Good leadership in research frees creative potential.

Based on a licentiate thesis from Göteborg University by Lisa Olsson, 2010
MIVAC groups were among the 51 groups that participated in the study.

Researchers are normally individualists. It is therefore challenging to lead a group of such persons. Generally it is believed that creativity in research depends on single individuals, whereas leaders have a somewhat passive role of coordinating competences and providing research infrastructure.

But is that really true? Studies have shown that the leaders’ “expertise” is a critical characteristic of effective research groups, which suggests a more active role of the leader. To further define the role of leaders for creativity in research, a recent licentiate from GU measured the influence of leaders on research creativity and identified critical behavioural components in relation to publications.

The authors used two different methods, presented in two articles. The first study (I) measured quality of leader-member interactions. Through questionnaires both leaders and members were asked to rate their interactions regarding “affect” (liking to work with leader/group member), “loyalty, “willingness to contribute to group members work”, and “professional respect”. Previously, these interactions have been only member-assessed, but in this study the questions were also put to the leaders. The second study (II) used interviews, from which the answers were later categorized. These categories could then be quantified and used for analysis. The aim of this study was to find out which leadership behaviour stimulates creativity and if the group members could identify the critical components.

Both studies clearly show that a successful research leader actively stimulates group member creativity, acting more as a collaborator showing respect for the group members than as a “boss”. Professional skills are important for these interactions. Group members for example identified occasions where the leader has provided expertise, by generating ideas and evaluating members’ progress, as conducive to creativity (II).  Social skills are also important for a research leader. Thus, both leader- and member-rated “affect” correlated with group member publications (I), whereas group members identified “support”, in the form of encouragement and reward, as a critical component for their creativity (II).

Interestingly, it appears that the leaders’ assessment of their own behaviour towards the group (but not towards single individuals) is the best predictive measure of creative output. Leaders that regard themselves as willing to contribute actively to the group members’ work and that show them professional respect lead individuals with a higher creative output than those that rate these two behaviours low (I). This might not be so surprising as it sounds, if you consider that group climate is greatly influenced by such leader behaviour and previously has been shown to be of importance for creativity. It is also interesting that members identify coordination (making plans and holding group meetings) and assigning tasks as creativity-stimulating behaviour. Maybe in creative processes these actions are needed to provide structure to a task for which results and methodology not always can be predefined.