A New Trait Theory: What Neurology Tells Us about Creativity And What it Means to Leadership


In recent years, the classic line ‘great leaders are born, not made’ has been denounced by greats such as Colin Powel and Leadership author, Marshall Goldsmith, who have stated the opposite, ‘great leaders are made, not born’ (Stanford GSB News, 2005; Goldsmith, M., 2008). While history links the former statement with the original trait theory of Leadership, advancements in neurology allow us to see both statements anew – both true.

Experience and acquired wisdom are undoubtedly invaluable and hard-earned qualities; that is not up for debate. But with the Human Genome Project completed and remarkable neurological findings currently surging, one cannot help but ask, just how much of me was I born with? By exploring each end of the “Trait Theory spectrum” and how these opposing views can simultaneously have merit, we can begin to answer the question, “What can neurology teach us about the role creativity plays in Leadership?”

Why Creativity?

Some people just see the world differently than the most of us. When thinking of Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, or Virginia Woolf, notions of intelligence, devotion, and innovation come to mind. These leaders certainly had a degree of gifted perception and unusual acuity. Their capabilities allowed them to lead groups of people and fields of knowledge into undiscovered territories and prosper from the exploration. It can be agreed upon that what came of their actions was nothing less than genius. They all seemed to just see the world differently. What was their magic potion, their ace in the hole? Creativity.

For this reason, scholars often note creativity as a credential on the list of leadership traits. Daft (1999) and Bass (1990) include creativity, coupled with ‘originality’ on their lists. Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) also include creativity in their “other” category on their seven-trait list (also including drive, motivation, honesty and integrity, self-confidence, cognitive ability, and knowledge of business). This grab bag of a category, including charisma, creativity, and flexibility, speaks volumes about our knowledge on these subjects; it is limited. Some scholars, such as Stogdill (1948), R. Hogan, et al (1994), Mann (1959), Northouse (1997), and Yuki (1998) do not even include it on their lists at all.

How is it possible that creativity is not on the list? Or in other cases, how is it possible that these educated scholars only throw creativity into an “other” category; assuming their importance without even knowing why? Kirkpatrick and Locke (1991) state that these “are three traits with less clear-cut evidence of their importance to leadership.” Does it make sense that we continuously list a trait, such as creativity, that we cannot even define? Even still, these scholars have again and again refined their criteria of traits, editing their lists, and in some cases kicking creativity straight off the map.

The problem that arises here is that we have a huge component to leadership with a level of importance that scholars almost unanimously agree has merit, yet until recently, there were no methods of measuring or researching it. Why? Because creativity is an enormous conceptual construct with various means of investigation, including creative performance or product, the creative person, the creative situation, the creative process, and the creative potential (Albert, 2006). It is a highly interdisciplinary field that entails a meticulous choice of method in order for research to even take place. Additionally, the process of creativity is highly biological and neurological; therefore, science had to catch up to theory.

Because creativity has only recently been seriously pursued, namely because of the recent advancements in technology in the past three decades, these sub-concepts of creativity are just beginning to flesh out. For the following research, it is most important to first identify the aspect of creativity that relates to the hypothesis before moving forward. Therefore, it will cover the creative process (neurologically) and the creative person (leaders), as these subjects are crucial and applicable areas in defining the new trait theory.

Why exploit creativity as the trait of choice in this revamping of the trait theory? Simple: creativity is the “it” factor in the complex recipe of leadership. Self-motivation, intelligence, confidence… these are all traits with relatively simple definitions, readily seen. Creativity seems to add an ineffable quality to any good leader, speaking to its interdisciplinary qualities. It is mysterious and intriguing by nature and offers innumerous amounts of possibility and innovations for leadership studies. As we will see, it is a quality that has both genetic and evolutionary traits, a balance that is exciting and rich with opportunity, opening the doors for reflection on what the trait theory means to leadership.

Defining Creativity

Scholars note creativity in just about every Trait Theory citation, unanimously agreeing it is a necessary factor in the equation of Leadership. But what is creativity?

