Creativity and Leadership

This participatory article is from a presentation I was asked to make as agent provocateur at Factorial in October 2014, a meeting of artists and city administrators concerning what to do about the eight dysfunctional art factories in the City of Barcelona.

Content: Creativity, Culture & Community

I am here hopefully to provide some context rather than resolution to your debate. It is important for us to have time for discussion so I am going to throw out a few broad responses that I hope we can expand on later:

  1. A critical yet inclusive definition of creativity
  2. The defining elements of human creativity
  3. The dichotomy between mass/elite culture, and commercial/not for profit culture
  4. The role of the policy-maker (and I include the deliverer) in supporting creativity
  1. A critical yet inclusive definition of creativity

Alfred North Whitehead

Creativity? The word was coined originally in 1926 by A N Whitehead. His writings are very dense I am afraid. 

“An actual occasion [of creativity] is a novel entity diverse from any entity in the ‘many’ which it unifies. Thus ‘creativity’ introduces novelty into the content of the many, which are the universe disjunctively.”

A N Whitehead Process and Reality 1929

What he is saying here is that creativity unites many disparate elements of our universe because it is new and different. The first thing to retain from this statement is that creativity is the principle of novelty, newness; what we might call innovation nowadays. The second, is that creativity is everywhere.

Understanding Creativity

“This means that there are only instances of creativity, rather than creativity in itself. Creativity is not an ethereal resource which can simply be tapped into by gifted humans. It is not an infinite realm of inspiration.”

Michael Halewood, University of Essex

Our current interpretation of creativity as a characteristic of human endeavour has limited its scope. For Whitehead creativity is just a universal event of profound novelty and difference to what surrounds it, not a product of human experience. It lies beyond us else how can it be innovative?

This means creativity touches us all and is not just the preserve of the professional artist but also available to the entire population, our administrators and communities. It is therefore wholly inclusive, because no-one owns it; nor is there anything intrinsically good about it. Creativity knows neither hierarchy nor ethic but this is precisely how we have limited it.

I must move on but if you want to pursue all this further Mike Halewood does a good job of picking the meanings apart.

  1. The defining elements of human creativity

What might be the defining elements of human creativity? Here is a simple model.

Introducing novelty into the disjunctive universe

I am shading my eyes from a too bright sun

Hand Christopher GunnersonI notice how it creates a halo around my fingers

Back in my shelter from the rain, I muse on my memory of that image and it gives me an idea


What if I transpose the sky for some other colouring agent like the red of this plant?

Red dye Nakeva CorothersI could use this dye to create a new halo round my own fingers on the wall of my shelter.

And when a human acted upon their imagination 40,000 years ago, this was the result:

= [equals]

Altamira hands


That is what Whitehead calls an “instance” of creativity, so what are its defining elements?

Imagination and innovation I would argue. This power to extrapolate an image from experience and transpose it we call image-ination; that is – we humans know how to change the meaning of an image. But the workings of our imagination remain obscure to others until we act upon our ideas, when they become part of creativity. But what we find important in the creative event is the innovation it presents.

  1. The dichotomy between mass/elite culture, and commercial/not for profit culture

Mass and elite, profit and non-profit. It is worth pondering on how did these oppositions got made.

How Schools Kill Creativity by Ken Robinson, TED Talk

Ken Robinson speaks at a conference. [Watch the video] The late Sir Ken had a way-in, which proved accessible and popular (30M+ views worldwide and rising).

In his opinion, not everyone seemed to be creative because school knocks it out of us. His line was that our responsibility for creativity as professional artist, educator or administrator is to release the imagination of our populations, provide a context for innovation, and allow for a diversity of expressions. This is neither about empowerment, nor animation, nor a hierarchy of ownership, but opportunity; for communities already have souls and they already have the power: it is their opportunities that have been denied.

So let’s go back to school and test this.

  1. Stand up if you know the answer to this. No conferring, you’re on your own!

Flashcard 1

2 + 2 =

  1. Sit down if you do not know the answer to this:

Flashcard 2

√16 =

  1. And sit down if you do not know the answer to this.

Flashcard 3

7(x-1) = 21

∴ x =

For those of you sitting down, please retain the emotional feeling of this.

