I recently had the chance to talk to a very successful leader about what he thought was the foundational driver of his success. Of course, things like integrity and emotional intelligence came up a lot, but I was struck by his observation about creativity.

“I used to think creativity was reserved for painters and writers,” he said thoughtfully. “But now I realize that no one is more creative than me when I’m removing barriers to help my team be more successful.”

Intrigued, I probed for what he meant by “removing barriers.” Essentially, he noticed after taking over a new group a few years ago that most of his team would bring him problems. “That’s what they’d been trained to do with their problems, bring them to the ‘leader’ to solve.” But he found that when he solved the problems for them, he became a bottleneck and was soon inundated with more problems than he had capacity to solve.

So he switched tactics and started helping them redefine the problems into opportunities, empowering them to take advantage of the opportunities they discovered. Soon, two important things happened:

  1. His team got better at thinking and talking in terms of opportunities instead of problems, and the energy of the group changed and became more positive, future-oriented and enthusiastic.
  2. Productivity, satisfaction and quality metrics went up as people felt accomplished at seeking and realizing opportunities wherever they found them.

“As I was working with people to find the opportunities lurking in the problems, I became aware of just how often we all, myself included, start with the negative ‘why not’ aspects of any particular situation,” he said. “Turning that around to find a positive opportunity required a lot of creative thinking on my part.”

He went on to say that now he defines himself as a creative person for being able to find opportunities where others see problems.

This leader is right. Creative people are problem-solvers who tackle problems differently than analytical thinkers. Creative problem-solvers look outside the available information, the “why nots” and the barriers to progress that helped define the problem in the first place. They find inspiration by assuming there is an opportunity that just hasn’t been discovered yet and intentionally seeking that opportunity.

Do you define yourself as a creative leader? How heavily do you rely on creative problem solving principles in your leadership style? How often do you encourage your team to accept that problems and barriers exist, but coach them not to get stuck on them?

Dana Theus is president and CEO of InPower Consulting, creating business cultures by design that integrate the emotional intelligence lessons learned from studying women in leadership, and is a regular contributor to SmartBlog on Leadership. Follow her on Twitter at @DanaTheus and on LinkedIn

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