Figure 1

As a process, the creative act “is to combine known elements into new combinations or perspectives that have never before been considered,” (Klemm, p. 450). Dr. William Klemm describes creativity as a deliberate effort that one conducts to find as many alternatives as possible (p. 450). Guilford (1959) stated that this process of seeking out many options, not just one, was complimentary to convergent thinking, therefore it was divergent thinking (see Figure 1). Furthermore, Baer (1993) describes divergent thinking in four categories: creative fluency, the ability to produce a large number of ideas, flexibility, the ability to produce a wide variety of ideas, originality, the ability to produce unusual ideas, and elaboration, the ability to develop or embellish ideas, to produce many details.

However, Sternberg (1999) makes a very important inference. If creativity were only about coming up with as many ideas to solve a problem as possible, nothing would ever get done. What is the use of ten solutions with no problem to apply them to? For Sternberg, “the two defining characteristics of creativity are originality and usefulness” (p. 450). This is very important to include in the definition, the true difference between divergent thinking and creativity. Sternberg’s addition of “usefulness” to the criteria makes creativity valuable.

Another important distinction is the difference between intelligence and creativity.  It was once thought that these qualities were one in the same, as many authors maintained that there was not much of a difference (Villalba, 2008, 9). While these abilities relate, they are by no means the same. In fact, this point proves true in the threshold theory of creativity (Guilford, 1956; Sternberg 1999). Intelligence only correlates with creativity up to an IQ of around 120; beyond that number, there is no significant correlation (Kuszewski, 2009, 4) (see Figure 2). This means that there is “a necessary and sufficient threshold of general intelligence to generate creative processing, but after that threshold…an IQ that is too high may hinder creativity, limiting the flexibility of divergent thought and solutions” (Kuszewski, 2009). In addition, creativity is different then intelligence in that creativity concerns the level of novelty, not just quality (Sternberg, 2001).

Figure 2

Clearly, creativity has gone through a great amount of change in definition in just the past few decades. By combining this past research with new technologies, we arrive at a new and updated set of criteria for defining the creative process. As stated by Behavioral Therapist and researcher at METODO Social Sciences Institute, Andrea Kuszewski, “most individuals studying it today have come to agree on certain components of cognition that are present and necessary for creative thinking,” (p. 2). This includes “divergent thinking, the ability to make remote associations between ideas, the ability to switch back and forth between conventional and unconventional ideation, and…to generate original, novel ideas,” (Lubart, 1994; Sternberg & Lubart, 1991, 1995).

Kuszewski (2009) says that creative people have the ability to use flexible thinking and create associations between ideas (p. 4). In order to make this happen, one must utilize many areas of the brain, activating different sections with different powers to find meaning. Rose notes that, “uncreative people have marked hemispheric dominance…by contrast, creative people are said to have less hemispheric dominance,” (p. 6) (see Figure 3). Blessed with advances in technology, scientists were able to study regional cerebral blood flow in a group of subjects, deemed as either creative or non-creative after evaluating a neuropsychological test taken earlier. Those deemed creative, “showed bilateral activation of the frontal lobes while the uncreative ones activated only the dominant frontal lobe,” (Rose, 2004).

The brain uses the frontal lobes for higher mental functions, such as determining good from evil. Here, the bilateral movement shows that the creative thinkers bounce back and forth between left-brained linear reasoning and right-brained artistic thinking. The frontal lobes also host the prefrontal cortex (PFC), the area of the brain that plans complex cognition, personality expression, and decision-making. The PFC has surfaced as a very hot topic to creativity researchers in recent years because of its key role in processing social information and judgments of behavior (Runco, 2007).

These scholars have developed a worthy sense of what is involved in the creativity process. However, they do not specify its origin. Where does creativity come from? A bit of a chicken-and-the-egg syndrome arises here, as scholars are making an effort to define how much creativity is genetic and how much it is fostered ability.