Thank you everyone, please all be seated.

There, very quickly, I built a world where, by disabling the application of your imagination, you no longer controlled the outcomes. It was then easy to divide mass from elite and begin to determine what is deemed profitable and what is not. Let me unpick that.

First, I removed your ability to question, for in engaging with the equation, you accepted teacher’s question; but much more importantly, you thereby contracted in to teacher’s answer.

Once in control of the agenda, I constructed a mystery for a growing number of you about what lay on the other side of the equation: for those of you who got lost, you knew there was an answer out there on the other side, yet it was somehow denied you.

From here it is but a short step to God: you may not know the answer but you know there is one, so there must be a Superior Being who knows.

Sistine Chapel hand of god and the creation of man

And indeed, established religions have long taught that since only God creates, we don’t (or cannot); we can represent the Creator in our art – unless you are a Muslim – but as his creatures we are only here to explore his creation (Ladies, I am using the masculine consciously here).

The Achilles heel of this position was eventually revealed at the Enlightenment, when empirical activities of enquiry and exploration led us to trust more and more in the evidence of our senses than in God, and so we eventually stumbled back upon our powers to imagine the innovations of Altamira.

Filling the void 

Our discoverers turned innovators were a great danger (think Galileo) and here is a quick example from early entertainment and the creative industries.

Take Jacques de Vaucanson. He was and is much admired for having simulated life through clockwork automata and went on to pre-figure the invention of the Jacquard loom; possessor of a vivid imagination coupled with impressive artisan skills and anatomical research that led to a major impact on the creation of economic wealth.

Using a current and highly advanced technology (the incredible miniaturist skills of the watchmaker), coupled with research into human anatomy (the dissection of dead bodies), Jacques de Vaucanson made clockwork automata marvellously capable of simulating autonomous life. First of all playfully, for the entertainment of the elite, but then cleverly applied commercially to the weaving industry, which opened up the way to the invention of the Jacquard loom.

The profits of this creative industry bloomed, paradoxically killing off the artisan economy and its skills. This was dangerous, destabilising stuff – creativity always is – and such events led the way to a most unwelcome conclusion for the powers that be: if we creatures can create simulated life, if we can innovate, then perhaps we made God?

The Meritocracy

Secondly, I was creating a meritocracy, which is an elite born of merit, by dividing mass from elite, aka the sheep

Sheep VW Zhongfrom the goats

Goat Bill Gracey

Ah if only a beard conferred wisdom in our world!

This was a split effected post World War One between the cultured and the supposedly Philistine by the intellectuals of 20th century modernism. For them, mass culture degraded, elite culture uplifted; Art with a capital ‘A’ could only survive by cutting its link with the masses.

They did this by restricting access.

We all know that rarity raises value for the few, and so the profit motive in art was reinforced at the same time. In such a world popular culture is cheap, you can get it for free or a small amount of money. When popular culture costs almost nothing, unique art objects become even more valuable and High Culture more expensive. The profitability of art becomes dependent on exclusivity and lifestyle. And because only a few people can now afford to buy art, artists learn to speak to them in a secret language, making works that appeal to a niche of collectors, not to the rest of the world.

There, we’ve done it.


The innovations of the creative industries are a component part of this profit landscape, and are creating a new elite.

Many governments since 2008 see the creative industries as economic saviours. Whilst there is no harm in a pluralist arts economy where each has their value, let us bear in mind a couple of the procreators of this exclusive profit policy:

Thatcher Marcus_jb1973

In 1986 Margaret Thatcher launched a globalized culture of profit to create favourable conditions for a selfish individualism, in which fellow citizens and the collective good could be ignored. This allowed her to declare within a year that there was no such thing as society, and as we well know, this replacement of values (ethics) with value produced the 2008 banking meltdown.

Bliar Chris Beckett

Within a decade, Tony Blair’s government had published the Creative Industries Mapping Document, a hugely influential list that has reduced cultural innovation and diverse expression to the fourteen sectors of a culture for profit.

Remember, creativity knows no ethics. In this climate, no one now dares assert that culture or society produce wealth. It seems a nonsense, surely only money does that; for when profit is the imperative, what happens to all the other imperatives?

