In a paper titled, “Recognizing Creative Leadership: Can Creative Idea Expression Negatively Relate to Perceptions of Leadership Potential?” to be published in the March 2011 issue of the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Mueller and co-authors Jack A. Goncalo of Cornell and Dishan Kamdar of ISB undertook three studies to examine how creative people were viewed by colleagues. The troubling finding: Those individuals who expressed more creative ideas were viewed as having less, not more, leadership potential. The exception, they found, was when people were specifically told to focus on charismatic leaders. In that case, creative types fared better. But the bottom line is that, in most cases, being creative seems to put people at a disadvantage for climbing the corporate ladder. “It is not easy to select creative leaders,” says Mueller. “It takes more time and effort to recognize a creative leader than we might have previously thought.”
That reality should be of concern to those who sit in corporate boardrooms around the globe. In a recent survey of 1,500 CEOs by IBM’s Institute for Business Value, creativity was named the single most important attribute for success in leading a large corporation in the future. That finding is hardly surprising to Mueller. “There is research that shows that those who have their own creative ideas are better leaders,” she notes. “Those individuals know how to recognize good ideas, are open to them and know how to get creative ideas through [the organization]. Selecting creative leaders is the critical challenge organizations face.”
But understanding the need for creativity within a large company is not the same as actually fostering it. Indeed, Mueller’s work shows that those who think outside the box may be penalized for it. In the first study included in the paper, Mueller and her colleagues examined this trend at a division of a large multinational refinery in Central India. A total of 346 employees took part in the study, with 291 of them being evaluated for leadership potential and 55 employees making those evaluations. The raters were asked to fill out questionnaires on these 291 individuals, grading them on both the degree to which they came up with new, useful ideas and the extent to which they were likely to “become an effective leader” and “advance to a leadership position.” In analyzing the data, Mueller and her team controlled for the likelihood that some creative types were simply not interested in moving up the management ranks.