Can the arts really help and inspire better leadership performance?

Željko Katušin, PMBA 2004

As I read through the articles on art and leadership, and in my reflections afterwards, I began relating the material to my past experiences and my personal opinions. The articles really made me think.

The arts are among the most popular and powerful phenomena of humankind. Art has existed since the beginning of civilization and has been a defining part of humankind ever since. The drivers of the arts are individual and group needs to express feelings and thoughts, document them in abstract or realistic forms, capture the sense of related phenomena, communicate with others and affect the senses. The arts are, at the most basic level, ways of experiencing, interpreting and representing our experiences of life.

On the other side, leadership is an integral part of organizational life and management. It too appeared at a very early stage of humanity. It is an outgrowth of the need to organize. Organizing has improved an individual's (and a group's) chances for survival and enables further growth on the evolutionary ladder. Leadership became an important aspect of this organizing behavior which provides one of the successful ways to compete and grow.

Arts and leadership, both having historic origins have been interacting with each other in the past, as well as today. Both disciplines depend on creativity for survival and progression.

The arts have often led as part of the avant-garde of human thinking and can therefore provide innovative and even inspirational ideas for the leadership of organizations.

On the surface, the fundamental concepts of the arts and business leadership seem different. The arts are seen as free, intuitive thought, whereas traditionally business has been seen as more disciplined, rational and organized.

Due to its variety, complexity and abstractness we can surely use the arts as an example, inspiration and model for eventual solutions for contemporary leadership issues. Studying arts issues can provide us with ideas to build new techniques, approaches and methods we can use in our managerial work. It can increase abilities and creative skills to find solutions to real life problems {Austin and Devin, 2003; Darso, 2004; Ibbotson, 2008; Reckenrich, Kupp& Anderson, 2010).

In short, examining the arts increases our ability in creative analyses of real life situations, for making sense of the complexity, taking decisions and providing us with action (Barry&Meisiek, 2010; Springborg, 2010). Through art one individual can, by using one's senses along with one's mind, come to common understandings of the environment in which one acts and therefore come to better decisions and actions.

The arts relate to the sensory-emotional aspects of human experience. Anyone can engage his/her senses, intuition and interpretation to interact with art. There is great potential in these human resources, a potential to engage people to use their senses, intuition and interpretive abilities to think differently. How do we mobilise this?

Thinking differently is a very important issue. For example, Albert Einstein held that we cannot solve today's problems with the same way of thinking used to create the problems. This highlights a central question for all responsible leaders: Do you dare to think differently and take the "other" way?

Reality beyond the obvious is many times "hidden" to the eyes of normal spectators. Daring to see, admit and deal with the whole subject opens the way to new solutions. For example, remember the old story about the Emperor's New Clothes. Here the writer, a creative artist, reminds us of the daring to think differently and presents the idea that it took a "naive" child to see that the Emperor was really naked.

The arts provide alternative ways to see and make sense of our world (Barry &Meisiek, 2010; Taylor & Ladkin, 2009). There are intuitive and qualitative skills, coming from different kinds of arts, available for leaders and their teams. Approaches from theater (Biehi-Missal, 2010; Stevenson, 1996; Wood, 2002), orchestras and bands (Atik, 1994; Koivunen&Wennes, 2011; Drucker, 1992) provide new ideas for team-building skills such as creative teamwork, discipline, focus on common goals, and acquisition of inspiration for repetitive actions - issues all very important for business success.

Just imagine the performance and perception skills of the orchestra musician, simultaneously playing his/her instrument and carefully observing and listening to the others as well as following the conductor's lead - wouldn't that kind of situation perfectly fit an ideal business environment? Why not try to learn and fit it into your team?

MBA ART

There are several practical examples of how to introduce arts methods into leadership practice. Taylor and Ladkin (2009) have suggested four methods in particular. The first is to transfer performing skills from the arts into organizations. The second is to use art's 'projective techniques' in order to express and reflect inner thoughts and feelings. Thirdly, they suggest the use of art's presentation and representation capacities for illustrations of the key ideas and essence of concepts. Finally they suggest getting engaged in the arts yourself by 'making', in order to express your inner self and enhance your creativity, something that can be a cathartic experience.

