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Rama Gheerawo

The Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design


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Creative Leadership: Why it’s time to rethink what makes a good leader

Rama Gheerawo discusses some of the common misconceptions around leadership, and why HR needs to reevaluate their approach to leadership progression.

Everyone can be a leader – I honestly believe this. Regardless of age, ability, gender, race, or any other human attribute, everybody can harness leadership skills.

Leadership is not about being the tallest, loudest, proudest, most alpha, or most militarised figure. It is not about training to be a CEO or winning the management relay race, despite this often being an essential part of any HR strategy or practice where leadership progression is discussed.

Leadership is about open sourcing; it is about all of us, no exceptions. This means the democratisation of leadership; it means not falling into the historical trap of letting a patriarchal few define it and live it. It enables HR to be inclusive and expansive, and to resource the human in us all.

So, what has gone wrong with leadership?

Well, many things: from what leadership looks like, to who we hold up as leaders, to the mechanisms that tell us how to be a leader, to imposed definitions of what leadership is.

We need to create new cultures of leadership that stand beside the existing ones – radically and immediately.

We need to create new, radical cultures of leadership – right now!

Creative leadership could provide an answer for many HR teams. This concept is explored in my first book, Creative Leadership: Born from Design, which challenges outdated models of leadership that still tie us to the tired rhetoric of leadership as a notion of commandment.

These three undervalued but impactful human values address the failings in leadership, and in turn, changes that can affect the boardroom, the workplace, and society at large.

The model has been shaped and honed over the last ten years to arrive at a framework based on these ideas: 

  • Most of us can access and develop the three values below.
  • Creativity is a universal ability to develop ideas that positively impact ourselves and others.
  • Empathy is the hallmark of a twenty-first-century leader and is now recognised as a signature value.
  • Clarity is the link that aligns vision, direction and communication in any personal undertaking, organisation or project.

Redefining leadership

All of us have leadership ability. Leadership is not the stereotype of the suited CEO, the elected President, the medal-clad General, or the ‘letter of the law’ manager.

Every day, we all have to be leaders in different aspects of our lives, so we need to expand recognition of leadership from the realm of business to across our lives. HR should integrate, not separate.

Leadership is not the stereotype of the suited CEO, the elected President, the medal-clad General, or the ‘letter of the law’ manager.

True leadership starts with you. Lead yourself, and you can then lead others. Leadership is not just upskilled by someone else or imbibed from organisational culture. It does not only sit in structure and strategy – it thrives in the emotions and intentions of the individual as well.

We are the best incubators for our own leadership. A catalysing change can be external, but real evolution starts within.

However, most taught leadership is aimed towards formal business and management. Traditional notions of leadership can seem very top-down and exclusionary.

This is even evident within the language used, with terms such as ‘at the top’, ‘big cheese’ and ‘being a boss’ still being heard in boardrooms and virtual meetings across the globe.

Synonyms of the word ‘leadership’ seem to threaten, with ‘command’, ‘control’, ‘authority’ and ‘superiority’ presented as alternatives. With this posture of power, leadership can feel somewhat inhuman.

Leaders exist in multiplicity, not in singularity or duality. Although empathy, clarity, and creativity can be seen as distinct, they are not meant to be standalone components.

Traditional notions of leadership can seem very top-down and exclusionary.

The real transformation happens in the interplay of these terms. Each one on its own is not enough to enable holistic leadership, but when working together they enable a powerfully progressive balance.

Synergised, these three values transform leadership; separated, they limit it.

What is ‘creative leadership’?

‘creative leadership’ is for three types of people: established leaders, emerging leaders, and the biggest group of all – those who are starting their leadership journey.

These last two groups hold the most relevance for HR, and often request and demand the most time and focus for personal growth.

Although the strapline for the book is ‘Born from Design’, this is not just a book for designers. It is for the creative that lives in everyone. However, it did start with my life as a designer where instances of human exclusion regularly impacted my work.

The same sun sets and rises on us all every day. But that day can bring a radically different experience depending on your ability, health, gender, race, geography or economic context – just a few of the many aspects of human diversity that are often not included in mainstream consideration.

I hope my words speak directly to something that HR departments, personnel and managers have to grapple with globally, namely the rising demand and focus for equality, diversity, and inclusivity. It is a potent pathway to action – a blueprint for human resourcing and development.

This book will give you the strategies for change, the stories of challenges, and help you to voice aspiration as you grow and develop the leaders of tomorrow.

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Rama Gheerawo


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