One day, back in 1994, I was browsing through the September issue of Fortune Magazine, searching for the language of leadership. I needed to convince decision-makers to book an artist (me) to speak about creativity in the workplace. I came across a remarkable article by Marshall Loeb about Warren Bennis (1925-2014) and his highly respected lessons on leadership. I say remarkable, because it was the first time I discovered the similarities between artists and leaders.

According to Bennis, "The indispensable first quality of a leader is having a guiding vision." He quoted Michael Eisner, Disney's lion king at the time, as saying: "You know, we don't have a vision statement, but we have a strong point of view. What amazes me is that it's always the person with the strong POV who influences the group, who wins the day."

The best leaders are pragmatic dreamers with a clearly defined vision or purpose, and a potent point of view. These are the same attributes that characterize successful artists.

The effective leader, Bennis believed, limits himself to several key objectives. Paraphrasing Jack Welch (CEO of GE at the time) he said: "No more of this not-invented-here stuff. We'll take ideas from anywhere and deploy them and use them as quickly as we can." Loeb compared this statement with Picasso, who is said to have remarked, "Good artists copy; great artists steal." This is actually a mis-quote The exact wording is "Bad artists copy. Good artists steal."

Either way, I abhor how this has been used as an excuse for stealing. What Picasso really meant is, if you copy a work you are just imitating, but if you "steal," you make it your own by re-interpreting it and transforming the initial idea.

What business can learn from the arts

Loeb said "I used to think that running an organization was equivalent to conducting a symphony orchestra. But I don't think that's quite it. Now it's more like jazz. There is more improvisation, the sound of surprise."

The idea of connecting art with leadership was an epiphany for me, back in 1994 and my subsequent explorations in arts-based learning led to the publication of Orchestrating Collaboration at Work (on how to use the arts to create transformative learning experiences in organizations.)

Much has been written about the connection between art and leadership in the business press over the past two decades. As noted in a 2011 on The Economist's Schumpeter blog, entitled "The Art of Management:"

Business has much to learn from the arts... Studying the arts can help business people communicate more eloquently...Studying the arts can also help companies learn how to manage bright people...Studying the art world might even hold out the biggest prize of all--helping business become more innovative. Companies are scouring the world for new ideas. In their quest for creativity, they surely have something to learn from the creative industries.

Business consultant Tom Peters made a similar argument in an article for Fast Company 20 years after the publication of his first book, In Search of Excellence. He writes: "Business isn't some disembodied bloodless enterprise. Profit is fine -- a sign that the customer honors the value of what we do. But "enterprise" (a lovely word) is about heart. About beauty. It's about art. About people throwing themselves on the line. It's about passion and the selfless pursuit of an ideal."

How might the arts enhance your creative leadership?

  1. Explore current trends in art and technology, such as mash-ups, which build on the appropriation of art and culture
  2. "Steal" an idea from art and re-imagine it. How might you remake, reassemble, and recombine elements to make it your own?
  3. Take a moment to reflect on the times when you have been artful over the past year, and write down your dreams, aspirations and ideals for the coming year. What is your guiding vision? What is the point of view that guides your decisions and actions?

Published on: Dec 2, 2016