Business study related to arts increases development of the imagination, spatial thinking and abstract reasoning, which are all essential skills for today's students and future business professionals.

The question is whether the arts can, in reality, definitively help and inspire leadership for a better performance. The answer is vague as it all depends on an individual's beliefs, hopes, commitment and an organization's ability to introduce new methods and goals into organizational life.

The goals that are set in the organizations must go beyond the limits of tradition and profit margins. Art suggests that not only profit is enough to fulfill the needs of individuals and successfully complete the mission of an organization. There are more values behind the economic gains. The organizations who are ready to commit to the utilization of creative abilities and serve social good and ecological responsibility will evolve into desirable, modern organizations delivering innovations which will in turn increase their competitive advantage.

During my personal experience with art and leadership development I have often noticed how interconnected they are and how they can positively impact each other. In any respect I think it is worthwhile to stay in touch with art. Even if there is no direct interaction with management and leadership, art's ability to relax, inspire and encourage creative energy serves perfectly to diffuse the everyday stressful and exhausting work of managing.

I have benefited from arts experiences in film making, painting and playing music in a band. All these experiences have informed my work. What about my leadership experience?

My leadership perspective has changed over the past few years, due to several internal and external conflicts. I have grown personally and through my work experience, so did my perspectives change. Additional education in management has brought knowledge and skills, some of which I have implemented in my work. The company where I work has grown and evolved. Most importantly, the world has changed and requires innovative perspectives. The times are different and we have to cope with new situations every day.
Economics and the economy are known for their uncertainties and unpredictability. The present times in particular can be described, as Slovene economist Jože Mencinger has recently done, as to Columbus discovering the New World: when starting his journey he did not know where he was heading, when landing he did not know where he was.

Vision and hope were the main drivers that guided Columbus on his path through unknown territories. Following his innovative idea he was rewarded by additional discovery, which nobody predicted or expected. It isn't rare in life that brave and innovative acts are accompanied with additional unexpected gains and discoveries. "Those who dare, win", the motto is used also for extreme situations in order to ensure maximum faith and motivation of participants.

So much for the past experience, what about future benefits from my arts and leadership studies?

There are several trends that can be recognized in the modern world. The structure and relations of the world have changed through increased global interconnectedness and increased domination of market forces (Adler, 2006). Most important is the recognition that due to modern world changes we need to rethink who we are as human beings.

The standard models cannot cope anymore with the complexities of the present. The world of complexity is driven by discontinuous change, within the network of interconnected teams, acting simultaneously. Creative action is required for adequate strategies to deal with these problems. What needs to be done and how can we do it?

  • It is important for leaders to recognize, describe and implement the present seeds that will flower in the future, by using their imagination, creative and intuitive abilities without waiting for all the evidence to appear on their desks.
  • Business organizations shall need to embrace flatter systems, more networked, multi­ organizational structures including global strategic alliances, joint ventures and partnerships following the leaderless chamber orchestra model.
  • Managerial approaches shall move from planning-then-doing to simultaneous listening-and-observing-while-doing skills, first ensuring that atmosphere in the team is ready for improvisation and team members do trust their colleagues that they are taking care of the team's best interests.
    (Adler, 2006)

Advanced computer technologies have changed the ways of creating new products, services and market relationships. The use of computerized models has enabled rapid and cheap iteration allowing creative leaders to dream new ideas worthy of testing, in that way substituting costly and time consuming experimentation for planning (Adler, 2006; Austin & Devin, 2003).

The most important is the trend of economy-focus change from efficiency oriented towards one based on significance and meaning (Adler 2006; Austin & Devin, 2003). The needs and expectations of the people have changed and economic success alone is no longer enough. There is a strong urge for contributions that make genuine and positive differences in all our lives.

The roles of leaders have changed and they need to be supported by their abilities based on courage and creativity. This courage is to envision new possibilities and challenge and inspire others - just like artists do.

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