The creativity of ancient societies is spectacularly demonstrated by magnificent building projects, like the pyramids, Stonehenge, and the Great Wall of China. But cultural breakthroughs like writing, mathematics, astronomy, and agriculture, were even more significant.
The creative urge is common to all societies.
From papyrus to pantomime to the Periodic Table, from Sanskrit to sonatas to skydiving, from crochet to croquet to cuisine, from iambic pentameters to impressionism to the Internet, creativity is seen in a cornucopia of cultural achievement.
Intellect, the culture-creating part of the human mind is incessantly at work. However, ingenuity, like all human attributes, is misused at least as frequently as it is deployed to do good. Directed by hubris, it is dangerous; guided by love, it becomes inspirational.
Understanding our creative ability demands a deep awareness of this dual potential. It is our great advantage in the on-going task to procreate and prosper, yet its quality and application are inevitably determined by character and culture.
Leaders are called to ensure that creativity produces what is best for all people and the environment, while misleaders, as they have done throughout history, either repress or pervert creativity. Every nation and every organisation should ask whether their people are genuinely inspired to use their creativity to improve human well-being.
In The Mystery of Capital, Hernando De Soto exposes the quagmire choking the efforts of poor people to improve their lives. The poor in Peru, Egypt, the Philippines, Mexico, Haiti, and elsewhere, are extraordinarily inventive and thrifty. However, corrupt governments and the absence of formal property rights mean their economic assets can never be turned into capital.
It took De Soto’s researchers six hours a day for 289 days to get certification for a small one-person business in Peru. Registration costs were $1 231. To acquire legal approval to build a house on state-owned land took the team nearly seven years, wading through over 200 administrative procedures in 52 government offices. They faced around 700 bureaucratic stages to obtain legal title for the land.
Authoritarian regimes fear poor people becoming prosperous and educated, because that spells the end of docile submission. A culture where human potential is smothered will never be creative in anything other than evading regulation.
Significantly, many poor people slip into the black-market economy that sabotages the official economy, and at the same time all hope of a society built on truth and justice.
This repression of creativity is widespread. Many children worldwide enter school severely handicapped because their parents never read to them. Many give up on maths because some lazy teacher has told them they lack ability. Employees often keep ideas to themselves because of a corporate culture where people are not allowed to make mistakes. Homeowners all over the world have descended into passivity in the face of rising rates of crime and social dysfunction because of their despair over official incompetence and indifference.
These negative cultural impacts are unnecessary, as demonstrated by the many inspiring creative responses seen in other cases. Muhammad Yunus in Bangladesh pioneered the idea of micro-loans and founded the Grameen Bank after helping 42 bamboo furniture makers escape the poverty trap by loaning the group just $27.
Professor James Tooley has revealed how entrepreneurial, often uncertified, teachers in India are providing educational opportunities for slum children that state schooling has failed to deliver. Ricardo Semler in Brazil has demonstrated the amazing benefits of a radically democratic workplace where the creativity of all is actively encouraged. The examples are endless.
So what is creativity? Consider these definitions:
“An idea is a feat of association”. Poet Robert Frost
“Thinking is connecting things, and stops if they cannot be connected.” G. K. Chesterton
“Lateral thinking is restructuring patterns and provoking new ones.” Edward De Bono
“Creativity is to see what everyone else has seen and to think what nobody else has thought.” Nobel Laureate Albert Szent-Gyorgyi
Creativeness often consists of turning up what is already there. Did you know that right and left shoes were thought up only a little more than a century ago? Advertising guru Bernice Fitz-Gibbon
They all say essentially the same thing – creativity is taking what is there, and then reshaping and reordering to find more rewarding patterns and possibilities.
Vision (seeing the potential for a better future), strategy (finding the best way to get there), and tactics (making the most of unforeseen developments) are all creative activities, calling people to look at what is given, and to imagine or conceive of something better.
Experts agree that the creative process involves identifying the challenge, absorbing all available information, then generating scores of options and possibilities through imaginative and intuitive connections and new patterns.
Thereafter, letting go of the puzzle and leaving it to the subconscious usually produces the Eureka moment. Analogies, reframing the question, brainstorming, and outrageous suggestions, all help in the generation stage.
Two enemies of creativity are common in business and politics. Problem-solution thinking misleads people into seeking the quick fix, while formula or template thinking encourages a lazy reliance on a stock response. The complexities of life mean there are never simple solutions without risks involved. Better to see challenges as adventures wherein we have the opportunity to help shape a better world.
If leadership inspires people to be the best they can be in pursuit of a better life for all, then creativity is indispensable. The challenge of life is inexorable change; the required response is creative endeavour. And the criterion of creativity is respect for the dignity of all people.
G. K. Chesterton said it best when he compared art with morality, observing that both required drawing the line somewhere.
The above is a précis of Chapter Ten of Leaders and Misleaders by Andre van Heerden. In the next article (the final of Leaders and Misleaders), Andre will consider : Quo vadis? Where are you going?