Top 200 Thinking: Nicola Bell

New Zealand’s greatest opportunity lies in our ability to harness our creativity. It’s our ultimate competitive advantage.

I work in an industry that relies almost entirely on creativity so you might think it obvious that I would think this. But, if you look around, there’s plenty of evidence that all sorts of companies are realising the powerful advantage that creativity can bring to business. IBM, in recent global survey of 1500 CEOs in 60 nations and 33 industries, revealed that creativity is the ‘single most important leadership competency for enterprises seeking path through the rapid escalation of complexity’ in their organisations.

I found this astounding. The crossover of creativity into mainstream leadership is fascinating to me. It’s charged by radical shift in technology, and new culture of connectivity that technology has enabled. We need to embrace this shift and reflect it in how we educate and inspire the next generation of New Zealanders.

More than 170 years of relative isolation has taught us to think laterally, to experiment and create, and to overcome the “tyranny of distance” to attract attention and get our products and services to the world. We’ve always been outward-looking, and in many respects have turned our isolation into an advantage. We have an objectivity and perspective on the rest of the world that others admire.

It’s this kind of perspective that already fuels many of our most successful businesses and endeavours and could really help us economically as country in the long term.

But there are still many areas where it seems that we lack confidence in our ideas and abilities. We need to turn this on its head, and build culture of creativity. culture that allows us to re-frame and re-imagine businesses and industries. To do this, we need to identify and support our next generation of creative leaders.

I’d like to see what we could do if we embraced creative leadership as the next evolution in business.

Many companies are abandoning the top-down, command and control model of leadership. It’s simply not relevant to the current and emerging generation of talent because it stifles their freedom to re-imagine things in better way. If leaders make no space for creativity, people tend to retreat and guard their contribution instead of sharing openly. This ultimately drives team apart.

Creative leadership involves inspiring and empowering team to re-imagine, encouraging collaboration, embracing beta (waiting for perfection every time is no longer an option when marketing is built around continuous conversations with consumers), keeping conflicting agendas in play simultaneously (organising the team to meet current deliverables while also allowing time and space to ‘ignore’ the status quo and re-imagine) and fuelling optimism.

Optimism is particularly important for creative leaders. Not guileless, blind optimism. But the kind of optimism that allows us to stick our heads up above the fray and try something different. Mark Zuckerberg from Facebook calls this ‘hacking’. As he describes it, “It’s not about breaking and entering. It’s about being unafraid to break things in order to make them better. The root of the hacker mindset is there’s better way.”

Of course we might get shot down occasionally – I know this only too well – but not bothering to think differently, following formulas and “keeping it safe” all feels very “un-Kiwi” to me, and certainly lot less fun. Adhering to the status quo is no place for New Zealanders. We are far more spirited than that.

So let’s embrace creative leadership because more than anything, creativity has the ability to change the future and fortunes of our people and our businesses. Let’s harness our capacity for fresh ideas, rigorous thinking and encourage more creative leaders to step up and help us succeed in today’s exciting world.

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