Jan 12, 2023 15 min read

Leadership as More a Decision than Skill or Ability

The default way of looking at leadership ability is in terms of skill or talent, which in turn drives actions and behaviors. But skills and talents are not sufficient for effective leadership. There’s another simpler but necessary step — the decision to lead.

In this view, leadership is a proactive stance you take, rather than a skill or talent you have or don't. It turns the noun of leadership into the verb of leading — and everything follows from this stance.


Leadership is a creative act

In Wisdom, Intelligence and Creativity Synthesized, Robert Sternberg, one of the foremost researchers and experts on intelligence and creativity, shares key findings on creativity.

I noticed the striking similarity between developing creativity and developing leadership. Leadership at its essence is a creative act — a leap into the unknown and helping others do the same. If outcomes and paths were certain, it wouldn’t be creative and neither would we need any leadership.

What follows are core tenets from Sternberg's framework on creativity that are equally applicable to leadership.

Pervasive fallacies about creativity and leadership

Both creativity and leadership are well researched fields, but equally have their fair share of misleading information and unhelpful myths.

One common myth is that of skill and talent, that some have it and others don’t. The core underlying assumption in this model is of talent and ability as precursors to the right actions and behavior.

These myths about innate leadership talent are further perpetuated by common thinking errors. Sternberg identifies four fallacies that are common stumbling blocks:

The first, the should-be fallacy, is the belief that what is, should be. 

‌‌‌‌

The second, the must-be fallacy, is the belief that what is, must be. In Leibnizian philosophy, it is the principle of sufficient reason – that whatever exists can exist only if there is a sufficient reason for it to exist. 

‌‌‌‌

The third fallacy is the always-will-be fallacy, the belief that the way things are now is the way they always will be.



‌‌‌‌And the fourth fallacy is the safety fallacy, which is the belief that regardless of what should be or must be, doing what others are doing is the safe way to live.

These fallacies are evident in the following statements:

  • Leaders “should” be a certain way because that’s what you’ve seen so far, and you aren’t “that” way.
  • Whoever is a leader “must be because” of their skills, talent or some other factor.
  • If I have not been in a leadership capacity, I don’t have the skill for it and shouldn’t try to act like one.
  • Before I can lead, I need to “know” ,“be” or “have” leadership ability.
  • If everyone is doing it a certain way, that must be the “right” way. This undermines and disregards our own experience, interpretation and approach.

Creativity and leadership as decisions

Sternberg’s research backed investment theory of creativity, primarily revolves around the counter-intuitive notion of creativity as a decision. This turns the myth of talent and skill on its head, and puts the onus instead on us to develop it by taking a proactive stance towards creating.

The same proactive stance goes for leadership.

What does creativity entail? He outlines six key resources but identifies the decision to use that resource as the critical differentiator.

Although levels of these resources are sources of individual differences, often the decision to use a resource is a more important source of individual differences. ‌‌
… 
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The skill is not enough: One first needs to make the decision to use the skill. …Creativity is as much a decision about and an attitude toward life as it is a matter of ability.

The decision to be and act creatively is a precursor and necessary condition to effectively utilizing and developing skills and abilities. The same can be said of leadership.

Let's look at the fundamental pieces in his framework.

Key attributes of creativity and leadership

1. Intellectual skills

Three intellectual skills are particularly important:‌‌ ‌‌
(a) the creative skill to see problems in new ways and to escape the bounds of conventional thinking; ‌‌
(b) the analytic skill to recognize which of one’s ideas are worth pursuing and which are not; and
‌‌(c) the practical–contextual skill to know how to persuade others of the value of one’s ideas.

Deciding to think different

One aspect of switching between conventional and unconventional thinking is the decision that one is willing and able to think in unconventional ways, that one is willing to accept thinking in terms different from those to which one is accustomed and with which one feels comfortable.

For anyone aspiring to stand out and climb the leadership ladder, thinking differently is almost a requirement. Your willingness to take a stand for something, and to see what others can’t, can make you stand out. Otherwise you are always in danger of getting lost in the crowd. Truly contrarian positions and novel thinking carry risk and thus many won’t sign up for it.

Reframing problems

Redefining a problem means taking a problem and turning it on its head. Many times in life individuals have a problem and they just don’t see how to solve it. They are stuck in a box. Redefining a problem essentially means extricating oneself from the box. It is an aspect of problem finding, as opposed merely to problem solving.

The art of reframing is an essential leadership skill and the key to managing context. Our relationship with problems defines how we approach them. Do you see them as an impediment or as an interesting aspect of your job? They can either be an irritant or a puzzle waiting to be solved.

