How to lead High-Fliers

How to lead high-fliers

Very often, creative leaders do not possess expertise in the domain of their high-fliers. This can be tricky. How on earth can you evaluate the quality of a creative solution if you are not knowledgeable in the area?

By Robert Gerlach, Creativity Educator & Author

High-fliers are people who have a lot of ability, are ambitious, and are likely to be even more knowledgeable in their domain than their supervisor. If you happen to be a creative leader without expertise in the domain of one of your geniuses, and if you are not convinced about his or her solution, your feedback should trigger the intelligence of your high-fliers to find a better solution.

A creative leader is often seen as being there to support and encourage their high-fliers. But equally important is igniting them to do better, which can be achieved by challenging their genius.


To better illustrate the management style Leading by “Challenging Genius, let’s first paint a picture of a well-known unconventional mind and how to not communicate with him. Let’s assume the Post-Impressionist painter Vincent van Gogh (1853 – 1890) was still alive today, making his living as a packaging designer. A conversation with his supervisor at 6 P.M. could sound like this:

Supervisor: Vincent, the client generally likes the basic idea of using flowers on the packaging. However, he thinks that the sunflowers are slightly wilted. Could you paint them in a somehow fresher style? And, oh yes, the background color, please don’t use the garish green. Try it in carmine. That’s more appealing to our female target group.

Vincent: What is done in love, is done well.1

Supervisor: Sorry Vincent, but this is business. We need colors that sell right away! Understood?! It’s due by tomorrow 9 a.m. I know this is kind of tight, but you’ll manage it. Thanks!

(Vincent takes his coat and leaves the office he thinks is a madhouse.)

Because the supervisor is giving orders, he takes away the responsibility of the artist. Even worse, he has no idea about the artist’s true intentions! A better way would be to challenge the high-flier’s genius by asking questions like “Why are the sunflowers slightly wilted?” Or, “Why did you choose those colors?” A creative manager can be compared to a gallerist. He might not be capable of creating something similar, but he should be able to see the potential of the artist and understand his work and its value. Otherwise, he will never be able to sell it. If the artist’s explanations do not convince the creative manager, he can still dig deeper by asking questions like, “Do you think this artwork will present the product in its best possible light and sell it? And why?” Or, he could point to the negative results of market research of his artwork and then ask, “Why is that and what do you recommend?”

The job of the creative manager is to understand the creative mind and, in case of doubt, to trigger his intelligence. Sometimes artists overshoot the mark. Sometimes they are encapsulated in their world and forget about outer reality. However, if you confront a creative mind with the facts, point out your concerns and leave the decision to him, he will ponder on his idea and search for a better solution – not just to please you, but to meet his own standards.

Creatives are very often idealists. They live and breathe their work. They like to define themselves by their intelligence, their talents, and their resourcefulness. Solving tricky assignments enthralls them. Why not play on their love of challenges? Larry Page, CEO of Google once stated, “[…] the best people always want to work on the biggest challenges.” If you challenge the high-flier, you can observe how well he understands the laws of the market and to what extent he is flexible in his artistic style and skilled at developing alternatives.


The Letters of Vincent van Gogh to his Brother, 1872-1886. Van Gogh, Vincent (Constable & Co, 1927).

Larry Page Letter Highlights Google’s Conflicts by Nancy Gohring, PC World, APR 5, 2012.


If you would like to dig deeper into our Creative Leadership Training email Robert at r{dot}gerlach{at}IQudo{dot}com

If you would like to dig deeper into creative thinking, have a look at my book Innovator’s High. This how-to guide helps you to build your creative muscle, foster an inspiring culture, and tap into idea euphoria.


Get Innovator’s High on Amazon.com // Amazon.de

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