This was a question asked of Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley in a recent interview as part of Virgin Disruptors modern leadership series.  Upworthy in case you haven’t already heard of them is a new type of media company focused on bringing the world’s attention to stories that really matter – think Huffington Post meets Oprah’s OWN Network.   Founded in 2012, it’s already reported to be one of the fastest growing media companies in history.   Upworthy attributes much of its success to its leaders and so makes the above question a pretty fair one to ask.

Two Working Worlds

Koechley’s response to the question was “no” and he expanded with an eloquent and concise definition of how he saw managing and leading differing which he summed up as “leadership vs. management is strategy vs. tactic.” I liked his definition and it certainly resonated with me in terms of the work I do with people wanting to  make big jumps up the corporate ladder within their respective organisations.  Because the further up the ladder you go, the more you’ll find yourself frequenting less in the world of management, operations and tactics and residing more in the world of leadership, strategy and vision making.  These two worlds, while both equally valuable, do require a very different shift in mind-set, skills and behaviours, which for me goes well beyond just the ability to think strategically.

This leadership shift also requires creativity.  A creative way of thinking, seeing and acting in the world.  And it’s with this in mind that I would build on Koechley’s definition and add “creativity vs. sameness” or “creativity vs. incremental gains” or “creativity vs. what everyone else is doing”.   Great leadership and strategic thinking always requires courageous creativity. As I’m sure you’ll agree there’s many a strategic plan written that is little more than an improved extension of what  the company has always done.  This is why so often companies look to outsiders to fill leadership positions because of the new creative thinking and ideas they can and do bring.

Crossing the chasm

Leaders are interested in what can be and what they want to see happening.   This is what creativity is – a refusal to settle for things as they are, a belief in things being better and a brave commitment to work to make them so.  But this can at times be a very uncomfortable place to be. Why?   Well, what if you’re wrong?  What if it fails?   So, make no mistake about it, leadership and creativity require courage, risk, stepping outside of comfort zones. That’s the terrain of leadership.   Risk and reward go hand-in-hand and when those risks deliver there is no better feeling in the world.   This is what makes leadership so exciting and attractive to us.

Crossing the chasm, between these two worlds is the leadership journey every manager makes and watching it happen is a beautiful thing.  Watching people shift from talking tactics and implementation of other people’s ideas to passionately imagining and talking about their vision, their ideas,  what they would love to do if they were heading up the division never ceases to delight me.  When given the right supports managers can and will transform into leaders right before your eyes, but the organisational culture, supports and systems to enable this happen are crucial, so don’t leave it to chance.