Cover Story

When Russian composer Igor Stravinsky debuted his now-famous ballet score "The Rite of Spring" in 1913, the music--dissonant, pulsating and unpredictable--was so intensely rejected by the Parisian audience that the orchestra was inaudible over the din of hisses and catcalls. Yet Stravinsky's departure from the accepted music of his day inspired many 20th-century composers to follow his lead, and his radical use of rhythm can be heard in many of today's popular songs.

His tenacity provides an outstanding example of creative leadership, according to APA President Robert J. Sternberg, PhD, of Yale University, one of a handful of researchers--including Howard Gardner, PhD, of Harvard University, and Dean Keith Simonton, PhD, of the University of California, Davis--who are pioneering the study of creativity as it relates to leadership.

In a paper in press at Leadership Quarterly, Sternberg and co-authors James Kaufman, PhD, and Jean E. Pretz, PhD, argue that creativity like Stravinsky's is a form of leadership in that it propels a field forward and influences others--what they call a "propulsion model." They also posit that creative leadership is just as much about choice as ability.

"There is a skill aspect, certainly, but the second aspect is an attitudinal one, where someone makes a decision that things won't be done the way they were done before," says Sternberg, who studied history's great leaders and innovators to come up with the model.

Types of creative leaders

According to Sternberg and his colleagues' propulsion model, creative leadership can be broken into eight types, which are:

  • Replicators, who maintain the status quo. Examples include CEOs who continue the work of their predecessors or Hollywood executives who produce sequels to hit movies.

  • Redefiners, who put a new spin on existing leadership or innovation. Examples include leaders in the automobile industry who first marketed off-road utility vehicles as everyday vehicles.

  • Forward incrementors, who move a field or organization a step further in the direction it was headed. An example is a computer company releasing an improved version of a software package.

  • Advanced forward incrementors, who, like Stravinsky, attempt to lead a field further than others are ready to go.

  • Redirectors, who point an organization or field in a new direction. An example is Henry Ford using the constant-motion assembly line to manufacture the Model T.

  • Regressive redirectors, who reintroduce an idea that worked well in the past. An example is the Coca-Cola leaders' decision to revive Classic Coke.

  • Reinitiators, who initiate a fresh start for a field or organization. An example is MIT linguistics professor Noam Chomsky, who reinvented the field of linguistics in the 1950s.

  • Synthesizers, who integrate the best ideas from what's been done previously. Examples include the inventors of the sea plane and the electronic book.

Different types of creative leaders are effective under different circumstances, says Sternberg. For example, replicators tend to be successful during stable periods, whereas redirectors thrive in organizations or fields in need of a change to survive. Organizations will fare best if they understand the type of creative leader they need at a given point in time, adds Sternberg.

Wisdom required, but not others' approval

The model is part of Sternberg's larger theory--to be described further in a book called "WICS--Wisdom, Intelligence, Creativity Synthesized" that is due out this fall from Cambridge University Press--that good leadership involves a synthesis of creativity, wisdom and intelligence. Without those other two factors, he notes, creative leadership can be harmful, with Adolph Hitler's leadership being a case in point.

"You need creative leadership skills to come up with ideas, intelligence to decide if they are good ideas and wisdom to ensure that they take you toward a common good, and not toward what's just good for you," he says.

Like Sternberg, Dean Keith Simonton, who has researched creativity and leadership for more than 25 years, maintains that there is a leadership component of creativity in that successful creators--like successful leaders--have to be willing to push their work or ideas into the public's eye.

"Artists who just hope to be discovered are wasting their time," says Simonton, who has compared the lives and traits of history's great leaders and creators. He's found striking similarities between the two groups--such as a low need for approval and a willingness to try ideas that might not work.

"The successful political leaders really only like popularity as a means to get the power they need," he says. "The same is true of outstanding creators; if you are going to be a major innovator, you can't care too much about what people think of you."

Similar findings come from Harvard's Howard Gardner, who has studied the lives of creators such as Stravinsky, author Virginia Woolf, and painter Pablo Picasso. To Simonton's points, Gardner adds, "Creators don't have to be leaders in the sense of speaking directly to the public. But they do have to be like leaders in being prepared to take chances or risks, being robust, deflecting criticism and pursuing long-term goals with resoluteness."

Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.