Is Creative, Unique Leadership Valued?

Innovation and a maverick spirit are widely hailed as positive characteristics, but if you’ve spent your career in the corporate world, you may begin to doubt whether these qualities are truly valued.

Anthony Foxx, the U.S. transportation secretary, was profiled in a Q&A earlier this month in The New York Times, with an inspiring message: He values the independent leadership of those working under him, and encourages young people to be “interesting” people. I really like his message, even though it’s one I haven’t experienced myself.

When I first got out of school and began looking for a full-time job, I was disappointed to notice in job interviews that most companies wanted me to lie to them. I’ve always been creative, so I didn’t worry about conforming during the interview process. I never gave inappropriate, or rude, responses, but I wouldn’t hesitate to be honest and let the employer know if there was a skill I wasn’t proficient at, or a particular task I didn’t like. Months went by without a job offer, so I consulted my younger sister, who, unlike me, didn’t go to graduate school, and, so, was in the workforce before me. She’s a less creative, whimsical personality. She instructed me to just say simply: “I can get the job done,” or something equivalent to that. In so many words, she said, that’s all they care about—hearing the cues and catchphrases they’ve been inadvertently trained to listen for. They didn’t need to know if I wasn’t as proficient as I should be at a skill, and they didn’t care what I did and didn’t like.

I have a similarly creative friend who’s run into the same experience in the job interview process. She was interviewing for a technology magazine, and was asked: If you could write about anything, what it would be? Earnest, as I was many years ago, she told the truth—that her dream job would be writing about elephants. I can’t say I blame her, but, obviously, this technology magazine wanted to hear that her dream job was something like writing about the technology of tomorrow, or writing about exciting new breakthroughs in technology, or writing about the new solutions technology is bringing to old problems. Anything along those lines probably would have worked. As it was, “elephants,” didn’t cut it, and she lost out on the opportunity.

It may seem crazy to some to volunteer information about weaknesses and interests (and disinterests), but it says something about the character of an applicant, and potential leadership ability, when they’re secure and know themselves enough to be open and honest.

In the Q&A, Foxx says of his management outlook: “The way I think about it is that if you are someone who works with me, you’re also a leader. I expect you to be a leader, and I understand that you have to use your natural abilities differently than I use mine. Part of my job is to help build other leaders.” It’s refreshing, and smart, that he acknowledges the need for leadership even in those who work under him, and that he understands they probably will go about getting to the same (or an equally desirable) end result differently than he would. Is that also the leadership philosophy at your company?

My company probably would say that’s its leadership philosophy, but what I’ve experienced and observed doesn’t bear that out. My manager was so locked into his own way of thinking and communicating that, when I was first hired, he even critiqued and edited an e-mail I copied him on. In even casual conversations, he would quibble with my choice of words, and look for ways to align my thinking, and even speaking, with his. He, and at least one other manager here, has literally been heard saying: “We need to do what we’ve always done.”

It doesn’t seem like independent thinking is, in reality, one our values. Do you have any stories you could share from your own company that shows it is, truly, one of your values, or that it really isn’t?

Foxx also mentioned his interesting advice that young people be interesting. I loved that because that’s often just the opposite message that’s sent to those entering the workforce. Foxx advises: “I tell them that doing well in school is the baseline, and that you have to take good care of yourself and make sure that you’re an interesting person, because that helps you as a leader.”

I’ve been critiqued, and missed out on a writing opportunity, because I happened to be carrying into the job interview a canvas bag I got at a trade show. The meeting was just after work, so I had things I was toting home with me. My sister once was critiqued because she happened to be carrying a small shopping bag with her into an interview. The thing to point out here isn’t the evil of bags in job interviews, but that any slight deviation from what is expected is judged harshly.

If we want innovative companies, with “out-of-the-box” thinking, then wouldn’t you look for people who seemed a little out of the ordinary? Creative people with fresh ideas often come with the kind of quirky, whimsical nature that many corporations scorn. Is it possible to change that?

How is your company doing in encouraging, and welcoming, out-of-the-ordinary thinking and personalities?

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