Leading Creatives


I've been heading up our action research faculty and doctoral students at Ashridge for the last few years. As we complete this year's recruitment there will be around 80 of us, all working at the edge of current knowledge and change practice. 

It's an intensely creative, transformational endeavour as we constantly try to work with what we don't know and can't do. Each of us wrestles with vulnerability, fear,  and uncertainty as careers, relationships, family and social life are put on the line as we do the Work.  Failure and despair can feel close, as can insight, illumination, joy and, ultimately, success.  This week another candidate met with her examiners; her thesis was a radical effort, it made a significant contribution to how we can better know and work for good in our world, it was a beautifully crafted offer and she prepared well.

After a couple of hours of intense conversation, she left the building with the coveted 'Dr.' title.

Holding the space for this kind of work doesn't feel straight forward.  Any kind of creative work in organisations that are commercial, driven, exploit what they know, and relentlessly do what they can do, as effectively and efficiently as possible, can feel marginal, peripheral.  I've hung out with a lot of organisations trying to innovate, develop or find different ways of working and it's always a tricky place to be.

So while this list very much a work in progress and, I suspect, always will be, here are a few notes about what I am coming to know about holding the space for creativity in modern organisations:

  • You'll need a suit of armour.  You will have plenty of detractors who wonder what your team does, why they take up resources, space and why they aren't contributing more....
  • And you'll need to take it off.  Leave it behind when you are with your team - it's easy to acclimatise to the rough and tumble, the harshness of organisational life and that won't help as you work with colleagues who are trying to sense into the liminal, the only partly seen or barely glimpsed.
  • Stop. Take a moment. Start a conversation. Listen. And listen again. You will have an overfull diary and that doesn't matter. What matters is time for good conversation; hear people, really see them. Witness their Work. Act on what they say.
  • Build community.  Creatives need to connect, hang out with each other, work together and inspire each other. It's lonely out there. Convene events and reach out to other communities doing the same.
  • There are times to give away your power.  You don't need to be in the spotlight. Recognise the capabilities, talents and gifts of all of your colleagues and help them to hold the lead too.
  • And times to claim it.  Sometimes you will need to simply make things happen, state the boundaries, declare a position and step into the fray.
  • Parallel process.  Invest in your senior team, leading coalition, whoever they are.  Develop your relationships, and the ways of working you would like to see among the whole group.  Social groups 'parallel' and subconsciously match each other.  Your senior team will also pick up the dynamic of the whole group and it will play out in your meetings. Invest in your shared sensitivity and ability to detect these patterns.
  • Persist.  Show up. Again and again. Not everyone will love you. Anyway, rejection is a part of creative life.
  • And so, develop your resilience. Look after yourself whatever that looks like. Ask for help. And accept it.

I'm never sure whether leading a creative community requires the solidity of the rocks in the image or the adaptability, flexibility and ethereal presence of the water.  I guess the paradoxical position is that we must bring and be both.  This image is a previous 'Sunday Photo-Mediation' and it still holds it's magic for me.

But if there is one final thing to remember, its that even on the darkest, turbulent, stormy days, stop and take time to enjoy this Work.  

It is a blissful privilege that only a few are able to undertake.

Steve Marshall1 Comment