How to Become a More Creative Thinker and Leader

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How to Become a More Creative Thinker and Leader

A study of more than 1,500 global CEOs hailing from 60 countries and 33 industries revealed something that may surprise you about leadership. Researchers found that these C-level execs believe the most important leadership quality isn’t decisiveness, strategic vision, or the ability to motivate others, but creativity. Yet a mindset of innovation isn’t easy to come by. McKinsey has reported that while the vast majority (84 percent) of executives believe innovation is critical for business success, very few of them (only 6 percent) are satisfied with innovation in their company.

What’s going on here? How can something that’s been identified as the most integral element of leadership success be in such short supply in organizations worldwide? A clue to this conundrum may lie in neuroscience. The EOC Institute reports that while 98 percent of five-year-olds given a creativity test for divergent thinking scored at the “creative genius” level, that number was found to dwindle in older children, with only 30 percent of 10-year-olds scoring at that level, and 12 percent of 15-year-olds. 

Guess what they discovered about adults? When the test was administered to 280,000 people age 25 and older, a disappointing 2 percent scored as creative geniuses. In other words, instead of learning to become more creative as we age, we end up “unlearning” the innovative instincts we had as children. If company leaders can’t turn this crisis of innovation around, their organizations won’t stay competitive, relevant, agile, and able to imagine the “next big thing.”

Here are some ways that leaders can rediscover the creative genius within, to emerge as the type of cutting-edge thinker that their teams and company desperately need:

Take steps to connect your left and right brain. While the terms “left brain” and “right brain” are often associated with analysis and creativity, respectively, the latest research now suggests that creativity is a function of the whole brain, not just the right hemisphere. The idea behind this is that the nerve fibers, called the corpus callosum (CC), that bridge the left and right sides of the brain can be strengthened to prime the creative pump. One way to do this is through meditation, which has been proven by a study from UCLA to make the CC thicker and better connected. (Scientists discovered that Einstein, the ultimate creative genius, had a CC that was especially well connected.) 

This isn’t just a guess—studies have found that practicing meditation prepares your mind to reach its full creative potential, activating three subnetworks associated with igniting new ideas, brainstorming, and executive function (figuring out if pie-in-the-sky concept might actually fly). Researchers have also found meditation stimulates several creativity drivers, including divergent thinking and cognitive flexibility. Companies from Disney to Google, Apple, and Nike have taken these findings to heart and implemented various forms of mindfulness training for their employees in an effort to maximize collective corporate creativity. Ready to break out that meditation cushion yet?

Leverage your network. While mindfulness can help you tap into your inner innovator, another way to stimulate out-there ideas is to seek new viewpoints and perspectives from people around you, expanding your usual horizons to trigger ah-ha moments. If you always surround yourself with the same set of advisors and most of those mirror back your own thinking style, then branching out into greater cognitive diversity can help clear creative blocks. 

Opening yourself up to a variety of views from diverse relationships, requesting feedback from others, and being open to people who challenge your usual fall-back solutions are all ways that your network can help expand your mind. If you’re used to operating as a lone wolf, try mixing things up by working in and with teams to surface a wider range of approaches. When engaging in cross-collaboration, make an effort to be inclusive and embrace different views from across the organization.

Lead others to create. If two heads are better than one, then three, four, or more may be even better—especially when brainstorming creative concepts. As a leader, boosting creativity goes beyond a solo venture. While building up your own creative muscles, help people on your teams develop theirs as well. By harnessing the full cognitive diversity of the team and company, you’ll be drawing on a huge brain trust for creativity that might be impossible to replicate on your own.

You can become an inspirational leader who’s a magnet for creative talent by:

  • Making sure everyone’s voice is heard, and encouraging all ideas rather than shutting them down.

  • Banning “my way or the highway” thinking—great ideas often spring from healthy team debates and even conflict.

  • Silencing the inner micro-manager, instead green-lighting experimentation and risk-taking that might lead to failure before generating new insights.

What strategies does your company use to tap into fresh streams of creative insight in individuals and teams? Contact me at to learn more about how to maximize your organization’s creative potential.  

Rebecca Shambaugh is a leadership expert, speaker, author, President of SHAMBAUGH and Founder of Women in Leadership and Learning, a global institute for women leaders. Rebecca and her organization are recognized for their innovative and results focused approach for driving greater gender inclusion within organizations while accelerating the development and advancement of women leaders. SHAMBAUGH also works with their clients in engaging men and women as allies to be champions for creating a unified voice of leadership.

SHAMBAUGH’s Mission: We’re on a mission to develop high-performing and inclusive leaders who transform workplace cultures so everyone can thrive

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