Leadership through Creativity

Leadership Through Creativity

Dr. Bill Robinson

If I asked them what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.” – Henry Ford

I share this quote not to argue that we should ignore the perspective of our customers and members; quite the contrary.  What this quote highlights for me is the difficulty we all have in seeing beyond what already is.  This bit of wisdom can be found in another quote, by Abraham Maslow: “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”

In today’s complex and evolving world, organizations need to continually adapt and innovate to succeed. It helps to have an awareness of the changing landscape and the resources at your disposal, but alone those are insufficient.  Successful adaptation and innovation do not emerge solely from data and reason, or even trial and error.  They require creativity!  They require leadership with the ability to be creative. 

At the root of creativity is the capacity to see the world as it might be, not as it is.  It requires that we overcome what is called “cognitive fixedness,” in which we view a situation, object, or institution in one specific way.  Cognitive fixedness affects us all.  An everyday example: We come home and sit down on the couch because we know that’s what couches are for – sitting and maybe stretching out on.  Cognitive fixedness is beneficial as it helps us navigate our complex world with efficiency, but it is an obstacle to innovation.  What we need is cognitive flexibility or the ability to imagine alternative ways that our world can operate.  Now, my young daughter sees the couch and she thinks pillow fort.  I pull out a piece of paper to write or draw upon.  She rolls it up and has binoculars and a megaphone, she cuts it up for dolls dresses, she attaches it to the stair railing with rubber bands and it’s now a “bringer,” and so on to endless possibilities.

So, how might we learn to see the world differently?  The first step is to become aware that the way we see the world is through the lens of metaphor.  The second step is to play with metaphors; this is called “lateral thinking.” 

Let’s take a useful example.  Complete the sentence: A synagogue is like _____________.  What did you come up with?  A church?  A JCC?  The 2nd Temple in Jerusalem?  Each of these metaphors help us understand the concept and purpose of synagogues.  If a synagogue is like a church, its central function is perceived as offering religious services.  If it’s like a community center, then I go there mainly to be with friends amidst shared activity (Mordecai Kaplan’s “shul with a pool”).  If it’s like the Temple in Jerusalem (which is what the rabbis of the Talmud imagined) then it’s a space for containing and making accessible the holiness of the Divine. 

These metaphors focus our attention, highlighting certain commonalities as core to the synagogue.  They become taken-for-granted when they also reinforce our personal experiences, the ways that we typically function in our synagogues.  Yet, they also conceal alternative possibilities.  Simply play out the metaphors further.  If our synagogues were actually like churches, wouldn’t we be more welcoming of all comers regardless of membership?  If they were truly like JCCs, wouldn’t they be filled with people participating in various classes and recreational opportunities every hour of the day?  If they were more like the 2nd Temple, wouldn’t access to the Divine spirit be restricted to certain rituals performed by a priesthood? 

Once we realize we are perceiving through the lens of metaphors, we can begin to see our institutions with both a critical and creative eye.  And, we can begin to use different metaphors to really inspire creative thinking. 

What if (to offer a new metaphor) our synagogues were imagined as farm-to-table restaurants?  They would have a welcoming host as you enter.  They would be exceedingly intentional about creating exquisitely enjoyable experiences, and mindful of the ethical impact of those on the environment. They would also have intimate spaces for small groups, and a “communal table” where you can encounter people you don’t know (sitting next each other sharing a meal, a piece of text, or a prayer).  Moreover, if our synagogues were more like restaurants, perhaps the rabbi or cantor would prepare spiritual sustenance for us but then we would each partake in our own groups, leading ourselves?  And finally, we would pay for the experience we want, and perhaps leave an additional donation (tip) if we really enjoyed it. 

Now, you may be saying something like “Oh, but we can’t do that.”  Suspend your critical thinking!  The importance of metaphorical (or lateral) thinking is to offer new ways of seeing that generate the potential for innovation.  Not every idea will work, but some will open up new possibilities to explore if we are willing, humble, and courageous.

Metaphorical thinking is the engine of creative leadership.  While some of us may be more naturally inclined; we can all learn to be more creative.  It does takes practice though.  So, I leave you with another metaphor to play with.  First, complete this sentence: The Associated is like ______________?  Then, imagine what The Associated would be if it was like a Baltimore food market, such as R House or Lexington Market?  (Consider both the customer experience and the business model.)

And for further inspiration, here’s an excerpt from Cynthia Ozick’s Metaphor and Memory (p. 269) commenting on an experience she had when sharing a fantastical and satirical (metaphorical) story with a group of “serious” doctors who became “excited, resentful, bewildered, belligerent.”

And metaphor, what is metaphor?  Frivolity.  Triviality.  Lightness of mind.  Irrational immateriality.  Baubles.  To talk in metaphor to serious men and women, indeed to talk of metaphor to serious men and women, is to disengage oneself …  from the capacity to put humanity before pleasure, clear judgement before sensation, useful acts before the allure of words. …

If doctors think this way – if a great many other serious men and women think this way – it may be, first, because they associate metaphor with writers and artists of every sort, and, second, because they associate writers and artists with what we always call “inspiration.” It isn’t only that doctors like to keep away from inspiration on grounds of science and empiricism and predictability.  Nor is it, for serious people, mainly a matter of valuing stability over spontaneity, of responsibility over elation.  Something there is in inspiration that hints of wildness – a wildness even beyond the quick unearned streak of “knowing” that brings resolution without warning.  Serious people are used to feeling an at-homeness in their minds.  Inspiration is an intruder, a kidnapper of reason, a burglar who shoots the watchdogs dead.  Inspiration chases off sentries and censors and monitors.  Inspiration instigates reckless cliff-walking; it sweeps its quarry to the edge of unfamiliar abysses.  Inspiration is the secret sharer who flies out of pandemonium.

All these characteristics suggest that inspiration is allied to the stuff of metaphor.

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