In today’s snappy corporate speak, forms of creative leadership are like statement blazers or ultra low-rise jeans: they’re either in or they’re out. Every year, the most popular business magazines claim that a certain type of person is the most innovative of the moment. This month, it might be the triumph of the technological guru. In the fall, it might be the rise of the artistic genius. Pundits treat innovation strategies as if they were fashion trends, hot during one season only to turn pass the next.
The truth is that creative personality types are more than just catchy buzzwords on a glossy list. There is no single approach to innovation that will always come out on top. There is no over-riding trend you can rely on. Rather, knowing which kinds of leaders to bring to your project is about knowing the specific factors that will shape your initiative–the situational reality of your business.
Recruiting the right innovation talent for the right moment is less like picking out looks for a fashion show and more like strategizing for a football game. This involves anticipating the challenges you’ll face given the unique circumstances of your project. Does your team have a winning or losing record? Is your opponent an offensive or a defensive team? What do you need to do build the best team possible given the situation?
Most people like to surround themselves with people who are like them and run the plays that they’re used to running. But in reality, it’s crucial to work with people who have different skills than you and to run a wide array of plays in order to increase the likelihood that one of them will work. Here are the four main archetypes of creative thinkers and leaders that may appear on your roster if the moment is right.
1. The Sage: These are individuals who create a sense of community and knowledge. They are mentors, facilitators, and teambuilders who work with a set of shared values. Their core competency is empathy as they listen carefully and thoughtfully to others, gaining a deep understanding of their peers’ desires and needs. Oprah Winfrey is an exemplary of the Sage archetype. Her ability to connect with and influence her audience is a testament to her remarkable capacity to empathize with them.
2. The Athlete (or The Competitor): These results-driven workhorses are the polar opposites of the Sage. While the Sage slowly and patiently builds a community and connects with others, the Athlete produces profit and speed. Athlete types set concrete goals for themselves and meet those goals. Their core competency is courage. Warren Buffett is an exemplary Athlete or Competitor. His aggressive, relentless form of investing signifies great courage as he makes bold–often contrarian–financial decisions. For all their apparent differences, Sages and Athletes work well together, combining the long-term focus on values and culture with the short-term emphasis on tangible outcomes.
3. The Artist: These radical experimenters are drawn to breakthrough innovation projects. They create grand visions and are likely to try wildly unexpected solutions. Their core competency is imagination. Richard Branson is the quintessential Artist type as his deeply original, even whimsical or offbeat projects come out of the desire for something totally new.
4. The Engineer: At the opposite end of the creative spectrum from the Artist is the Engineer, who seeks efficiency and quality. These are individuals who depend on processes. They are highly disciplined and see the value of systems and bureaucracy. Alan Mulally, the newly retired CEO of Ford, embodies all the qualities of the Engineer type. He came in and saved the company by streamlining its processes and performing an aggressive overhaul on the quality of its product. Despite–or, really, because of–their contradictory outlooks, Artists and Engineers make a wonderful pair, complementing extreme creativity with the reliability of process.
It may be hard to attribute a single personality type to some contemporary innovators with great versatility, like Satya Nadella, Elon Musk, and Indra Nooyi. But we all do have an underlying dominant logic that determines how we think about growth. What type of creative leader are you? And, more importantly, what kind of creative leader do you need to surround yourself with in order to make your innovation goal a reality?