Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Bias Against Creatives as Leaders

Two candidates are being interviewed for a leadership position in your company. Both have strong resumes, but while one seems to be bursting with new and daring ideas, the other comes across as decidedly less creative (though clearly still a smart cookie). Who gets the job?

The answer, unfortunately, is usually the less creative candidate. This fact may or may not surprise you – you yourself may have been the creative candidate who got the shaft. But what you’re probably wondering is, why?

After all, it’s quite clear who should be getting the job. Studies show that leaders who are more creative are in fact better able to effect positive change in their organizations, and are better at inspiring others to follow their lead.

And yet, according to recent research there is good reason to believe that the people with the most creativity aren’t given the opportunity to lead, because of a process that occurs (on a completely unconscious level) in the mind of everyone who has ever evaluated an applicant for a leadership position.

The problem, put simply, is this: our idea of what a prototypical “creative person” is like is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical “effective leader.” 

Creativity is associated with nonconformity, unorthodoxy, and unconventionality. It conjures visions of the artist, the musician, the misunderstood poet. In other words, not the sort of people you usually put in charge of large organizations. Effective leaders, it would seem, should provide order, rather than tossing it out the window. 


Our idea of a prototypical creative person is completely at odds with our idea of a prototypical effective leader.

Unconsciously, we assume that someone who is creative can’t be a good leader, and as a result, any evidence of creativity can diminish a candidate’s perceived leadership potential.

In one study conducted by organizational psychologists Jennifer Mueller, Jack Goncalo, and Dishan Kamdar, employees rated the responses of nearly 300 of their (unidentified) coworkers to a problem-solving task for both creativity (the extent to which their ideas were novel and useful) and as evidence of leadership potential. They found that creativity and leadership potential were strongly negatively correlated – the more creative the response, the less effective a leader the responder appeared.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed – if evaluators have a charismatic leader (i.e., someone known for their uniqueness and individualism, like a Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, or Carly Fiorina) rather than an effective but non-charismatic leader in mind.

The good news is, the bias can be wiped out – in fact, reversed.

So what can you do in an interview to fight the creativity bias? You have some options:

  1. Be armed with evidence of your leadership abilities. Bias is most powerful when there is nothing else concrete to go on – that’s when our brains (unconsciously) fill in the blanks. 
  2. Don’t just focus on your past experience. Talk about what you see as your leadership potential – the kind of leader you see yourself becoming. Studies show that interviewers are drawn to candidates described as having potential (often more than actual achievement.) They’ll spend more time thinking about you, and that extra thinking results in more accuracy and less bias. 
  3. Try to counteract the bias subtly by talking about the charismatic, creative leaders who have been role models for you in the past. 
  4. Tackle the bias head on. Acknowledge that creative types aren’t often chosen for leadership positions, while arguing (nicely) that your ability to offer fresh and innovative solutions to problems is essential to effective leadership, rather than at odds with it. 

How about you?

Have you ever faced bias as a creative leader? What happened?

Heidi Grant Halvorson

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Dr. Heidi Grant Halvorson, of Columbia’s Motivation Science Center, is an author and speaker.  In Succeed, she revealed surprising science-based strategies we can use to reach goals.  Her new book is Focus:  Using Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence.
load comments (116)
  • Shylo Shepherd

    Marketing is incredibly creative in my opinion. It’s manipulative but very creative.

  • broacher

    If you’re interested in this stuff, check out this other article from SmartPlanet, published back Oct 2011:

    Loved this quote from the comments there from a book by Bob Sutton (Weird Ideas that Work): “One of the main reasons for rewarding both success and failure is that managers, analysts, and other so-called experts (like everyone else) are so bad at predicting which new ideas will succeed that sometimes the only practical thing to do is encourage people to keep trying.”

    Another interesting essay worth a look at is one by Paul Graham: “

    A lot of value bias may lay in the way a manager or ‘maker’ sees, relates to, and utilizes time. Maybe it’s not two different worlds, maybe it’s two different universes.

