Leadership for Good: The Mandela Legacy

Nelson Mandela by rolandtelema

Artwork by Roland Telema

By Jamie Anderson & Babita Mathur-Helm

Given the leadership change that is now underway in South Africa, it is time to reflect upon the legacy left by Nelson Mandela, the country’s first post-apartheid President. At a time of so much social change, not just in South Africa but in the wider world, there is a lot of talk about the leadership traits that will be required to drive positive outcomes for humanity in the 21st Century.  But we believe that the focus on leadership at this time of uncertainty is somewhat misplaced – the real challenge will be to inspire humanity towards following a path to peace and prosperity for all.  And Nelson Mandela’s story provides insight into how building and sustaining a  follower-driven movement can be achieved.

In this post we reflect upon the legacy of Nelson Mandela. We demonstrate how Mandela was able to build and sustain a followership base as part of creating momentum towards achieving positive social transformation. He was able to evolve a remarkably consistent approach to delivering what we see as the three pillars of a followership, and each of these pillars will be discussed in turn.  We will demonstrate how Mandela’s story provides a powerful lesson for global leaders who are looking to create momentum for positive change in today’s turbulent and complex times.

The Personal Narrative – Who am I

The best leaders excel in their followers’ eyes by being themselves and by providing insights about what shaped them into who they are. They are able to communicate “Who am I” and Nelson Mandela seemed to understand this from a very early age.

After his father’s death in 1927, the young Mandela became the ward of Chief Jongintaba Dalindyebo, the acting regent of the Thembu nation. It was at the Thembu royal homestead that his personality and values took shape. He learnt how a chief should listen to others, and this led him to be a very patient listener and to appreciate the power of humility.

Mandela was well aware that his political uprising would lead to prosecution and confinement by the ruling government, yet he remained undeterred by the consequences of his actions. In the prime time of his life Mandela was imprisoned, and as such was stripped of those possessions that sometimes denote a leader – certain attire, actions, behaviours, and material goods, but also dignity. His sense of autonomy was lost, but rather than despair his focus moved to the internal, and directed him to rely on internal self-control and integrity.  When he saw that his outer world was becoming confined, his interior world became bigger.

Even in imprisonment, Mandela carried himself with grace, standing tall, looking people in the eye, and speaking with a firm but humble voice, all of which communicated dignity and respect not only for how he treated others but how he expected to be treated by others, even those who would oppress him. Mandela acquired the ability to deal with the prison guards, who controlled his life, and in interviews after his release some of these guards talked about how one of Mandela’s most endearing qualities was his big, broad, kind smile that put others at ease.

When he went out into the larger world after his incarceration, many world leaders spoke of the traits of grace and dignity, traits that had evolved during his twenty-seven years of imprisonment. His demeanour, behavour and language embodied the anti-apartheid movement which after all was built upon universal principles of equality and respect, rather than anger or hatred.  Mandela provided a role model, and moved his followers to defy the racist policies of the South African government in a peaceful and dignified manner.

Mandela had a natural presence that led him to engage with others at a deeper emotional level. Assuredness and attractiveness, as traits of confidence and humility in the being of a leader, defines for them who they are.  The uniqueness of Mandela’s personality and confidence, and acceptance of it, meant in his own words “I do not need to pretend to be someone I am not.”

Like Nelson Mandela, leaders of today’s social movements need to demonstrate authenticity in their actions and words. The leader must have a clear understanding about what he or she wants to be known for, to draw on their life experience to do this in an authentic way, and then ensure that these traits are communicated consistently.

The Collective Narrative – Who are We?

Beyond demanding the individual narrative of “Who am I” followers will give their hearts to figures who make them feel a part of something and say, “You really matter,” no matter how small the followers’ contributions may be.  Nelson Mandela understood that followers want to feel part of a community and saw his natural colleagues as the mass of ordinary South Africans.   Despite his regal nature, his identification was entirely with ordinary human beings, of all races, religions and creeds.

Mandela’s followers possessed the strong desire to end years of segregation and discrimination, and to become part of the struggle. Correspondingly, they felt empowered to adopt the necessary measures to achieve their common goals, and were willing to abide by guidance given by their leader.

Perhaps the most powerful demonstration of this guidance was his  appearance at the opening ceremony and final match of the 1995 Rugby World Cup hosted by South Africa. The image of a smiling Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok Jersey, a powerful symbol of Afrikaans heritage, was broadcast around the world. Handing the trophy to Springbok captain Pienaar after South Africa’s victory in the final against New Zealand, Mandela’s gesture was a powerful statement about the emerging collective narrative of what it meant to celebrate being a South African.

