Why Leaders Need To Get More Co-Creative

Co-creative leadership is about harnessing the brainpower and knowledge of the people around you in order to create highly motivated and engaged teams.

Steffan Surdek
January 8, 2017
Business people working around a table. Leader is working with them

Over the last few years of working with clients, it’s become clear to me that many leaders have difficulty co-creating with their teams.

According to the annual Gallup poll, over 70% of the American workplace is disengaged. That is both sad and outrageous, but it also says a lot about the management teams we have in organizations and the leadership they bring.

In this article, I will introduce you to some of the key ideas behind co-creative leadership. In my consulting and training engagements, this is the leadership approach I introduce my clients to.

The Cycle That Perpetuates

In many organizations, there is a cycle going on that seems to feed itself and have a life of its own. Leaders confuse being strong, pushy and directive with "bringing leadership," but by doing this, they stifle those who would become future leaders.

Their leadership style actually creates compliance around them instead of employee engagement. I see many teams (and managers) that do not dare or want to take any initiative because they are afraid their boss will override or chastise them. Instead, they prefer just doing exactly as they are told in order to stay out of trouble.

The sad thing is, leaders do not even realize they are creating this culture. Often, they are just repeating the leadership patterns they learned from their boss, who picked up these patterns from the boss they had, when they first started at the company.

The cycle began a long time ago and perpetuates itself from leader to leader, from generation to generation. People are so used to it that no one sees it occurring, and no one even bothers to question the pattern anymore.

What Is Co-Creative Leadership?

More and more in the workplace, leaders are dealing with a generation of employees that needs to know why they are doing something. This generation also needs to be able to express their ideas and be heard. This conflicts with leaders for whom hierarchy is important, or for leaders who have a strong god complex and believe they have the perfect answers to everything. Many senior leaders in organizations are from a different generation than the millennials they are leading and do not understand what to do to meet this younger generation's needs. At times, in conversations with these leaders, I am reminded of the movie "A league of their own" where an exasperated baseball manager tells his team "but there's no crying in baseball!"

Co-creative leadership is about bringing forward a leadership style that allows all voices and all perspectives to be heard. It is not a new way of acting, but a new way of being.

Co-creative leaders are intentional in their conversations as well as their actions. They understand that learning to collaborate as a group often takes a bit of time, and they work through this learning curve with their employees.

Co-creative leaders work toward finding solutions with their teams while also being an active voice in the conversation. It does not matter if they speak first or speak last, as they are a voice among many. They help their team converge toward the best solution, even if it is not their own idea.

Why Is Co-Creation So Hard?

We do not learn about collaboration in school. Actually, there are many soft skills we do not learn until we are in the workplace. Many of us are also very logical or rational, and the people side — you know, like dealing with people’s feelings and emotions — does not come naturally to us.

Sometimes our fears hold us back. We avoid having conversations because we feel ill-equipped to have them, or we feel the need to avoid certain situations that would make anyone uncomfortable. What could be different if we just trusted ourselves a little bit more, faced our fears and limiting beliefs and did something different?

Other times, we are in cultures driven by results and become stuck in this eternal firefighting mode. We then forget about the importance of taking time to learn to play as a team. We forget that being a team is not as simple as throwing a bunch of people together in a room. What could be different if we accepted that becoming a team can be a messy process sometimes?

I also see a lot of headstrong leaders who need to have their idea be the final solution. They will fight, they will push, and they will continually argue. What could be different if these people actually took the time to listen to what is being said and build on top of it?

In all these cases, my suggestion to leaders is to simply just dare to try something different. Even better, have the courage to tell your employees you are trying something new and will probably be awkward at it; you will make mistakes doing it and need their support. Vulnerability creates space for mistakes and invites compassion and support from others.


Co-creative leadership is a mindset to adopt. It is about harnessing the brainpower and knowledge of the people around you in order to create highly motivated and engaged teams.

It is also about engaging people in the change you are trying to create. What is the perspective of your employees? What ideas do they have to support this change? How do they feel they can contribute?

What could be different in your organization if you mindfully took the time to build collaborative teams instead of being caught in the constant loop of delivering results?

This article was originally published on forbes.com through the Forbes Coaches Council in November 2016.