Why Humility Is The Most Important Trait for Creative Leadership

Indra Nooyi, the former CEO of PepsiCo., took over the reins of the company in 2006. During the twelve years of her tenure, Pepsi’s revenue grew over 80%, cementing her reputation as a highly successful CEO. Nooyi led with a “Performance with a Purpose” strategy and drove a shift towards healthier food options to reduce obesity rates. But it was not just her strategic insights that made her a great leader, her humility played an equally big role.  

Among the more unconventional things she did as a leader was writing personal letters to the parents of her senior executives, thanking them for the “gift” of their children to the company. She got the idea when she became a CEO and saw people complimenting her mother on “doing a good job with her daughter”. It made her realize that parents often don’t get acknowledged for the success of their children. The letters, which ran into several hundred a year, honored the parents and cemented a stronger bond between employees and the company. 

What is Humility?

Humility is defined as a “relatively stable trait that is grounded in a self-view that something greater than the self exists.” It’s easy to see Nooyi’s humility in this context. She didn’t pat herself on the back, but deeply appreciated the contributions of her employees and their families, for the company’s success. 

In practice, this view that something greater than self exists, translates to three factors that define the conceptual core of humility:

  • Accurate Self Awareness:  Humble leaders have a realistic view of themselves and are more willing to accept their limitations. As a result, they do not have a strong need to dominate over others. 
  • Appreciation of Others: Humble leaders acknowledge and appreciate other people’s strengths and views. 
  • Openness to Feedback: Humble leaders are more open-minded and willing to learn from others. They can take critical feedback and use that to improve their leadership style.

Role of Humility in Creative Leadership

While humility is a healthy trait in itself, it is key in leadership roles where innovation is important. Research shows that “as individuals get promoted into leadership positions, they gain power and this power has some debilitating effects on the idea-generating process.” In particular, when people gain power they listen less carefully, are less open to others perspectives, and have less ability to handle complexity. 

In other words, when leaders lack humility, they are more likely to brush off someone’s idea quickly without exploring its full potential. Creative ideas emerge from integrating multiple perspectives, which requires a humble mindset (willingness to listen) and a cognitive aspect (to create new internal mental models). Without humility, it is hard to build on each others’ ideas that lead to groundbreaking innovation. 

Strategies to Build More Humility and Creativity

Humility is a prerequisite to being a more creative leader. Without humility it is hard to synthesize new ideas from multiple different perspectives. Here are three strategies that can help you build more humility and lead to more innovation from your team or organization. 

  • Pause before rejecting an idea: Imagine one of your reports comes to you with an idea. As soon as you hear the idea, you spot the flaws in the idea and your first impulse is to quickly dismiss it. Instead of rejecting the idea right away, pause and start digging deeper with a genuine goal to understand the intent behind the idea. Explore ways in which the flaws can be removed while retaining the positive elements. If this exploration leads to something meaningful, make a mental note about it. Over time, you might notice several instances that led to better ideas which will help build more appreciation for others’ ideas. 
  • Let others lead in group meetings: When someone raises a problem in a group meeting, it can be tempting as a leader to quickly jump into providing a solution. Instead, make a norm where you open up the problem and invite solutions from others before sharing your own. Only when you see you have a perspective or an idea that is different from what’s been suggested before, share it with the group. Every time you see “your” idea proposed by someone else or an even better idea from the group, make a mental note about it. This can help build self-awareness of your abilities and limitations. 
  • Steer conversations towards co-creation: Very often, in group meetings, people focus more on picking one idea vs. another. However, the most innovative ideas come from the merging of different concepts and perspectives. As a leader, focus on ideas that have merit and guide your team to synthesizing a more innovative idea by combining multiple good ones. This exercise can help build complex problem solving skills.

Beyond Extroversion: The Inner Playfulness Of Genius

When people talk about creativity, outgoing personalities invariably come into the picture. It seems to be commonly accepted that extraverted, playful people tend to be more creative. But is that really true?