  • RiC Raymond Inauen

    We will always be put to the test, it’s normal and it happens to most people to take a form or lead or leadership. Michelangelo just wanted to be a sculpture, painting wasn’t his thing, but the pope forced him to do the chapel sealing and it turned out to be an amazing work of art for it’s time.
    The art (almost every form of it) is a new development in our skills as humans. We shouldn’t forget that most peoples instincts are still routed in very basic animal survival behavior. That means almost the whole planet doesn’t see creative work the way we do. A beautiful building is just that, and for most people they cannot even fathom the differences between many structures. Let alone anything done in our work as Graphic Designers. We’re a small group of people and we’re connecting globally for the first time, on a network like this one.
    We’re often not ready to group together like so many other professions, to defend our rights to protect our work and our ideas, and win respect for what we do. It will take a while for this to happen.
    Time will tell if we ever do reach a state where more people truly understand what we do.

  • Manuela Kaufmann

    Trapped in rules, regulations and power you loose al sense of creativity. Staying in a leadership role with earthly expectations and keep flying – almost impossible. A bloated ego doest necessarily rise into the sky. Keep doing what you love and you’ll get the reward you deserve. Creatives have a gift that most others don’t – so why battle on that field? Nothing to proof here…

  • James Gradidge
  • Mr. Hemphill
  • Joe C.

    I feel comforted by this article. I could totally relate to it’s many points and share the same sentiments as the people who commented. I have a long running idea that culture, a country’s economic situation and it’s peoples’ vales towards art and creativity contribute to the lack of confidence towards creatives which I can now see is not necessarily true, based on the comments posted and my own personal experiences. It is spot on about what a company’s perception of a prototypical leader is.

    Not wanting a leadership role in the first place, I was given the position four years ago out of the company’s necessity at that time. Since then I have kept an almost abolished department afloat, improved on a workflow which proved to be beneficial to the organization, consistently increased annual sales through our services and not to mention being the company’s “go-to-guys.” The more the company grew, the more neglected our department has been. The new heads can’t even figure out a way to utilize our team nor understand what our potential truly is. To these people, we are simply the guys who creates pretty pictures. It’s like high school all over again where they let you be (ignore) because you are the odd artistic guys doodling in their sketchpads and whatnot. In their wisdom they have even asked me to evolve from a creatives guy to a numbers/data guy, to them that’s the next stage for a guy like myself. I guess they didn’t cover how to deal with creatives in their Six Sigma courses. Oh well, gotta pay the bills ;-)

  • Michael71


  • Michael71

    I think these old notes I made can add to this conversation:

    Bill Buxton at Princeton 2009

    Bill Buxton, usability guru and one of the original developers at PARC, talks about how the art school system and “crits” need to be employed in the engineering and development of software. He’s now at Microsoft trying to clean up their plethoria of poor application designs. There is a slow but steady recognition of artists taking more project management responsibility. The whole field of User Experience Design is booming and within are artists getting more project management responsibility. The MBA’s are seeing true artist-managers like Steve Jobs continually surpase Microsoft, Sony and the like. He also talked about designing not just the beginning and end state of an interaction but the movement in between. Apple and Schematic do very cinematic things in this area that enhance the tools. It’s like trying to do an animation with only the beginning and end storyboard. It’s possible but the in between boards need to be designed to communicate as well.

    He talked about designing not just beginning and end state of a software interaction but also the traveling state in between. He used the example of how he goes to and from work. In San Francisco BART allows you to take your bike on the train. So he takes the train to work in the morning because he has a need for speed. Then he rides his bike home because he has a need to unwind, get exercise, relax and daydream about new ideas. Software interaction pacing and focus needs to take larger ideas and actions into account.

    Basically the art school method needs to employed in administration, management, engineering, software design, computer programming, you name it. Steve Jobs gets most of his great ideas from his part ownership and founding of Pixar. The iPod came about because the artists at Pixar were carrying their music and listening to it on those first Firewire drives. Remember those smallish brick-like bright red and yellow drives.

  • Michael71

    I disagree. See my post above on Bill Buxton. I also have this to add.

    I look forward to the day when demotes the agile management philosophy as applied to creative branding. I recommend demoting agile to be a key focus with their new investors.