Mandela seemed to recognize that the charismatic effects of his actions were more likely to occur in contexts in which his followers felt conflicted, and through the Springbok victory gave all South Africans reason to cheer together. His actions at the World Cup inspired followers not only across all levels of society in South Africa, but across the world.

Nelson Mandela was able to motivate followers by inspiring and empowering them towards achieving a common vision through a strong sense of purpose and commitment. His ability to inspire followers denoted a high level of collective insight, and through his empathy, and powerful social skills he was able to inspire others towards the collective good.

Where are we going?

The final pillar of building and sustaining a followership base towards social change is termed the future narrative, or “Where are we going.”  As a young man Mandela had the vision to end the apartheid system and led a campaign of peaceful, non-violent defiance against the South African government. His followers believed that his vision represented the means to end years of discrimination, and through his charisma and oratorical skills was able to inspire millions to the cause. But his vision was not just about ending apartheid – it was about imagining a future South Africa of equality, unity and prosperity.

In his inauguration as the first post apartheid President of the South African Republic he described his vision for a ‘Rainbow Nation’ which brought to the fore and united the socio-cultural diversity of South Africa, and countered previous apartheid divisions. In his own words: “We have triumphed in the effort to implant hope in the breasts of the millions of our people. We enter into a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall, without any fear in their hearts, assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world.”

The inclusiveness of Mandela’s inauguration speech was important as it lead to the inception of good faith negotiations between the National Party, the ruling party at the time, and Mandela’s African National Congress Party. But perhaps more importantly, it inspired a post-apartheid vision of what South Africa might become.

As the country’s first black president, Mandela’s monumental success provided inspiration for other, leaders including former U.S. President Barack Obama. At a time of global volatility and uncertainty we need more such leaders to inspire positive change.


Nelson Mandela understood that followers demand authenticity, a sense of community and an exciting future vision. He epitomized the transformational leader whose values transcend beyond that of his or her own needs for the greater good of humanity.  In today’s world in which we witness so many divisions and conflicts across the racial, social, religious and political spectrum we need leaders who are similarly able to bring people together to celebrate what is common and shared.


Want to Innovate? Start with a joke!


This Post Co-authored with Gabor George Burt

In the beginning, there was humor and there was laughter. And it was good. But then, work became suffocatingly serious. Until now.

There’s an entire branch of social science that studies the psychological and physiological effects of humor and laughter on the brain and the immune system— it’s called gelotology. Discoveries in this field have demonstrated that humor, laughter and fun releases physical and cognitive tension, which can lead to perceptual flexibility—a required component of creativity, ideation, and problem solving. So to get the most out of innovation processes such as design thnking, truly creative leaders also need to master the social dynamics of… [wait for the punchline}…humor!

But in the world of leadership, humor has typically been typecast as a manifestation of individual personalities and thereby a spontaneous and non-replicable activity. Much less attention has been given to the idea that humor might be acquired, learned and nurtured.

We have witnessed that skilled leaders, those we call “Stand-Up Strategists”, understand the utility of humor to boost innovation.  In the words of IDEO founder Dave Kelly: “If you go into a culture and there’s a bunch of stiffs going around, I can guarantee they’re not likely to invent anything.”

Of course, humor can be highly subjective and what one person finds hilarious another person may not – so knowing your audience is paramount. It is therefore not surprising that business leaders who score high in the effective use of humor as a tool to boost innovtion also tend to score high in emotional intelligence.

Ceative leaders also have an intuitive appreciation of the four humor styles, and understand how these styles can be nurtured – or sometimes curtailed – in others. The first three styles generally generate positive emotions, while the fourth is more typically associated with negative emotions and therefore has the most limited application with regard to enabling perceptual flexibility:

  • Sense of Fun involves a leader projecting an energetic, positive, playful vibe, and having a generally humorous outlook. It also involves the ability to appreciate the humor and playfulness of others.
  • Self-deprecating humor is the act of a leader to laugh at him/herself through self-belittlement, excessive modesty or downplaying own achievements. The purpose is to reduce power-distance.
  • Social humor is about boosting human interaction, and is used by a leader to enhance relationships. It typically involves jokes or stories shared as a tool to reduce interpersonal tension, increase sociability and promote openness.
  • Strong humor most often entails sarcasm or cynicism and is used by a leader as put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, as a signal of dominance or to encourage conformity to group behavioral norms.

With his Groucho Marx moustache and quirky personality, IDEO’s Kelly is renowned for his sense of fun. Any visitor to an IDEO office immediately appreciates the importance of levity in the organization’s culture – indeed, having a sense of humor is a key criterion for recruitment into the firm.

