Graphic: Rabbit Holes

Deploying Creative Leadership with a Middle Child Mindset (2 of 2)

Why & How to Create Creative Teams with a MCL

In a previous post, I described my frustration with the current crop of id-first, manifest-your-success posts being retranslated as Servant Leadership in ways that either reward sociopaths or abdicate leadership to the team ignoring the obvious chaos that will result. (Side-point: the translations appear to use a lot of AI copy-writing help)

I argue that creative teams require a competent and confident generalist leader who collects smart, curious, and driven coaches and team members and then empowers them to do great work using their own talents and skillsets. In practice, it’s leading from the middle [of the team]. Since that name is taken, and since I need a shorthand reference name, I’m calling it Middle Child Leadership, and I gave Carol Burnett (and to a lesser extent Amy Poehler) as an example of how such leadership works—and hopefully gave readers a fun rabbit hole of old Carol Burnett episodes.

Now, I’m ready to talk about the why and how of Creativity-focused Middle Child Leadership.

Let’s use comedy as a stand-in for all creativity. There might be a few amazing comedy shows that spring from a single mind. However, many of the minds you might point to would themselves point at a team behind them that made things work and made things better. There are lots of staff that make comedy shows work, but let’s condense them all to start with the writers’ room.

An MCL Creative Team might solve business problems with a writers-room mentality. There are some features of a MCL Creative Team that mimic a good Writers’ Room:

  • Rapid brainstorming, adapting, and ideating, where everyone on the team can contribute, where lots of ideas can be discovered, considered, then developed, or discarded.

  • Process blockers get tackled by a full team of contributors

  • A team that puts individual talents toward finding productive paths and creative ways of approaching them.

  • A non-egotistical leader with good taste, a personal stake, and a goal-oriented mindset who makes sure the good stuff gets promoted and empowers all to do their best work.

This is where good ideas get found, developed, matured, and ultimately implemented.

A warning. To get good results from a creative team, choose the team wisely. Too many times the writers’ room gets ruined by executives sneaking guardians into the mix. I call these the ‘no-sayers’ and they impede curiosity and creativity like a flat tire on the autobahn.

When to Use MCL: If your teams are struggling to find innovative solutions to product problems, or if they seem stuck in a “Creative Orthodoxy”, maybe they’ve been shut down by too many brain-storms that felt like beat-downs. Maybe they need you to be a Carol instead of a Karen. Try leading from the middle to see if they can get the mojo back.

If you’d like some help in creating a team you can deploy to get creative work done quickly, bring in a lead-from-the-middle team builder, show them the goals, let them pick a team, shield them from the ‘no-sayers’, and reap the rewards.

Steps To Create a Successful MCL Creative Team

How can you lead a creative team from the middle? I think there are at least three critical components to success, as well as some guardrails that will keep your team from being taken over by the loudest voices, manipulated by self-servants, or descending into chaos.

Critical Components to Leading Creatives Teams Like a Middle Child

I’m no thought leader, and I’m not going to claim omnipotence. Instead, I’ll give you three pillars (algorithms, people, and one other thing love lists of threes) with quotes from two people who make sense and one who specializes in nonsense but who does so purposefully and successfully.

1. Honesty

Honesty builds trust. To create a team that works as a team, a leader must create an atmosphere of trust by being a person that the team can trust. It’s turtles trust all the way down up. Kim Scott explains it best with her talk on Radical Candor. (Go watch her take responsibility for not figuring it out sooner, a great example of establishing trust through a leader’s honesty.) She makes a strong case for honesty combined with empathy, and I like the way she explains it. It’s not surprising, she’s pretty smart.

Honesty prevents teams from descending into the chaos of “everyone gets a gold star, no wrong answers…or goals.” That only works in the brainstorming sessions. Eventually, the weeding has to start.

Will you crush the spirit of a creative by telling them their idea won’t fly? In Amy Pohler’s Prepare to Be Unprepared MasterClass, she explains why you shouldn’t worry about being straight with creative people. “Talented creators aren’t worried that that’s their last idea. You‘ve gotta let things go.” If the honesty comes from a source they know is also empathetic, and a person they trust to not submarine or steal credit, they won’t take disagreements or idea rejections personally.

Honest feedback keeps end-goals in mind and builds trust because they all get to contribute along the way.

Finally, honest leaders aren’t afraid to admit mistakes. Trust me, the team already knows when you messed up. Denying, minimizing, or shifting the blame will make them think you’re either stupid or untrustworthy. Neither is good.

