I spoke to Todd Henry, author of Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need, about why creatives need a different kind of leader, how creatives can take on leadership roles, ways to manage creative differences, some of the interviews he did for the book and his best career advice.
Henry teaches leaders and organizations how to establish practices that lead to everyday brilliance. He is the author of four books (The Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder Than Words, Herding Tigers) which have been translated into more than a dozen languages, and he speaks and consults across dozens of industries on creativity, leadership, and passion for work.
Dan Schawbel: Do creatives need a different kind of leader than non-creatives in the business world? What are the differences and/or similarities?
Todd Henry: While some traditional leadership principles apply to both groups, there are also some unique challenges to leading highly fluid, creative work. First, the creative process is opaque to outsiders, so it’s often the case that stakeholders – even those inside of your own organization – have little understanding of what it actually takes to produce the work. Because of this, leaders of creative teams have to play a dual role of fighting for the resources (focus, time, energy) the team needs to do its work while simultaneously challenging the team to meet the sometimes unrealistic demands of the stakeholders. So, leaders of creative teams have to go the extra step of shedding light on the process, and fighting for buy-in at critical moments so that their team isn’t charged with excessive re-work.
Second, because creative work is often very personal and requires that you put your own intuition, ideas, and craft on the line, there are often insecurities and other emotional issues that have to be worked through on a regular basis. If creative people aren’t led well, they might default to being uncertain and insecure about every idea they introduce, or they might lead with their ego in order to avoid the discomfort of being challenged. If this happens, the work will be subpar. So, leaders of creative people have to be finely attuned to the emotional state of their team.
Finally, creative work is largely subjective. You might spend days, weeks, months, or even years working on something only to have the decision maker say “Eh – it’s not working for me.” No matter how diligent you are about bringing stakeholders along in the process and helping them understand why you made certain decisions, at the end of the day the work you do could be judged by someone who doesn’t understand the full scope of what you do and why you do it. Because of this, leaders of creative people have to help their team understand the value of process, even when the end product isn’t something they’d personally champion.
Schawbel: How can creatives adjust to leadership positions and overcome the obstacles of change?
Henry: Here’s the problem: your entire career has been a giant set-up. You’ve been told that in order to advance, you just have to do great work. The better you control that work and make it great, the quicker you advance through the ranks of the organization. However, the moment you become a manager, you have to make a critical mind-set shift from control to influence. If you try to control your team, and get directly involved in every single decision that’s made, your team will resent you and its capacity to do good work will never grow, because they’ll always take a “wait and see” approach if you’re always swooping in to save the day.
So, you have to transition from doing the work to leading the work, which is a fundamentally different skill set, and one that many people never fully embrace. To lead the work well, you have to develop a set of principles – a leadership philosophy – that your team can embrace even when you’re not present. This leadership philosophy might include things like how you choose between two good ideas, how you determine what quality work looks like, how conflict should be resolved, how to treat deadlines, and anything else that they need to know about what you expect of them. Control is about presence, while influence is about principles. Only influence allows your team to scale beyond your direct involvement.
Schawbel: What are some ways to manage arguments and creative differences among creative teammates?
Henry: First, you have to recognize that conflict is healthy. Conflict is a normal result of talented, creative people bumping into each other. In fact, if you have no conflict on your team, if probably means that (a) you have little accountability and people aren’t bringing their best effort, (b) people just don’t care about the work or don’t see why it matters, or (c) people value harmony and being liked more than producing great work. Any of these is ultimately a failure of leadership.
There are three principles that I write about in Herding Tigers for handling conflict in a healthy way. First, agree on your shared objectives from the start. Make sure that you’re actually arguing about the same thing! It’s often the case that our disagreements about something are actually the result of a misalignment of objectives, or a misunderstanding about what we’re actually arguing over. Make sure that you’re both trying to solve the same problem. And, make sure that you both agree that you’re trying to get to the best idea for the client and the organization, regardless of whose side wins.
Second, agree on common ground. What do you agree on? Is there anything in the other person’s idea that you actually like? Try to see the problem though the other person’s eyes, and work to empathize with their perspective before you simply dive into ripping their argument apart.
Finally, make sure you fight over ideas, not personality. The moment that a fight gets personal, everyone loses. I’ve seen “cults of personality” emerge inside of teams, and one group is perpetually fighting with another, almost like they’re defending their turf. This is (obviously) remarkably unhealthy. Keep your arguments to the ideas, and don’t allow turf wars to emerge inside of your team.
Schawbel: Can you talk about some of the people you interviewed for the book and why they were effective leaders?
Henry: One of my favorite interviews was with Brian Koppelman, who is a screenwriter and producer for many movies, and co-creator and showrunner for the Showtime series Billions. He is obviously working with a ton of people across dozens of creative disciplines, all of whom are trying to work toward the best end product they can achieve. However, there is no possible way that he could be directly involved in every creative decision that needs to be made in order to create a television show from beginning to end. He told me that the only way that the show gets made is for him to have a clear vision and point of view for what the end product should look like, but to allow others to own that vision and run with it. If he doesn’t, the he knows that the director will be calling him every five minutes from the set with questions about how to shoot a scene or what a character’s motivation or backstory might be. That would not only make it impossible for all of the work to get done, but it would compromise the work. Most of all, he wouldn’t be able to retain talented people for very long if they were only following orders. Creative people need to be challenged and given permission to experiment and take risks if you want them to stay engaged and produce great work.
Another favorite interview was with Adam Stelzner, who was a lead engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and led the team that landed the Curiosity Rover on the surface of Mars. He talked about the importance of keeping your team in the “dark room”, or the place of uncertainty about which idea to pursue, long after it becomes uncomfortable. When you’re in the dark room you want to settle for the first idea and get to work, but he said that this often results in subpar efforts. Instead, you need to develop your team’s ability to stay in the place of uncertainty and to wrestle with ideas even as they see the deadline approaching. That’s the only way you get to the true value. It’s a kind of intuition you have to develop as a leader.
Schawbel: What are your top three pieces of career advice?
- Henry: You need to recognize that peripheral vision is both a blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because you can see to both sides and all around you, and you can get a lot of ideas from what you see other people doing. It’s a curse because as you see what others are doing it’s tempting to feel like you’re falling behind, or that you’re somehow not keeping up with your peers. I hear people say “I’m falling behind!” all the time. Behind what? According to whom? Who told you that? And they reply, “Well, someone at my age should be doing XYZ, or should be in such-and-such role,” and I say “Who said?!?” Where do these arbitrary expectations about career advancement come from? It’s from looking around you instead of pursuing what you actually want. You have to run your own race, and you can’t allow what others are doing to dictate your actions. “What should someone do in my situation?” is a terrible and potentially destructive question. Instead, you should ask “What am I building, and does this contribute to it?”
- Recognize that “ghost rules” can run your life if you let them. These are invisible narratives that you believe about what’s possible for you and what’s not, and what you’re capable of. Yes, of course you have limitations. But make sure that those are tested limitations, not assumptions you’re making based upon something your fourth grade teacher told you. Are you living with invisible boundaries and “ghost rules” that are solely the result of false narratives you’ve adopted as gospel truth?
- Know what you stand for. Very few people blow the big decisions. Instead, they make small compromises over time, and one day they look at their life and think “how on earth did I end up here?” You need a framework for how you’ll make decisions that’s based upon your core values and what truly matters to you. Otherwise, you’ll always be tempted to cave into the pressure to conform to what everyone expects of you. Spend some time thinking about your core values and how you’ll make career decisions moving forward, even when someone is waving money or prestige in your face.