Senior leaders – including Kelly himself – are sometimes self-deprecating, a cultural behaviour that reduces hierarchy and power-distance and ensure that ideas come from all ranks.  But while self-deprecating humor can reduce social distance and make leaders seem more collaborative, participative and open to their employees, leaders shouldn’t over do it. Studies have shown that humorous self-criticism works much less well as a tool to engage with peers and superiors, and can even reduce one’s credibility with subordinates – if used excessively.

Social humor is practiced as part of the IDEO design thinking process that “encourages wild ideas” to take root. Even the most absurd perspectives are embraced, and people are encouraged to “defer judgement”. Team members openly make fun of failures related to the ideation process in a way that nurtures their collective, creative input.

Positive humor can also be utilized to reduce the pressure of stress associated with deadlines – not to make targets or challenges disappear, but to improve morale and increase solidarity of purpose. IDEO embraces the understanding that individuals with a high sense of humor tend to experience less stress than individuals with a low sense of humor, even in situations where both face similar challenges.  So Project Leaders are identified not on a basis of seniority, but for their track record of orchestrating positive social interactions between people – of which humor is a critical component.

The fun and humor-filled work culture at companies such as IDEO are well known, but efforts can start at the team or departmental level in any organization – even those not renowned for having fun-embracing corporate cultures. Lilli Marlen Christ is an energetic development manager who works for German automotive firm Daimler AG in China, and opens her weekly team meetings with a joke or a riddle. She has found it a useful approach for reducing hierarchy, boosting openness and increasing divergent thinking.

When it comes to boosting innovation the overwhelming focus should be on styles of humour that generate positive emotions. Just as there are rules for the design-thinking process at IDEO, there are unspoken rules about the humor that is acceptable – cyncism, ridicule, sexist and racist humor are considered completely inappropriate. Inappropriate humor can stifle people’s creative confidence in any organization – not to mention contributing to reduced morale, absenteeism, the elevation of dysfunctional internal competition, and even company-level reputational damage.

But from a gelotological point of view, innovation is one of the few areas of business in which strong humor such as sarcasm can potentially pay dividends – so long as it’s practice is limited to environments in which people already know, trust and like each other. Research has shown that receiving sarcastic comments and other forms of strong humor from trusted co-workers can stimulate creativity without spurring conflict.

Pixar Animation Studios understands the power of such strong peer feedback. It has created what it calls its ‘Brain Trust’, consisting of a group of highly accomplished directors. When a director and producer feel in need of assistance, they convene the group and show the current version of a movie in progress. This is followed by a fiery discussion that can last up to two hours, unlocking provocative suggestions and constructive criticism. The sessions are frequently punctuated by laughter, but nobody pulls any punches to be polite. This works because all the participants have come to trust and respect one another – but leadership still actively moderates to ensure that no red-lines are crossed.  In these interactions, strong humor is  never used as a put-down, as a tool for hierarchical control, or as a signal of dominance.

Discoveries in the field of gelotology also explain why companies such as IDEO, Google and Lego are investing in creating playful and fun work spaces.  IDEO offices are designed to encourage fun and freedom of expression, with employees ofen designing their own work-spaces. Elon Musk, co-founder of Tesla Inc. has considered taking merriment at his car plants to a new level, with an idea to install a fully functioning roller coaster to shuttle employees around the Tesla factory in Fremont.

Today, we stand at the precipice of a new era. Future-shaping business leaders are re-discovering the power of humor as a vital driver of organizational success. “Stand-Up Strategists” are leaders who understand the utility of humor to boost creativity and innovation. The joke is on those who fail to seize the power of humor in guiding their organization’s ongoing relevance.

May the farce be with you.



Beard, A. (2014) Leading with Humor, Harvard Business Review, May,  Available at: https://hbr.org/2014/05/leading-with-humor [Accessed: 18 October 2017]

Catmul, E. (2008) How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity. Harvard Business Review, September, Vol. 86 Issue 9, p64‐72.

Huang, Li, F. Gino, and Adam D. Galinsky (2015). The Highest Form of Intelligence: Sarcasm Increases Creativity for Both Exressers and Recipients. Organizational Behavior and Human Decision Processes 131 (November), 162–177.

Zhang, G. (2014). Office Humor, London Business School Review (Online Edition), 4 February. Available at: https://www.london.edu/faculty-and-research/lbsr/office-humor#.WeXmkROCzJx [Accessed: 10 December 2017]





Creative Courage

Portrait 2

In my workshops and keynote talks about creative thinking, I often use a simple drawing exercise that has a startling effect on people. Some jump into the exercise with a sense of fun and delight, while others approach it with fear and trepidation. In some cases participants revolt, and simply refuse to participate. So what kind of exercise could spark such a wide spectrum of reactions? I simply ask participants to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them!

The exercise is introduced like this (maybe you would like to try it): 

“Please turn to the person next to you and make a hand drawn picture of them in life like detail. You should use paper and pen, and do not draw in abstract. It should be a life-like image. You have two minutes to do draw the picture. After completing the drawing, show it to them.”

