Creative Leadership and Sense Making: Interview with Chuck Palus

Creative Leadership and Sense Making: Interview with Chuck Palus

Business September 03, 2012 / By Ben Weinlick
Creative Leadership and Sense Making: Interview with Chuck Palus

Interview that sheds an interesting light on creativity as it relates to leadership


I was stoked to be able to interview both Chuck Palus and David Horth for Think Jar Collective because they have done a ton of work around linking creativity to leadership practices.  I first came across their work during my graduate studies, when it was suggested to me by my advisor Jim Force, Ph.D. (now a Think Jar Collective member) to check out Palus and Horth’s seminal work, The Leaders Edge. Based on their research, The Leaders Edge describes leadership as the art of making shared sense of complexity, and talks about six creative leadership competencies that can help when striving to lead innovation initiatives, developing creative organizational cultures or just to get better at being an empowering collaborative leader.  Palus and Horth have also developed creative tools that leaders can engage.  One such tool they developed and one that the organization I work with often uses is called Visual Explorer.   Visual explorer is for facilitating more creative and insightful conversations in all kinds situations.

This will be a two-part interview, the first part is the interview with Chuck Palus and the second interview with David Horth will be posted in a few weeks.


Ben Weinlick, founder of Think Jar Collective: Thanks for taking the time today. It’s great to talk to one of the people that has influenced my work around enhancing creativity in organizations.  Yeah, and recently we plastered one of our learning rooms with the Visual Explorer tool cards, about 500 of our employees regularly use the tool in training situations. I see and hear great things when it’s used.

Chuck Palus:  Wow, we love to hear that and we’d love to post about what you’re doing too.

TJC: So, you know at Think Jar we’re interested in learning from diverse perspectives about creativity and how people might enhance their creative capacity as individuals and in organizations.  I’m excited to hear your perspective today on how creativity relates to leadership and share that with our readers.

Can you start by telling us a bit about your background and the work you’ve been involved in?

CP:  I started out as a scientist and an engineer; growing up I always identified with science.  After college I worked for DuPont in research & development and manufacturing and got immersed in the science of polymers and reverse osmosis.  I thought I was heading for a long career as an engineer.  Back in the early 80’s it was a time at DuPont where you got “a job for life.”  But that just didn’t sit well with me, my work is not my life. I got restless, met my future wife and we said, “let’s get out of here!” (laughing).  I realized I had to diverge to another path. 

Probably it was the most creative phase in my life because I had to learn something completely different. I went to Boston College and ended up getting a Ph.D. in Developmental Psychology. I was thrilled because it was a total left turn from my engineering life, although I did find links and see connections. For instance I found I could have both an engineering view and a social sciences perspective at the same time.  Soon after finishing my Ph.D. I started working with the Centre for Creative Leadership (CCL) and found a home there.

TJC: What is the Centre For Creative Leadership?

CP: CCL is a not for profit institute dedicated to the understanding, practice, and development of leadership.

TJC: At CCL and in looking at your book The Leaders Edge you talk about 6 leadership competencies and mention they are ‘Creative’ competencies, so what is the link between creativity and leadership?

CP: We were looking at different ways to frame leadership in a changing world. We got tired of looking at the existing leadership frames and started looking at leadership in a social constructivist sort of way. Which meant that really the job of leaders and leadership is a process of making common sense (the title of one of our articles that got a lot of attention). The formal way we said this was, “Leadership is meaning making in a community of practice”. It was a different view of leadership because it framed leadership as meaning making, and social sense making.  The creativity part for leadership was about using language and cultural tools to construct shared meaning. Nothing happens without interpretation and we realized creative leadership was helping people to agree on what is happening and work with that.

The word “making” became very fascinating to us because we realized this is essentially what we do; we are Homo Habilis: Man the Maker. Not unlike how we make pots, equipment, products or buildings, we also make social meaning and culture.  We seized upon that “making” idea and it became a key piece to our work.  If you examine the way humans make things in all fields not just leadership, you get insight into how we make social reality.  How we make social reality is how we came to the link of Art and Leadership because we realized that art is also an endeavor of making meaning.  All these acts of making meaning are really artistic acts because they involve taking something and making it into something else. We really started mining that intersection between art and leadership and even dared to say that science was in there too, now we’ll make the connections among art, science and leadership.

TJC:  What then might you say leadership as an art form looks like?

