Herding Tigers: Leading Creative Teams with Todd Henry

If you want brilliant, creative, and innovative work, you need clear and consistent boundaries.

Are you the type of leader that creative people need? Todd Henry is a keynote speaker and the author of Louder Than Words, Die Empty, The Accidental Creative, and — the book we’re diving into today — Herding Tigers. Doing the work and leading the work are very different things. How can you, as a leader, set the stage for your creative team members to do their best work?

What inspired you to write Herding Tigers?

This book is meant to address the people who have the biggest sway within the organization. It’s not enough to throw resources at your team and tell them to do great work. You have to understand the underlying dynamics of the creative process and what talented people really crave so they can produce their best work.

Stability and Challenge

There are two things that creative people need more than anything else: stability and challenge.

Stability is predictability of process, clarity of expectations, and a clear and coherent leadership philosophy that helps them understand how to engage. It’s a myth that creative people only want complete freedom. Orson Welles said that the absence of limitations is the enemy of art, so if you want brilliant, creative, and innovative work, you need clear and consistent boundaries.

Challenge means pushing your team. They need to see that you know and understand them and know what they’re capable of even better than they do. This means believing in your team and having their back if they take risks.

Where does trust come in?

Trust is the currency of creative teams. Without trust, there is no risk or innovation. But trust is like a water balloon. Once you fill it up, if you puncture it, even in a tiny way, then you lose trust everywhere.

One of the ways we do this is something called ‘declaring undeclarables,’ or making small promises you can’t keep. To your team, they’re signs that they can’t fully trust you to tell them the truth all the time.

Bravery entails asking difficult questions.

We are defined by the questions that we avoid more than the questions we ask. Not asking questions means we get to stay in our comfort zone. Asking questions immediately generates accountability to act on whatever the response is.

Leaders have to ask dangerous questions that challenge assumptions, even if the answers may not be the things we want to hear.  

Surround yourself with the right people

It’s so important to have people around us who are willing to speak truth to us — preferably people who have known you for a while, who have seen you at your best, at your worst, and as you were growing into your position of authority. This is the community you need to help you make good decisions in life and business.

Prune proactively

Sometimes in our teams, there are behaviors we know aren’t healthy but we let slide anyway. This is “normalization of deviance,” which is, in effect, a tacit endorsement of this behavior until it becomes the company culture.

Great cultures aren’t built; they’re grown from the inside out. We have to regularly fertilize what we want and prune what we don’t want. Prune the deviant behavior so you can grow a healthy culture just like you would grow a healthy garden.

What can we do to start creating a healthier organization today?

The question “Why?” is really important. Not being willing to ask why is a sign of mediocrity; of getting halfway up a mountain and saying, “close enough.” Those who build a body of work they’re proud of are the ones who are willing to ask that really dangerous “Why?” question consistently.

What do you hope people take away from Herding Tigers?

There is a tremendous upside to creative leadership. In 100 years, it’s unlikely people are going to remember any of our businesses. But the impact that we have on the lives of the people that we lead is going to echo for generations to come. Generation after generation of people will be impacted because you were willing to be the leader that you always wish you had.

Be a leader who makes echoes.

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Todd Henry (LinkedIn)

Todd Henry (Website)

Herding Tigers: Be the Leader that Creative People Need

The Accidental Creative: How to Be Brilliant at a Moment’s Notice

Die Empty: Unleash Your Best Work Every Day

Louder Than Words: Harness the Power of Your Authentic Voice


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