Have You Been Passed Over for Leadership Because You’re Creative?

Early in my career I worked for a very large media organization. Although I was the person in the media department the founder spent the most time with, and was the person who made most of the creative decisions surrounding the media programming – and perhaps most important – I was the person the employees looked to when a decision had to be made, I was continually passed over to be head of the department.

Time and time again, the choice went to someone far less creative – sometimes, with little or no media experience at all. So even back in my twenties I understood that management has a leadership bias against creatives. Perhaps you’ve discovered that in your career.

Now, studies are proving what I learned way back then: Creative expression hurts your chances of a leadership position.  It’s wrong, but sadly it’s true in many organizations. So what can you do? The 99% website has some advice worth considering if you’re a creative person looking for a leadership position:

1) Be armed with evidence of your leadership abilities.   Bias is most powerful when there is nothing else concrete to go on – that’s when our brains (unconsciously) fill in the blanks.

2) Don’t just focus on your past experience.   Talk about what you see as your leadership potential – the kind of leader you see yourself becoming. Studies show that interviewers are drawn to candidates described as having potential (often more than actual achievement.) They’ll spend more time thinking about you, and that extra thinking results in more accuracy and less bias.

3) Try to counteract the bias subtly by talking about the charismatic, creative leaders who have been role models for you in the past.

4) Tackle the bias head on.   Acknowledge that creative types aren’t often chosen for leadership positions, while arguing (nicely) that your ability to offer fresh and innovative solutions to problems is essential to effective leadership, rather than at odds with it.

Have you seen instances where creativity was an obstacle to being promoted in your organization?

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Nathan Jones

    Would there be a difference between leaders who hire versus managers who hire? I met a former campaign manager who left the political field because she found many of the candidates to be mediocre at pretty much everything they did. While labeled “leaders” they were really just glorified managers, and managers are notorious for hiring people less qualified so they’re not outshined. She finally found and was hired by a non-profit led by a real leader who recognized talent because his goal was growth, not merely sustaining.

  • Engineering and technical creatives are easily, possibly often, bundled in that group described in the article. It’s usually to the detriment of the organization because engineers work better for people they respect in their field. (https://hbr.org/2016/12/if-your-boss-could-do-your-job-youre-more-likely-to-be-happy-at-work)