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How Bad Creative Leadership Happens to Good Organisations

By Tracy Brown.

From late 2019 to early 2023, over 130 diverse ‘creative makers’ from around the world have been telling me what they think about work; designers, developers, creatives and strategists doing multi-faceted work to conceive of and build the digital products, services and experiences that we rely on today. They need great leaders and want to be great leaders, but are seeking an authentic work life that can only be achieved through honest conversation, which can be elusive in too many organisations. The How We Talk About books are illustrated collections of honest quotes from talented practitioners around the world designed to inspire more of those conversations within workplaces around the world.

Read on to find out why, according to some of the world’s most sought-after talent, bad creative leadership can happen to organisations with the best intentions.

What creative people need from work

In 2022 I published the first book in this series - How We Talk About Work. My conversations revealed that people are looking for meaning; having a purpose and feeling like they can come up with and build great ideas. They care about money, not only being paid fairly but also how their work is sold to the world. They also care about culture, specifically whether they can get on with their colleagues and if their workplaces are adaptable to their needs. Yet creative makers feel that these key needs can only be met if the right leaders are in place. They also told me that, as leaders, they are struggling to meet the overwhelming and growing expectations being placed on them. How We Talk About Leadership delves into how talented people want to be led, how they feel about leading and how they feel about the future.

Organisations are struggling to accommodate creative-making leaders, even those that sell those services as their core offer.

Design, strategy, tech and creative leaders are expected to find time to deal with overwhelming team administration, while also setting a benchmark on their craft, producing high-level work and upskilling their teams, and many of them are drowning. When people are under pressure to both manage or administer their teams and be leaders in craft, the effective training of their teams also falls by the wayside; they are not incentivised or enabled to impart skills effectively and patiently, which, according to the research, is what people wanted the most from their leaders.

How we learn to lead

When learning to become leaders themselves, most people become people managers as a requirement for a promotion, with little training about how to lead others. They learn by being thrown in at the deep end and figure it out as they go. Few are lucky enough to receive relevant and effective training, but typically only after being put in charge of people.

When people make choices about how they lead they are also often rewriting history. They think about the leaders that they appreciated the most and the ones that they didn’t enjoy working with, aiming to emulate good qualities and avoid bad ones.

They loved the leaders that taught them new skills and actively guided them through those opportunities for growth, as needed. They wanted leaders who were very skilled and who were honest about areas for improvement without being bullies. They really liked being given autonomy while feeling comfortable about reaching out or approaching their leaders when they needed support. Some wanted their leaders to be fun to work with but emotional intelligence and empathy were appreciated the most, particularly when participants had been through a traumatic experience in their lives and needed support. People are less interested in being managed. They are looking for individualised mentorship and coaching from leaders, delivered with empathy. Inclusive representation also makes a real difference to women.

In contrast, bad leaders had left scars. While some participants had found a way to use those experiences constructively by building resilience and not repeating toxic behaviour, some had almost given up their careers or left industries as a result. People had no respect for bosses who had poor skills and taught them nothing, but mostly they really disliked behaviour that was dishonest, manipulative and showed no integrity. Micromanaging and disempowering leadership negatively impacted people’s mental health, made worse by bullying and abusive language or attitudes; incidents of bigotry were mentioned multiple times. People distrusted the entire system of merit every time they encountered a bad leader.

Adapting to the needs of creative leaders and their teams

The biggest outtake of this research, and the research from How We Talk About Work is a growing desire for autonomy. This doesn’t mean that everyone wants to be self-employed; simply that people feel as though it should be up to them as to how they use their skills to better their own lives, and to be treated as people with diverse needs and a purpose beyond that of the organisation’s.

Yet many organisations still have ownership mindsets that thwart the ability for those needs to be met. They believe that once someone signs a contract of employment, they can be told where to sit, what to wear, what to think, who to be, and they take hours of labour that they are not paying for. They also rely heavily on a steep hierarchy that values management over leadership. Talented creative makers find this undesirable as it not only disempowers them, but it can adversely affect their ability to do high quality work. It isn’t how they typically want to lead either.

Leaders do best when operating in environments that are designed around the needs of their people from the outset. If not, it’s just an uphill battle. If their teams can’t develop great ideas, pursue their purpose, earn fairly, have their services sold respectfully, feel included or collaborate well with others, leaders are just buffers and that burns them out and disappoints their people. There’s work to be done to attract and attain the best digital talent and everything starts with honest and inclusive conversations.

Order via Amazon: How We Talk About Leadership and How We Talk About Work by Tracy Brown.


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