IM/IT Knowledge Management

Leadership as a Way of Being

In order to become effective leaders, managers and those in leadership roles must approach leadership as a way of being. The connection between successful leaders, learning, creative and critical thinking, and the challenges of cultivating these qualities requires a dedication to self-development that transcends passive learning models and requires a more dedicated approach. This article explores some of the relevant issues surrounding these topics and attempts to provide some insight into the function of creative and critical thought in the evolution of leadership.

Leadership and Learning

Successful leadership is exemplified by the results it generates. Ask any group of individuals involved in leadership ‘what makes a successful leader?’ and the answers will be as diverse as the group asked the question. The characteristics may include the ability to motivate, empower, listen, facilitate, mentor, analyze, empathize, and mediate. A leader must be able to see opportunities, not limitations, build collaborative relationships, maintain a positive attitude in themselves and those around him, and stimulate dialogue. Moreover, throughout all of this, they still have their own work to do, which may involve other skill sets as diverse as engineering, law, medicine, politic, architecture or any other number of specialties in which they are an expert.

Learning is a large part of being a leader. The same way society expects general practitioners to continue their medical training throughout their lives, leaders must also continue to train and grow as well. Vaill (1996) coins the term leaderly learning to describe one of four strategies for life long learning specifically geared towards management. Vaill’s hypothesis is that “managerial leadership is learning” (p.126). He goes on to say that, leadership inherits the characteristics of initiative, exploration and discovery, expression through practical application, self actualization of the person, practice, continuous improvement, and reflection. Moreover, that for leaderly learning to take place, managers need to understand the relationship between these leadership characteristics and learning as a way of life.

The Relevancy of Leadership and Influence

For learning to be relevant, it must be targeted and directed. Successful business leaders need to balance their objectives with that of their shareholders, their employees, their suppliers, and their customers. Unlike a business’ employees, who generally only focus on the customer-business relationship, leaders must keep relationships focused in two, three, or all four of these areas as part of their accountabilities. This diverse mix of interests requires successful leaders to make the best use critical and creative thinking to balance these conflicting influences.

Special Interest Influence Requiring Attention
Employees Need for guidance and direction
Shareholders Need for capital growth and return
Customers Need for quality, service, and price
Suppliers Need to exist and form partnerships

 Without critical thinking skills, managers risk upsetting the equilibrium that exists with each of these special interest groups. Too much or too little time spent addressing the concerns of one group can raise issues in another. For example, the need to service the customer at the lowest cost can lead to moral and staffing issues when the needs of the customer overly outweigh the needs of the staff.

Without creative thinking skills, managers risk upsetting the equilibrium that exists between each of these special interest groups. The dynamic and systemic relationships that exist between the customer and the supplier, or the staff and the shareholders, require creative solutions that influence the entire value chain and that straightforward critical thinking may not be sufficient to provide. For example, a group of squeegee kids frequenting the front of an upscale hotel can be an eye sore for hotel patrons that could indirectly affect revenues for the hotel. The immediate critical solution would be to phone the police. The creative solution would be to hire the kids as car wash attendants and/or car jockeys that would add value to the customers, relieve the problem of vagrancy, and possibly increase revenues for the shareholders.

Relevancy does not just apply to business situations or to the present day. Gardner (1993) provides some unique insight into the inner creative minds of Einstein, Freud, Stravinsky, and Eliot. These were influential leaders of their day, who possessed and exemplified the intrinsic motivation and directed focus necessary to be leaders.

Leadership Challenges

To be effective critical and creative thinkers, leaders face the challenge of how to enhance their creative thinking abilities. One such challenge is how to expand the ability to think. While Vaill (1996) tells us that learning is a continual process, McFadzean (2000) proposes that thinking, specifically creative thinking “can be encouraged by changing a person’s mindset or paradigm” (para. 4) using three different strategies: association, stimulation, and expression. Consider the following example that will have varying degrees of effectiveness from paradigm preserving to paradigm stretching to paradigm breaking depending on the depth and scope of the activity and analysis.

Paradigms can be broken, however, by using unlimited methods of expression as well as unrelated stimuli and forced association. [. . . .] Here, participants are asked to draw a picture of where they see their company in ten years’ time. They are then asked to draw a picture of how they see the company at the present time. Next, each participant describes the two pictures and gives reasons for why he/she has used these particular images to represent the company. The technique can draw out a lot of information that would not necessarily have been revealed using more conventional techniques. (McFadzean, E. 2000. para. 10)

This is only one such example. This does however lead to a second challenge that is how to effectively deal with creativity blocks. DeSalvo (1999) cites several barriers to creativity including lack of passion, fear, negativity, lack of motivation, and disrespect. Primary among these are lack of passion and fear. Leaders and organizations can overcome barriers when creativity and innovation are supported as part of the cultural environment. This means understanding your staff’s needs, understanding what inspires them, and fostering a trust that raises people’s intrinsic motivation to be creative.

Many other activities and exercises will enhance critical and creative cognitive ability. For example, Gryskiewicz and Epstein (2000) propose a number of alternative activities all designed to stimulate the creative process. These activities center on four basic skill types that include:

  • Capturing – the preserving of ideas,
  • Challenging – difficult problems or challenges,
  • Broadening – problems or challenges unrelated to our field of expertise.
  • Surrounding – problems or challenges involving unique environments

None of these techniques are all encompassing, exhaustive, or quick fixes. The number and types of theories on how to enhance critical thinking are as varied and diverse as the number of theories on how the brain works. This may help explain why leadership is such an evolutionary process.

Leadership as a Way of Being

Leadership is one of those nebulous qualifications that every organization wants but few cultivate. Effective leaders cultivate a passion based on intrinsic motivation and the critical and creative thought processes that support mastery of the discipline. It is an evolutionary process requires constant study and application.

In essence, leadership is a way of being. Persons in leadership roles within highly dynamic systems and processes cannot simply rely on passive participation to develop solutions. The same effort put into maintaining one’s core competencies needs to also apply to matters of leadership, learning, and fostering creative thinking. This requires a willingness to accept that commonly held beliefs and paradigms may need to stretch or break, and that the process needs to be focused, targeted, and continual.

Kevin Feenan
Managing Director
Knomaze Corporation


DeSalvo, T. (1999, June). Unleash the creativity in your organization. HRMagazine, 44(6), 154-164. Retrieved March 12, 2004 from ProQuest Database.

Gardner, H. (1993). Creating minds. New York, NY: BasicBooks.

Gryskiewicz, S. S., & Epstein, R. (2000, September/October). Cashing in on creativity at work. Psychology Today, 33(5), 62-65. Retrieved March 12, 2004 from ProQuest Database.

McFadzean, E. (2000). Techniques to enhance creative thinking. Team Performance Management, 6(3/4), 62-72. Retrieved March 12, 2004 from ProQuest Database.

Vaill, P. B. (1996). Learning as a way of being: Strategies for survival in a world of permanent white water. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.