In my experience, and despite its simplicity, this creative task can strike fear into the hearts of even the most experienced executives. Why? Because they are being asked to do something which: a) They do not feel they have the skills to do well, and b) they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other. This in turn creates anxiety and inhibition – what if I fail; what if the other person is upset?

A Fear of Embarrassment

In some situations, such as a recent keynote at an event with 250 senior banking executives from across Europe, I have experienced these anxieties manifest themselves in annoyance and even anger, with people refusing to participate. At this particular event, there was little laughter and fun, and many participants were simply unwilling to engage in a what could be a playful and creative experience. I repeatedly approached one senior participant from a large French bank who was refusing to participate, and on the third try was actually told to “F**ck off”.

The reactions of anxiety are perhaps understandable given the fact that few adults have engaged in creative drawing since the age of nine or ten – as demonstrated by the outputs of most participants. The two portraits accompanying this post were drawn by people in their forties, one an engineer and the other a corporate lawyer.

It is around the age of ten when most people start to be told that art will never get them a good job, and from this point on the education system starts to actively discriminate against subjects involving creativity (see  my previous post on childhood creativity). At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive creativity – music, dance and fine art.

But despite this lack of drawing skill, some participants embrace the exercise with a sense of excitement, curiosity and good humor, and what this tells us is that these people are quite happy just to have a go and to leave their ego aside. Unlike so many other adults, they have hung on to their creative courage.

And this parallels my wider experience in that the truly creative managers that I have met are willing to issue statements of ignorance when the situation calls for it – to say that they do not know. But more importantly, they are willing to dive into new situations with humility and openness, they are open to lifelong learning, and they have retained a sense of enthusiasm and fun.

Fear & Ego

I recently did the portrait exercise with a global team of legal experts from a leading technology company, and the senior leader from the US was almost falling off her chair with laughter as she completed her drawing. Throughout the workshop, I was told time and time again about the way that she was positively transforming the culture towards openness and knowledge sharing – a very different situation to what existed under the stiff and hierarchical previous boss.

In contrast, those who get angry or annoyed and boycott the drawing exercise reveal their concern for status, and the fear of admitting a lack of skill or knowledge. And in my experience these kind of people are much less effective in dealing with uncertain and complex situations that require people to collaborate towards coming up with novel solutions.  They tend to engage in building internal kingdoms and fiefdoms, sustaining internal silos instead of facilitating cross-business cooperation.

It has also been interesting for me to observe that if I do the exercise with a team, if the ego-driven leader refuses to do the exercise then this same behavior is often adopted by his or her subordinates. This typically reflects broader dysfunctional behavior at the team-level, with fear-based relationships and a lack of candor in communication. As a Belgian manager named Jean-Pierre once said to me after I observed his team following the lead of a non-drawing boss: “If I had done the exercise, there might have been consequences.”

Fear of upsetting the other

For those who are reluctant to do the portrait exercise because they are concerned that the result might cause offence in the other, the issue is not so much about ego. Rather, it is about the desire to sustain positive and harmonious relationships. One British participant named Kathy actually said to me: “But if I draw his picture, he might not like me anymore.” She proceeded to draw, all the while saying “I’m sorry, I’m really sorry” to the man sitting opposite her!

Of course, there are strong cultural dimensions at play here. In some societies, such as Japan and Indonesia, people are very much conscious of causing others to “lose face” through public criticism or shaming, and in my experience people from these countries can find this exercise very difficult to do – especially if they do not know the other person, or the other is perceived to be in a higher hierarchical position.  But I have seen similar reactions in organizations with strong internal hierarchies, and in which junior people are not expected to challenge or give feedback to more senior people.

Creative Courage Can Thrive

Real creativity can only happen in cultures in which people are inspired to explore, to experiment and to fail. Daily interactions happen in a spirit of good humor, and people are not afraid to upset their colleagues through offering opinions and honest feedback. Equally, people in creative cultures are not quick to criticize, and accept the opinions of others with humility and in the spirit of good intent. Organizational politics tends to be frowned upon, hierarchy is banished and people with big egos are marginalized. Because truly creative cultures understand that dealing with complex and uncertain situations requires the power of the collective intellect, not some flash of insight from an arrogant genius.

So a good barometer of the openness to creativity in your organization is a simple little exercise. In your next team meeting, just ask your colleagues to draw a picture of the person sitting next to them.

If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.

Portrait 1

Cakes & Creativity


In my previous post I discussed creative thinking, and the fact that creativity is actually unlearned rather than learned. I presented the ‘Cake Exercise’ which I will elaborate upon here, so if you have not read the post then please complete the exercise before reading on.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake. 

