“Thinking outside the box” is a well-worn term used over the years by business leaders in marketing memos and individuals trying to encourage differentiation from mainstream thoughts and practices, a desired descriptor that implies innovation and creativity. But when a recent poll of 1,500 leading CEOs in the United States, across a variety of industries ranked “creativity” as the #1 most desired trait among their management team and recruits, this characteristic has taken on new meaning and examination.

Creativity and innovation are often associated with industries that are defined and driven by trendsetting, that require constant reinvention for their existence and relevance, such as fashion and advertising. What is surprising is the emphasis placed on this most desired leadership trait, among all industry leaders, as a response to the most difficult economic downturns theirs and other industries are facing. LVHM Fashion Group Chairman Pierre-Yves Roussel, since taking on his role of chairman/ CEO, captures the essence of the power of creative thinking: “what struck me is how central creativity and innovation are to everything we do…if we stop being creative and innovative, its all over…it starts with having a real culture of creativity…some people are not creative themselves but they are fundamentally people who are very curious and open-minded, and like to discover new things.”

This leads to inspiration, in a management team; being inspired by the innovators and developers of new products, as it applies to any business or industry, is central to success in an industry. Quite simply, positive results are the outcome when the managing team is supporting innovation and creative thinking, from top to bottom, instilling it in the corporate culture. Looking to a leading figure of the world of fashion, an industry whose existence is defined by creative expression, reinvention and invoking a desire-based customer response versus capturing a segment of need-driven purchasing decisions, provides incredible insight into brand development and loyalty that can be applicable across industry platforms.

Roussel expounds on the concept of a brand, stating that “we frame each brand by what we call its “dna”…it’s more about capturing the essence, and personality of the brand, the emotion, the aspects that are not necessarily rational, the intangible things that need to be understood about a brand.” What Roussel is capturing in his description of a creative-driven, fickle customer-based industry, is the necessity of fostering innovation and creativity and appreciation for it at all levels within the corporate structure. The message needs to be reinforced within for it to be projected in the marketplace.

Thinking differently. Creativity. Innovation. These characteristics were previously valued mostly as engines for research and development, not an essential leadership quality that should permeate the organization. No longer does operational effectiveness, management discipline, existing best practices or dedication top the list as desired leadership traits, which is somewhat surprising during some of the worst economic conditions. As recently noted in a Bloomberg article, this shift in thinking from CEOs over what they value in their leadership team is a direct response to Global complexity as the foremost issue confronting them and their enterprises. “The chief executives see a large gap between the level of complexity coming at them and their confidence that their enterprises are equipped to deal with it.”

Creativity is not measured in a mechanical sense by artistic talent or ability. This characteristic speaks directly to vision, the ability to transcend traditional linear thinking boundaries by making giant leaps in thought, connecting dots that may have never been put on the same page before. The reality of global complexities is that the world is interconnected and integrated on political, social and economic levels. However, in this environment, business leaders have realized customer relationships are weakened as their customers are more connected than ever, but just not to them. A recent Forbes article on this topic identified creative leaders as more prepared to break with the status quo of industry, enterprise and revenue models, also stating “they are 81% more likely to rate innovation as a crucial capability”. Additionally noted is that 88% of all CEOs polled, and 95% of standout leaders, consider “getting closer to the customer” the leading business focus over the next 5 years.

Experts have identified key measures that creative leaders are able to activate to achieve future success amongst the ever growing global complexities. Disrupting the status quo and existing business models means willing to break with existing assumptions and make continual adjustments to business models. Success in the future will require at least 20% of revenues to come from new sources, which starts with reinventing customer relationships. The creative leaders’ response to the increasing global complexities is recognizing the opportunities.