a paradoxical, passionate and personal leadership perspective:

a. Challenge the Conventional,
b. Recognize Yin-Yang Perspective,
c. Develop Forest and Trees, Tactics and Strategy,
d. Blend the Analytic and the Empathic,
e. Pay Homage to Janus, F. Scott and A. North,
f. Explore and Express Text and Context, and
g. Generate and Tolerate Thesis-Antithesis Tension.

Now let’s close with a case example that hopefully illustrates and pulls together the above “Four Forces” and “Seven Keys.” The scenario describes a management decision to one-sidedly mandate operational change (thesis), the employees’ alleged “resistance” to the new procedures (antithesis) and the “creative leadership” challenge to discover “the pass in the impasse” (synthesis). Strategic resolution will require more than just “out of the box” thinking. To rebuild morale and trust, to generate team purpose and unified performance will require both the public expression of anger and the public acknowledgement of error along with a show of remorse. As I once penned:

For the Phoenix to rise from the ashes
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire.

Turning a Funeral into a Festival

When you can reframe stereotypic oppositional tension, enabling all parties to consider a new reality, then you are ready to transcend bitter division and even transform a funeral into a festival. Let’s see how. In the early ‘90s, I was consulting with a federal court that was automating their record keeping process. As I recall, management had not solicited much input from employees directly impacted by the technical changes, especially involving a key administrative form. The employees were not just anxious about an uncertain future but were also angry at being bypassed in the decision-making and implementation process. In the employees’ minds their professional status and experience were being ignored or discounted. And not surprisingly, there was passive group opposition to the change. People were reverting back to the old form and former process.

Memos and motivational exhortations were having minimal effect when an epiphany began percolating. In a meeting with top management, I noted that we missed the boat on the front end of implementation, but believed we could still get back on. However, management had to stop simply defining employee behavior as “resistance to change.” Court leaders needed to appreciate and truly understand the employee’s sense of loss of control and even a loss of identity, especially for those most directly impacted by the change. We needed to grasp the reality that a new learning curve often generates anxiety and, depending on the circumstances surrounding the change, perhaps even a diminished sense of self-confidence and competence. And, of course, not being consulted on the nature of the change process only enhanced the feeling of being organizational pawns, and disrespected ones at that. Clearly, the employees’ emotional responses and subsequent behaviors were motivated by a complex mix of psychological and situational dynamics, not unlike an involved and intense reaction to the death of a loved one, the breakup of a once close relationship and the loss of a cherished belief (or even a fantasy, such as management wanting input from professionals in the trenches).

Once I recognized that the employees were actually grieving, achieving a starting point was possible: “Let’s have a forms funeral.” (Going way beyond the box…obviously I now was thinking “out of the coffin!”) Suddenly, we had a forum in which a common reality could be acknowledged and emotional intensity be shared. And exaggerating the circumstances proved a lot more creative and productive than an all too familiar gripe session. Employees now had a public forum for: a) mourning the loss of the old data processing system, b) expressing frustration with management’s unilateral process and c) articulating concerns about the upcoming changes. Steps to rebuilding trust required management actually listening to criticism, acknowledging mistakes had been made and not punishing people for speaking their minds. This group grieving enabled folks to gradually and more objectively recognize the limitations of the old and the productive potential of the new. Employees were now willing to give the new system a chance to succeed, and all levels in the organization realized that the whole had to be part of the problem and part of the solution.

In summary, initial common ground was forged when a symbolic funeral was able to be both an arena for giving and accepting genuine feedback and a forum for reaching closure. The conceptual playing field shifted from employees resisting mandated top-down procedures and memos to the need for bottom-up expression of grief and appropriate articulation of grievance. This diagnostic and strategic reframe laid the groundwork for management taking responsibility for missteps and management-employee dialogue and consensus. And by creatively thinking and acting out of the box-coffin, a significant measure of trust had been restored while a more cohesive and responsive Organizational Phoenix rose from the administrative ashes of unilateral decision-making and dysfunctional struggle.
In closing, there’s no better starting point than having your group genuinely, insightfully and imaginatively grapple with change and conflict to inspire individual creativity and interactive community. Not only will you be following the path of the cutting-edge leader, you will also be helping one and all…Practice Safe Stress!

Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, “The Stress Doc” ™, a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker and “Motivational Humorist” known for his interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. In addition, the “Doc” is a team building and organizational development consultant for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. Mark is an Adjunct Professor, No. VA (NOVA) Community College and currently he is leading “Stress, Team Building and Humor” programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions, Ft. Hood, Texas and Fort Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA Today Online “HotSite” – www.stressdoc.com — called a “workplace resource” by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc’s “Practice Safe Stress” programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email [email protected] or call 301-875-2567.

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