Mozart and Newton personify the boundary-pushing, Big-C Creativity in very different disciplines of music and science. They both made immeasurable contributions to their fields and inspired many others over generations to follow their footsteps. But not only were their domains vastly different, their personalities were too. 

Mozart was an extrovert with a bawdy sense of humor, who loved to party, drink and play pranks. He often got into trouble due to his eccentric behavior. Newton, on the other hand, was a socially awkward introvert. He had few friends and preferred to spend time alone. 

Of these two – Mozart and Newton – who do you think was more creative?

The question is obviously ridiculous. Both of them were creative giants who radically transformed their own fields. While externally they couldn’t be more different, internally they were likely much more alike. 

Most people mistake extroverted, playful people as being more creative but that is not necessarily true. It’s not the external playfulness that matters but the internal playfulness with ideas – something that both extroverts and introverts are capable of doing. Creativity emerges when you take ideas and perform mental transformations on them like changing boundaries or combining with other ideas, or in other words, when you playfully manipulate them. Someone could be a playful person on the surface, but without doing the internal playful work with ideas, they are not going to come up with groundbreaking ideas. 

This playfulness with ideas is what makes Mozart and Newton similar. With Die Entführung aus dem Serail, Mozart pushed the boundaries on what an opera was expected to be at the time. He wrote it in German instead of Italian, he used an unexpected and controversial setting of a Turkish harem, and the opera incorporated elements of Turkish music. Those were controversial ideas at the time but eventually the opera became a huge success. Similarly, in his cannonball thought experiment, Newton pushed the limit of projectile motion which allowed him to make the connection between planetary motion and objects falling on Earth. He had to simplify objects, reducing them to mathematical points to prove that the same universal law of gravitation worked for all objects. According to an anecdote, when an admirer asked Newton how he made his discoveries, he replied “By always thinking unto them.”

So, if extraversion doesn’t predict creative output, is there any other personality trait that does? 

The trait of “Openness/Intellect” – one of the Big 5 personality traits – is the only trait that shows a consistent relation to creativity. A study by Kaufmann and others found that “artistic creativity draws more heavily on experiential Type 1 processes associated with Openness (e.g., perceptual, aesthetic, and implicit learning processes), whereas scientific creativity relies more heavily on Type 2 processes associated with Intellect and divergent thinking.” Incidentally, their study did find an unexpected correlation between extraversion and artistic creativity but not scientific creativity. 

When companies strive to make a more creative and innovative culture, they often fall into the same trap. They focus on external things – like foosball tables or bean bags – to create a fun, playful vibe in the hope that it will lead people to think more creatively. Their interviewing and hiring processes tend to favor extroversion. But without creating an environment where offbeat ideas are encouraged, debated and experimented, groundbreaking innovation is not likely to happen. Companies might think that they encourage play but what they create is a playpen and not a playground. 

Mitch Resnick, Professor and Director of the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT, uses the metaphor of playpen vs playground to differentiate the different kinds of play they support. A playpen might have interesting toys to play with but it is a restrictive environment with limited autonomy and freedom of exploration, whereas a playground promotes open exploration, problem solving and creativity. Needless to say, a playpen stifles creativity while a playground nurtures it. 

To build more innovative cultures, companies need to hire people who are curious and open to new ideas, which isn’t related to extroversion or introversion. And then they need to create intellectually stimulating environments where people can freely play with ideas, debate them with others and explore their potential.  

What Niels Bohr Taught Us About Creativity and Leadership

One of the most potent techniques in creative problem solving, and perhaps also the most difficult, is holding two contradictory points of view at the same time. Albert Rothenberg, who extensively studied Nobel Laureates and other eminent people, found that the ability of “actively conceiving multiple opposites or antitheses simultaneously” underlies many creative accomplishments. He coined the term “Janusian” thinking after the Roman god, Janus, who has two faces that look in opposite directions. 

