What is Creativity?

By Linda Fisher Thornton

What is Creativity?

In the leadership development world, creativity is currently getting a great deal of attention. But what is it? Can you learn it? Is it a skill? How do we lead in ways that encourage it?

When we explore the question “What is creativity?” from a thinking and learning point of view, an open and active mind is clearly required – one that can see new possibilities. But is there more to it than that? This post explores the variables that make up what we think of as “creativity.”


Creativity is studied across a number of disciplines, and according to Wikipedia:

“Scholarly interest in creativity ranges widely…Creativity and creative acts are therefore studied across several disciplines – psychologycognitive scienceeducationphilosophy (particularly philosophy of science), technologytheologysociologylinguisticsbusiness studies, and economics. As a result, there are a multitude of definitions and approaches.”

“Creativity,” Wikipedia.com

Is it A Skill or a Mindset?

Can you learn “creativity” as a skill? According to John Maxwell in his book Thinking for a Change, creativity is not a single skill or attribute, but a mindset that embraces a broad array of different things including Ambiguity, Learning, Possibility, Connecting, Ideas, Options, Exploring Gaps and Inconsistencies, the Offbeat, and Failure.

In his book The Evolving Self; A Psychology for the Third Millennium, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi reflects on the limits of reason and says “We must foster intuition to anticipate changes before they occur; empathy to understand that which cannot clearly be expressed; wisdom to see the connection between apparently unrelated events; and creativity to discover new ways of defining problems, new rules that will make it possible to adapt to the unexpected.”

Creativity, then, is as a way of thinking – a flexible, connecting mindset that helps us deal with a changing world, and keeps us nimble and adaptable.

How is it Different From Critical Thinking? 

 How does creative thinking relate to critical thinking? According to Sir Anthony Jay (Management Trainer) “The uncreative mind can spot wrong answers, but it takes a creative mind to spot wrong questions.” Gail Sheehy (Author) says that “creativity can be described as letting go of certainties.” 

The University of Michigan “Criticial and Creative Thinking” Page at umich.edu sees criticial thinking as “the process we use to reflect on, assess and judge the assumption underlying our own and others ideas and efforts” and creative thinking as “the process we use to develop ideas that are unique, useful and worthy of further elaboration.” 

In his paper “Critical Thinking and Creativity:An Overview and Comparison of the Theories” Jean Marrapodi wrote that “Creative thinking is designed to create, and critical thinking is designed to analyze. It seems that creative thinking has aspects of critical thinking, and critical thinking has aspects of creativity.”

How Do Creative Thinkers Handle Failing?

Creativity is now seen as generating a great deal of value in our complex global society, but it requires the element of action and a tolerance for failure. In his article “Wierd Rules of Creativity: Think You Can Manage Creativity? Here’s Why You’re Wrong” Robert Sutton says that

If you want a creative organization, inaction is the worst kind of failure—and the only kind that deserves to be punished. Researcher Dean Keith Simonton provides strong evidence from multiple studies that creativity results from action. Renowned geniuses like Picasso, da Vinci, and physicist Richard Feynman didn’t succeed at a higher rate than their peers. They simply produced more, which meant that they had far more successes and failures than their unheralded colleagues.

Robert Sutton, “Wierd Rules of Creativity: Think You Can Manage Creativity? Here’s Why You’re Wrong” , Harvard Business School Working Knowledge for Business Leaders, online at hbs.edu

The Role of Creativity in Leadership

As leaders, we need to create an environment where learning and creativity are encouraged, where people are respectful, and where work is meaningful. In such an environment, people can actually enjoy what they’re doing.

Here are two compelling definitions  that place creativity in the context of the fun and the joy of learning:  

“Creativity is the joy of not knowing it all.” Ernie Zelinski, Creativity Expert 

“Creativity is intelligence having fun.”  John Maxwell, Leadership Author

When we use our creativity, we can do our best work.  In her article “What is Creativity Anyway” Huffington Post author Jan Phillips says that “Creativity is about being fully alive, living courageously, or as the painter Joan Miro´ says, ‘Expressing with precision all the gold sparks the soul gives off.’ ”

Using our creativity is part of expressing our authenticity as leaders. Leaders who are leading authentically and using their creative capacities within ethical boundaries will find it easier to

  • stay ahead of change
  • build a loyal, productive team
  • find innovative solutions to complex problems, and
  • engage others in the work of meeting goals and advancing the organization’s vision and mission.

In his article on HBR Blog Network called “Why Are Creative Leaders So Rare?” Navi Radjou describes “a new breed of visionary and empathetic leaders who act less as commanders and more as coaches, less as managers and more as facilitators, and who foster self-respect rather that demanding respect.”

Creative Thinking Resources:

Creativity Tools, MindTools.com

Creativity Tools, WatchOut4Snakes.com

Tools for Creating Ideas, CreatingMinds.org


For more, see new book 7 Lenses and the 21 Question Assessment: How Current is My Message About Ethics?

7 Lenses is a Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner in Business Ethics41cEVx-Tu4L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_
2014  Bronze Axiom Business Book Award Winner 
About 7 Lenses
Info@LeadinginContext.com  @leadingincontxt  @7Lenses

© 2012 Leading in Context LLC 



  1. You may also want to check out the work of Marilee Adams in her book Change Your Questions, Change Your Life which distinguishes the “Learner Mindset” from the “Judger Mindset” and connects this to the way we can use our self-questions to access the best thinking of ourselves and others. Using questions strategically and skillfully can help us make thoughtful choices in ways that generate creativity and open up possibilities. Thanks for your thoughtful article.
    Andrea Zintz
    President, Strategic Leadership Resources LLC
    Pennington, NJ


  2. Thanks for introducing creativity in the context of leadership. While reading your post I am reminded of that which we know of critical thinking. Many, including Paul & Elder, as well as Schoenberg speak to and bridge the elements of critical thinking to creativity. Pondering that connection and perhaps the need to have one with the other is yet another matter to think about as we strive to manage the growing complexity that is associated with problem solving. – Thom


  3. Reblogged this on Reason & Existenz and commented:
    Goes well with recent episodes of my podcasts for Whatever, Etc., on the three aspects of mindful contemplation: Attending to the world as it is happening, giving focus to our actual situation, & opening up to possibilities.


  4. Excellent article, Linda!

    This is a very well constructed and informative piece! I am sure that many would benefit from reading it.

    (But oddly enough, as one with a “mega-uber-ultra-creative” mind, I found that looking at the left side of your chart in the Fixed Mindset column is where I probably need to camp out for a while! I have far too much creativity swimming in my head and need to practice the fixed-minded approach so that I can complete my tasks!!)

    Again, great article! I will be tweeting :O)

    Tom Schulte
    Atlanta, GA USA


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