Creatives and Leaders: Embrace the Tension


After more than three decades in ministry, I’ve seen creatives frustrated by leaders and leaders frustrated by creatives over and over again. The names change. The locations are different. But the bottom line remains: there is a dynamic tension between those wired as creatives (designers, musicians, artists) and those wired as leaders (CEOs, administrators, senior pastors). Sometimes this is explained as right-brain wiring (intuitive, creative, expresses emotions easily) versus left-brain wiring (logical, analytical, good at reasoning).

In business it is often the engineers who are frustrated by the design department. Or the developers who can’t see eye to eye with those in marketing. It’s just a fact: the tension exists. You can wish it wasn’t there. You can hope it will go away. But the tension is real. And the tension must be managed. If it isn’t, it will drive a wedge in your organization and will cause many teams to divide. Or worse yet, you will just put up with one another and begin merely to exist.

The problem? Creatives and leaders are different.

  • Creatives want to help people have an experience. Leaders want to give them facts or information.
  • Creatives want the freedom to try stuff, the chance to risk. Leaders personally like risk, but when it comes to planning a service or launching a product, they want to know what is happening and be fairly confident it’s going to work.
  • Creatives are feelers. Leaders are thinkers.
  • Creatives have a hard time logically explaining how the artistic elements will contribute to the goal; they just feel strongly that it will work. Leaders have difficulty investing time or money based on a feeling.
  • Creatives like asking questions. Leaders like giving answers.
  • Creatives like leaving the audience in the tension of the unanswered. Leaders feel as if they are failing if they don’t offer a convincing message.
  • Creatives want to be a part of the dreaming phase. They want to know the “why” and not just the “what.” Leaders want to hire someone to create a product around their concepts.

I realize these statements are filled with generalities. There are many creatives who are great leaders. And there are plenty of leaders who have the heart of an artist. But the differences are clear.

God has uniquely gifted creatives to take us to places we would otherwise never go. In church, they can usher us into the presence of God in a few short minutes when it would take us hours to get there on our own. In business, they can help us feel something in a commercial that we weren’t even thinking about thirty seconds earlier. Creatives help us feel more deeply and experience more fully. They take a truth that has found its way into our heads and create an opportunity for it to be driven deep into our hearts. An artist will write a song, poem, or script; another will deliver the words with an unfiltered rawness of gift and emotion; and still others will masterfully mix the image or sound so I see and hear it clearly.

Left-brain leaders are gifted no less. Many of them are teachers; they listen, learn, and speak the truth to us even when it isn’t popular. Leaders are passionate about driving the mission deep into the hearts of the people. In the church, they keep their ears open to hear from God, then communicate the vision in such a way to rally artists and others to a greater purpose. Leaders are never satisfied with the way things are; they can only see how things should be, the way things could be.

The creative and the leader can be focused on the same mission, yet so differently; they can be serving the same cause, yet often hold opposing views on how to call others to do the same. This may be the single most important relationship to navigate in any church or business. And unfortunately, most leaders never figure out how to make it work.

The result? Anger, bitterness, ugly departures, sometimes even church splits or business failures.

I don’t want to pretend this is an easy issue to solve, but I can offer some suggestions to keep this relationship working:

  • Leaders: Let your creatives take risks. The only way to do this is to give them room to create.
  • Leaders: Stop micromanaging. This sucks the life out of your creatives.
  • Creatives: Learn how to lead up. Remove emotion from your argument and try to speak the language of your leader.
  • Both: Spend time together. This is the only way to really begin to trust each other and learn what is important to the other.
  • Creatives: Communicate well and often. Don’t assume others will feel it.
  • Leaders: Let your creatives participate in the planning. They need to know the reasons behind the plans, not just the bottom line.
  • Creatives: Respect your leader.
  • Leaders: Affirm your creatives today, tomorrow, and the next day.
  • Creatives: You need to affirm your leader. He or she comes across as more confident than he or she truly is.

Just because the relationship is hard does not mean it isn’t worth it. I’ve seen too many creatives quit in frustration because they give up too soon. I’ve seen too many leaders fire or drive away a valuable member of their team because they refuse to stop for a moment and see through another person’s eyes.

Embrace the tension.

Read more in Fairness is Overrated: And 51 Other Leadership Principles to Revolutionize Your Workplace