How to Lead Creative Teams

Leading Creative Teams

Without rival, one of the most difficult leadership roles I have ever had is leading creative teams, and I’m a life-long creative! In this post, I will explore these challenges and offer some remedies that have helped me in my 30-year career journey leading others. There is a lot of material on leadership available and I fully support many of these best practices for general leadership. However, I have found less information available on leading creative teams; I hope you find this information helpful!

What’s the Difference?

Let’s start by examining the differences between creative and non-creative teams. I would categorize “non-creative” roles as those whose primary delivery, action, or existence is inherently not a creative function or part of a project. That’s not to say that these team members aren’t creative individually or actually perform their tasks by applying creativity… Let’s use an engineer as an example. The very nature of their profession is scientific; they work in “absolutes”. The calculations, materials, and natural forces they use to design are real parameters that must be worked within. Steel, concrete, wood, and glass, for example, can only be used in certain ways as are applicable to the restrictions of these materials, and the natural forces of gravity, inertia, and acceleration will allow.

Non Creative roles extend beyond just design disciplines: Project management, finance, scheduling, human resources, and operations to name a few in our industry. Please understand my representation here is meant to delineate between the different approaches that individual roles use and how leaders can most effectively lead them; not as a commentary about their value to the process. These roles have several mindsets or approaches in common to their work that differ from Creative roles. Let’s follow the example of the Engineer. These professionals have to be licensed to perform their work, are bound by building codes/standards, and refer to recently completed projects/designs to inform their current work (eg. What worked last time?). Typically, linear thinkers, these teams are process-oriented and risk-averse.

Because these team members have well-defined tasks and goals and are process-oriented, they have the benefit of establishing definable objectives and managing their work to accomplish these goals. While following that defined process and working within the parameters associated with their profession, it is not difficult for them to gain the support and understanding from clients, customers, investors, and other leaders. In fact, they have a more easily defined reward structure due to these factors. Becoming an Engineer requires many years of higher education and gaining experience in a particular profession sometimes takes years, this role can be highly specialized. When an Engineer presents their design for building a bridge, handling a large architectural cantilever, or making an aircraft more efficient to fly, arguments and alternative ideas are few due to the fact that these designs are based on specific calculations, materials, etc. and like doctors, they are specialists in these fields. Many of those investors and customers wouldn’t have any idea how to deliver a bridge! All of this is not to say that “non-creative roles” don’t apply creativity in their problem solving or execution. My examples are intended to review the way in which these two categories approach and process work.

The Creative Approach

When comparing this approach, mindset, and work structure to creative roles, you will see a definite difference. I would define the creative role as one that is tasked with imagining something from nothing, not relying on anything that currently exists. These professionals are tasked with “Dreaming Big” and focusing on innovation, mostly using “non-absolutes”. This approach is focused more on art than on science; on exploring the unknown rather than the known. They are typically non-linear thinkers and can be non-process oriented. Creativity, by its very nature, is personal and inspired… Therefore, the invention, creation, and development processes used by Creatives is different than what I’ve described above. The creative roles use “story” as a structure and emotional connection to the consumer as a vehicle to deliver that story. Constantly pushing boundaries and known quantities in search of “the new” require a large degree of freedom from the structure at many points during the process.

However, this can create challenges. Those same clients, owners, and investors will offer many more thoughts and opinions on the creative content during the development process than they will for their non-creative counterparts. Navigating through these challenges to finalize the ideas requires skill and tact. When applied against the performance indicators of non-creatives, you can see how challenging it could be to establish or determine achieved success. This makes it difficult to reward creatives because these “achievements” may not be as obviously definable. Obviously, creatives have to work to budgets, schedules, and deadlines, just like other roles, however, they approach these accomplishments very differently.

With this as a backdrop, you can see how successfully leading creative teams requires a different paradigm than setting an objective, date, or budget and managing the team to deliver it. Accounting for the non-linear process, thinking outside of the box and the “sky’s the limit” initial approach, a leader can’t manage these groups too rigidly. Trying to force creativity to a rigid schedule can be a guarantee of deliverables that don’t express much creativity. The contrary case also exists whereby if the leader manages the creative team with too few requirements, criteria, or deadlines it’s unlikely that many milestones will be achieved. There is a careful balance required with creative team leadership that I haven’t seen in other disciplines.

Steps to Lead Successfully

I believe a critical first step in leading creative teams is the fundamental need for them to feel collectively a part of a central vision and story. Another important nuance here is to engage these team members before the story is fully developed. A high-level vision that outlines the story (designed with the client’s business objectives included) that the creative team can feel a part of developing and contributing to is the key. When they have a vested “ownership” at this fundamental step and are excited by contributing, these team members commonly react with high volumes of creativity and excellent productivity. The leader will also need to be adept at “covering” their team members by limiting their exposure (wherever possible) to the functional or political roller coaster of project dynamics. This should be true of most leaders but is especially helpful with creative leaders. The process can be fragile and maintaining the right environment for creativity is critical. Filling the space with stress, politics, and negativity is a sure way to completely interrupt or halt the creative process. Filling the studio space with inspiring “mood images” that support the story or allowing the team to decorate their spaces are subtle ways to encourage an atmosphere that is ripe with potential! Identifying and sharing individual team member’s work to encourage others is also a big win in their eyes.

It is important for the leader to keep all of the schedule, budget, and business objectives clear in their minds and to manage the team to deliver on those goals. Ensuring there’s time for the creative team to think and dream is also important to maximize in the schedule. I realize this isn’t always possible, but the creative leader should work this time into the schedule from the very beginning; this will give the team the time it needs to create the best ideas and story conceit for the project. Remember, projects in the Themed Entertainment Industry use the story as the framework for the entire project duration and for every discipline on the team, so it’s critical to get it right in the beginning.

One of the most important elements of being a leader is to provide opportunities to have fun during the project! Creating amazing experiences for generations of guests to enjoy can’t really be done by angry, embattled, and exhausted people… Look for ways to inject “life” into your team. It is most appropriate if the activities are aligned with the requirements of the project. For example, during the Disney springs project, we took the entire creative team, several consultants, architects, and engineers to a natural spring in Florida to research every aspect of it. This way, we could produce a realistic representation in the heart of our own little “town”. This was a great way to get the team together, focused on one area but to do it in a way that was fun.

In reality, I try to lead like I want to be led. There are plenty of examples in the world of poor leadership; narcissistic personalities that produce toxic environments. Sadly, there are fewer examples of great leaders but, when you find them, you also find great teams performing their best under their leadership. If you’re in a poor leadership scenario now, I encourage you to make the best out of it. Learn all you can and when you get the chance to lead, make a real difference!


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