Creativity is at the heart of academia and at the heart of leadership. Far from being a ‘fluffy’ soft skill, creativity is what separates leadership from management. Creativity enables us to think differently, communicate expressively and overcome complex challenges. Creative practices engage our head and our heart and bring greater meaning to our work.
On our new residential Senior Academic Leadership Programme, Doug Parkin and I reveal how leaders create collective commitment with creativity. Many people don’t think of themselves as creative, so here are five ways you may recognise creativity in your leadership…
- You can tell a story. With a twist
In a mind-spinningly complex world with endless conflicting data we need leaders to tell the truth simply. We need you to explain your vision compellingly. We need to understand where we are, where we are going, and why. Narrative intelligence recognises the dangers of a single story and helps us to see things from different points of view.
When Professor Yamni Nigam kept getting knocked back for research funding she had to look again at the story she was telling. Her research was just too…yucky. Yes, antimicrobial resistance is a recognised challenge needing innovative approaches, but maggots in wounds? Seriously? Who would volunteer for that? Funders were concerned that the public would never accept maggots as an alternative to drugs. Too leechy. Too weird. Not one to give up, Yamni tackled public perceptions of her research head-on. Maggots became an unlikely champion in a new story of human disease. Love-a-Maggot was born. We can’t wait to welcome Professor Nigam as a speaker on the Senior Academic Leadership Programme to inspire unlikely heroes in your new stories.
- You make lateral leaps
Lateral thinking is all about sideways connections. Borrowing from one place to another. Like Professor Richard Trask’s work on composites. Professor Trask is inspired by many different disciplines and it leads to great research questions like, ‘how could you make an aeroplane as light as bamboo?’ Lateral leaps have accelerated his work on composites and have far reaching impact. But lateral thinking shouldn’t be confined to research. All kinds of innovative solutions come up when we borrow from one place to another and make new connections. The leadership challenge is making the time for those leaps to happen. Time out to go to a different place, look at a different view, to take inspiration from nature or a gallery or a museum. Creative leaders take time to shut down the busy-busy brain and fire up the part that sparks new connections. (Yes, that is permission to switch off and go for a walk…)
- You question the rules
Poor old Creativity gets a bad name from accountants and John Bercow hasn’t helped its reputation in some quarters. If you missed this, he said “no doubt there would be further procedural creativity’” to allow parliament to hold government to scrutiny. Bending rules. Being maverick. Bad rep in academia. Sounds like a slippery slope to sloppy data. But why are the rules the rules and what are you there to do? Accepting traditional norms can lead to biased research and biased systems. As a leader ask yourself, ‘what is my purpose here?’. Where are rules and conventions not fit for that purpose?
Dr Dawn Mannay trailblazes creative research methods in her work with communities in Wales. Dr Mannay seeks to give voice to the communities that she represents. Not through the filter of academic culture, as those communities want to speak for themselves. So, breaking away from traditional methods was essential. On Senior Academic Leadership Programme we help you see how your purpose, values and identity colour your leadership and frame your strategic direction. When we don’t align these aspects our work is a struggle and we cannot realise our potential.
- You make beautiful things
Artisanal creativity is not just for artists. And it’s not just for retirement either. Almost every senior academic I coach has a dream of another, more creative life elsewhere. Your challenge is to bring that creativity into what you are doing now. Artisanal creativity is about craftmanship; that fine honing of a skill to make something beautiful. Approaching work with the love and dedication of a craftsperson is satisfying. Where in your leadership do you have the opportunity to make something beautiful? And how can you make beautiful things together, as a team? In the Wellcome funded Life of Breath project the interdisciplinary team have made music as well as research papers and reached many breathless people that would never have accessed an academic paper. Sometimes we take for granted the skills that we have perfected and don’t see the beauty in what we do.
- You see opportunities
If you read that last section and thought, ‘Nope, not me’, then there are many other expressions of creativity. My brother and sister are both true artisans, creating music and art respectively. I therefore didn’t see myself as ‘creative’ growing up, because my drawing and flute-playing was pretty childish in comparison. Yet people kept calling me creative which puzzled me. I realised later that creativity expresses itself in many ways and for me it’s creative thinking and an ability to see things differently. You may notice this in yourself if you are often frustrated that people can’t see obvious opportunities in front of them. You bounce back from blocks by flipping or reframing the situation and coming at it a different way. This is essential for your own resilience and for responding to the demands of being entrepreneurial in the academic environment. And if it doesn’t come naturally to you then the good news is that you can cultivate it, and it’s fun to do.
I am so looking forward to welcoming the first cohort to the Senior Academic Leadership Programme in February. Doug and I have co-created a programme that will be both immediately useful and have a profound and lasting impact on your leadership. We are confident that you will see the ripple effect of your creative leadership throughout your teams and beyond and are excited to hear what you go on to create together.
Find out more about Senior Academic Leadership Programme
Kate Tapper is the Co-Director of Advance HE’s Senior Academic Leadership Programme and a sought-after coach and facilitator in universities, healthcare and the private sector. She is also Programme Director for GW4 Crucible, a leadership programme that fosters interdisciplinary collaboration.