Genetic Creativity

A great deal of research is now showing that creativity has strong connections to genetics. In fact, researchers nearly universally agree upon a phenotype responsible for the creative individual (Kuszewski, 2009, 6).

A hot topic in creativity studies is the chemical dopamine. This very important, very influential neurotransmitter appears in many areas of the brain, and plays a role in behavior, cognition, voluntary movement, mood, attention, working memory, and learning. In simple terms, it is thought to “determine our perception of personal relevancy in the environment…too little dopamine and nothing is perceived to relate to us… too much dopamine and suddenly everything in the environment is personally related to us,” (Kuszewski, 2009, 12).

A main point of importance in dopamine’s use is the fact that it is essential to a properly functioning PFC (Kuszewski, 2009, 9), an area of the brain key to assisting creativity.

Figure 4

Interestingly enough, Schizophrenics have a very poorly functioning PFC (see Figure 4), yet researchers propose that there is a strong genetic link between Schizophrenia and creativity (Folly, 2006, 4). By looking at Schizophrenia and creativity, we see that they both involve divergent thinking and flexibility in thinking, just on different levels. This linkage is important; there is a lack in cognitive control involved in both, showing that too much control in the PFC is not always beneficial, a notion that relates back to the threshold theory.

In research, sometimes it is good to look at what does not work in order to see how something does work. In this case – what goes wrong in Schizophrenics? According to H. J. Eysenck’s (1997) studies on Creativity and Personality, the Schizophrenic body processes and uses dopamine differently, showing very little latent inhibition (too much dopamine leads to over-inclusive thinking). What is even more interesting is that there is a sort of threshold linking to this theory; Sass and Shuldberg (2000-2001) present a spectrum of Schizophrenia that shows how different levels of Schizophrenia (schitzopy) predict creativity or psychosis.

At zero schitzopy indicators, there is a moderate level of creativity; at 1, there is higher creativity; 2, even higher. Suddenly, any additional indicators show a gigantic decrease in

Figure 5

creative achievement, plummeting to what we know as Schizophrenia (see Figure 5). This is remarkable data, especially considering that Schizophrenia is known to have genetic influence (direct relatives of Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Mozart, and Pablo Picasso were Schizophrenic) (Kuszewski, 2009, 16). By such a minutely small biological disparity, we see the difference between creative genius and psychosis. Clearly, some schitzopy levels have purpose genetically, attributing to the fact of why Schizophrenics have not died out due to evolutionary advancement. Although all signs point to their demise, including a low reproductive fitness trait of theirs, the risk of gaining creative souls (while also gaining a few psychotic ones) out of a Schizophrenic genetic pool is worth it to evolution (Kuszewski, 2009, 16).

On another note, two of dopamine’s five receptors, DRD2 and TPH, also play a role in creativity. According to the research of Reuter et. al (2006, 190-197), “the DRD2 gene and the TPH gene were both associated with total creativity” in a study of 92 subjects. Put simply, the genes that we are born with code the enzymes that create dopamine; and mutations in the genes will cause for different coding, and therefore different amounts, locations, and functions of dopamine. Reuter et. al (2006) is at a crucia

l and concrete point in the discovery of genetic creativity.

Fostered Creativity

Kuszewski (2009) makes an astounding point in her research on creativity; she states, “an individual may have creative potential as determined by genetics, but the influence ofnurturing others and a motivating environment that encourages the development of those traits may impact successful products of creativity” (p. 15). This argument is a well-taken point, honoring the human capability to change.

The brain is a chameleon of sorts, exhibiting the power of neuroplasticity (also known as brain plasticity or brain malleability) (medicinenet.com, 2010). While genetics clearly plays a large role in the functioning and outcome of the human brain’s abilities, it should not be forgotten the power of experience. Neuroplasticity is an excellent example of just this phenomenon.

