Are great innovators born — or can we all learn?

Ava Chisling
August 21, 2017

Michael Gelb’s new book The Art of Connection: 7 Relationship Building Skills Every Leader Needs Now will be published on September 12th.

In it, “Gelb reminds us that developing rapport with others is not just a business tool to enhance productivity but a valuable end in itself.”

When I was young, I would take whatever was around me and turn it into something else. Frisbees became slides for my marbles, doll clothes donned my mother’s knick-knacks and I’d make scary faces out of Play-Doh and leave them backlit in the window to scare the neighbors. I was five years old. Now while the imagination of a child can hardly be called “innovative” in the grown-up sense, the idea that things are not what they seem, and can become something better or more interesting — or at least more entertaining — has certainly been helpful in my varied career as a magazine editor, a writer, a copywriter and a lawyer.

Nobody taught me how to see the world in a slightly different way. I just did. It would be like someone teaching you to smile. It wasn’t necessary. You just did it. So I wondered if innovation is something that can be taught or if it is something you are born with. And perhaps those not born with a natural ability to lead or create or innovate, similar to those who hate math, can always learn the above traits… but it will always be work.

Great Innovators by Michae Gelb

Michael Gelb specializes in creative thinking, innovative leadership and executive coaching. For more than 30 years, he has taught innovation and related topics to major clients like DuPont, Microsoft and Nike. He co-directs the Leading Innovation Seminar at the University of Virginia’s Darden Graduate School of Business and is on the faculty of the Institute for Management Studies. Oh, and Michael has written 14 books with titles such as How to Think Like Leonardo Da Vinci: 7 Steps to Genius Every Day, Creativity On Demand, Innovate Like Edison, and Discover Your Genius. I figured if anyone can answer the “can you be taught to innovate?” question, it is Michael. I asked him straight out.

“We are all born with creative power, but for many people the process of schooling and socializing imposes limitations on this natural gift. Learning to be creative is mostly a matter of UNLEARNING these limiting beliefs and habits — then we can learn to make the most of it, he says” So it’s showing people what they haven’t got that makes them creative? “Some people have more talent in fields that we usually call creative such as music or art, but the focus of my work is how to bring creativity to the art of living and working. This is something everyone needs. I specialize in working with groups who think that they aren’t particularly creative. My greatest joy is to watch the light go on in their eyes when they discover their creative power.”

I wonder how important creativity is in fields that don’t lend themselves to that particular skill. There are lots of highly and lesser trained workers who are paid to toe the line, interpret the facts before them, make sure the job is done as it is proposed, sometimes at the risk of death if not followed exactly. So is it necessary that a doctor be particularly creative when administering a life-saving drug, for example? Or a mechanic checking my car’s brakes? I suppose yes, because if a problem arose, it would be good to know the person in charge could think about new solutions. On this point, Michael says, “There are plenty of activities that may not require creative thinking. But when you want or need to be creative, it helps if you know how.”

When it comes to the qualities needed to be a successful leader, Michael says, “Caring and integrity are tied for first on my list. Then creativity,” which may address my initial concern above. I want my doctor to care and to be a person of integrity, much more so than I want him to be creative. This is arguable, of course, because in order to push anything forward, you have to innovate in some way. But not everyone is born with the ability to see something new AND make it happen. Without both abilities, you’re just a person with a neat thought.

Michael became interested in teaching about innovation and leadership because “Creativity, innovation and leadership have always been the keys to human progress. Yet, the skills of creative thinking, innovating and leading didn’t seem to be part of the curriculum in schools and universities so I became inspired to help bridge the gap.” He believes that you have to be creative to innovate or at least know how to facilitate creativity in others.

On why the most successful organizations still need advice on leadership and innovation, Michael says, “Many organizations understand all this theoretically but the challenge is to apply it in practice. Senior leaders need a trusted advisor to help them discover and correct the discrepancies between their positive ideals and their unconscious patterns. And as they grow, this becomes more important.” And the number one top take-away for someone starting his or her own business? “Avoid treating others in a purely transactional way. There’s no substitute for genuine caring.”

One of Michael’s books is about wine and inspired thinking. I wondered what else leaders should look to for inspiration. “One of the most popular exercises in my seminars is the challenge I give the groups to come up with practical, immediately applicable ways to make their lives and the lives of all their stakeholders more beautiful. It’s a delightful secret to enhancing inspiration, creativity and happiness.”

It’s hard to argue with making lives more beautiful!

Michael Gelb’s upcoming book is called The Art of Connection (information here), and to find out about his two-day seminar on October 21–22: here.

Ava Chisling

Ava is an award-winning lawyer and editor who counsels creative types, writes about pop culture/tech+law and sometimes creates ad campaigns. She is Quebec counsel for Momentum Law.