A salient example of Janusian thinking, one that laid the foundation of quantum mechanics, is wave-particle duality. The nature of light had been a topic of vigorous debate because different experiments revealed contradictory aspects. Diffraction indicated a wave like nature while photoelectric effect pointed to its particle characteristic. It took Niels Bohr, Danish physicist and winner of the 1922 Nobel prize in physics, to resolve this apparent contradiction. More than four decades before Rothenberg came up with Janusian thinking, Niels Bohr had arrived at the concept of complementarity during a ski vacation in Norway. The key idea behind complementarity is that objects have certain complementary properties that cannot be observed or measured simultaneously, with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle being the most well known example. So depending on the measurement apparatus, you could either get a wave like behavior or a particle like behavior. Yet, both those behaviors are equally valid and together they provide a fuller picture of reality. 

The true nature of light, according to Bohr, is impossible to visualize because mathematically speaking, it requires more dimensions to represent than the three dimensions of the cartesian world. Even Einstein, who predominantly relied on visualization for his creative breakthroughs, found the juxtaposition of these two conflicting ideas too jarring. Along with Podolsky and Rosen, he offered a rebuttal to the quantum mechanical description but unfortunately it couldn’t stand up to Bohr’s complementarity argument. 

A vital aspect of Janusian thinking, that Bohr brought to light, is the idea of additional dimensions. Imagine you and a friend are looking at a can of soup on a table. Your friend sees the top of the can and insists that the object is circular, while you see the side and believe it’s rectangular. As is obvious, without including the third dimension both of you cannot recognize the object as a cylinder. Finding the hidden dimension or underlying aspect is key to resolving Janusian contradictions. 

One reason why most people find Janusian thinking hard, is that holding two conflicting concepts simultaneously leads to cognitive dissonance. Our brains naturally rush to alleviate the feeling of discomfort that cognitive dissonance brings by resolving the contradiction as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, it often takes the easy way out by “picking a winner” based on an easily available argument instead of trying to view the conflicting ideas as truly complementary and finding hidden factors to resolve contradictions. 

You don’t need to be a nuclear physicist to find Janusian thinking useful. Niels Bohr, who also had strong philosophical leanings, found complementarity to be a foundational aspect of life. Much like yin and yang, he saw complementarity in thoughts and feelings, instinct and reason, and different cultures. Thinking about a feeling makes the feeling disappear, and while thoughts and feelings may not be observable at the same time, they represent valuable facets of human behavior. 

Bohr’s way of thinking is just as valuable in today’s world as it was back then. Here are three ways Janusian thinking can help businesses:

  • Creative Problem Solving: The most obvious area that benefits from Janusian thinking is in creative problem solving. Engineering problems often involve tradeoffs between different factors – improving one lowers another. Janussian thinking can cut through the Gordian knot by solving the problem on a different plane. Creativity expert Michael Mikhalko shares an example from foundries that use sandblasting to clean parts. To clean thoroughly, particles need to be “hard” but hard particles also get stuck and are difficult to remove. So the paradox is that you need something that can be both hard and soft. One clever solution is to use particles of dry ice that are hard enough to clean and then evaporate. In this case, by adding a new dimension of temperature, which transforms the material, the problem gets solved at a completely different level.  
  • Conflict Resolution: Applying Janusian thinking in resolving conflicts aligns naturally with transformational leadership. Leaders routinely face conflicting information – one team believes a particular feature will be a hit with users while the other team feels the exact opposite. Instead of jumping in to make a quick decision, adopting a mindset that both teams have a valid rationale naturally leads you to ask more questions and dig deeper to find underlying factors at play. Once those factors are surfaced, the conversation shifts into a more productive state – the group arrives at a more complete mental model and actively engages in discovering new pathways to make progress.  
  • Building Effective Teams: Bohr believed that different cultures represent a  “harmonious balance of traditional conventions” that reflect the richness of human life. This lesson has even more relevance today when companies have to appeal to global audiences. A travel booking site found that German users were less likely to book compared to Danish people. On investigating further they realized that cultural differences were at play. Germans have a high threshold for uncertainty avoidance compared to their Danish peers, so showing them more details about the trip improved booking rate. Having a more diverse team ensures that decisions in product design are more creative and effective. Leaders who recognize the complementary nature of cultures choose more diverse teams not because there is a mandate to do so, but because it leads to superior results.

