Creative Cheaters

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By Bill Auxier, Ph.D.

No one likes a cheater. Poker players in the Wild West were shot and killed if they were caught cheating. In school, if you get caught cheating you can get sent to the principal’s office, fail the course or get expelled from school. If the IRS catches you cheating on your taxes, you could end up broke, in prison, or both. If you spouse catches you cheating, it could be the end of your marriage. No one likes a cheater.

Leadership and cheating are two words that just don’t fit together very well. When thinking about leadership, when thinking about leaders, cheating is not part of that mental process. Effective leaders are not associated with the concept of cheating. Leaders caught cheating usually have a sharp, quick fall from any position of influence. Cheating leaders usually evolve into “has beens.” Cheating and leadership do not go together.

Organizations are all about creating and implementing procedures and processes at both formal and informal levels. Leadership sets the tone for these procedures and processes by leading by example. Whether it’s rules that have been implemented or guidelines to be followed, leadership must be above the fray if everyone within the organization is expected to be in compliance.


Leaders are often expected to be creative, to think outside the box, to come up with unexpected solutions to difficult problems, to develop product ideas that solve needs, sometimes needs that haven’t’ even been identifies yet, to come up with ideas that disrupt the marketplace. Creative leaders are held in high esteem. Steve Jobs is a great example of this.

Two demands of leadership are:
1. Leaders are not expected to be cheaters.
2. Leaders need to be creative thinkers.

Cheating and creativity are two concepts that on the surface may seem to be unrelated, but are they? Does creativity conflict with cheating? Does playing by the rules stifle creativity? Is there a connection? Research indicates that there is.

Several studies have examined the relationship of creativity and cheating. Behavioral researchers Francesca Gino and Scott Wiltermuth have conducted several of those studies. Their findings suggest a clear link between cheating and creativity. They found that cheaters had higher creativity scores than non-cheaters, that compliance to the rules limits creativity. They discovered that rule breaking stimulates creativity. Rule breakers often come up with creative ways to cover up their dishonesty. Cheating enhances creativity and creativity enhances cheating. They concluded that a creative dishonest person is likely to be dishonest again in the future.

So what does all this mean to leadership?

First, you have to ask yourself, am I a creative thinker? If you are, you also need to ask yourself, am I a cheater? You have to answer this second question honestly (no cheating!). Don’t fool yourself! As a leader, you must lead by example. Any procedure you don’t follow, any process you ignore, every rule you break tells everyone else in the organization that it’s okay for them to do the same. Your awareness of this aspect of creativity is key.

Second, what about the creative thinkers within your organization, especially the ones you need? Research and development, product development, sales and marketing are just some of the departments within a business organization where creative thinkers are needed. Should you let them have some leeway? At a minimum you need to be aware of the relationship between creativity and cheating. It should be expected that creative thinkers are going to at least bend the rules. Leadership needs to identify the difference between bending the rules and breaking the rules, what is acceptable and what is not.

Third, be careful what you ask for. I’ve heard leaders ask for creative solutions, asking organizational members to think outside the box on numerous occasions. If you ever asked for this, did you realize you were increasing the likelihood of cheating?

Creativity and cheating are related. Creativity is normally viewed positively and cheating negatively. Maybe it’s time to bend the rules a little, to re-think those perceptions for greater leadership effectiveness.


Bill Auxier helps leaders achieve greater greater effectiveness by helping them develop and understand their personal definition of leadership. You can subscribe to this newsletter at

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