Questioning the givens

Creative people question assumptions and eventually lead others to do the same.‌‌‌‌ It is more important … to learn what questions to ask – and how to ask them – than to learn the answers.

…Society tends to make a pedagogical mistake by emphasizing the answering and not the asking of questions. …The expert in a field thus becomes the extension of the expert student – the one who knows and can recite a lot of information. As John Dewey recognized, how one thinks is often more important than what one thinks.

Questioning the status quo requires not just innovative thinking but guts as well. Conventional wisdom is hard to challenge because most of the time it’s right. Asking effective questions is a core mechanism leaders have to master. They are especially critical to reframing and managing context.

Ideas won't sell themselves. You have to sell them.

As Galileo, Edvard Munch, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, and millions of others have discovered, creative ideas do not sell themselves. On the contrary, creative ideas are usually viewed with suspicion and distrust. Moreover, those who propose such ideas may be viewed with suspicion and distrust as well.

Because people are comfortable with the ways they already think, and because they probably have a vested interest in it, it can be extremely difficult to dislodge them from that current way.‌‌Thus, [leaders] need to learn how to persuade other people of the value of their ideas as part of the practical aspect of creative thinking.

Persuasion skills are a requirement in any leader's repertoire. Many managers expect people to follow them simply on positional authority or on the strength of their ideas. This tends to be shallow and ineffective. Logic is only part of the equation. Appealing to emotions is an equally essential and often more important part.

This applies not just to leading people but also in pushing priorities and initiatives through an organization full of stakeholders with competing priorities and limited resources.

2. Knowledge (a double-edged sword)

...on the one hand, one needs to know enough about a field to move it forward. One cannot move beyond where a field is if one doesn’t know where it is. On the other hand, knowledge about a field can result in a closed and entrenched perspective, confining a person to the way in which he or she has seen problems in the past.

Thus, one needs to decide to use one’s past knowledge, but also decide not to let the knowledge become a hindrance rather than a help. Everyone has a knowledge base. How they choose to use it is a decision they must make.

Technical chops will get you far but they can also become a hindrance. Actively working to cultivate abilities outside your comfort zone while also adjusting for existing biases and preferences goes a long way.

3. Thinking styles

Thinking styles are preferred ways of using one’s skills. In essence, they are decisions about how to deploy the skills available to one. With regard to thinking styles, a legislative style is particularly important for creativity, that is, a preference for thinking and a decision to think in new ways.

Idea generation and developing an independent point of view is a decision and habit you develop rather than some innate skill you are born with. Some might be naturally better at it, but most have to work at it.

Balancing priorities

...It also helps to become a major creative thinker if one is able to think globally as well as locally, distinguishing the forest from the trees and thereby recognizing which questions are important and which ones are not.

When working in large organizations it's easy to get caught up in the myopia of your own unit's problems, forgetting that the storyline and priorities are different at each level. Global thinking is as critical as understanding local problems.

Cross-fertilizing ideas

Creative ideas and insights often result…from integrating material across subject areas, not from memorizing and reciting material.

Instead of reading the latest CEO autobiography, you are better off learning the basics of chaos and complexity sciences, reading Dostoevsky for psychology, studying Von Clausewitz for strategy, or understanding how beavers build dams.

Time and space for thinking

Most creative insights do not happen in a rush. People need time to understand a problem and to toss it around.

Keeping enough slack in your schedule to accommodate free thinking is a challenge many execs struggle with. Without enough breathing room, your ideas won't have any space to develop, only to find yourself running from putting out one fire to the next.

Differing points of view

An essential aspect of working with other people and getting the most out of collaborative creative activity is to imagine oneself in other people’s shoes. Individuals can broaden their perspective by learning to see the world from different points of view.‌‌

Nowhere is this more critical than in effective leadership. You are essentially getting work done through others, and without influence it's an uphill climb. But it's also hard because you don't necessarily have to understand the other's point of view, given your positional authority. It's always easier to dictate rather than listen, but never as effective.

4. Personality

Numerous research investigations have supported the importance of certain personality attributes for creative functioning. These attributes include, but are not limited to, willingness to overcome obstacles, willingness to take sensible risks, willingness to tolerate ambiguity, and self-efficacy.

Leadership, just like creativity, has its unique dynamics that most folks don't realize from an outsider's view. It's why many figure out eventually that they were not cut out for the job.

Seeking opposition

...buying low and selling high typically means defying the crowd, so one has to be willing to stand up to conventions if one wants to think and act in creative ways. Often, creative people seek opposition, in that they decide to think in ways that countervail how others think. Note that none of the attributes of creative thinking is fixed. One can decide to overcome obstacles, take sensible risks, and so forth.