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)


How did you do? Would you believe that the answer to this exercise is hundreds, if not thousands of pieces of cake? But in practice, most adults come up with somewhere between eight and sixteen pieces – really quite pathetic. You can see the typical responses to this exercise in the Exhibit at the end of the post.

How to cut a truly creative cake

Creative thinking involves six key components. The first is what is termed problem sensibility which involves reflection upon the task or challenge. In this exercise, the challenge is to come up with the maximum number of pieces, and yet most managers tend to forget this when acting and are satisfied simply to draw a cake – even with as few as eight pieces.

The second component of creative thinking involves liquidity – or the process of having a lot of ideas to come to a good idea. But most managers draw just one cake, often in less than ten seconds, and then stop.

Thirdly, creative thinking involves flexibility or the ability to look at the problem from different perspectives. So for example, one can think flexibly about the shape of the cake or the type of knife being used.

This can then lead to re-definition, for example the cake can come in any shape or size, the knife can have hundreds or even thousands of blades, and each cut can be continuous (like a spiral) rather than straight, and each piece can be just a crum.

Managers who use this kind of thinking engage in originality of thought – they are rarely copying what others around them are doing, and have the courage to try something different.

The final component of creative thinking is collaboration – the process of engaging with others to create solutions built upon multiple perspectives.  But in this exercise, the vast majority of participants act alone and do not engage in any way with those around them.

How has life messed us up?

One of the biggest barriers to expressive and inventive creativity is the Western education system that was designed for a much more linear industrial age.  Since the turn of the century the education systems in much of the Western world have worked towards standardization of learning according to a hierarchy of subjects and the functional division of labour.

At the top of the hierarchy are math and science, typically involving the ability to solve problems using the ‘right’ formula, and measured through an ability to complete standardized tests. Next come languages and the humanities, and then at the very bottom comes anything involving vocational skills physical dexterity or creativity. Indeed, in some education systems expressive creativity through art, music and movement has been almost completely marginalized.

So by the age of just 12 or 13, and even earlier in some countries, individuals are put on a track that leads them into increasingly specialized learning paths that rarely nurture expressive or inventive creativity.

The behaviour that I often see in the cake exercise clearly demonstrate the impact of a Western industrial age education – individual problem solving, a lack of liquidity and flexibility due to one right answer thinking, and a tendency towards conformity rather than originality.

The second barrier to creative thinking is experience, not just through education, but in the sense of the wider world. In the cake exercise, the natural tendency for people is to default to their past experience of cakes and cake cutting. So they might remember a childhood birthday party, or other festive celebration involving cake. In most instances, the cake was round and was cut with a single-bladed knife. Everyone received the same sized piece, as that is the way cake should be distributed.

I also tricked you a little bit, by influencing your thinking by putting an image of pre-cut cakes at the start of the post. So when you were presented with the cake exercise, the answer seemed easy and this lead to a form of cognitive complacency.

The same is true for business – in simple situations in which cause and effect are obvious, or when experimentation can actually be dangerous, and then it makes sense to default to experience. For example, we should not encourage technicians at a nuclear power plant to “think outside the box” and be creative when they come to work every day.

There are very good reasons for relying on experience and keeping things in the box at a nuclear power plant! But when we are facing a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world, then defaulting to experience can be very risky indeed because we can make assumptions about cause and effect that might be no longer valid.

The third major barrier to creative thinking is the organizational environment and corporate culture. Dealing with VUCA requires time for probing, sensing and analyzing, but in many organizations there is such a pressure on efficiency and short-term results that people naturally default to their education and past experience – just as we witnessed in the cake exercise.

Daniel Kahneman, says in his book “Thinking, fast and slow”, if a situation becomes too complicated our mind has a tendency to switch to the fast and easy mode – the intuitive mindset, based on experience. This mindset, he says, is a bias to cope with complex situations.

But what is important here is perceived time pressure as it does not actually take a lot of time to engage in the six steps of creative thinking – sometimes just fifteen or twenty minutes for an individual or team to reflect upon the problem at hand.

Creative thinking is also helped by a physical environment in which people can come together to brainstorm, with simple tools like post-its and white boards to capture and share ideas.

But perhaps most importantly, boosting creativity starts with individuals who are inspired to be creative, and who are willing to question their education, their experience, and the environment in which they find themselves in.

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If you enjoyed this blogpost, you might also enjoy my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.



Creative Thinking


Creative thinking is the ability to see what other people see, but in doing so see something different. It is sometimes described as involving two overlapping domains –expressive creativity and inventive creativity, and is essential to thrive in an increasingly volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world.

