The rise of the 'meta creative'

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The flamboyant, gregarious (but not especially thoughtful) creative leader shows up in agencies globally, but those qualities are fast falling out of fashion, writes an associate creative director at Grow.

Creative leadership’s new playbook is best summed up by a favorite scene in "Game of Thrones": Rob Stark captures Jaime Lannister and responds to his invitation to settle the score with swords by cordially replying, "If we do it your way, Kingslayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way."

We often abandon our strengths to comply with others’ expectations, perhaps to preserve ego or fit a mold. But by simply rejecting outdated stereotypes, we can take better charge of our environment. Rob rejects the Hollywood mold of how a hero should respond to a challenge: Rather than prove himself in a firestorm of bravado and seal his demise, he defies warfare’s paradigms by playing to his strengths.

Like Hollywood, advertising has a set of rules you’re expected to comply with to succeed, which manifests in the creative leaders we produce. The flamboyant, gregarious (but not especially thoughtful), most dominant creative leader shows up in agencies globally. This stereotype has thrived because of what we traditionally consider leadership qualities: "dominance equals intelligence" and "aggression equals strength."

But these qualities are changing. Agencies are more inclusive and diverse. This, combined with advancing technology and more complex creative output, is changing how we work. The old leadership stereotype can't maneuver the obstacles agencies now face. Keeping teams engaged, productive, and happy requires more versatility than a loud voice and an ironic Hawaiian shirt.

A more thoughtful, personalized, and honest approach is required to lead the next generation of creatives. It’s led to the rise of the "meta creative": introspective leaders aware of their changing environment and unafraid to challenge convention.

While the meta creative embraces individualistic values, this doesn’t mean they only live within their comfort zone. Here are three ways to develop the mindset.

Reject conformity, embrace individuality. Kurt Cobain said it best, "Wanting to be someone else is a waste of who you are."

Conformity is rarely celebrated, although we spend significant effort emulating others’ process. Following is the antithesis of leadership. You owe it to yourself to have confidence in your style and lead from a place of authenticity.

Design your environment and communication technique to complement your individual style. If you’d prefer the café to the boardroom, do business there. If you’d prefer to facilitate discussions rather than holding forth, that’s ok too. You can control all of this if you’re prepared to break free from conformity’s shackles.

Application: List three to five things that define your creative process and refer back regularly. How much and how often are you compromising, and why?

Reject pride, embrace humility. Pride can be blinding, paralyzing and destructive. Pride can lure you into a challenge for which you’re not prepared and rarely acts in your best interest. When motivated by pride, proving a point is a selfish act that does nothing good for the team.

Practicing humility is enlightening. It allows you to focus on what’s important, keep a level head in tight situations and protect yourself from succumbing to that self-destructive inner voice—your ego. Humility also lends itself to continuous improvement—a facet of modern servant-leadership.

Don’t let pride cloud your judgment, act with humility and make decisions on what you think will work best, not what will make you feel most important.

Application: Take stock (journal or make a list you look at regularly) of how often you go back to your own work in search of lessons-learned. Coming up short is an opportunity to improve.

Reject dominance, embrace empowerment. Being a leader doesn’t mean you have to get all the recognition. You don’t need to try and dominate others by owning every endeavor; you can simply support your team and let them bask in the spotlight.

In order to distribute the accolades of achievement accordingly, you need to empower your team to succeed in their own way, just like you have. Empowerment produces better results than just being the "boss," and the best work comes out of autonomous discovery.

Being a creative leader doesn’t just mean being the most dominant person in the room—that just means you’re kind of a jerk. Don’t be a jerk, be awesome by encouraging and empowering the people around you and avoid the temptation to get the glory.

Application: Are you regularly recognizing great work from other people? It shouldn’t be forced, but do keep track of how often you’re calling out team accomplishments, or simply stepping back to let them lead.

Final word. When you start focusing on these small shifts in mindset, you can begin to realize that traditional paradigms can be broken, and are in fact, limiting to growth. Instill individuality within your creatives from day one, encourage outside passions and never make it a requirement to simply follow conventions. The next time you’re provoked towards the status quo, cordially reply, "If we do it your way, Kingslayer, you’d win. We’re not doing it your way."

Alex Christian is an associate creative director at Grow.