But there is another way. Hands up if you know the answer to this:

Flashcard 4

4 =

In that Whiteheadean instance of creativity, your powers of innovation were called upon but some hesitated to raise a hand. Isn’t it tragic how much we have learnt to hesitate when faced with novelty? But perhaps this has been wished upon us.

By putting the answer first we open up the possibilities for everyone and release their imaginations. Pretty scary of course, for we are not used to this level of divergence, and many of our leaders shrink from its implications. But that’s creativity at work.

  1. The role of the policy-maker (and I include the deliverer) in supporting creativity

Which brings me on to the role of the policy makers and those responsible for its delivery like our publicly funded artists and cultural organisations.

The Open Artist

“Some art is closed, some is open. Open art has no single meaning, and imposes no single response.” The Secret Intensity of Everyday Life William Nicholson

If you are an artist working in this field, know that providing people with genuine opportunity to innovate requires open art, not the productions of closed professionals fixated on the pursuit of their own single meanings requiring a single response.

The Creative Community

Steve JobsIn our communities, welcoming spaces for creativity to occur need to be maintained. They are not always physical. Here is a statement from the margins by Steve Jobs, before his creativity joined the mainstream, typically young and provocative

“It’s better to be a pirate than to join the navy.”

Steve Jobs at Macintosh, 1982.

The Misfit Economy is an extraordinary organization in the creative industries is currently engaged in that very challenge. Look it up: working dangerously with the innovative powers of the pirates and the hackers to repair our social and cultural values and yet create financial value for them. The de Vaucansons are still with us.

The Creative Administrator

“Creative bureaucracy seeks to marry two seemingly incompatible concepts apparently in tension: creativity – which focuses on resourcefulness, imagination and flexibility; and bureaucracy – which focuses on order, systems, certainty and predictability.”

Charles Landry, urbanist

For our administrators, such truly creative approaches present a problem as urbanist Charles Landry has observed. We suffer from negative perceptions of bureaucracy and those that work in them, but many people who work in bureaucracies are not encouraged to express their talent. Yet they have the power of integrated, joined-up thinking and are the new generalists we require in this post-expert age, able to range across disciplines but pull in specialist knowledge from their network when required.

Then there is the quality of our leadership

Distributed Leadership

Derek Sivers

Derek Sivers TED Talk: How to start a movement (4M views) on YouTube: The First Follower (3M views)

[Watch the video] How does a leader create the truly participatory space? Look at what is happening here. If that second person had not joined in, there would have been no leader, just some mad individual dancing in a field and no role model for others to imitate. For all the subsequent followers are following the first follower, not the leader. That’s a hard lesson for leaders to learn. A Distributed Leader recognizes that the First Follower is more important than him or herself and values the absolutely key contribution of the Number Two in the team.

Leaderless Organisations

The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom 2006

And my final point: the quality of our organisations.

Many look like spiders, with the spider’s eight legs representing divisions and units controlled by a central head. Cut off a spider’s leg and you have a spider with one less leg. Cut off the spider’s head and the whole spider dies, including all the legs.

Or, organisations can look like starfish. The spider and starfish analogy refers to the contrasting biological nature of the respective organisms, starfish having a decentralized neural structure permitting regeneration, with multiple arms each representing a separate neural network without need for a central head. Cut off a starfish’s arm and not only does the starfish not die, but it grows a new arm. The cut arm also survives and may even turn into a new starfish.

The current most successful examples of these models are the gigantic spiders of the international American corporations and the elusive starfish of Al Qaeda. (Remember, creativity knows no ethics.)

Whatever their progeny, we should want our organisations to be more like starfish: de-centralized, independent and resilient.

Well, that’s me done for now, thanks for listening. Oh, and a final Act of God: here’s the answer to Flashcard 3:


Flashcard 3 Answer

Divide both sides by 7:

7(x – 1)                       21

——–          =          —

7                               7

Simplify both sides:  x – 1   =   3

Add 1 to both sides: x – 1 + 1 =   3 + 1

Simplify both sides

And lo:   x   =   4           !

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