Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need
January 25, 2018
Todd Henry's new book is about how to lead teams of creative people with structure and principles.
Herding Tigers: Be the Leader That Creative People Need by Todd Henry, Portfolio, 272 pages, Hardcover, January 2018, ISBN 9780735211711
Todd Henry is the author of three previous books. They are all very much “of a piece” with one another, exploring the creative process and productivity in an analytical, literally formulaic manner. But, his latest book, Herding Tigers—released last week—is, I feel, almost a direct sequel to his first, The Accidental Creative. That first book dispels the myth that producing creative work requires a complete lack of boundaries, and discusses the structure and creative necessary to lead a creative life and do your best work. Herding Tigers is about leading creative teams of people, and how:
[T]he strange paradox of creative work is that freedom often comes through structure. You need boundaries to define how you spend your focus, time, and energy. That’s why it’s important to have rituals that anchor your life and your leadership.
In fact, providing structure and a clear set of parameters are key to great creative work. But the “critical concept upon which everything else in this book rests” is:
Once you assume a leadership role, your job performance is no longer measured by your personal accomplishments. Instead, your job is to unleash the creative potential in others.
In other words, you have to cease doing the work, and begin leading it. If you continue doing the work yourself, or micromanage it, you are simply getting in the way, limiting others' potential, and sending the message that everyone must defer to you instead of empowering them to take control and ownership of their work. That is not to say you shouldn’t be involved, or that you needn’t be connected to the work. It is vital to be both, and he suggests you pick a project or two in which you’re still directly involved in the creative work to stay rooted in it, and to remain more connected and relevant to the team. But your real job as a leader is to enable others to do their best work and to help them develop creatively and professionally by providing stability and challenge.
If you’ve read Todd Henry’s work before, you know he has a knack for deconstructing complex problems into simple equations. He does so again here, using stability and challenge as the variables, and what different combinations result in:
HIGH CHALLENGE + LOW STABILITY = ANGRY
HIGH STABILITY + LOW CHALLENGE = STUCK
LOW STABILITY + LOW CHALLENGE = LOST
HIGH CHALLENGE + HIGH STABILITY = THRIVING
The best way to help teams thrive, Henry believes, is to give your team focus, function, and fire. You are there to determine what to do and what not to do, when to do it, how to do it, determine what is needed to do it, explain why you’re doing it, and instill it all with meaning and purpose.
As the keeper of the flame, you have to diligently tie what the team is doing to why it is doing it.
None of this is left to chance. As with everything else, Henry has a system—a scoreboard and a dashboard—to measure and monitor progress. And it isn’t simply about measuring if the work was accomplished, but if the values and principles of the team were maintained while doing it, and if you’re poised to repeat that success. What you measure and monitor will obviously change depending on your job and your team. The point is that:
If your only measure of success is whether you crossed the finish line on time and under budget, or whether the client is pleased, you might very well hit your objectives while destroying your team in the process.
As a leader, you’re no longer responsible for just your own work. You’re responsible for everyone’s work. That can be daunting. And yet, you can’t control that work as you could your own. One of my favorite subheadings in the book says it all: “Influence Is Leading by Vision; Control Is Leading by Sight.” When you provide a clear overall vision and structure, you empower others to add their unique talent and perspective to it. When you establish a clear set of principles, it gives others the freedom to act independently upon them, without feeling the need to ask (or even worse, wait) for your personal permission to contribute. You don’t need to oversee and micromanage every detail. If you do, you will stunt others’ growth as individuals and the growth of the team.
One of the greatest shifts you’ll need to navigate as a leader is the new imbalance of power. Just as you set parameters and structure with regards to the work itself, once you have power over others it is important to set clear and healthy boundaries in your relationships with those you lead. Many of those relationships may be years-old, and some will most likely extend beyond the workplace. They are going to change. Because the decisions you make affects their work, and even their careers, how others view you will be filtered through that lens. It will require you establishing some distance to ensure, and project, objectivity in your decisions. You must assure others that you are doing what’s in the best interest of the work rather than your friendships. Casual relationships with peers will have to become more professional. It doesn’t mean you have to abandon friendships, but it does mean you probably shouldn’t gossip about mutual coworkers with those friends any longer. It doesn’t mean you have to stop going to lunch or happy hour with the team, it does mean you probably shouldn't go get lunch or drinks with the same person every day. It is up to you have honest conversations with your peers about the changing nature of your relationships, and to redefine those relationships in a productive way, to enhance their trust in you—the most important element of leadership—rather than diminish it in the process.
He also counsels you to protect your team's resources and the “white space” they need to think deeply, to play with ideas and make cognitive leaps that connect them. It is important to defend your team’s margin—the space between their workloads and their limits—as actively as your profit margin. As he wrote in The Accidental Creative, “just to stay ahead of the work is often challenging enough,” and the more obstacles we can remove, the better. But the biggest obstacle to remove is the lack of structure and stability, time or a clearly defined challenge.
That may not sound very exciting or inspirational, and perhaps it’s not. Herding Tigers is not filled with stories of great, inspiring leaders. Most of the stories that are in the book are about the mistakes people have made transitioning from creative worker to creative leader so that you know how to avoid them. What is inspiring is the impact you can have if you get it right.
The greatest mistake one can make is to lose themselves in the job rather than find themselves in it. You must be diligent about sticking to your principles, and maintaining your integrity.
Integrity means very simply that your life is integrated. What is on the inside is plainly visible on the outside.
You must remember that your leadership decisions are also life choices. You must have criteria upon which to make those decisions that are tied to your values as a human being. And yet, you also have to realize that your role at work is not who you are as a person. The greatest work you can do is helping others recognize the greatness in themselves and helping them unleash it.
Simple, clear principles are parameters that free us. They help us make decisions we can be proud of in our lives, and eliminate many of the counterproductive unspoken rules and assumptions that can create a toxic culture in our organizations. One of my favorite quotes in the book comes from Ralph Nader, who said “The function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.”
Most of the time, Henry is giving you questions to ask, not the answers to them, which will vary. Yes, he offers guidance, and there are checkpoints at the end of each chapter that lay out actions to take, conversations you may need to have, and weekly, monthly, and quarterly rituals to add. But he’s not telling you what principles you should live and lead by, simply that you should have some, and that you should lead with them.