What The Red Baron Can Teach You About Hiring Creative Talent

To make your organization more creative, learn from the Red Baron and hire talent for their differences, writes Brian Millar.

During World War I, German fighter pilots found themselves heavily outnumbered above the skies of France and Flanders. So, in June 1917, their high command did something radical. They combined several squadrons, each of which had planes of a distinctive color. They put them under the command of their most successful pilot, whose brightly colored plane had made him famous: Manfred von Richthofen, the Red Baron.

Von Richthofen was an unconventional officer. Scandalously for a German, he wasn’t interested in conformity. He was interested in effectiveness. He didn’t ask pilots to repaint their planes. He didn’t expect them to fly as he did. (The Red Baron wasn’t a particularly aerobatic pilot. He was just a really, really good shot.) In fact, he deliberately recruited several aces, including the flying prodigy Erich Löwenhardt, who had far more flamboyant styles than his own. The Red Baron’s pilots only had two instructions from their commander: "Aim for the man and don’t miss. If you are fighting a two-seater, shoot the gunner first." How each pilot got the job done was up to him.

Von Richtofen’s band of aces tore into the Allied air forces all that summer and into the beginning of the next year. Their bright colors, individualistic styles, and innovative tactics earned them the nickname "von Richthofen’s Flying Circus." By the time the Red Baron died, in May 1918, they had scored more than 300 kills against the formation-flying conformists in Allied planes.

Why we need more flying circuses and fewer squadrons.

A couple of years ago, IBM did a survey of 1,500 top CEOs around the world. Their message was consistent: They were facing a chaotic environment, and they had a firm belief that the thing their companies needed most was creativity. Of course, what the survey didn’t say is that most CEOs are far too busy to come up with any of this magic creativity stuff themselves. As is the way of CEOs, they delegate that kind of thing to people like you and me.

So now all over the world there are EVPs and SVPs trying to get their teams to think differently. The trouble is that most organizations spend a lot of time and money making sure that their people all think the same. They’re squadrons, flying in tight formations, valuing consistency and efficiency over individual flair.

For a start, they tend to recruit in their own likenesses. Recently, a division head at one of the world’s largest manufacturing companies told me, "When somebody walks into an interview, we can instantly tell whether they’ll fit in here. This is a company of several hundred thousand strivers from modest suburban backgrounds." It seemed a world away from my experiences working in creative industries like advertising and design. They’ve always provided homes for individualists, hyper-specialists, and decidedly non-team players.

I thought of my own job, where I work with a guy who used to design Ferraris in a cave in Italy, an ex-quantitative analyst, and one of the world’s top harmonica players. When I used to run an advertising creative department, almost everybody was an 'ex’: ex-animator, ex-fashion designer, ex-pyrotechnician. Why would you need two people who thought the same way?

The British military rejected triplanes during the World War I, as they were too slow. The Red Baron saw their potential: All that lift made them extremely maneuverable. Flying-circus companies don’t just value speed and efficiency. We’re built to change direction fast.

The recent release of Valve’s employee handbook is an extreme example of valuing flexibility over efficiency: There is almost no organization at all. But the results, like Half Life and Portal, tell you all you need to know about their creative firepower. Like the Red Baron, the founders of Valve and Netflix and Google hire great people, give them a simple but difficult goal, and let them get on with it in their own way. At Nordstrom, they famously only have one rule (a 50% improvement on von Richthofen’s two instructions): Use best judgement in all situations.

At Sense Worldwide, we encourage people to become more different, not more similar. We don’t have a standard training framework to make employees conform to a set way of doing things. We give each person a budget to go and learn whatever they want. Some take courses from industry bodies like D&AD or the Account Planning Group. Others have learned meditation and presence skills, or improved their second languages.

Of course, the world needs Squadrons. If you run an eye surgery clinic or a nuclear submarine, you need to standardize procedures and training. And of course, it’s not always fun running a flying circus. Several of the Red Baron’s top aces, including Löwenhardt, were killed in collisions with friendly aircraft. Anybody who’s worked in a high-intensity creative environment will know the feeling.

But if your CEO is demanding creative solutions to problems, then maybe you need to think about ways to encourage everybody to paint their own plane a different color, and loop and wheel around the clouds in their own way.

Six differences between a Squadron and a Flying Circus


  • Motivated to shine as a team.
  • Emphasizes speed and efficiency.
  • Has a regimented training program.
  • Deliberately hires people who’ll fit in.
  • Standardizes procedures.
  • Runs.

Flying Circus

  • Motivated to shine as individuals.
  • Emphasizes ability to change direction.
  • Allows people to grow their own way.
  • Deliberately hires people who stand out.
  • Encourages diversity of techniques.
  • Swaggers.

[Images: Steven Coburn, Martin Pisek, and James Klotz via Shutterstock]

Add New Comment


  • Vaishakh Pushpoth

    Splendid job with the article Bryan! Enjoyed the depth of the connotations. Thanks!

  • Guest

    Splendid job with the article, Brian!
    Thanks a lot for the assurance that its required

  • Shiloh Kleinschmit

    Ya know,..I can here and posted a great post about this,and oddly,it hasnt been set in here.I dont know why.It was giving Kudos to the author for using the Red Baron for inspiration.I guess this post will be deleted too.

  • Vicki Smith

    Whilst I mostly agree wit this article, it has to be said that you have to be so careful about allowing creativity to flourish out of control and part of the leaders role is about pulling back towards functionality. Surely thats the prime goal in business, even within creative industries. After all, even the red baron payed the ultimate price for his 'creative freedom'. As with everything in life, it's all about balance...

  • The ASIDE Blog

    All policy makers for our education system should read this
    article. Choice, empowerment and creativity are what we want for learners, not homogenized,
    across the board mandates by standards that tell teachers how to teach in the
    trenches. Educators need to be free to “paint their own plane a different
    color, and loop and wheel around the clouds in their own way” to get the job

  • JGee

    Unfortunately, as an educator, I don't see that kind of freedom in the near future.  As teachers, we have to take half the blame.  While we have had all kinds of ineffective and damaging requirements put upon us; such as No Child Left Behind, where most schools in my state will have to eventually have 100% of their kids pass their standardized tests or be considered a failing school.

    However, the other half of the blame comes because of teachers (not all teachers, but the bad ones).  Those requirements wouldn't have seemed logical or necessary if it weren't for so many teachers being unwilling to do even the basic parts of their job.  

    You want to see the education system done right (well, mostly right), look at Finland.

  • gregtuco

    Nice piece but the British DID believe in the triplane concept. The Sopwith Triplane was in service for two successful years before it was replaced with the more well known Sopwith Camel. The "Tripe", as it was affectionally known, was eventually relegated to trainer status til the end of the war in 1918. They had to believe in the plane to put rookie pilots in it.

  • Blindcarrotmagazine

    I truly wish every human resources department in the world would read this article.

  • Leila Fanner

    Wow. SO true. Wish I had known that when I just couldn't find my tribe for years in the corporate world. I just STUCK OUT too much for all of them. Took years of self-analysis and compassion to finally realize I'm actually STRONGER being myself rather than trying to fit in.

  • Joe Passkiewicz

    Great post- you need a cast of characters- not a group of marching robots!

  • kevinhbruce

    Damn! That's a great historical reference and comparison! *Excellent* article!