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)

  • Sabina

    Of course, constantly!
    I think creatives can’t be boxed as they are constantly thinking out of the box to challenge, expand or break the box!
    Therefore, they are often an enigma to others who like to categorise and confine people into manageable entities. People become jittery and insecure with entities that are agitating their seemingly stable constants.
    Creatives specialize in maintaining fluidity, dynamic equilibrium and continuous change.
    By nature, people are happy with statics as it gives identity , safety and equanimity and will fight against anything that will challenge their complacency.
    I agree with you, Phil, on the steps to take.
    My grouse, however is that, when creative have to use part of themselves to promote themselves, it is going to hamper them. It will limit the very creativity that makes them so.
    I balk at blowing my own trumpet and having already done it, I found that I am becoming less myself.
    I have recently had to recover myself, as pleading my own cause was fast becoming a habit. Plus people started not even attempting to see for themselves – they know you will show it to them anyway and started expecting you to do so!😣

    • Well said Sabina. I get it. For most creatives it’s tough blowing their own horn, but we need to begin thinking about how much influence we could have rather than bragging about our talents. You’re correct that it’s a great challenge…

      • Sabina

        Thanks for replying Phil.
        I guess influence works, but its a slow process.
        Or maybe I lack that skill!☺

      • Sabina

        Sorry for late reply

        • Worry not Sabina. I know you. You’re busy!

  • Kenton Creative

    Thanks. I needed to be reminded of this.

    Creatives see the big picture and can paint vision in their minds and put it out in print or media. They lead both in subversive and overt ways. They are gathering and forming their own teams to lead the rest of us.

    Good leaders understand the various forms of leadership gifting and invest in self development and their own leadership development and the development of others. Sadly, the “tyranny of the urgent” or the seduction living out a perception leadership becomes a distraction and can hurt an organization.

    Leaders/Creatives are human and need to be reminded they are lifelong learners who need to understand their strengths and weaknesses and give up their egos and need for significance or brilliance. I know I need to keep learning. I need to practicing my communication skills, people skills, and team building skills to be an effective leader. Working at working with people allows my creativity to make a difference.

    • VERY well put. I think it was Michelangelo who said, “I never stop learning.” Good advice for anyone. Thanks for posting!