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Why Leadership Is More Art Than Science

Schools of management grew out of engineering schools. Maybe now they should aspire to be art schools.
Ideas, leadership, art, meeting, employees
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Business schools mostly grew out of engineering schools. As a result, much of the language around management and leadership has--or aspires to--a technical, scientific tone. We talk about business models as though they really were engines that, with the right precise tinkering, could be persuaded to work. We avidly search for connections between cause and effect that might provide the reassurance of physics.

But recently I've begun to wonder whether we're not all barking up the wrong tree. After all, a company, fundamentally, is a group of people. Companies don't have ideas; people do. Customers buy services or products created by people. CEOs worry about people a lot: getting the right ones, getting the best from them, inspiring them with the best projects and visions. They all tell me that their biggest challenge is getting their people to work well together.

Passion and Commitment

But that's what artists do all the time. Orchestras, bands, quartets, and ensembles spend years working together to create the right sound, the best balance. Theater groups such as Punchdrunk, Complicite, and Steppenwolf all find success by bringing together just the right mix of writers, performers, musicians, designers, marketers, and financiers to create dazzling works that no one could create alone.

The best filmmakers create a nucleus of people whose developed shorthand makes ever-richer projects spring to life.

Even those artists we think of as soloists--whether Adele or Matisse--are, it turns out, highly dependent on the support, challenge and inspiration they get from colleagues and competitors.

I spent the first 13 years of my professional life doing what was more akin to art than to business: commissioning, writing, directing, producing radio, television, films, and music. Now I can see that what I learned was really all about getting the very best out of the best people I could find.

Was it art, or was it leadership? I'm not sure there's a meaningful difference. Artists and businesses both make something out of nothing. They are both born out of creative energy, and they both depend for their lifeblood on human commitment.

If, as an artist or a leader, you can't model and inspire collaboration, you never make anything.

Last updated: Feb 4, 2014

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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