Leaders and Artists - Are they really worlds apart? Part 1

(Part 2 will appear in the August 2008 issue of Key Inspirations)

By Brian Woodward and Colin Funk

The power of the imagination provides a prime success driver in today’s fast-paced and hyper-competitive global business environment. Successful companies foster and develop employees who can think quickly and creatively on their feet, who can take the unexpected in stride by recognizing important connections, who can bring imaginative personal expression to their work, and who can think metaphorically to make critical cross-boundary applications. Business leaders face the challenge of how to develop and instill these qualities in themselves, their teams, and their organizations in order to develop greater human resourcefulness.

One way to advance and accelerate this facet of human resourcefulness is to take a more in-depth look at how the creative process can be applied to the development of leaders. Creativity sessions have been a mainstay in Leadership Development programs for a number of years, primarily as a unique complement to the traditional training regime and outdoor experiences. Over time we have learned a great deal about what works, and what doesn’t. We have been encouraged by the emergence of a number of artistic methods and aesthetic processes as pedagogical tools for developing basic leadership competencies, e.g. personal values clarification, conflict resolution, and personal presence. It is not uncommon in a number of public and custom programs to hear that creativity sessions are program highlights, bringing participants together in surprising, novel, and even magical ways.

The success from these experiences is prompting us to explore more deeply how creative experiences and aesthetic processes can be used to develop critical qualities of leadership. First, however, we have to wrestle with some traditional views. The world of the professional artist and the world of the business leader are considered by many to be totally different – almost complete opposites. The usual descriptions read like this:

The artist operates largely in isolation and is motivated by internal inspiration to create very personal works. The artist is able to explore and experiment and has total control over the outcome or work. The artist is driven by personal expression and has responsibility only for his/her professional activity.

The business leader operates almost exclusively within a team or organizational environment and is motivated by the demands of the job and the challenges of the organization. The business leader uses tools, techniques, and strategies that are proven and has little direct control over the outcome, sharing control with others. The business leader is driven by the bottom line and has clear responsibility for others in the organization.

When viewing the two worlds in this stereotypical manner, it is easy to conclude that they have very little in common. According to this view, the two differ in motivation, in methods of operation, in responsibility, and in interaction with others. At The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada, however, these two worlds come together on a daily basis – through gallery openings, performances, lectures, artist talks, recreational programs, and conferences. Stereotypes are apparent only superficially because under the surface – at the core – there exist genuine similarities. There is a very compelling reason to look seriously at the similarities from the Leadership Development perspective – today’s ever-increasing demands in business for imagination, creativity, and innovation.

To gain the most from this work we take the position that defines leadership as an art form, in and of itself. Abraham Zaleznik (professor emeritus at Harvard Business School) concludes that “business leaders have much more in common with artists, scientists and other creative thinkers than they do with managers.” Max De Pree, CEO emeritus of Herman Miller Company, states definitively that leadership is an art.

It is one thing to say leadership is an art, quite another to demonstrate the real parallels. Cheryl De Ciantis, artist and trainer, asks a very provocative question: “How can leaders experience themselves as artists in ways that can contribute to their effectiveness in a turbulent environment?” Also, to a growing number of leadership development specialists, the two worlds and two activities are extremely close in actual practice.

Accomplished artists know the need for continual growth and therefore seek out experiences that offer them opportunities to expand personally, to revive or renew, or in many cases, to transform their work. They often seek that “next level” – a new dimension that builds on what has gone before but is essentially new, fresh and promising. Not unlike the accomplished artist, the business leader knows that ongoing personal development and growth is necessary to meet the demands of his or her role – professionally and personally. Today, leadership requires agility and creativity to sustain effectiveness. Leaders continually explore personal growth, discover what is “new, fresh, and promising” and create their own, personal “next level.”

Personal development means working on distinctive personal qualities that underlie how the leadership role is articulated. The focus is on the leader’s style as expressed in the moment. Although competencies may be needed and certain knowledge necessary, it is the manner in which the individual exercises the role of leader that is the key. The leader learns to express uniqueness through increased self-awareness and self-understanding. The objective is to lead authentically, and personal authenticity comes from genuine self-expression and understanding of others.


Brian Woodward, PhD, C.Psych. is trained as an Educational Psychologist and has worked as an organizational consultant for over 20 years. His work focuses on individual and team performance, individual and team assessment, organizational effectiveness, adult learning and development, and individual and group decision making and problem solving. Colin Funk is the Creative Programming Director at the Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. He is a renowned speaker, lecturer, facilitator, writer, and program designer in the area of creativity, innovation, community development, and environmental education.


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