Expressive creativity illustrates the creator’s emotions and aesthetics, while inventive creativity demonstrates novel approaches to problem solving. Of course, there is no real dichotomy between the two – scientists often draw on aesthetic experience in the realisation of an elegant solution to a problem, and many problems need to be solved in the completion any artistic expression.

Studies of childhood creativity across cultures suggest that 98% of children under the age of six are able to engage in this kind of imaginative play involving originality, flexibility and elaboration, or what psychologists call divergent thinking. But from the age of six, something starts to happen to most children – this ability for true divergent thinking starts to decline.

By the age of twelve only around half of children might still be defined as creative thinkers; by the age of eighteen the proportion has declined to around ten percent. Think about your own experience – how many of your friends were still passionate about pursuing a career in art, music or dance by the end of their teens? How many really enjoyed completing riddles and brainteasers?

Below is a picture full of circles. What I would like you to do right now is to think about how you would fill out all of those circles if you were given just two minutes to do so. What method would you use? After you have decided your approach, please read on. But please do not continue reading before you have finished this mental exercise.

Exercise 1:

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Cognitive Preferences in Dealing with Ambiguity

What you have just completed is an exercise to reveal an individual’s cognitive preference in dealing with an ambiguous task and addresses both expressive and inventive creativity.  The task is ambiguous, as I did not tell you how to fill out the circles.

I have used this test with thousands of managers around the world, normally using a paper handout and a pen, and in more than 80% of cases the individuals involved used a highly linear or convergent approach; they used one continuous line to go through all the circles; they shaded all of the circles the same; they wrote A, B, C…. or 1, 2, 3.  In another 10% or so of cases they used two to four variants of the same theme – a row of smiley faces, followed by a row of numbers, followed by a row of letters.

The Mind of a Child

If you give this exercise to a child, you typically see a very different response. Rather than linear or convergent thinking, you tend to see non-linear or divergent thinking with something different drawn in almost every circle – if you have young children, please try it.

This exercise allows an individual to demonstrate both expressive and inventive creativity – children tend to complete the circles by drawing animals, faces and a variety of other images that they like, and in many cases join circles together – for example by using two circles as the wheels of a bicycle or as a pair of eye glasses. Here is the outcome of the exercise completed by daughter Hannah when she was ten years old:

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In contrast, and as demonstrated through my research, fewer than 10% of managers act in an expressive or inventive way when completing this exercise – the majority apply an approach that is anything but creative.

 But why does such a cognitive bias towards ambiguity matter?

Because research shows that when facing an ambiguous or complex problem in which cause and effect are not always clear, the best outcomes emerge from sensing and probing from different perspectives. Quite simply, managing in a VUCA world requires both expressive and inventive creative thinking.

But why is it that the majority of adults have lost the ability to think creatively? Let’s explore that question with another exercise:

Exercise 2 – 30 seconds.

In a moment you are going to do a drawing exercise, so please take a pen and some paper.

Once you have your pen and paper, get ready to draw a cake which you will cut four times.

You have just four cuts, and your objective is to come up with the maximum number of pieces of cake.

You have 30 seconds to complete the exercise, and you should start immediately after you have finished reading this sentence.  Go!

(Please do not read on until the exercise is complete)


Cutting Cakes

So, how did you do? Again, this is an exercise that I have tested with scores of managers around the world, and my research reveals powerful cognitive preferences.

In about 50% of participants I see a cake as shown at Exhibit 1a below, and in around 40% of the other participants we typically see variants of Exhibits 1b, 1c and 1d. Some 85% of participants draw only one cake. This is particularly disappointing, when the actual outcome of this exercise is potentially hundreds if not thousands of pieces – in just 30 seconds!  But because most managers do not think creatively about the problem, the results are truly sub-optimal.

In my next blogpost I will provide the solution to the cake exercise, and in doing so explain why most adults have lost the ability to think creatively. I will then go on to explain that there is no reason for despair, and provide some practical tips on how we can all reconnect to our creative potential.

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If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my Keynote Talk about Creative Thinking.

Social Media Strategy – Let’s Go Gaga

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Social media platforms, such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, provide leaders with remarkable new tools to engage with followers, but must be used wisely for maximum impact.

To learn how to develop your own social media strategy look to THE role model for building and sustaining a loyal followership base – Lady Gaga !

Followership & Social Media: It’s all about mass intimacy

In the past if the leader wanted to engage with a mass of followers, whether they be employees in a large multinational company or fans in a music hall, the degree of intimacy which could be achieved was very limited. Social media has blown apart this millennia long tradeoff between intimacy and reaching a mass audience, enabling what I term “mass intimacy”.

Social Media allows the leader to provide rich information about their lives (Just from Me) directly to their followers (Just for You) in an immediate way (Just in Time). But despite the “mass intimacy” that social media platforms enable, the basic principles of followership still apply.