CP:  We think it looks like the 6 competencies we write about in our book. We put the competencies in a loop to show how one leads to the next. We call it a sense-making loop.  In order they are, Paying Attention, Personalizing, Imaging, Serious Play, Collaborative Inquiry and CraftingOur model was built on David Kolb’s and Bernice McCarthy’s work on learning cycles. Leadership as an art form is learning based.  But, it’s not just learning, it’s a making cycle as well.

TJC: Could you also say you’re learning by doing?

CP: Yes, absolutely.  Experiential learning is Kolb’s thing. Our work extends that into collaboration and learning with other people.

One key thing we try to do in our work, is show how the sense making loop is both an individual and a collective process.  If you’re alone in a room, you can say, “here are the six competencies and I have to do these in order to solve my challenge”. The other interpretation is that these six competencies are really collective; no one holds them alone.  For example the competency of paying attention, you can say individuals do that, but collectives do that and cultures have habits of how to pay attention as well.  You can ask yourself: How does this collective I’m part of pay attention to things? What are the strengths and weaknesses of how it attends to information? One of our long-standing critiques of the leadership field is the need for seeing leadership as a collective phenomenon, rather than just an individual one.

TJC: So, kind of like realizing you can’t get better at being an empowering leader on your own; it’s an interdependent thing.  Is what you’re saying also like not buying into the old school leadership paradigm of top- down command and control kind of stuff, but needing to focus more on shared leadership?

CP: Yes, it’s amazing how deep this individualist view of leadership runs.

Take for example Picasso leading change in the art world.  You could have the individualist viewpoint of how Picasso single handedly changed the field. Or you could flip your lens and look at how Picasso was in a community of practice with other artists and rode the waves of cultural change.  The point is Picasso didn’t create a new reality for people alone.

TJC: If you were to look back, is there one thing you’re most proud of in terms of contributing to your field of practice?

CP: That’s kind of easy because we’re still excited about Visual Explorer.  Visual Explorer has gone from being a fun, creative interlude to something that keeps growing and giving back to our community. I found it really satisfying to take a left turn within our field and actually make something useful out of it. No one was pressing us and saying you guys have to come up with a visual tool for sense making. There was no demand until we stumbled into this. We stumbled into it because of our commitment to the idea of social meaning making and the value of the artistic realm.

David Perkins of Harvard influenced our work, because he studied how people look at art and what that means for human attention. Visual Explorer enhances perception as something you can pick up in your hands, pass around and touch with your fingertips. There is a physical aspect to it that reminds us of the Homo Habilis idea.  That maybe we became human because of our hands and our eyes and now 50,000 years later here we are using a tool like visual explorer, which someone has in their hand and guides with their eyes?

Visual Explorer also really relates to the common message in creativity work that you have to get out of your head sometimes.

TJC: Yeah that’s interesting, using tools or techniques to “get out of your head” is like some of the things I’ve explored with shaking up our rigid habits and mental models that keep us stuck seeing things one way. That shaking up habits idea is one of the core things behind the “jar” part of Think Jar Collective. It’s a play on words around a “Jar” of diverse ideas and experiences to draw from and get inspired by, but also the idea that the content and work of think jar collective, “jars” and shakes loose new thinking that might lead towards relevant creativity for whatever field you come from.  I think your tool for sure is one that also jars habits and can get people into another mode of thinking and experiencing.

TJC: You mentioned earlier you found some links between engineering and your work now.  Do you have any examples where you might have taken a specific idea from engineering and applied that in leadership?

CP: Yes, we were trying to model systems of leadership with a systems thinking viewpoint.  Linking systems thinking and leadership takes a page from engineering.  We created a model for leadership development which was basically Input, Throughput and Output (Laughing). You put something in, you transform it and there is an output that you measure. We’ve used that schema in different places and many people have found it useful.  A colleague at Harvard, Scott Snook, got hold of our developmental model that we published and got excited about it. He told us one day, “You know Chuck I fell for your developmental model right away because I could see it was an engineering model.”  It led to some work we did together around defining leadership in terms of its outcomes; which are typically direction, commitment and alignment.  We call it the DAC model for short.

TJC: Is there anything you’re still curious about exploring?

CP:  We’re actively involved in research around this notion of interdependent organizations. What does it mean for the culture of an organization to become more interdependent? We’re interested in how you get there as an organization. What can you do to develop interdependence in an organization’s culture? What can you do to sustain that?


TCJ: Final question. In your own way how would you define creativity?


Chuck Palus: To me, creativity is the ability to frame and reframe the meaning of something that happens to a group of people.


TJC: Cool answer!

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