Going against the grain does not come naturally to most of us. We are biologically wired to conform and also why it's a core differentiator between those who can lead and those who can't.

Anticipating, even relishing obstacles

... people who defy the crowd – people who think creatively – almost inevitably encounter resistance. The question is not whether one will encounter obstacles; one will.

When one buys low, one defies the crowd, and generally engenders in others a reaction of, at best, puzzlement, and, at worst, hostility. The question is whether the creative thinker has the fortitude to persevere.

I have often wondered why so many people start off their careers doing creative work and then vanish from the radar screen. I think I know at least one reason why: Sooner or later, they decide that being creative is not worth the resistance and punishment.
…  
Some obstacles are within oneself, such as performance anxiety. Other obstacles are external, such as the bad opinions of others. Whether internal or external, obstacles must be overcome.

Life in leadership can be equally punishing and lonely. But that's the price you pay for playing the game and you wouldn't want it any other way.

Sensible risk-taking

…When taking risks, one must realize that some of them just will not work, and that is the cost of doing creative work. …Defying the crowd means risking the crowd’s disdain for “buying” into the wrong idea, or even its wrath.

…Creative people may take sensible risks and produce ideas that others ultimately admire and respect as trend-setting. But sometimes they make mistakes, fail, and fall flat on their faces.

Any stand you take, or an opinion that's contrarian is also risky by definition. A unique point of view makes you stand out, but can also sink you. Wise navigation of the terrain while balancing risk and return are key aspects of playing the game.

Allowing yourself mistakes

Many ideas are unpopular simply because they are not good. People often think a certain way because that way works better than other ways.

But once in a while, a great thinker comes along – a Freud, a Piaget, a Chomsky, or an Einstein – and shows us a new way to think. These thinkers made contributions because they allowed themselves and their collaborators to take risks and make mistakes.

Their ideas were great not because they lasted forever, but because they became the basis for other ideas. … Often, mistakes or weak ideas contain the germ of correct answers or good ideas.

An essential part of the creative process is that you don't know upfront what will work and what won't. Success is not a given. There's an aspect of experimentation and indeterminacy that's part of the territory. Same for many speculative projects at work. It means taking multiple smart but small bets and allowing for failures. At the same time you have to ensure it doesn't wipe you out completely and allow for quick recovery.

Tolerating ambiguity and uncertainty

Artists working on new paintings and writers working on new books often report feeling scattered and unsure in their thoughts. They need to figure out whether they are even on the right track. Scientists often are not sure whether the theory they have developed is exactly correct. These creative thinkers need to tolerate the ambiguity and uncertainty until they get the idea just right.

… A creative idea tends to come in bits and pieces and develops over time. The period in which the idea is developing tends to be uncomfortable, however. Without time or the ability to tolerate ambiguity, many may jump to a less than optimal solution. … uncertainty and discomfort are a part of living a creative life.

Leadership equally requires a high tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty. In fact, others are often looking to you to decrease their own anxiety. Understanding ambiguity as a condition inherent to the game you are playing, rather than an anomaly to be eliminated, changes how we approach it.

Self-Efficacy

Many people eventually reach a point where they feel as if no one believes in them....Because creative work often doesn’t get a warm reception, it is extremely important that creative people believe in the value of what they are doing. This is not to say that individuals should believe that every idea they have is a good idea. Rather, individuals need to believe that, ultimately, they have the ability to make a difference.

Self-doubt and imposter syndrome come with the territory when pushing the limits, and particularly in leadership where you are always in the public eye. Understanding when to treat doubt as a signal and when as noise is a critical skill.

Leadership can often be a thankless job. The buck stops with you. If the team does well they get the credit. If they don't, you take the blame. Without self-efficacy and a strong internal compass, it can take a heavy toll and hard to pull off.

5. Motivation

Intrinsic, task-focused motivation is also essential to creativity. The research of Amabile and others has shown the importance of such motivation for creative work, and has suggested that people rarely do truly creative work in an area unless they really love what they are doing and focus on the work rather than the potential rewards.

Manufacturing motivation

Motivation is not something inherent in a person: One decides to be motivated by one thing or another. Often, people who need to work in a certain area that does not particularly interest them will decide that, given the need to work in that area, they had better find a way to make it interest them.

Loving the work

People who truly excel creatively in a pursuit, whether vocational or avocational, almost always genuinely love what they do. Certainly, the most creative people are intrinsically motivated in their work. Less creative people often pick a career for the money or prestige and are bored with or loathe their careers.

Your work needs to be intrinsically satisfying in order to operate at your peak capacity for long stretches. Leadership is a contact sport and there's nowhere to hide. You can operate sub-optimally for a while but eventually it catches up. Internal alignment is a critical aspect of sustained peak performance. It’s a lot easier to stay motivated and engaged when you are having fun, much harder and unsustainable if otherwise.