Lady Gaga provides a stunning example of the power of “mass intimacy”.  Not only has she used social media as a key component of establishing herself as a ‘leader’ in the music industry, she has built a followership base of tens of millions of fans, and earned hundreds of millions of dollars in the process. She has implemented a remarkably consistent approach to delivering what I see as the three pillars of a social media followership campaign, each of which will be described below.

The Personal Narrative – Who am I

The best leaders excel in their followers’ eyes by being themselves and by revealing things about what made them who they are: they are able to communicate “Who am I.” Lady Gaga has been extremely skillful at communicating her personal narrative, and she often talks about how she learned to play piano from the age of four, went on to write her first piano ballad at thirteen and began performing at the age of fourteen.

Despite the affluence of the Upper West Side of New York where she grew up, Gaga has stressed that she did not come from a wealthy background, stating that her parents “both came from lower-class families, so we’ve worked for everything.” Lady Gaga speaks often about her childhood and teenage years, describing herself as a freak and a misfit. In her own words:  “I was and I am a freak, a maverick, a lost soul looking for peers.”

Gaga always refers to herself as a contemporary artist rather than a musician, and after high school studied New York University’s Tisch Art School. Even early on, before she achieved international acclaim, Lady Gaga was unabashed about her potential: “Some people are just born stars. You either have it or you haven’t, and I was definitely born one.”

For Gaga, her dress is an embodiment of who she is – a work of art – but she says that “She was born this way” loving to dress-up since she was a little girl.  Her fans will never see her in track pants. “I owe them more than that” she says.  In a recent interview with the US current affairs program 60 Minutes she spoke about her ultimate purpose in life: “I don’t want to make money…I want to make a difference”.

Lady Gaga has helped her followers to understand something of who she is and where she has come from because she understands that followers demand authenticity. She has understood that what is new is the way in which social media platforms allows her to demonstrate this authenticity directly via social media on a daily basis. Gaga is very consistent in communicating her core values; acceptance for all, equality, creativity and honesty.

The Collective Narrative – Who are We?

Beyond demanding the individual narrative of “Who am I” followers will give their hearts and souls to figures who make them feel a part of something and say, “You really matter,” no matter how small the followers’ contributions may be.  Lady Gaga has proven herself immensely capable of building this sense of community and significance among her followers.

Gaga draws upon being the weird girl in class and gives the message that the fans are okay the way they are, a message that resonates strongly with teenagers, but also with gay and lesbian fans.  In almost every interview and performance she thanks her fans for supporting her, and attributes her success as much to them as to her own creativity and hard work.

Gaga’s use of social media is a key enabler of facilitating this community. She communicates via Facebook, Instagram and Twitter that her every success and breakthrough is also theirs, and typically announces her new singles and albums directly to her fans – even before the media is informed.

Gaga Monsters

The Future Narrative – Where are we going?

The final pillar of leveraging social media to build and sustain a followership base is what I call the future narrative, or “Where are we going.” Lady Gaga communicates continuously to her fans via social media that together they can make the world a better place.

Gaga is involved in a number of social causes that resonate with her fans, and is passionate about how they can together make a difference. Since the beginning of her career she has been an outspoken activist for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) issues, and has also become involved with anti-bullying initiatives. She has spoken about her own battle with bulimia, initiating a wider discussion about eating disorders amongst her followers.

Gaga has founded the “Born This Way Foundation (BTWF)”, a non-profit organization that focuses on the empowerment of young people and issues like self-confidence, well-being, anti-bullying, mentoring, and career development. Her overwhelmingly positive message about how she wants the world to become a better place seems to resonate strongly with her millions of followers.

Lessons for all

Lady Gaga has emerged as a music industry phenomenon and astute adherent to the principles of followership. She has not only understood how to leverage social media to connect with her millions of fans in an intimate way, she has also demonstrated the impact of how this intimacy can deliver commercial results. Perhaps we should not be talking about the new economics of the Internet, but the Gaganomics of online followership.

If you liked this blog post, you might also like my TED Talk about the art of Followership.

Creative Kids

Creative Kids

Ask yourself why so many companies see the need to invest in design thinking workshops and creativity training – it is because these companies might have very many “intelligent” people, but truly creative thinkers are few and far between. But the weird thing is that all of these smart people were creative, curious kids at one point in time. So what happened?

Decades of research on the ability for creative thinking has demonstrated a startling fact – creativity is not learned, it is unlearned. A large part of the reason for this is that formal education actively discriminates against most subjects that involve creative expression. At the top of the education system is mathematics and languages, then the humanities and at the bottom any subject involving true expressive or inventive creativity – art, dance and music for example.