Holding two contradictory thoughts in your head is a challenging cognitive process, but it can yield groundbreaking ideas. There are plenty of situations ranging from product design to resolving disagreements where such thinking can lead to new insights. The next time you face a seemingly intractable conflict, apply Janusian thinking to discover a deep insight because as Bohr quipped, “The opposite of a correct statement is a false statement, but the opposite of a profound truth may well be another profound truth.” 

3 Ways Leaders Can Enable Disruptive Innovation

The story of how the sticky note became a huge market success is a story of ingenuity and persistence. It’s also a story that exemplifies why disruptive ideas are so hard to manage inside a company.

In 1968, Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was working on making a super-strong adhesive but accidentally ended up creating a weak adhesive that could be peeled off easily and was reusable. Intrigued by the new material, Silver tried to get support within the company to find ways to commercialize it. Over the next five years, he gave seminars to different groups and talked to many leaders in the hope that it would spark new ideas. The most promising idea a product group came up with was a reusable bulletin board that people could stick paper to but that idea was abandoned because bulletin board sales are not large enough to make this a profitable business. Without any good commercially viable use case, Silver couldn’t garner any support for his new adhesive. That changed in 1974 when Art Fry, another colleague at 3M who had attended one of Silver’s seminars, came up with an idea to use the adhesive on pieces of paper to act as bookmarks for his hymn book. Fry then tested the idea within the company some more. He sent a report to his manager with a sticky note on top, who then responded back on the same note. Soon other employees started using it and 3M decided to take the idea more seriously. They did a limited launch of the sticky note in four cities but it failed to generate much sales. Fortunately, they realized that the launch failed because the concept was new and customers were not able to gauge how useful the sticky notes would be. So, they did one final test in Boise, Idaho, where they handed out free sticky notes to businesses and waited to see the response. Over 90% of businesses ordered the sticky notes when they ran out giving 3M a very clear signal of success!

Despite the skepticism they received, Silver and Fry’s persistence paid off eventually and led to a category defining product for 3M. But their story illustrates why it’s so hard for companies to identify and grow disruptive ideas. 

Companies are optimized for incremental innovation

Most companies have a dominant thinking style that favors short-term incremental innovation. Consider how new features get incorporated into a product. In most places, there is a well established protocol starting with user studies to identify how the product might be made more efficient or intuitive. However, this approach can only result in incremental innovation. Imagine you were a leader at 3M faced with evaluating Silver’s discovery. You would most likely ask the same (logical) questions like what pain point or unmet need of the customer gets addressed by the new idea. And you would end up rejecting the idea in the first meeting. Unfortunately, they are the wrong kind of questions to ask for disruptive innovation when you are creating a new product category. 

In the case of 3M, even the marketing team fell victim to established thinking and only after recognizing that people can only evaluate a product once they are familiar with it, did they hit success. 

The issue here isn’t that managers are not capable of identifying good ideas or that they let their egos get the better of them, but instead, as researchers found, “…managers face two distinct hurdles: They are not empowered to act on input from below, and they feel compelled to adopt a short-term outlook to work.”

Handling Disruptive Ideas

To manage disruptive ideas, companies need to create a different channel where radical ideas can survive, and the most recommended approach is to create a different team to incubate such ideas. However, this approach still requires managers and employees to understand radical ideas so they can be fed into the new channel. Without this step, the incubating team starves for good ideas coming from product teams that can potentially be successful. 

Boost ideas before evaluating them

Transformational ideas don’t always sound convincing or practical in the beginning. One mistake leaders tend to make is to focus on evaluating the idea when they first hear it. This works well in the case of incremental innovation where the value proposition is easy to understand – whether it is improving performance or making the design more intuitive. As a result they end up blocking ideas too early. For transformational ideas, it helps instead to first understand the full potential of an idea before starting to evaluate it. This requires looking at an idea from multiple angles, finding new use cases or connecting with other products that the person proposing the idea may not have thought through. 