In essence, the brain never stops evolving throughout its entire lifetime (therefore the individual’s lifetime) due to shifting use and emphasis. The simple use of the brain is enough to make it grow stronger. It was found in a study with sea slugs that “if two connected neurons are stimulated at the same time, the amount of signal passing from one neuron to the other can double,” a phenomenon known as long-term potentiation (LTP) (Read, 1997). For example, if you have milk with cookies on a number of occasions your affinity for the combination grows stronger.

Figure 6

Similarly, yet in opposition is the regulatory process of synaptic pruning. The brain removes synapses according to usage, deleting synapses according to their efficacy, removing the weaker synapses first (Chechik, G. Meilijison, I., & Ruppin. E., 1999, 1). While this may seem contradictory to development, the removal of synapses, it is actually quite beneficiary. The more efficient the brain, the more chance for worthy ideas to occur, because they will be based on the most useful synapses and information.

Another way reorganization takes place is through axonal sprouting, when “undamaged axons grow new nerve endings to reconnect neurons whose links were injured…forming new neural pathways to accomplish a needed function,” (medicinenet.com, 2010). An endearing thought; our brains actually work on their own to regenerate and reformulate just as the skin does for a scratch on one’s hand. Not only does this have major implications for brain injury recuperation, it speaks to the human ability of self-induced growth. All the brain needs is exercise, or activation, to induce and foster plasticity.

In other words, use it or lose it.

Neuroplasticity by nature is creative because the brain generates new pathways. The brain experiences the world through human perception, developing neural pathways for the purpose of efficiency. This circuitry changes as time goes on, getting rid of the unused and strengthening the highly used, or most traumatic, to remain efficient. For this reason, the humans grow and learn from their experiences; giving way to the notion that leaders can be made.

Leadership and Creativity

As technology and research develop, creativity moves out of the mysterious and undefined darkness. Advancements in neurology, a group of curious researchers, and the will to know will push this field of study forward, supplementing numerous fields to better define their criteria. One of these fields, also interdisciplinary, is leadership.

The brain is the world’s most complicated machine. In this review of neurology’s assistance in understanding creativity, we see the Trait Theory in a new light. There need not be more arguments on whether or not leaders are born or made, for it is proven that all humans are a product of each nature and nurture. This is exciting news for leadership studies, as it opens doors for not only further research, but also further consideration. No longer should it remain outside the trait theory inventory. For creativity enables people to use more of their brain, stimulate divergent thinking, to generate novel and applicable ideas. It is a reason to look deeper into how leaders should foster unique thinking in the workplace, value original thought, and pamper fresh ideas.

This new information creativity provides insights beyond the trait theory, too. The most intelligent person in the room is no longer the most powerful, for they are not always the most creative, and therefore not always the most capable of creating innovation or having all the answers. Similarly, creativity blossoms when given an exemplary environment full of worthy stimulus. Leaders should consider this notion when implementing their vision in the workplace. How do we treat our employees? Is imaginative thinking encouraged throughout the day? In addition, reinforcement is key to ensure a lack of degenerative pruning and promotion of the strengthening in key synapse connections.

The scientific research on creativity, still in its youth, provides abundant evidence that it is a deeply rich and complex quality that leaders should no longer disregard or place in an ‘other’ category. As more information arises on the subject, leadership studies will find greater and greater value in creativity’s significance in defining leadership.


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  1. great article…connects with new insights in neuroscience quite nicely and goes to the heart of human capacity in issues of leadership…there are no longer “value free” questions…..

  2. It was a very well done article. Was it ever published anywhere? I would like to cite you, but I’m afraid the credibility of a cite that is associated with “the Mugger” won’t fly at my particular institution.

  3. I would also love to cite this article, can I have the proper information? It is for a graduate level course on leadership. Great article!

  4. Hi Scott, so glad you enjoyed. All of my information is now listed under “The Mugger”. If you need more information or have questions, please let me know and I’ll shoot you a personal email. Thanks!!

  5. The threshold theory is nonsense, and not supported by more recent meta studies. It’s just a way for proponents of analytical tradition to inflate the value of IQ . God forbid that it fall in the public’s mind, that someone with average or lower IQ, be more creative.

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