Many educational policy makers now acknowledge that to prepare our children for the future, fostering creativity now needs to be seen as equally important as teaching numeracy and literacy. So we must reform education.

But there is a problem – educational reform takes time, and we are at risk of producing a lost generation of kids who are in school right now. So what do do?

It is my belief that we all must start acting RIGHT NOW by re-thinking the way we parent, mentor and coach kids. And here’s is some advice on how to do that.

Kids Need Stuff & Space to Play

One of the problems in the modern world is that the toy industry swamps kids with pre-built imagination. When most of us were kids, if you wanted to dress-up you went to the dress-up box. But today you can go to the toy store and find princesses and Darth Vader waiting. It is ready made. So we need to do less of that –I am not saying don’t buy your kids any toys, but give them the dress-up box full of old clothes and stuff bought from the charity shop. Give them the paper and the paints at their fingertips. How many of us give kids a digital device when we visit a restaurant today – how about providing paper and coloring pencils instead? Kids also need some space. So try to create a space in your home for kids to build their stuff. And what we also have to understand is that if kids are going to be creative, they need to have that space over time. Believe it or not, the worse thing that we can do is to ask a child to tidy up at the end of each play session.

Kids Need Time

What else is important is to give kids time. But not any kind of time – unstructured time. One of the problems with modern parenting is that we over structure our childrens’ time. School is followed by homework, followed by piano or dance lessons, followed by coached tennis practice. Kids need time to just play, without a plan or a time schedule. So send them outside, send them out to discover things for themselves.  When your kids say “I’m bored” that’s great, as boredom is often the trigger for invention.


I used to work in London and lived next door to some very successful business people. Before meeting these people, he met their nanny in the garden one day, together with two young children aged about five and seven. The author asked the Nanny, “So Who are these two?” and without batting in eyelid, she said “Well she will be a lawyer, and he will be a banker.” We need to stop putting these big expectations on our kids. The way we used to define success in an industrial age economy was by what it said on a business card, and how much money people made. But success is much broader than that, and what many of us already know is that may of the world’s best innovators and entrepreneurs never finished university.

Taking Risks

The other thing is that we should stop worrying that our kids are going to get kidnapped. In most countries in the world kidnapping is very unlikely, but these irrational fears mean that we stifle our kids freedom and desire to explore.  Research clearly shows that children, and especially girls, who grow up with fearful parents, become fearful and anxious adults themselves. We need to give kids more freedom, more autonomy and trust. Earlier this year my son Ries hit a car on his bicycle.  And of course I felt terrible, because the the driver of the car was badly traumatised. But Ries was wearing a helmet, and ended up with little more than a bruised ankle and scraped elbow.  Does that accident mean that we are going to stop him riding his bike – of course not. Because scratches and scrapes and the occasional broken bone is a part of being a child.

Celebrate Creativity & Create a Safe Environment

The other thing we need to do is to celebrate creativity. How many books on creativity, art and music  do you have at home? Because of my interest in art, my twelve-year-old daughter Hannah has become a big fan of the street artist Banksy, and we sometimes talk about the meaning of Banksy’s art.  But I equally enthuse about creativity in other fields of endeavour too, including business.

Kids can be hard on each other, and research shows that one of the biggest killers of creative courage –the courage for children to explore and express themselves are their siblings and their friends. So we need to be aware of that.  We need to explain to big brothers and sisters that they have a role to play in encouraging the creativity of the little ones.

Encourage Divergent Thinking

 So much of formal education is about linear and formulaic thinking. That was what was needed in the old industrial world. But in a modern world it is much more about making sense of complexity, and that requires divergent thought.  So one of the things that we can do with our kids, is to develop this ability for divergent thinking. And a wonderful way to do that is through riddles and brain teasers.

Health & Wellbeing

Now there is something else that is very, very important. It is about sport, and movement and rest. Because creativity is not just a brain function – it is a full body function. We have a substance in our body called dopamine, and amongst its many functions dopamine acts as a neurotransmitter. Dopamine is associated with mental alertness and creative thinking, and when kids exercise intensively they get a boost of dopamine. Sleep is also essential – while awake metabolism generates waste products in the brain which are damaging to cells. In sleep this metabolic rate decreases, allowing restorative processes to take over. School age children between 5 and 12 need between 9 and 11 hours of sleep, while teenagers need between 8 and 10 hours.


 The fact is that today’s children are the entrepreneurs, inventors, leaders and digital winners of tomorrow. But there is a problem – the way that many children are being prepared for an increasingly complex world is woefully inadequate in terms of the ability to think creatively.

So let’s all act to help children to retain and grow their creative potential – and save all of that time and effort trying to re-ignite their creativity when they are “intelligent” grown-ups.

If you liked this blogpost, you might also like my TED Talk about Creative Parenting.