In my early days of studying leadership, one of the most rewarding yet most unsettling things I heard was “work in your strengths.” Leadership guru John Maxwell hammered that concept home time and time again in his books. Being creative is one of those areas. Before my exposure to leadership teaching, I felt I was always taught to work on my weaknesses. I can think way back to when I was and being graded. Penmanship was a subject when I was in school. We were taught first to print and then later to write cursive. My cursive was terrible. No matter how hard I tried, I would never get a good grade.
For years, it was the only class that I never earned an A, yet I stressed about it the most. Ditto for English in high school. Classes that required math or memorization however, I excelled in. I preferred science topics the most as they combined the two in the most intriguing way to me. I played with Legos, built forts in the yard and in the woods and owned a telescope. If an activity or assignment required organization or involved teeny-tiny details, I wanted nothing to do with it. What if I had become an English teacher or a font creator? It probably would have been disastrous. Today, since almost all communication is typed, cursive is obsolete and misspelling is almost impossible (unless you use Siri). Fortunately, I followed what I enjoyed and became an engineer.
However, my weaknesses still nagged me and every performance review hammered the weaknesses home. I fretted and stressed about those weaknesses until I studied leadership in my late 20s. Suddenly I didn’t worry about my weaknesses anymore. I focused purely on my strengths and had people beside me who loved and excelled at the things I did poorly. They were fulfilled and so was I. Together teams I led tackled impossible projects. My career took a new trajectory and I loved it. I felt great. Being saddled with having to fix things or try things that I was weak in was paralyzing. That’s why I cringe when I see articles and posts with tips and tricks on how to “help your employees be more creative.” Not everyone is naturally creative. Sure, each person has some creativity, but you want the people who thrive on creativity. Most people could scrawl a circle with a stick body and represent a person, but some people can create photo-realistic images of people.
When it comes to thinking about new ways to do things, the goal shouldn’t be to make all employees innovative; the goal should be to put innovative employees in positions that define the future. If you’re looking for people for improvement projects, don’t expect all employees think creatively, instead use creative employees on projects that love that type of thinking. Look for the people that think divergently to come up with solutions. Use the convergent thinkers to get the job done. And please, please, don’t ever try to get your entire organization to think creatively, you may just be reminding too many people about that elementary penmanship class.