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Why creativity is the key to managing conflict and leading successfully

30 May 2018

News and media


Michelle LeBaron

What do the creative arts have to teach us about public sector leadership? A lot more than most people think, says Canadian law Professor Michelle LeBaron, whose work on conflict transformation, creativity and dialogue is known internationally.

Professor LeBaron will be part of ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program for the first time in 2018, teaching modules on Leading the Self before Leading Others and Leadership and Conflict during the EFP’s sessions in Canberra.

This year’s EFP program consists of modules in three cities: Wellington, Canberra and Singapore.

Registrations are now open for ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program. Find out more here:


The EFP will include elements designed to tap into participants’ creativity, and to broaden their capacities for integrating physical, cognitive and emotional wisdom. A range of creative modes will be available to help with this integration, including drama and music.

“I hope participants will emerge with an increased or renewed connectedness to their own creative gifts, and that they will experience the links between creativity, arts and their leadership roles more vividly,” Professor LeBaron says.

What makes good leaders?

Professor LeBaron names three key aspects of good leadership as creativity, cultural fluency and empathy.  “If you do not have these, and genuine curiosity about others, your leadership may be dry, brittle and uninspiring, or even counterproductive.”

She believes that creativity can be the missing link that helps leaders combine intellectual wisdom with emotional intelligence and intuition to make better decisions and harness the power of conflict to lead to positive changes.

“Creativity is not about invention, or about virtuosic capacity. It is about putting pieces together in new ways, which is what leaders do all the time. It is always relational, so it is not a solitary pursuit.

“Creators know a lot of things leaders need to know: how to catalyse change, how to combine disparate things in elegant ways, how to preserve and transmit values. Art and activism often co-exist; leaders can learn from artist-changemakers about potent ways to achieve social goals.

“A leader without creativity will not be able to rise to the challenges of her or his time. In moments of conflict or challenge, seeing a bigger grid can be vitally important to generating options for change.”

How does art relate to leadership?

Professor LeBaron says arts spaces incorporate cultural signs and symbols that transcend language.

“They can also act as a safety valve when tensions are escalating. For example, a play, or a visual art exhibit can touch on conflicts or controversial issues, surfacing differences even as they illustrate original ways to live with them. Arts can also be bridges across diverse ways of seeing the world.

“Given that all leadership is at once local and global, understanding those who think and work differently is essential. This is true whether the differences arise from diverse cultural backgrounds or worldviews. One aspect of cultural fluency is the ability to recognise and respond to a variety of communication styles, or starting points.

“We need to be aware of the diversity within and between national and regional cultures.”

Professor LeBaron cites post-colonial societies such as Australia, New Zealand, or Canada, as places which “often value directness”, however, directness is not universal and can be ineffective or counter-productive in other cultural contexts.

“Relational awareness – the ability to know oneself and being able to relate effectively across a spectrum of diverse others is vital for effective leadership.”

“Analytical skills alone are not enough. It is often easier to know what is wrong than to bring people together and provide the leadership to fix it.”

Professor LeBaron maintains that the most effective leaders foster durable change through clarity of vision about what changes they want to make to a role, policy or institution, and how to collaborate to create results.

“They do not try to do everything, they set priorities and themes for their leadership which then flow through their organisation,” she says.

Conflict can create positive change

Good leaders also understand that conflict is an inevitable part of leadership, and something that is often a precursor to, and driver of, the genuine changes they want to make.

“None of the EFP participants will be conflict-free in their professional roles after ANZSOG, and that’s absolutely normal,” Professor LeBaron says.

“Conflict is not something to be avoided, but something to be embraced. It is an engine of change, essential for both survival and progress. Successful leaders do not shy away from conflict, they manage its fruitful potential.”

While all leaders encounter conflict, Professor LeBaron says that those who can access their own creativity are the ones best equipped to handle it.

“Developing creativity is lifelong work. Leaders who befriend and develop their creativity are better able to work with difference and with conflict, and to inspire co-workers to imagine a wide range of possible outcomes,” she says.

“Drawing on the arts invites multiple intelligences into leadership processes, thus opening many channels for working together on complex issues.

“I’ve seldom seen problems solved solely because of someone’s brilliant analysis. It is far more often that a shift or turning point comes from some unexpected shared experience or being outside of “business as usual” that leads to a different way of solving a problem.

“By stepping out of well-worn habits, I hope participants will discover how arts practices can enliven and revitalise not only their leadership but their lives.”

Registrations are now open for ANZSOG’s Executive Fellows Program. Find out more here: anzsog.edu.au/education-events/executive-fellows-program