Brett Bilbrey thought he’d made a mistake. As an engineer at Apple, his team had been set the task of creating the original Mac Mini. The Industrial Design group brought in mock-ups showing how they wanted the miniature computer to look, and Jony Ive, Apple’s chief designer, told them he wanted it to be as small as possible.
Bilbrey, worried in part about the challenges involved in cooling a device that small, asked Ive why it had to be that size. “Some of the folks standing next to me actually took a few steps away from me (like it was high school and I just got in trouble,)” he explained on Quora.
But Ive explained what he wanted the Mac Mini to be. He told Bilbrey what he needed to focus on and which aspects of the device were the most important. “We knew why making it that size was important,” wrote Bilbrey, “and we had the context to make the correct design decisions in executing the project.”
That’s how a creative genius at the top of a company should affect the rest of the firm. They inspire. They explain. They transform the company. They turn the brand from a firm with one creative individual into a creative team that develops new ideas and builds them together.
But how does that transformation take place? What attributes does a creative leader need in order to be able to share their creativity? And can they also share their passion with the rest of the team?
Creativity Flows Vertically
In June this year, a group of researchers in China tried to find out. They distributed questionnaires to more than 200 creative entrepreneurs in cities across the country, and asked the entrepreneurs to score themselves from one to five on a series of statements about their creativity and leadership. The statements included: “I usually search out new creative elements and inspiration, and then utilize those ideas in my creative business” and “I help others develop themselves.”
The questions were intended to assess four areas: individual creativity; transformational leadership, transactional leadership; and organizational creativity.
Individual creativity, the researchers explain, are personality traits that include broad interests, independence of judgment, autonomy, and preferences for idea generation and divergent thinking.
Transformational leadership includes idealized influence, inspirational motivation, intellectual stimulation, and individualized consideration. It’s about how leaders encourage others to work together towards an inspiring vision, challenge the status quo, and develop themselves.
Transactional leadership focuses on the way leaders reward followers and use self-interest to generate motivation.
And organizational creativity is defined as products, ideas, or procedures that are novel, original, and useful to an organization.
The researchers found a correlation between those four elements. Creative leaders who scored highly in questions of individual creativity also scored highly on questions concerning both transformational and transactional leadership. And those high scores correlated with high scores on questions about organizational creativity.
In other words, hire creative leaders—or enhance your own creativity—and you won’t just build a business with a single creative asset supported by other team members. The benefits of that individual’s creativity will automatically enhance the creativity of the company as a whole. You should find that a leader who thinks outside the box is able to inspire the rest of the team, dream up incentives that persuade them to keep working, and fire their intellectual curiosity. That combination should in turn produce a more creative organization, one that produces products, ideas, and processes that benefit the company.
Stick someone like Jony Ive anywhere and the company will get both his ideas and a better performing team too.
That’s good news, but the researchers relied on correlating high self-reported scores in one field with high self-reported scores in another. It’s possible that someone who thinks that they’re creative also thinks that they’re good managers and that because of their presence everything their company produces is original, innovative and creative too.
Nor could the researchers show how the creativity and inspiration are shared. We just have to hope that if we hire the right creative leader, they’ll instinctively know how to talk to a team, put across their vision, and get others to buy into it. The creativity will just flow, naturally, from the top of the company to the bottom.
Passion Flows Horizontally
But that’s not the only direction that influence can flow in the workplace. In another recent study, researchers distributed questionnaires to 101 full-time workers at a non-profit humane organization in the southeastern United States. The questionnaires asked the participants about the levels of trust they felt for their peers and their supervisors. For example, respondents had to state who they turn to for professional or personal advice.
But the study also measured two kinds of passion that the participants felt for their work: harmonious passion and obsessive passion.
Harmonious passion takes place when employees not only love their work but adopt what they do as part of their identity. A photographer who shoots for National Geographic, for example, isn’t just a supplier of magazine imagery; they’re a National Geographic photographer. This is the kind of passion that produces positive outcomes and experiences, and a high degree of job satisfaction and creativity.
People with obsessive passion also enjoy what they do but mostly they enjoy what their work does for them. A banker might be passionate about beating the market, for example, but only because their bets give them large bonuses, a high standard of living, and a chance to show off to their peers. The researchers describe obsessive passion as a “pressured or controlled form of work internalization…[that] tends to yield to dysfunctional outcomes such as burnout and rumination.”
The researchers’ questionnaire asked the non-profit workers how well their work fitted into their lives (a measure of harmonious passion) and whether their work was so exciting that they sometimes lost control over it (a measure of obsessive passion).
By correlating the patterns of trust in the workplace with the patterns of harmonious and obsessive passion, the researchers were able to see how passion flows through a workplace.
What they found was that the respondents’ harmonious passion—but not but their obsessive passion—matched that of the people they trusted. They found no evidence that the employees’ passion matched that of their supervisors.
In other words, passion in a workplace flows horizontally, not vertically. A supervisor who is passionate about their work struggles to pass that passion on to their underlings. But an employee who works with someone who is genuinely passionate about what they do can spread their passion to their colleagues and through the company.
How to Structure a Company for Creativity and Passion
So those two studies show that influence flows through companies in two directions.
Creativity passes from a leading individual down through the firm. A single creative genius at a company can raise everyone’s creativity and improve output. Creative leaders like Jony Ive make everyone perform better.
Passion, though, flows between peers. Even Jony Ive can’t make the people on his team as passionate as he is about minimalism and product design. But when someone sees the person at the workbench next to them admiring a new design and raving about some aspect of their work, they become infected with their colleague’s enthusiasm.
Those two flows have important implications for how companies in general, and work teams in particular, should be structured.
At the top of a creative company or team should be a single, creative individual, someone the rest of the team can respect and admire. That individual should be willing to share their expertise with others and explain the choices they’ve made. As Brett Bilbrey discovered, creative choices can create difficult, new challenges but when the team understands the reasoning behind those decisions, they feel inspired to make those decisions work.
A creative leader shouldn’t be in place just for their ideas. Their job description should also include inspiring the creativity of the people around them.
If you can’t hire that kind of creative genius, it is possible to boost your own creativity through consumption and practice.
When you come to build individual teams, it’s important to make sure that each team includes at least one person who is really passionate about what they do. They should love the work itself, and not just the material benefits that the work brings them. They should identify with what they do in the same way that someone who takes pictures calls themselves a photographer.
Identifying those passionate individuals should be easier than it sounds. The researchers used questionnaires that asked people to rate their feelings on a scale of one to five but work alongside someone long enough and you should start to see their passion. You’ll be able to see whether they read professional publications in their spare time, know where to turn to for inspiration, and can name the leading professionals in their field. Those are all good signs that the employee is doing more than their job. They’re doing something they love.
Once you’ve found your creative leader, build your team around that passionate employee.
What you should find is that everyone follows in the footsteps of the creative leader and does it with the passion of the most enthusiastic employee. And the company makes far fewer mistakes.