The maxim quoted in the title is famous for Swedish parents and essentially means that words can only take your teachings that far. But does this maxim extend to the work context? In this article, aimed at managers and leaders in organizations, we will examine the concept of creative role models and see how leaders can use themselves to leverage creativity in their teams.

Much of our behavior is learnt by observation and emulation. In new situations, we often like to ‘check things out’ before we take initiative. We do this in order to know how we are expected to behave, i.e. to identify which norms that are salient for the situation. Different situations come with different sets of norms. For instance, think about how you and others behave when you are at the local pub compared to when you are at a formal banquet. The situation is incredibly powerful in changing our behavior and thinking. But what about the work context? Can aspects of the work situation influence our creative thinking?

Creative climates and creative expectations

Research has identified creative climates in which freedom, challenge, risk taking, experimentation and psychological safety are some of the significant factors that increase the chances for creative ideas and innovative outcomes (Denti, 2011). In a recent article, we briefly glanced at the Pygmalion effect, in which I put forward the notion that leaders increase the creativity of their employees simply by expecting them to be creative. The Pygmalion effect works through the self-fulfilling prophecy – expectations of someone’s behavior or capabilities increases the chances of the behavior to come true (Merton, 1948; Tierney & Farmer, 2004).

Role modeling a creative climate

What’s important to have in mind though is that a climate is just a collective understanding of how things are done and can thus be renegotiated and changed. Here, leaders have an important role in shaping the climate of their teams by being role models.

In an interesting experiment Jaussi and Dionne (2003) examined how leaders’ role modeling behaviors influenced the creativity of 364 participants divided into 79 groups. Each group was tasked to come up with arguments for abolishing grades in undergraduate education. In the experiment, each group was assigned a leader trained by the experimenters to exhibit either “conventional” or “unconventional” behavior. In the conventional conditions, the leader simply handed out task instructions and asked the group members to present themselves. The unconventional leaders took another spin. They asked group members to spell their names using colorful plastic letters, printed the instructions on t-shirts that group members had to wear, and stood on chairs to deliver their comments. Group members also had to write their ideas on laundry socks to be hung on a clothesline. After the experiment was done, each participant was asked to assess how much “the leader tried out new ideas and approaches to problems”, and to which extent “the leader served as a good role model for creativity”. As a result, group members came up with more original and creative ideas for arguments when their leader role modeled creativity.

Being the role model for creativity

Of course, standing on chairs shouting may not suit everyone’s tastes when it comes to what one is prepared to do to spur some creativity in their teams. Try these things instead, they have been shown to facilitate creativity in other studies:

  • Come up with many ideas yourself
  • Call special meetings just for generating ideas and options
  • Provide feedback on new ideas
  • Promote your team members’ ideas to others in the organization
  • Be inquisitive – ask a lot of questions
  • Accept and promote different perspectives
  • Admit when you are wrong
  • Tell tales about your mistakes

(Sources: Denti, 2012; Tierney & Farmer, 2004)

To sum up – leaders have an important position in a team as they can role model creativity. By doing this they shape the team climate conveying norms that new ideas are wanted and valued.

By Leif Denti

About the author

Leif Denti is pursuing his doctoral degree of Psychology at the University of Gothenburg, Department of Psychology. His main research venue is how project leaders stimulate creativity and innovation in their project teams (project name: Management for Sweden). Leif Denti also works as a consultant at Prospero Technology Management. Leif Denti holds a licentiate degree in Psychology at the University of Gothenburg.


Denti, L. (2011). Leadership and Innovation: How and When do Leaders Influence Innovation in R&D Teams? University of Gothenburg. Sweden.

Denti, L. (2012). What do innovative leaders do? A critical incident study examining innovation stimulating and hindering leader behaviors in R&D. Manuscript: University of Gothenburg. Sweden.

Jaussi, K. S., & Dionne, S. D. (2003). Leading for creativity: The role of unconventional leader behavior. The Leadership Quarterly, 14, 475-498.

Merton, R. K. (1948). The self-fulfilling prophecy. Antioch Review, 8, 193-210.

Tierney, P., & Farmer, S. M. (2004). The Pygmalion process and employee creativity. Journal of Management, 30, 413-432.