    I think Agile came about because of rapidly changing technology and managers are thrown into a situation where they have to produce something where they themselves are not experts. So they hire a bunch of experts and put them together to collaborate. There’s a proven project workflow for each discipline but the manager can’t adopt those proven workflows because they might be unfamiliar or conflicting with the manager’s workflow, and the manager can’t relinquish control. Control is what he/she is hired/expected to do. So Agile was born. To me it’s actually an excuse for a manager who doesn’t have any proven workflow in mind. It’s not the manager’s fault. But if managers had at their fingertips a quick way to see a concise, brilliantly produced presentation on any workflow needed then Agile might not be so emphasized.

    Enter It’s not the perfect solution but it seems about 80% there in my field.

    Agile is used for hi-tech development but I’ve never seen a single case study or any established creatives endorsing Agile in my field. Either we’ve been doing Agile for centuries and we’ve got a better handle on how certain organized processes dovetail with our natural talents for open ended creativity or I just don’t know what Agile means.

    Oh, and here’s my revised vignette on Agile Development:

    Cool, I’ve always wanted to work on a agile team. This heaven I imagined was a bunch of disheveled geeks, shirt tails out, hair a mess, we smell bad too. Our overheated computers all in a lopsided circle. We wallow in fast food wrappers and 4 hours sleep. Then our project manager paces around in a circle and indiscriminately smacks some of us geeks in the head. This smacking is the combustion spark in a human Mazda engine. Come forth… the exhaust from this human tailpipe! Behold… an angelic multicolored apparition of perfection, arises from the center of our tangled, buzzing mess and leaves a smudge on the ceiling that looks exactly like the Sistine Chapel. We all burp in jubilation and awe. Our project manager bellows, “It’s about effing time you punks!”

  • Sharon

    I agree with the article however I think there may something else at work during the interview–the person doing the interview may be subconsciously threatened by the person with the “creative” great ideas and may choose a person who conforms more and does does threaten the current leadership or status quo.

    Creatives/idea people don’t generally want to be lassoed in and conform to the status quo. I believe also that leadership is demonstrated, so if the creative person applying for the job has actually demonstrated leadership qualities– that can be demonstrated by facts such as -not as the type of leader one is becoming but the type of leader one already is -that is another way to overcome the bias


    This is a good article, but it also smells of Sour Grapes.

    Forgive me for being blunt, but “Creatives” tend to be among the most narcissistic individuals in society. I mean no insult; the fuel for innovation and growth often comes from a sort of self-obsession. Frankly, “Creatives” are often clueless as to how this comes off—it’s a kind of psychic cologne.

    A Creative with a sense of self, empathy, wisdom and most importantly, humility, will usually trump everyone.

  • mrcead

    Creatives are pounded out of society by people who feel they do not fit neatly into it. Why take energy from the universe and direct vitriol towards someone who focuses internally? Why not indifference instead? That is the question you should be asking. There is a reason why creatives behave the way they do, they have no choice in the matter. Find one and give him / her a hug today.

  • Allan White

    As the husband of a talented introvert (an ISTJ who also hates self-promotion): your longer comment was well worth the read! I’ll share it with her.

  • Allan White

    I think displaying humor (and using it for practical ends) is simply rare – the mark of a very self-confident leader. Reagan and Eisenhower are examples that come to mind.

    It can be a very effective way to win doubters over.

  • Dangerous Meredith

    God read! As an INFJ with a creative brain (the following few comments discuss interts and mention Myers Briggs types) I have had the experience of being overlooked for leadership roles despite doing actual leadership (mentoring, inspiring, innovating, enouraging, organising etc.) type work; or, when I do get in a leadership role, being attacked and bullied.

  • J. W. Jessy Forsyth

    Excellent article. Various times I’ve been working with a creative team under the leadership of a not-so-creative manager and ended up taking the reigns myself to lead the team. Not necessarily because I wanted to lead but because team members came to me for guidance instead of going to the not-so-creative manager. Not every creative person is a great leader but most great leaders are creative.

  • John Eaton

    More of an artist..hmm. One: prove it. Two: you need to dial back on the meds. Really. Free country or not, use some common sense.

  • Lisa Colón DeLay

    Well, that explains a few things!

  • Aronno_Shihan

    awesome article…

    please visit my blog :

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