Peak performance also means understanding what it really takes, and recognizing that not everything is as exciting as the movies portray it. Excellence is often about mastering the mundane details over long periods of time instead of that singular masterful performance.

Delaying gratification

Part of being creative means being able to work on a project or task for a long time without immediate or interim rewards … In the short term, people are often ignored when they do creative work or even punished for doing it.

... The greatest rewards are often those that are delayed…. Hard work often does not bring immediate rewards. …The people who make the most of their abilities are those who wait for a reward and recognize that few serious challenges can be met in a moment.

Many of your efforts will not yield results for a while, both personally and with other people. The ability to stay patient and stick with it is crucial. The long arc of a successful career is filled with numerous ups and downs. Expecting it to be a straight up linear curve that only rises is a recipe for disillusionment and unnecessary frustration.

6. Environment

One needs an environment that is supportive and rewarding of creative ideas. One could have all of the internal resources needed in order to think creatively, but without some environmental support …the creativity that a person has within him or her might never be displayed.‌‌

Environments typically are not fully supportive of the use of one’s creativity. The obstacles in a given environment may be minor...or major... The individual therefore must decide how to respond in the face of the pretty close to omnipresent environmental challenges that exist. Some people let unfavorable forces in the environment block their creative output; others do not.
Creative ideas are both novel and valuable. But they are often rejected when the creative innovator stands up to vested interests and defies the crowd.

The crowd does not maliciously or willfully reject creative notions. Rather, it does not realize, and often does not want to realize, that the proposed idea represents a valid and advanced way of thinking. Society often perceives opposition to the status quo as annoying, offensive, and reason enough to ignore innovative ideas.

From the investment view, then, the creative person buys low by presenting an idea that initially is not valued and then attempting to convince others of its value. ...People typically want others to love their ideas, but immediate universal applause for an idea often indicates that it is not particularly creative.

We are either shaped by our circumstances, or we proactively shape them. When stepping up to lead by design or by need, opposing forces will emerge that previously didn’t exist. This is part of playing a larger game.

Person–Environment Fit

What is judged as creative is an interaction between a person and the environment. The very same product that is rewarded as creative in one time or place may be scorned in another. …There is no absolute standard for what constitutes creative work. The same product or idea may be valued or devalued in different environments. The lesson is that individuals need to find a setting in which their creative talents and unique contributions are rewarded, or they need to modify their environment.‌‌

The person-environment dynamic is even more critical for success in leadership and management. Performance is often open to interpretation and success as a leader is very contextual. It’s one reason why managers wildly successful in one place end up being abject failures in a different setting.

Research has proven that implicit leadership theories of your manager and the organization play a large role in your success or failure. Finding the right fit and ideal environment is almost as important as, and in many cases even more important than, your skills and abilities.

Are you cut out for leadership? A checklist.

The leadership as decision framework puts the responsibility and onus of development squarely on our shoulders. This prompts a series of questions worth pondering over:

  • Do you have an active or passive stance towards leading?
  • How patient are you with developing your ideas and initiatives?
  • Are problems an impediment or an opportunity for learning?
  • Does your technical background help or hurt you?
  • How varied is your reading and other activities outside of work?
  • Is there slack in your schedule to allow for clear thinking?
  • How hard is it to accept an opposing point of view?
  • How risk averse are you? Are you comfortable taking contrarian positions?
  • Do you find leadership lonely and tiring, or challenging and inspiring?
  • Do you accept or question the status quo?
  • Are you skilled at uncovering assumptions and givens?
  • What's your comfort level with selling and persuading?
  • Are you easily discouraged by a lack of acceptance of your ideas/your leadership?
  • How much do you rely on positional authority as opposed to influence?
  • Is your work environment an ideal fit for what you bring to the table?
  • Do you see your actions following from your abilities, or do your actions define your abilities?
  • What's your relationship with mistakes, both your's and those of others?
  • Can you operate effectively in uncertainty and ambiguity?
  • Do you enjoy work or is it "just another job"?
  • Is your implicit leadership theory consistent with your organization's?

Spending some dedicated time with these questions can unearth underlying issues and assumptions potentially opening up avenues for further action. While not everyone might “be” a leader, anyone can lead. The verb is easier than the noun.


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Sources

  1. Wisdom, Intelligence, and Creativity Synthesized by Robert J. Sternberg
Sheril Mathews
I am an executive/leadership coach. Before LS, I worked for 20 years in corporate America in various technical & leadership roles. Have feedback? You can reach me at sheril@leadingsapiens.com.
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