Leadership Lessons from the Arts

Leadership has become more complex in today’s world of changing circumstances, emerging technologies, and increasing globalization. Understanding and applying an artistic mindset can positively impact personal and organizational success and enhance leadership capacities for those in both formal and informal roles.

A work of art represents a different way of seeing, and artists make choices about how to best communicate their message. An artistic masterpiece is imaginative with multifaceted layers of meaning that make significant connections, often between disparate things, to create a unified whole. Similarly, leaders must be able to alternate between an internal and external focus, seeing in new ways, making connections that others don’t see. Leadership is essentially a state of mind, a way of seeing, and a commitment to create positive change for yourself and others.

“The most fundamental reason one paints is in order to see.” ~ Brett Whiteley, Australian artist (1939-1992)

The possibilities for this kind of expression come from openness:

  • A flexible mindset, open to change, risk, and mistakes
  • A will of mental and physical grit to work through chaos until the tension reveals a new way forward
  • The energy to tear apart recognized patterns and relationships and put them together in new ways
  • The focus to truly get inside and explore your thoughts and beliefs

Creative work arises with desire and courage from the depth of the innermost self. It manifests through the artistic process in a way that allows the artist to share it with others. Although it takes practice, everyone can learn to tap into this imaginative power. You don’t have to become an artist to benefit from this knowledge. You can gain significant knowledge and insights by learning from works of art themselves and the artists who created them.

While it’s not possible to cite every possible lesson in leadership from even a single work or artist, here are four examples. To get the most benefit from this approach, however, it’s important to take time to take a class or study works of art and their creators. More and more business schools are offering management programs with sessions that include artists and artistic processes in their approaches to management and leadership.

  1. Picasso continually reinvented his art. His Cubist works are multilayered and offer different perspectives simultaneously, depicting the subject from a variety of viewpoints. How can you look at a problem differently? Are there alternative perspectives you might consider when looking for a solution?

Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” ~ Pablo Picasso (1881-1973)

2. While Beethoven’s compositional style is innovative and often highly disruptive, his work was also deeply rooted in the tradition of masters such as Bach, Handel, and Mozart, who came before him. Likewise, in leadership, it’s valuable to rely on previous traditions, but move beyond that to new methods that build on lessons of the past.

“I have always counted myself amongst the greatest admirers of Mozart and shall remain so until my last breath.” ~ Ludwig van Beethoven(1770-1827)

3. Michelangelo used visualization to create his art. Although he was known primarily as a great sculptor, when he was asked to paint the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he accepted, fully believing in the quality of his imagination. He had a clear picture in his mind’s eye before he began his work. A great leader believes in his imagination and knows that visualizing what a strategy looks like when successfully implemented helps it to become a reality. Can you see where you are and where you want to go?

Your greatness is measured by your horizons.” ~ Michelangelo (1475-1564)

4. Steven Spielberg is known for developing and maintaining partnerships with a variety of people who worked together to make each of his movies a success. He worked with the same people for long periods of time on multiple projects. They shared in creatively telling the story. When collaborative, leaders have access to more information and different perspectives. They can seek out diverse opinions and ideas to build strategies and solve problems. As a result, everyone becomes more engaged.

When I was a kid, there was no collaboration; it’s you with a camera bossing your friends around. But as an adult, filmmaking is all about appreciating the talents of the people you surround yourself with and knowing you could never have made any of these films by yourself.” ~ Steven Spielberg (b. 1946)

The possibilities are limitless. Dancers, choreographers, poets, composers, musicians, actors, conductors, and more all have the potential to provide insight and guidance. Learn the value of finding unexpected connections, of challenging yourself, of learning through the experiences of others, of noticing and making use of patterns, and of looking and moving around your business, institution, or organization.

While artists use the elements of their art forms, quality leaders provide meaning and context in complex settings using environmental and relationship elements. The diversity of values and viewpoints in business, institutional or organizational management and leadership are similar to the way materials interact in the artistic process.

“There is a natural, beautiful, and deep body of knowledge embedded in the artistic process that we haven’t even begun to tap.”  ~ Patricia Hoy, from Arts Awareness: A Fieldbook for Awakening Creative Consciousness in Everyday Life by Patricia Hoy

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Dr. Patricia Hoy

The Arts Expand Connectedness

The arts can offer us a glimpse into the vulnerability and human side of others and help us defeat the discouraging divisions we often experience in today’s world. No matter how we choose to engage with the arts, our involvement helps us to see and hear and feel things that may have previously left us disconnected and untouched.

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Artistic Expression Models the Value of Mental Flexibility

With the changing circumstances and events in today’s world, it is worth our while to consider artistic expression as a model for the flexibility we need to succeed. Creative artists are flexible and imaginative in their approach to change. When you’re flexible, you think in a creative way and find innovative solutions to solve problems.

“Creative individuals are remarkable for their ability to adapt to almost any situation and to make do with whatever is at hand to reach their goals.” Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, psychologist, professor, and author noted for his work in the study of happiness and creativity

The artistic process requires flexibility—the willingness to let go of something and to take a new direction. Artists are well poised, through their ability to stay open, responsive, and resilient, to adapt to complex challenges in their own world and in the world at large. Artistic expression is a transforming process that involves facing and grappling with something, letting it go, and bringing something new to life. 

