Creative Leadership in a Crisis

Striking the balance between empathy and decisiveness

"They have very interesting minds," Yale president Peter Salovey told me, speaking of creative professionals. I was excited to meet the founding expert in the field of "emotional intelligence." He had been instrumental in developing the concept. He said this after I explained what I do: lead a large team of creative people, in a variety of disciplines, working to apply creativity in the service of our clients' business goals. To be honest, I was expecting a bit more dialog. But we were in line to get a family photo. I understood exactly what he meant. 

Call it Emotional Intelligence, EQ, Applied Empathy or Servant Leadership. The keystone is humility.

Creative leaders must engage in a fine balancing act.

On the one hand, we work to model a humane and compassionate approach, practicing "soft skills" like active listening, engagement, empathy and encouragement. On the other hand, we know how absolutely essential it is to provide teams with the peace of mind that only comes from knowing there's a strong, decisive presence at the top of the org chart.

Striking that balance isn't easy. But it's crucial right now as we all try to make sense of work and life and the massive world-shaking events taking up the space in between.

In my experience, creative people value leaders who listen. Who work to understand and empathize with their concerns. Leadership that can appreciate their unique thought processes and uplift the diversity of thought each individual brings to the team. I've always believed that leaders who are self-aware and humble give people the space to become the best they can be.

Creative people also need to know that someone's steering the ship. That someone has their best interests at heart. That someone will fight for them. That someone will be straight with them—in a humble, understanding way. If there's no confidence in a creative leader's ability to be a fighter and a leader as well as a friend and mentor, that leader has failed to create an environment conducive to great creative work.

People appreciate signs of human-ness.

Humble leaders aren't afraid to be human, even flawed, in the presence of their teams. After all, you're a human being, too. It can feel revealing and vulnerable, but there's great business value in expressions of personality, small mistakes and intentional quirks. They're relatable and evidence that we are all learning as we go.

When times are good, humility fosters trust.

When times get tough, that reservoir of trust becomes a powerful leveraging force. Business transformation, whether spurred by global crisis or economic shifts, is risky and requires deep mutual trust. Guiding your team through uncharted territory is possible only when people are confident in your sense of direction. Humble leaders apply insights from previous experiences, including failures, to communicate their transformation plan.

In anxious times, balancing the empathetic ear and the decisive hand is more pronounced.

People are worried. They want to know they're being heard. But they also need to know when the urgency of the moment, or the business priority, takes temporary precedence over the airing of grievances. Your team wants to be leveled with—to hear it straight, good news or bad. But those you lead also need to be insulated from the anxiety of dealing with executive-level wrangling and business planning.

Humble leadership means reading the room. Knowing when to cushion the blow, and when to give it to 'em straight. When to be quiet and listen, and when to gently step in and steer the conversation back onto a productive path. When to signal, "I'm here for you," and when to communicate that you need the team to step up for the greater good. What would any of us want in our leaders? Humility, or hubris?

The principle of humility is simple. The everyday practice may be more complicated. But the need to navigate this complex emotional terrain is more pressing now than ever before.

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Joe Baratelli
Joe Baratelli is EVP / CCO of RPA. He has been with the agency since its founding in 1986.

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