Interview with Todd Henry: On being the leader creative people need

Vera: Congratulations on your new book- ‘Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need”. Who is a creative person and why is a special type of leader required for them to thrive?

Todd: Really, anyone who has to solve problems every day is required to be creative. A designer solves problems by designing something, but an entrepreneur does so by identifying a new market, or by creating a new system. However, with that creative dynamic comes a unique set of pressures and dynamics that have to be both monitored and overcome in order to deliver consistently great work.



Vera: Is there a distinction between unleashing the energy of a team of creatives and nurturing creativity in any team?

Todd: Yes, definitely. When you are leading a team of people who are required to deliver brilliant results, using different methods each time, and under pressure with regard to budget and timing, it’s very different from long-lead-time creativity. The special pressures of time and budget, client expectations, and constant iteration introduce unique pressures that many organizations don’t have to contend with, at least not in such a pressure-packed way.


Vera: Some have the impression that creative people have big egos and seemingly thrive on freedom (arguably even chaos) but you say the leader must create a stable culture to empower creatives?

Todd: Yes, without some stability the team will suffer. You cannot do the risky and chaotic work necessary to produce brilliance while also contending with the chaos of an unpredictable system or process. You need some stable ground within which to do your dangerous, creative exploration. Without it, teams get lost. They feel challenged, but not protected, which might work for a short time but will eventually fail.


Vera: I like the concept of ‘’leading the work’ versus ‘doing the work’ as a leader. How does a new leader transition from being a doer to a leader?

Todd: The first step is to embrace the mindset shift from control to influence. As a practitioner, you are told that the better you control the work, the more you will succeed and be rewarded. However, once you transition to leadership your job is no longer to control the work, it’s to influence it, meaning that you are responsible for helping others do the work. This is difficult for people who have spent their entire career defining themselves and their value by the work they accomplish. So, if you are making every single decision for your team, or telling them what to do on every project, you’re probably squelching their ability to do their best work, to grow, and to develop into the creative pro they’re capable of being.


Vera: On the notion of total accountability (instead of personal accountability) that you advocate, how does the leader hone that as creatives like to see their personal ‘handprint’ so to speak?

Todd: It’s about recognizing that we’re all here to do a job. We are creative pros. This means that we aren’t here to have our way, to follow our own preferences, and to satisfy our own creative urges. Yes, there will be some of our intuition and ideas and craft displayed in the work, but that’s not what we’re here for. Instead, the leader has to help the team understand that their job is to deliver results to the client, to lead them, and to hopefully deliver brilliant results that will thrill them, regardless of their personal preferences.


Vera: Another piece of great but counterintuitive advice you give is that the leader should distance themselves a bit from the team. The staple advice on this is to ‘get in the trenches’ with the team. In what way can the leader demonstrate this distance in a constructive way?

Todd: This principle is essentially about ensuring that the leaders isn’t striving to be liked by the team, but is instead striving to be effective for them. Yes, you can be liked and effective at the same time, but you can’t chase both simultaneously. At some point, you will have to make decisions that will cause your team to dislike you temporarily so that you can be effective in the way they (and the organization) need you to be. You need to establish a little relational distance so that the team trusts you to be objective when making creative decisions, choices about who will be promoted, and other kinds of decisions that will affect their life and career.


Vera: You don’t seem to be a fan of the much dispensed leadership advice of ‘have a vision, a great team and listen more’. If creative work must be figured out as one goes, how does a leader lead with a compelling big picture/direction?

Todd: Actually, I am a fan of those pieces of advice. It’s just that there’s much more to leadership than pithy sayings or 50,000 foot advice. When you’re in the trenches, your team is much more concerned with the small actions you’re taking to provide stability and challenge for them, to earn their trust, and to protect them from the chaos of the organization.


Vera: You’re right that telling people what to do shrinks the capacity of the team. What are some of the other – perhaps more subtle leader behaviours that undermine team productivity?

Todd: The biggest one is forfeiting trust by declaring things you can’t deliver on, by saying things in the short term to satisfy the fears of the team that you can’t guarantee in the long run, or by using people to achieve a goal even though you know it’s not in their best interest. This happens all the time, and is often done without much forethought. Unfortunately, any of these actions erode the trust of the team and eventually cause a complete meltdown of the collaborative dynamic.


Vera: In your own experience what are the benefits to a leader of leading gifted people?

Todd: It’s fun! You get to work with brilliant people doing amazing work and helping them grow into their potential. There’s no better work in the world.


Vera: Your first book was the ‘Accidental creative’– in what way would you say the dynamics of creative work, and team work have evolved since?

Todd: Things are only getting faster and more complex. We thought that technology would improve our ability to do more in less time, leaving us more free time to think and produce better work. Instead, we’re only squeezing more activity into the same amount of time.


Todd’s profile

Todd writes books and speaks internationally on creativity, leadership, productivity and passion for work. He helps people and teams generate brilliant ideas. Todd keynotes about 40+ events a year and inspires people to take action and unleash their best work. He is author of four books- Accidental Creative, Die Empty, Louder than words and Herding Tigers. More about Todd and his work at


For more information on Vera Ng’oma’s work and resources in leadership, personal and career development and excellence building visit and