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How to (literally) be an inspiring leader

The importance of leadership starts with yourself: Being empathic to others, letting leaders bring themselves into the process, creating a sphere where people can flourish, and more.

What might truly inspiring leadership look like? How can creativity and exploration be triggered through leadership?

Discover the four key aspects:

- Developing empathy
- Showing vulnerability
- Framed freedom
- Process focus

How to (literally) be an inspiring leader

“I don’t think I’m creative”, is something I often hear in my work. There can be many debates held about whether all people are creative or not. Personally, I think creativity is a muscle that everyone possesses and that can be trained. Not everyone has to be creative, but creativity can bring a lot of joy. And it increases mental flexibility and innovation in organizations. It does not matter what one makes, how good it looks, or what it can be used for. For me, just engaging in a creative process, questioning a status quo and coming up with alternatives, as well as getting inspired by a material at hand and experimenting with it, is creativity. No matter how big or small the project is. What you do need though, is a sense of freedom to let the good ideas in. And our work environment, including the leadership we experience, can play an important part in how much freedom we feel we have to train our creative muscle and explore.


How leadership influences creativity

If and how creative ideas emerge is strongly influenced by the environment in which we are working. This includes all people around us- colleagues, supervisors, and managers.  If they practice a form of participatory and honest leadership, it can inspire others to be vulnerable themselves and therefore unlock creativity. We need to feel the freedom to diverge from a set path, to develop new ideas and different solutions to a problem. Leadership can nurture this sense of freedom and inspire people to be their creative selves.


What might ‘inspiring leadership’ look like?

So how might leadership create a context where people feel encouraged to experiment, fail, and learn? How can leadership be inspired by the creative process and therefore enable people to be more creative? I will call this form of leadership combined with knowledge of the creative process from now on ‘inspired leadership’.


I’ve learned a lot by studying at a business and a design school. Very generalised, my business studies were often guided by what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, learning from memory, and being able to recall content correctly. My design studies, in contrast, were focused on exploration. Given a challenge, we were divided into teams and had to navigate the process ourselves. While this uncertainty of where we were going could be uncomfortable, we always had the support of our teachers. They would regularly check in with us on our progress, give valuable feedback, challenge our work, and push us further. Their focus was often more on our process and to make sure that we were truly pushing our boundaries, rather than the aesthetics of the result.

I think that organizations can be inspired by this way of leading employees as well. Leaders can encourage failure and therefore stress the importance of trying out new things. This enables innovation in organizations. Like Brené Brown, the famous advocate of vulnerability in leadership says, “There is no innovation and creativity without failure”.

Four aspects of ‘inspiring leadership’

The following four aspects might show how ‘inspiring leadership’ can enable people to be their creative selves:

  1. Developing empathy
  2. Showing vulnerability
  3. Establishing framed freedom
  4. Focus on the process


  1. Developing empathy

Empathy is an important element in the creative process. Great work allows others to connect with it. One, therefore, doesn’t only tell one’s personal story, but integrates or at least considers other’s needs, emotions, or thoughts in the creation process. This way the creation becomes relatable and/or useable by others.

Leaders need to develop empathy and open up to others’ needs just as well. They need to acknowledge that the collective knowledge and competency of their team is far greater than their individual capabilities. Instead of telling people top-down what to do, they can shift into a mindset of asking: “What does my team need to be able to perform?”. They become leaders among and behind the employees, supporting and enabling them. They, therefore, need to develop empathy for their people. What are their personalities, goals, and needs? What might they need from me, as a leader? How can I support them in achieving these goals?

As Simon Sinek describes it, leadership should not be about taking charge of people but taking care of people in the leaders’ charge. He describes empathy as being concerned with the person and not their output.


       2. Showing vulnerability

Leaders’ own vulnerability can play an important part in empathizing with their people. Great leaders are connected leaders. And as Brené Brown has shown in her research, vulnerability is at the heart of social connection. Vulnerability should not be misunderstood as weak or submissive behavior, but rather the courage of leaders to be themselves. Great and inspiring leaders are therefore not distanced and controlled in the face of uncertainty, but approachable and open about their own uncertainties. This helps the organization and its employees to take more risks and be creative.

Vulnerability is about facing potential failure and not being limited by the fear of it. The same is true for the creative process. To create work that others can relate to, we often need to be out of our own comfort zones and vulnerable.


       3. Establishing framed freedom

Supporting a team in inspiring leadership does not imply giving it the freedom to do whatever it wants. At GroupMapping we work with the principle of framed freedom: Having clear boundaries to work and be creative within. This does not only ensure that the work will have an impact on an organization, by considering its constraints, but it can also trigger people to be more creative. Many artists set themselves conscious limitations to explore their free creativity within those borders. They might focus on only one specific medium or limit the size or number of words in their work.

Inspiring leadership should therefore make conscious choices of establishing a framed freedom. Which frames need to be taken into account? What needs to be ensured, in order for the results to be implemented in the organization? Can a good balance of constraints and freedom be established?


       4. Focus on the process, not the outcome

Lastly, by leaders being open and vulnerable themselves, embracing that they do not have the solution either, they create an environment that invites others to explore and ask the right questions. In the design process, asking the right question is often more important than finding the solution. Because asking and exploring the right question will ensure developing the best possible solution. Not investing enough time around the question, quickly proceeding to any solution, will lead to a waste of resources.

This aspect of inspiring leadership, focusing on the process, can be difficult to practice. As Sinek describes, being such an empathic leader comes with personal sacrifice. A big triumph, a successful result, will go to the team, not the leader. Nevertheless, a leader often carries the pressure of a successful outcome, while cheering on the team. Carrying this burden and supporting a team in their process, taking the risk of failure, is of great importance. Because a supportive and inspiring leadership style creates new leaders. People can start taking more agency in their own work and might therefore be more motivated and engaged at work. This is especially important in a time of great uncertainty like these, where people are physically distanced, and innovation is demanded of many organizations.


How to practice ‘inspiring leadership’ in these times? 

This posts a question to which there is no one answer and which many of us are still experimenting on: How can we, during the Corona pandemic, enable the same style of inspiring leadership, continue to trigger peoples’ creativity and therefore organizational innovation? How can we practice empathy, vulnerability, establish a framed freedom and process focus, when we are physically distanced and only connected via screens?

You might have seen a few examples of our digital sessions, which might be examples of how to design interventions that can foster creativity and provide the space to explore. We’d love to hear about your examples and experiments!

If you want to chat more about the creative process and Design Thinking in leadership then drop Lea a message!

Ask us anything!