2. Acceptance

Great ideas, great products, and great things require acts of bravery. Releasing any type of product (or even a LinkedIn post) into the wild creates vulnerability for a company, a team, or an individual. Even the idea of voicing an idea in a fast-moving brainstorming session gives some personalities both hot flashes and cold sweats. If such teammates don’t feel safe expressing themselves you’re going to miss some really good ideas from the diverse perspectives you were trying to get when you created the team.

When explaining the “Keep Saying Yes” principle of improv, Amy Poehler notes “Yes isn’t always about agreeing, it’s about ‘I’m listening to you, I want things to go farther. I don’t want to shut things down.'”

Your teammates will be willing to put themselves out on that metaphorical limb if they feel that the rest of the team, including the “leader” believes in them and will play along with the idea until the the idea gets fleshed out and acted upon or tossed around and discarded. It’s easier to see your input discarded if it has at least had a chance, and great ideas often come as the second or third iteration of a bad idea.

Acceptance isn’t always approval. But if ideas and people don’t get shot down immediately, you’ll see more willingness to take creative risks which will kick-start the iterating from raw to good, good to better, and better to best.

3. Advocacy & Loyalty

I put these two together because one requires the other. A good leader actively recruits outside experience from contributors with different perspectives, then empowers and defends them to keep them engaged. To this end, it’s informative to watch another TED talk, this one from Mary Ann Sieghart: Why Are Women Still Taken Less Seriously Than Men?. It doesn’t take much imagination to know how much damage a leader can do by talking over the contribution of female teammates, or by allowing others to do it. A good leader advocates for diverse perspectives and then loyally supports them.

"No matter how badly things were going, my biggest sense of pride is that people could look to me as someone that had not left the room, physically or spiritually.”

People love people who make them feel good about themselves. This is the foundation of all teamwork. Strong teams are made of people who feel empowered to be the best version of themselves by teammates who believe in them and will back them up. This is especially true when things aren’t going great.

Poehler’s SNL team wasn’t under the illusion that every sketch killed. Many bombed. However, as a team, they (for fun!) looked up and rewatched the sketches that bombed the worst, and as a group delighted in watching “how hard everybody stayed in character… [ No matter how badly things were going,] my biggest sense of pride is that people could look to me as someone that had not left the room, physically or spiritually.” The lesson? “Don’t bail on your people… It’s what employees remember, what friends remember. They remember that you didn’t bail.”

So don’t quit on your team. And don’t let the no-sayers or the office snipers drag down the positive vibes you want to create on a team. A leader makes the team feel safe by being an advocate. The rest of the team will follow suit. Pretty soon, the rest of the world will know that when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet for life. Or something about “family” from the Fast & Furious franchise. Whatever your team’s jam is.

Don't Bail On Your Team
Amy Poehler Not Bailing When The Skit Bombed While Holding A Bomb

Finding Creative Middle Child Leaders

Where are you going to find leaders for these creative teams? It’s possible that already have one floating around: helping others do good work, bolstering morale, and showing up with a shovel when things get messy. Likely, they won’t be the highest qualified managerial candidate when compared to your LinkedIn job post requirements, but they’ll be the ones that are missed most if they get hired away.

Widen your view. While middle children might still be plentiful, the education system and job market tend to create and reward specialists. Good generalists are harder to come by than ever. If you don’t find an example on-staff, start looking around for generalist practitioners (Hello there!), or grow one.

How do you grow your own generalist MCL? Choose a hard worker with a curious mind, a broad skillset, and a middle-child mentality, and then train them to lead. Start them on small projects with defined goals and give them part-time access to teammates who can help. Check in on progress. Give feedback and advice. Keep them away from anything that will radicalize them into hustle-and-grind bros. Teach them how to balance expectations with reality, honesty with empathy, acceptance with expectations, and that loyalty starts with leadership. You might create your next great leader. At worst, you’ll have created a loyal team member who feels valued by their boss.

Get In There. Start Creating.

Team creativity comes from smart people with a common goal, headed by a competent goal-oriented generalist who can lead with a middle-child mentality. If you’re building a creative team, get in the middle with them, engage them personally, provide them with productive feedback, and then get rolling towards creative solutions as a team.

Go get ‘em.


* A note on Lead From the Middle™: There is a whole pre-established trademarked idea of Lead From the Middle as it applies to helping middle managers lead inside large companies. This is not what I’m talking about when I say Middle Child Leaders “lead from the middle.” My version of LFTM isn’t based on hierarchy but on mindset. So I’m changing my initial draft from “Lead from the Middle” to “Middle Child Leadership”; not just because as a middle child, I see the advantages that come from being in the middle, but also because—while I value the insights of Scott Mautz—I don’t want to confuse anyone looking for mid-tier manager success.

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