Leaders need to create an exploratory phase where ideas can be built up in different ways to see their full long-term potential. Most radical ideas tend to get blocked early on but by adding a boosting phase, companies can significantly increase the number of potentially disruptive ideas they see.  

Idea evaluation shouldn’t be the manager’s job

Managers are often the first hurdle that an innovative idea has to cross. If a manager gets convinced that an idea has merit, then they can champion the idea further up the chain. This works quite well for incremental innovation, where a manager’s experience can play a meaningful role in evaluating and shaping the idea more. However, for radical ideas, the same strength becomes a weakness. Like in the case of the sticky note, where a colleague from another part of the company was able to identify the potential of the adhesive, evaluating ideas should be a broader effort. When it comes to creativity, no one person is going to consistently pick winners but by including more people in the mix, companies can start tapping group intelligence towards innovation. 

Leaders should recognize when an employee is bringing a radical idea, and push it through a boosting stage. In the simplest form, managers can bring the team together to brainstorm on the idea with the intent of finding the most promising incarnation. 

Remove individualistic biases 

Most companies disproportionately reward the person who “first came up with the idea”. The reality is that most ideas in the initial formulation are weak and it often requires significant contributions from many others before an idea can fly. When incentives are misaligned, employees might choose to propose their own idea instead of helping other ideas become successful.  As a result, instead of one or two killer ideas, companies are left with multiple mediocre ones. 

To combat individualistic tendencies, leaders should set expectations with the team that ideas become groundbreaking through many people’s contributions and routinely reward people who help others’ ideas become more successful. 

As AI becomes more prevalent in society, businesses will need to innovate at a faster rate than ever before to stay competitive. Companies that figure out the formula to churn out disruptive ideas will have a big edge over others. This requires companies to understand ways in which disruptive innovation differs from incremental innovation and reengineer incentives and processes to support transformative ideas from employees.

Creativity Hack: One-Hop Associations

Finding ways to connect two unrelated concepts liest at the root of many innovations. Combining unrelated objects or concepts is one hack to finding novel ideas. However, combining completely random ideas has one drawback – it often leads to incongruous ideas that don’t always resonate with people. The One-hop association method is a way to connect unrelated (but not completely random) concepts and leads to ideas that are perceived as surprising in a good way.  

About The Hack

For this hack, you start by building an association map of an object. Suppose your task is to make a new and interesting ruler. You first start with the ruler in the center and choose a few ways that a ruler might be connected to other objects. Attributes like “used with”, “material” and “similar to” tend to be easier to work with for younger children. Then, you list different values for each of those attributes like a ruler is used with paper and pen. This gives the first order of concepts that are directly associated with the ruler. Next you extend the association map by one more level and list second order concepts that are associated with the first order ones. Finally, you try to connect back the second order concepts with the original object and see if that leads you to any interesting ideas. 

As an example, a ruler is used with paper which is used with scissors. Trying to connect a ruler with scissors might give you an idea to make a ruler with a sharpened edge that can also help cut paper. The reason this hack works well is due to the incongruity theory. When people notice an incongruity, they can either find it amusing or be disappointed. When people can tie the incongruity back to the product, the product feels more fun, interesting or amusing, but when people can’t find an underlying connection, the idea appears confusing. 


Finally, here is a quick summary of the creativity hack and how to use it in product design or with students.

DescriptionTo find a creative idea for product improvement, try to build an association map and combine concepts that are one hop away. 
ExampleIn designing a new kind of ruler, start by listing concepts that are connected with a ruler using attributes like “material”, “used with” or “similar to”. Then repeat this exercise one more time to find the next level of concepts. Finally try to combine second order concepts with a ruler to   
Tips Instead of combining objects directly, use attributes of the second order object to combine which can lead to novel ideas  
ExtensionsTo extend the association map, use more types of attributes like “similar to”, “environment”, “sounds” and more. The more extensive the map, the more opportunities to find new ideas. 
Creativity Hack: One-Hop Associations