On the bulletin board in my office is the internal phone list, a bunch of receipts skewered by a pushpin, several pictures of my wife and son, and the famous Karsh portrait of Winston Churchill.
As the only person I know who has actually read A History of the English Speaking Peoples, as well as the complete War Memoirs (the series that earned Churchill the Nobel Prize for Literature, no less), I’m clearly an unabashed admirer.
So when I say Churchill would have made a lousy creative director, I do so advisedly.
Churchill had an absolute, unwavering belief in his own rightness. This was an important quality back in the days when he was the only person in the British government who had Hitler’s number. While everyone else was nattering and appeasing, Churchill was railing away in Parliament, to the point where they finally told him to knock it off and go home. Luckily for humanity, they realized he was right before it was too late.
But then as soon as the war was won, the devoted English electorate, who for years had placed their very lives in Churchill’s hands, promptly heaved him out of office.
It would be easy to chalk this up to the fickleness of the democratic process, but it’s more likely the British people understood instinctively that a leader of Churchill’s iron resolve, honed by years of frustration and the trials of global warfare, would never have the flexibility or open-mindedness to manage a country at peace.
I guess if your agency is in a state of crisis, with every campaign a win or lose all, Churchill’s your man. But most of time people need leaders who are not only receptive, but eager to assimilate and exploit the thinking and perspectives of the widest number of people possible. To do this, you can’t think you’re right all the time. Instead, you have to have faith in your ability to assess the value of an idea, whatever the source.
Churchill’s ability to back the right horse was in doubt in the early days of the war when various Imperial generals were getting their asses kicked all over North Africa. Winston was desperate to elbow them out of the way and take direct command, all the while making a great show of his ongoing support for the command structure despite constant reversals. You could interpret this as devotion to good leadership principles, which insist you don’t mess with the guys in the field. Though in Churchill’s case, he would have gladly assumed direct command had Parliament and his wife let him.
Winnie just wasn’t much of a delegator. Mostly because he was so filled with the courage of conviction, it was difficult for him to see the value in other minds, other ways.
You see this all the time with entrepreneurs, creative and otherwise. The greatest hazard to success, long term, is success itself. You begin to think, hey, that worked the last time, it’ll always work. Or worse, it’ll work because I thought of it. And I’m so damn smart.
The trick is to hold on to a little healthy insecurity while keeping the lines of communication open with people who may not be completely sold on your infallibility.
Since creative directors are either writers or art directors, there’s also the problem of the player/coach. Imagine being a writer in Churchill’s bullpen. The traffic manager hands you a job to work up a couple graphs for Winston to deliver to Parliament, “Something to buck up the English people in their darkest hour, something he’d be okay to put his name on, you know, for posterity and stuff.”
It’d be like Phil Jackson telling you, “Michael Jordan’s a little tired, you go in there and save the fourth quarter like he usually does, okay?”
Individual superstars, especially naturals, are tough on others paid to do the same thing. It’s worse when they’re in charge. Even lesser talents can wreck a whole crew of creatives by playing the game when they ought to be screaming from the sidelines.
Before I slip too far off the metaphorical track, I should honor one of Churchill’s other qualities. He had more energy than 10 five-year-olds put together. The whole time he was running England on a tight leash, saving the Western World and manipulating heads of state, he was writing thousands of pages of memoirs and sending his generals useful tips on how to move masses of men and materiel over uncertain terrain. My wife once pointed out that success wasn’t a function of intelligence, or even luck, as much as stamina. It’s probably a good thing for creative directors to be unusually energetic. Or at least act like you are. So, points for Churchill on that score.
Of course, few people know that he performed all these superhuman feats within a cloud of tobacco smoke, through a haze of brandy and pharmaceuticals, with a body that looked like Truman Capote’s on a bad day. And lived to be 90 years old.
So maybe the whole comparison is ludicrously unfair. Maybe the only thing a leader needs is some intangible quality of leadership, easily transferable to any endeavor.
On the other hand, consider Michael Jordan’s baseball career.