The simplest definition of a leader is someone who has followers. Is leadership, therefore, the art of attracting followers? That definition feels manipulative and amoral. And what is creativity? Wikipedia says that it is the process of developing something “new and valuable,” which sounds rather empty. Wikipedia defines success as the attainment of higher social status, which sounds awfully shallow.
It often feels like the people writing the most about leadership are the ones leading the least. The term “thought leader” has been coined for these people. One can be equally cynical about the other terms. Making creativity the subject of bureaucratic policy seems hopelessly idiotic. Having young people chase success feels like we are throwing them into a hamster wheel and forcing them to ignore their inner lives.
And success is entirely relative: Barack Obama, from the point of view of his high school classmates, must seem like an enormous success. But examined from the point of view of fellow presidents? So why chase something that becomes elusive the higher up you go?
Reversing the terms can tame the cynicism. It is certainly clear what a lack of creativity entails: being stuck in a rut and repeating the same mistakes. The lack of leadership is similarly easy to define: being irresponsible and gullible.
The lack of success is not so easy to define. Almost anyone will say that failure is part of a process of learning. So why not focus on the quality of the process rather than an ill-defined outcome?
But it makes sense that creativity and leadership would be hard to define. If they could be formulated simply, they would already have been bureaucratized and computerized. However, they are distinctly thoughtful, human qualities that must be constantly reinvented and readapted.
Perhaps, to borrow the famous phrase of Justice Stewart when defining obscenity, the best that you can say about creativity or leadership is, “I know it when I see it.”