Creative Leadership

When Creative Leaders Become Institutionalized

I work with creative teams for a living. From media production to communications strategy to coaching through a crisis, I love creative teams focused on helping organizations share their message with the culture. But time to time, I encounter leaders that have become institutionalized. They play it safe, stop taking risks, and look for the easy way out.

The truth is, nobody starts out to be average. So the question becomes, how did they get that way?

In these situations I’m reminded of the remarkable quote by the prison inmate “Red” played by Morgan Freeman, when he described his older friend “Brooks” in the movie “Shawshank Redemption.” When asked why Brooks didn’t want to leave the prison – even though his sentence was served, Red replied:

“First you hate the walls, then you get used to them, then you depend on them.”

At first, creative people hate average. They push the boundaries and really want to make a difference in the culture. They’re willing to put in the hours, take the criticism, and fight for what they believe in.

But after awhile, they get tired of the long hours, the critical clients, church members, investors, or donors who don’t get it. They ease up, thinking that it just takes time, so why push it? After all, those who are pushing back are the big supporters, so let’s not upset them. We’ll give it some time and people will change. It’s perfectly understandable.

But after a few more years, they get used to the regular hours, the support of influential people, and never having to defend their ideas.  After all, it’s easier, so why rock the boat? So they leave the freelance life and take a full-time job. Or they stop pushing their team. Pastors or CEO’s enjoy the support of the board.

And before long, they depend on the walls. If they’re honest, they’ll admit that they look fondly back on the old creative days, but realize now it was just youthful passion, and now they understand that creativity, business, or ministry is serious. So they work within the system. They lie to themselves.

Fortunately, some realize their mistake and break out of the walls.  It’s tough – very tough. But for most, living inside the walls works. It’s easier to go unchallenged, have a nice office, and keep the respect of those who love the way things have always been done.

So – pastor, ministry leader, communications person, filmmaker, creative type – whatever you are, the question is – where are you now? At what point did you get bought off with a raise? At what point did you give up?

And perhaps more important, what are you willing to give up to break out of those walls?

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  1. Really great piece, Phil. In my travels and consulting, I see it over and over again. Churches once vibrant and rich with creativity and adventure, are now seemingly dull and approaching CCA (congregational cardiac arrest).

    It’s usually based in what you describe here so aptly, “After all, those who are pushing back are the big supporters, so let’s not upset them.” Things that used to work so well are hard to leave behind because they’ve mistakenly tied the method to the successes of the past.

    Scripture is full of accounts of lives that constantly experienced change as part of God’s plan and journey for us. Oh, that we would embrace change as a ministry paradigm. But, alas, sheep are sheep.

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