Illustration: Oscar Ramos Orozco

The Key to Being a Creative Leader? Job Security.

Many of us spend years toiling away in obscurity before our hard work and talent begin to receive real recognition. Those years working in the rank-and-file of a design firm or a fashion house (or in your sixth floor walk up studio, surviving on Ramen noodles and hope) can be richly creative. You develop your own vision, you practically burst with fresh ideas, and you eagerly await the day when you will have the power to do things you want to do, your way.

But what happens when you finally do become the one in charge? What happens when your influence begins to grow, when other people start looking to you to lead? Will your creative, innovative ideas still flow? Will you still be hooked up to your Muse? Or will all that newfound power somehow get in the way of your vision?

Being in a position of power certainly changes you – not necessarily in an evil way, but research shows there is a definite shift in how you perceive the world around you when you’re the one in the driver’s seat. You think in a more abstract, big-picture way. You become more optimistic, more comfortable with risk, and more open to new possibilities.

In fact, a series of studies by psychologists Cameron Anderson and Adam Galinsky showed that when people felt powerful, they preferred riskier business plans with bigger potential rewards to more conservative plans, divulged more information, were more trusting during negotiations, chose to “hit” more often during a game of blackjack, and were even more likely to engage in unprotected sex during a one-night stand.

In other words: you are likely to be even more creative than you were when you felt relatively powerless.

There is a definite shift in how you perceive the world when you’re the one in the driver’s seat.

When you are in power, you can be more innovative because you feel more comfortable and secure, and less sensitive to, or constrained by, what other people think of you. Unless, of course, you don’t feel secure – because your position of power is not guaranteed. Then, according to new studies from researchers at the University of Amsterdam, the tables turn.

When the powerful can become the powerless, and vice versa, psychologists call it an “unstable power hierarchy.” If you are operating in that kind of environment and staying powerful and influential is your primary focus, then feelings of power can actually make you more conservative.

When you don’t want to lose the power you’ve worked so hard to attain, you avoid risks and potential mistakes, and your creativity is diminished.

So if you are at the top of your game and your position is essentially irrevocable or at least particularly secure (think Steve Jobs or Richard Branson) your creativity will flourish.

When you don’t want to lose the power, you avoid risks and your creativity is diminished.

If, on the other hand, your position is vulnerable, the key to remaining creative and successful is to avoid focusing on your vulnerability. Stop worrying about the Next Big Thing when you need the Big Thing right now. Instead of looking over your shoulder, remember to always look ahead of you. Ask yourself, what more can I do that’s never been done? You don’t want to just maintain your influence – you want to increase it. Never being satisfied with where you are now, with what you have already done, is the secret to keeping those creative juices flowing.

How about you?

Have you noticed a dip in creativity after accepting a promotion?

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.
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