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“Art inspires us to visit the concept of unity…”

In today’s complex world, unity is an artistic concept that is worthy of our attention. We can gain much needed encouragement and perspective through the compositional strategies that artists use to make the parts of a work of art hang together as a whole. 

“Art inspires us to visit the concept of ‘Unity’ and see ourselves as part of a bigger universe.”~ Leni Kae, Australian contemporary artist and illustrator

While uncertainty fills much of what we’re experiencing today, the arts can play an important role in helping us see current situations and events from a different perspective. Artists give us a sense of unity in their works by creating the feeling of familiarity. All the parts have some relation to each other. While unity means that nothing detracts from the whole, too much sameness is boring, and artists strive for just the right amount of variety to stimulate and maintain interest. Various elements are placed in supportive relationship with each other.

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Moving Artfully Through Crisis and Chaos

While the arts can’t stop the COVID-19 virus or the social unrest we see in the world today, they can provide clarity and give us insight into the choices we make when moving through the tensions of crisis and chaos. The arts invite everyone to think in new ways.

“Art is a wound turned into light.” ~ Georges Braque (1882-1963) French painter and sculptor

We often experience works of art as something that’s pleasing to our senses without a full understanding of the creative effort. Great art often shows us contradictions and crises, and we can learn a great deal from their resolutions. Through our understanding of art, we can gain a deeper understanding of how we might surmount our own challenges. In understanding extremes of contrast, we can see the beauty in art with themes that are not simply pleasing for their magnificent features or qualities.

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The Power of Silence

“The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between.” ~ Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) Prolific and influential eighteenth-century composer 

This Mozart quote is especially relevant considering the social distancing and stay at home orders we face today. It’s easy to underestimate the power of silence. People tend to feel uneasy when there’s a pause in the flow of sound or movement. One might have the uncomfortable feeling of wanting to fill pauses with sound or worry or some sort of activity.

Artists of all kinds use the power of silence and negative (empty) space in their compositional techniques to enrich the meaning in their works. And while musicians spend hours expertly playing or singing the notes in music, they spend lifetimes perfecting the pauses between notes and appreciating the qualities of a sustained tone.

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​“Imagination is Everything…”

“The ability to imagine things pervades our entire existence. It influences everything we do, think about and create. It leads to elaborate theories, dreams and inventions in any profession from the realms of academia to engineering and the arts. Ultimately, imagination influences everything we do regardless of our profession.” ~ Tao de Haas (psychotherapist, social ecologist, corporate trainer)

In interviews, Albert Einstein attributed his scientific insight and intuition mainly to the daily practice of music. Music worked for him as a brainstorming technique. His scientific ideas were often first created as images and intuitions and later converted to mathematics, logic, and words. Music helped him in this thought process, guiding him in new and creative directions.

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The Arts Teach the Beauty of Imperfection

The arts teach one how to look at problems in life and succeed. Learning to successfully move through problems is an important soft skill everyone needs if they are to achieve their goals.

I’ve always been intrigued by this 17th century haiku by Japanese poet and samurai, Mizuta Masahide:

Barn’s burnt down — now I can see the moon.

The haiku reminds me of a magnificent concert I experienced many years ago. The performance was exhilarating. At the final chord, the conductor motioned for everyone to end what was to be a resounding and reverberating conclusion to the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handel’s Messiah, but wait—something was wrong. Everyone ended expertly except for the deep, low-pitched fundamental note on the organ. It kept sounding even though the performer stopped playing. 

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We Need People Who Think Creatively

We need people who think with the creative side of their brains—people who have played in a band, who have painted…it enhances symbiotic thinking capabilities, not always thinking in the same paradigm, learning how to kick-start a new idea, or how to get a job done better, less expensively. ~Annette Byrd, GlaxoSmithKline (a multinational pharmaceutical company headquartered in Brentford, London)

I recently read an article that reinforced this belief that the thinking gained from arts experiences can transform your life and work experience. The article, a June 2019 publication written by EdSurge reporter Emily Tate, focuses on conversations with tech students as they talk about how soft skills and the arts set them up for success. Connections made from deeper learning experiences in the arts enhance a person’s awareness and knowledge of the soft skills needed to succeed in today’s world. 

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“Creativity Thrives Within Structure”

“In limits, there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”  ~ Julia Cameron

This quote by Julia Cameron reminds all of us that structure doesn’t dictate, but rather adds value, no matter what we’re doing.

Several years ago, I attended a symphony concert that featured violinist Joshua Bell. Since that experience, I’ve reflected many times about how he simply made the music come alive! Everyone in the audience was mesmerized by the way the music seemed to pour out from every cell in his body as he performed. It was the spontaneity of his playing that was so captivating. He played with incredible freedom, yet he still maintained the integrity of the musical line set forth by the composer. He knew the structure, and he owned the structure of the work in a way that allowed him to celebrate his own creative spirit and share it with the world. True creativity can occur when you’re able to find that kind of freedom within a structure.

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