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Creativity and Decisions in Leadership PDF Print E-mail
Commentary/Politics - Editorials
Tuesday, 27 April 2004 18:00
Personality, testing scores, IQ, and pedigree are not what makes one an effective leader. “Leadership is a decision-based skill set,” stated Dr. Robert Sternberg, Ph.D., last Thursday at a dinner hosted at Augustana College’s Wilson Center. Sternberg was on campus for a couple of student-related activities, and President Steven Bahls’ office sponsored the dinner to share some of the visiting talent with the area’s community leaders in the context of students, faculty, and staff.

Sternberg, a world luminary on the subject of intelligence as a measurable and immediate past president of the American Psychological Association (APA), last visited Augustana in 1995, when he spoke in response to the controversial theory that African Americans possessed inferior intelligence compared to Caucasians because of differences in the physical size of each race’s brain. Sternberg, who is the director of the PACE Institute at Yale, has been cited in close to 900 periodicals and is the author of 27 books (available on This visit he focused on his own theory of Leadership: WICS – Wisdom Intelligence Creativity Synthesized.

While offering “no silver bullet” to the challenge of nurturing leadership, Sternberg maintained that becoming a successful leader was fundamentally a decision-based skill set. Being cognizant of the various decision options available to oneself and making those decisions for the common good is the primary propellant of leadership. He sees this in action when leaders synthesize creative ideas with intelligence-based wisdom. All three components are necessary.

Sternberg defines “creativity” as “buying low and selling high,” capturing an idea outside the norm that no one wants and selling it at a higher value. He used the stock market as a foil to this model, stating that despite the generally accepted philosophy that the time to buy is when stocks are low, it is when stocks are high that the heaviest buying frenzy occurs. Even though everyone understands the formula, no one follows it. So, in effect, “creative people are ones who buy low and sell high in the world of ideas. They defy the crowd by generating ideas that tend to be unpopular when first proposed, but are able to convince others of the worth of such ideas, eventually moving on to their next unpopular idea.”

“Successful intelligence” by Sternberg’s definition is the ability to achieve success according to a person’s own parameters of success within his or her socio-cultural context. One does this by identifying and capitalizing on one’s strengths and identifying and correcting or compensating for one’s weaknesses to adapt to, shape, and select environments.

Sternberg proposes a balance theory of “wisdom,” in which a wise person is one who uses his or her successful intelligence in order to seek a common good by balancing intrapersonal, interpersonal, and extrapersonal interests over the short and long terms through the infusion of values in order to adapt to, shape, and select environments.

Sternberg was quick to point out contextual constraints as they relate to environment in defining successful models of leadership development. For instance, in the 1950s the SAT scores of Harvard students were 100 points less than their peers a decade later. As familial and social standing started playing less of a role in enrollment, higher aptitude took on greater importance as time wore on. However, those living in the 1950s felt that the model for developing leaders was sufficient. An extreme example of such leadership development considered sufficient was the European royalty system that often resulted in kings or queens with mental retardation because of inbreeding. “This model of leadership development was deemed sufficient to the people of this time,” said Sternberg. Today Sternberg prefers to define leadership as one’s ability to make decisions founded on creative ideas, with intelligent implementation as they relate to the common good.

One audience member asked for Sternberg’s opinion on our culture’s acceptance of media-generated leadership role models such as Donald Trump. Here, Sternberg went into great detail regarding the media’s impact on decision-making by the public. He attributed the genesis of this phenomenon to the famous Kennedy/Nixon televised debates. JFK’s photogenic qualities overshadowed any substantive discussion of issues within the television medium. Thus the role of leader necessarily included the ability to perform in front of an audience, much like acting, in order to achieve an end result. But Sternberg does not see this as a personality trait or skill set, rather it’s a decision to act in a certain manner. Earlier he used himself as an example of a leader who made a decision to run for the presidency of the APA, even though he did not see himself as the “run-for-office type”; he did not see himself as an extrovert. But he did make the decision to act the role of running for president because he believed so much in his convictions regarding the organization.

Alan Egly queried, “You have covered the qualities of a leader, but what about the constituency a leader represents? Can you elaborate on how leaders relate to that constituency?” Sternberg said leaders should encourage their constituents to consider perspectives other than their own and question what they’re told. Sternberg used as an example context-based education, such as presenting the traditional viewpoint that Columbus discovered America alongside the point of view that Native Americans were here before him. “This approach to an alternative viewpoint is not rocket science,” he said.

Sternberg cited various examples of leaders that he considered good and bad. Bad examples were Hitler, Idi Amin, and Mussolini, and good examples were Churchill and Mandela. All were individuals who had high intelligence, but not all made decisions based on the common good. Simple enough. However, the nuance of Sternberg’s theory that intelligence and pedigree are not pre-requisites for strong leaders does open the door to a much wider group of would-be future leaders. And while creativity is the nucleus of such a model, it is the decisions one makes with that creativity that counts on the effective-leadership scale.

President Bahls opened the evening with a reference to Roald Tweet’s “Rock Island Lines” radio vignettes, noting Tweet’s lament of the disappearing front porches in America’s neighborhoods, resulting in the demise of personal contact and the sharing of information. “I like to think that [Augustana’s] Wilson Center is our front porch here, where students, faculty, staff, and community leaders come to talk about issues and share ideas.” Time seemed to be the only constraint to fully achieving a “front porch” feel, as Sternberg was unable to fully answer several questions posed by the audience. Perhaps with additional time, more interaction between audience and speaker could be had.
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