“I’m not creative.” It’s one of the refrains I hear most often from leaders when discussing methods to help engage people. And the Leadership Practices Inventory® (LPI®) data corroborates that perception. Indeed, LPI Item #15, “I make sure that people are creatively rewarded…”, tends to be one of the lower of the 30 leadership behaviors. Yet, I’ve had many great experiences with leaders that prompts me to believe that, “YES, you are creative!”

In fact, my recent work with a group of child welfare leaders at the annual Child Welfare Leadership Conference in Indianapolis, Indiana proves my point. In a breakout session of a little over an hour, I was tasked with helping 30 leaders learn new ways to creatively acknowledge and engage their teams and, ultimately, to create a reward for their direct reports. 

At first, folks were stumped when it came to coming up with a creative way to encourage their team. But the minute two or three participants began to tell each other how their team makes a meaningful contribution to their organization and to others, the energy changed in a big way. It was positive—in some cases emotional—and there was a deep appreciation for all that the child welfare professionals on their teams do to help children and families. Two participants taking the lead—that’s what got everyone engaged and the ideas began to flow. The challenge is often getting it all started.  

For help igniting that spark of creativity, I turn to the world of artist and illustrator Josh Johnson and the technique he uses to get himself out of his creative ruts.  As many of us have seen, creativity doesn’t automatically ping to life just by thinking good thoughts; it often requires a little push.  And it isn’t just those of us working as consultants or our clients in “traditional” business roles. Even the most creative types, like writers and artists, sometimes feel stymied, and when they get stuck find that “phoning a friend” can be just the nudge they need. Take Josh, for example, who draws wonderful characters and tells their stories through his writing. During one of those periods when he felt a bit stuck, he partnered with a friend to provide him with daily prompts—“ants and marshmallows” one day, “stork and metal detector” another. From those fragmented images came imaginative and creative characters that jumped off the page:   

Creative ideas by Amanda Pallay; art by Josh Johnson


So when it came to igniting the creativity of this group of generous and caring child welfare professionals I put Josh’s inspired technique to work, asking leaders to turn to their colleagues for prompts—potential metaphors that describe their teams—that would trigger their own creativity. Encouraged to “help each other,” creativity began to gain its spark. One leader described her team as in need of a vacation, generating images of piña coladas, sun umbrellas, and the beach, which inspired the creation of a “Flip-Flop” Award. A “Go-The-Distance” Award was imagined for a geographically dispersed team, located in four different sites in Indiana. When another leader described how her team makes foster homes for children feel comfortable and cozy, she and her colleague came up with the “Keeping the Home Fires Burning” Award.

Once participants had the words to describe the essence of their teams, I challenged everyone to create an award using something that anyone can afford (even nonprofit and government organizations that typically don’t have funds for awards and recognition): paper plates! The resulting projects were inspiring—like the “Cherry on Top” Award created by one leader to show her deep appreciation to her team of direct reports. 

This quick-to-implement exercise reinforces one of the most fundamental truths about leadership: leaders don’t do it alone. Simple yet profoundly meaningful to all those who question their creative abilities, it also clearly demonstrates that you don’t need to provide slick, shiny (and expensive) rewards to encourage or motivate others.

The truth is that leadership is about connecting with people, letting them know they are appreciated.  It is about relationships—leaning on your colleagues to help spark your creativity. Rather than accepting the notion that, “I can’t be creative,” encourage leaders to work with colleagues to help get through their creative blocks. Whether it is in recognition, decision-making, or advice on a critical project they are facilitating, a friend can help prompt fresh thinking and new ideas they may not have come to on their own. 

This article first appeared in The Leadership Challenge Newsletter at