This past weekend my family visited Fallingwater, the world-famous retreat home designed by Frank Lloyd Wright for the Kaufmann family, located in southwestern Pennsylvania’s Laurel Highlands. Known for its unusual cantilever design that sits atop a 30 foot waterfall, the house is a classic example of creativity both in design and use of materials. The one hour guided tour simply whet my appetite for more as I recalled some of my early childhood dreams of being an architect and designing homes like the one I was visiting.
So what does creativity have to do with leadership? In the September 2008 issue of Harvard Business Review there is an interesting article about creativity written by Ed Catmull, cofounder of Pixar and the president of Pixar and Disney Animation Studios. In it he suggests that creativity isn’t simply a solo act but the collaborative efforts of large numbers of people from many different disciplines. In that context, creativity requires a leadership approach that may fly in the face of conventional wisdom and practice. The full article is available online at Harvard Business Review Online.
My own experiences with leadership have taught me that having the right people on your team and throughout your organization is critical. Catmull argues that hiring smart people is more important than hiring people with great ideas. We all know how difficult it is to find and keep great talent. The best and brightest leaders have all of their options open to them. That’s why retaining top talent is one way to maintain a creative environment.
But of course there is more to it than simply finding and keeping great people. Creativity can’t flourish if you aren’t willing to accept risks, make mistakes, challenge the status quo, tell each other the truth, and accept the premise that everyone in your organization has ideas to contribute. Frank Lloyd Wright was willing to challenge conventional wisdom about what a vacation house should be. That’s why he chose to put his design over the stream rather than alongside it. The doorways, hallways, and living spaces (especially the bedrooms) are small with low ceilings so that when you are in them you want to move to the large open decks that sit invitingly outside the windows and glass doors.
Most of us are so afraid of failure that we miss even small opportunities to create something that is truly new or innovative. It may be one reason why so many products and services look and feel the same. Having a stable of talented people won’t necessarily transform your enterprise into a creative environment. As a leader you will need to get these people to work well together, to trust each other and respect one another. If you can nurture these values, and model them yourself, then loyalty and love can flourish—the ingredients needed to unleash creativity.
No one expects you to build another Fallingwater or launch the next Pixar Studio. Instead focus on finding and keeping talented people by making your workplace a sanctuary for truth, trust, respect, service, and love. Then watch the creativity flow even though you’re miles from the nearest waterfall.