The Art of Business Leadership

The Art of Business Leadership

Thirty years ago top business schools had a simple philosophy about how to teach students the essence of good business leadership. All you had to do was examine how the people who ran successful companies went about dealing with problems and opportunities and then follow their example.

After a while, however, that became a little dull and some enterprising academics decided to spice things up by using figures from other areas as role models. After all, they argued, isn’t leading an army or building a political empire a bit like guiding a company through the cut and thrust of modern business? Couldn’t we also learn something from politicians, philosophers and social scientists? And if from them, why not from artists?

Historically artists might have been viewed as dreamers who you would only take seriously once you had made your pile and needed something for the boardroom or the Hamptons mansion. But no less than Warren Buffett has commented, “I am not a businessman, I am an artist”, and now the work of painters, musicians, and actors is coming under the microscope at major business schools around the globe.

IEDC Bled School of Management in Slovenia, reckoned by Peter Drucker to be the best management school in the world, has perhaps the greatest current commitment to artistic processes as a part of executive and MBA education, include a full week of arts based leadership education in the executive MBA program.  On the MBA program at Warwick Business School in the UK students learn to express themselves more effectively through a theatre course which involves the nearby Royal Shakespeare Company.  And in Germany, the Berlin based ESMT uses the career of conductor, Daniel Barenboim, to teach unconventional leadership styles.

However perhaps the most imaginative advocate of the use of art in developing future business leaders is to be found at the Desautels faculty of the McGill University in Canada.

By day Dr Nancy Adler teaches MBA students and advises major international corporations on cross-cultural management issues, but for twenty years she has also been one of the country’s most highly respected watercolourists. “For quite a while I didn’t flag my second career up to students or clients because of the longstanding antipathy between art and commerce,” she admits. “Artists view business people as Philistines and they in turn think of artists as a bit flaky. But if you look at the two sides objectively you will realise that creating a great work or a creating great business call for very similar qualities.”

Adler’s latest exhibition, ‘Reality in Translation’, has been used as a cornerstone of the Academy of Management’s 2010 conference, and invites visitors to capture on canvas the image of what it is to lead beautifully. “With only 5 to 10 minutes to draw, business executives and students alike quickly untangled their brains and just get going,” she explains. “By going beyond the dehydrated language of management you tap into far more creative expression and diversity.” Not that Adler is advocating that a company’s next quarterly call to analysts should be done with crayons. Perhaps creative accounting has already featured too prominently.

She believes though that twenty-first century leadership should be based more on hope, aspiration, innovation and beauty rather than the replication of historical patterns. “For the first time in history,” Adler contends, “leaders can work backward from their aspirations and imagination rather than forward from the past. The gap between what people can imagine and what they can accomplish has never been smaller”.

McGill-Desautels is already home to the ‘Reflective Process’ inspired by Henry Mintzberg’s learning philosophy, and an integral component of the school’s executive training and MBA program. Weekly sessions encourage students to reflect on their own learning experiences and develop their own perspective on leadership—using periods of reflection to ensure that decisions are made mindfully, responsibly and ultimately successfully.

Introducing to this a commitment to artistic creation has, until recently, been more the province of artists than businessmen, but Adler believes that effective business leaders and successful artists have three skill-sets in common – the ability to see reality as it is, to imagine possibilities on the basis of this and to inspire others to see both reality and possibility. She also argues that following the example of artists can help inspire commercial leaders to achieve their full potential. “Painters approach a blank canvas with the desire to produce something of high quality but all too often in the commercial world people will settle for just good enough. I don’t see why the artist’s focus on achieving the very best can’t be replicated in business ”

So how does she put this into practice? Although Adler gets to work with some of the world’s best known companies because of her professional credentials and track record she believes her second career as a painter allows her to use art as a catalyst for more effective thinking amongst her clients. She quotes the example of a multinational corporation faced with the problem of integrating acquisitions across Asia and the Americas into a global strategy. She encouraged the senior management team to develop a new approach by taking them to an exhibition of Cubist paintings, a form of art that forces the viewer to look at the world from a different perspective. “Of course art doesn’t serve up answers to specific business problems on a plate,” she says.” But what it can do is get you to step back, reflect and come up with your own solutions, solutions that are often beyond the constraints of accepted practice.”

Perhaps Peter Drucker, Michael Porter and Tom Peters should be nervously looking over their shoulder. When it comes to the management guru business, the likes of Picasso, Monet and da Vinci may be the faces of the future.

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