This is Why Innovation is Rare in US Companies

Last Updated Mar 1, 2011 2:24 PM EST

In a survey of 1,500 CEOs by IBM's Institute for Business Value, creativity was viewed as the single most important attribute needed to lead a large corporation. So companies are aware that, at least hypothetically, they need leaders who are creative. But how do people react when faced with someone who actually expresses creative ideas?

Not well, it turns out. Jennifer Mueller, a professor at Wharton, Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell, and Dishan Kamdar of the Indian School of Business conducted a series of experiments to find out how creative people were viewed by their colleagues. Individuals who expressed creative ideas were viewed as having less leadership potential than individuals whose ideas were less creative. "It is not easy to select creative leaders," says Mueller. "It takes more time and effort... than we might previously have thought."

Leadership Versus Creativity
In the first study, 55 people were asked to rate 291 of their colleagues both on their leadership potential and on the extent to which they came up with new, creative ideas.

  • Employees who were seen as creative were viewed as having less leadership potential than those who were not thought to be creative.
In the second study, a group of U.S. college students were asked to come up with ideas to generate more revenue for an airline. A second group of students was asked to rate the leadership potential, and the ideas, of each person in the first group.
  • Again, students whose ideas were considered more creative were seen as having less leadership potential than those whose ideas were not considered creative.
  • Both groups-the creative folks and the less creative ones-were seen as equally warm and competent. So it's likely that the creatives' lack of perceived leadership potential really did come from their creativity, rather than personal taste on the part of the 'rating' group.
Muller notes that leaders must create common goals so their groups can get things done. And the clearer goals are, the better they tend to work, which means leaders need to root out uncertainty. One way leaders can do this is to set standards and enforce conformity. But when asked to describe a creative person, words like "quirky," "nonconformist" and "unfocused" often take their place right alongside "visionary" and "charismatic." Says Mueller: "The fact is, people don't just feel positively about creative individuals-they feel ambivalent around them."

How does your company respond to creative individuals or creative leaders? How is creativity encouraged or suppressed?

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Photo courtesy of flickr user katherha
Kimberly Weisul is a freelance writer, editor and consultant. Follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/weisul.
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    Kimberly Weisul is the co-founder of One Thing New, the free email newsletter for smart, busy women. She was previously Senior Editor at BusinessWeek, responsible for all coverage of entrepreneurship and for launching BusinessWeek SmallBiz, a bimonthly magazine. She is also a freelance writer, editor and editorial consultant.