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At the risk of telling you something you already know, there is tremendous pressure that comes with leading creative work. You have to juggle multiple stakeholders (your clients, your manager, your team) while somehow discerning the right strategy out of a thousand and one possibilities. You have to manage the egos of the highly talented and opinionated people on your team while simultaneously holding them accountable for their shortcomings. You are asked to stretch limited resources into something ("Superb!" "Amazing!" "Stupendous!") that the world's never seen, all while keeping your team sane and prepared for the next project kickoff, which is in, oh, a few days. And, as an afterthought, you also have to somehow manage your own career aspirations. In short, you are asked to do the near impossible.

And you probably love it. It's in your blood. Even in your most frustrated moments, you wouldn't have it any other way. You get to work with gifted people doing unique work for (generally) appreciative people. However, that doesn't lessen the stress that results from a few unique challenges that leaders of creative work experience.

Opacity. At some point, you've probably heard the phrase "Let's let the 'creatives' handle that." It's as if there were some mythical box where complexity goes in one end and amazingness comes out the other. You're handed problems and told to "do your magic." Often, this is because the creative process is opaque to your stakeholders and clients—they don't see the many decisions that you had to make and the ideas you chose 'not' to act upon. They often just see the result. To some extent, this can be an advantage because you don't have to justify every choice you make. On the other hand, it can also work against you when you are expected to work miracles with too few resources and too little time. Worse, if you go above and beyond and exceed everyone's expectations once, those expectations rise next time ("You did it last time—why can't you do it again?"). As the leader, it's your job to shine a bit of light on the process and help your stakeholders understand your team's abilities, capacity, and constraints.

Insecurity. It's not always the case, but often with creative people comes the ever-so-unpleasant parade of big egos and big insecurities. There is a tremendous amount of personal risk and vulnerability involved in doing creative work. Because the work is highly visible, when you ask the people on your team to try new things and step outside their comfort zone, it means that they instantly become a target for critique. If someone on your team is leading with her ego, she might become defensive about her ideas, dominate every meeting, and remain closed off to information that runs counter to her "gut." If someone is leading with his insecurities, he will play it safe and refuse to stand up for his ideas, even when he knows he's right. Either way, people aren't bringing their best ideas and work to the table.

As the leader, it's your job to manage the delicate balance of ego and insecurity on your team and to challenge people to lay down their guard in the pursuit of the team's mission. You have to be part drill sergeant, part fan club president, and part therapist. Mainly, you must carry the fire for your team and speak life and courage into its work so that team members feel permission to take risks and grow.

Subjectivity. Oh, and by the way, your final product will likely be judged by someone who gives you either a thumbs-up or thumbs-down, often based on little more than personal opinion or that of a committee of stakeholders. Even when based on research and sound reasoning, creative work is frequently qualitative in nature, so it can feel like you are shooting at moving targets while simultaneously switching weapons. On top of this, you have to manage the shifting expectations of your manager, client, and team while steering them toward a resolution that will satisfy everyone. (No pressure.)

Because of these unique challenges, creative leadership can feel lonely, and it can seem that no one else understands the pressures you face. You take criticism for unpopular decisions even though you know they are in the best interest of your team. You have to make snap, high-consequence judgments in the face of uncertainty because, well, 'someone' has to do it. Unbeknownst to everyone around you, you regularly sacrifice your own ego in order to allow your team to stand in the spotlight, because it's the right thing to do.

But please know that your sense of being alone is a lie. There are countless others who are out there braving the storm and striving to do right by their team and their clients. Also know that it is possible to have a thriving team that communicates clearly, fights in a respectful and productive way, pulls together at critical moments, and strives to do work that pleases your client 'and' that you are creatively proud of as well. To get there, your team needs you to lead.

You see, although everyone wants to 'be' the leader, far fewer are willing to actually lead. Leading is about more than just hitting your objectives; it's about helping your team discover, develop, and unleash its unique form of brilliance. That's why, although all good leaders are effective, not all effective people make good leaders.

A good leader of creative people accomplishes the objectives while developing the team's ability to shoulder new and more challenging work. Both are essential. If you accomplish your objectives, but the team requires your direct input on every decision, then you've failed to hit the mark; you are a bottleneck, and your team is probably cursing your overcontrolling nature behind your back. If your team consistently hits its objectives but isn't growing creatively, you're just teaching your people 'how' to do things without teaching them 'why' the tactics work. They will eventually grow bored and leave.


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