Every Leader Is an Artist

Every Leader Is an Artist

Business October 20, 2012 / By Michael O’Malley, Ph.D.
Every Leader Is an Artist

The same attributes that distinguish great from mediocre artists distinguish exceptional leaders from their ordinary counterparts.

The connection between leadership and art has been made many times over, usually as a way to single out certain properties of the arts that carry over to leadership, such as a jazz musician's ability to create through improvisation. These analogies can be compelling, but my point is more ambitious: leadership is an actual art, not metaphorically an art.

The same attributes that distinguish great from mediocre artists distinguish exceptional leaders from their ordinary counterparts. The best leaders and artists give us perspective on our social condition (good or bad) and a greater appreciation of our world, ourselves, and our choices. Moreover, they challenge, excite, comfort, and motivate. They bring us closer together by providing a forum for shared experiences and by forging a sense of community. Leadership and art both animate social encounters. They can change our lives in ways that are as invigorating and real as being hit by a wave.

While people may disagree about the quality of a given work of art, we generally know how to communicate our experience of what we've seen or heard. And the same criteria that govern how people respond to particular artworks apply to this other art form, leadership. On the positive side, for example, leadership may be described as inspiring, consistent, creative, unique, passionate, and engaging. Alternatively, leadership may be perceived as unpleasant, phony, inept, unfocused, and pedestrian. Evaluative terms like these serve as the basis for some consensus about what constitutes greatness.

So let me suggest 12 artistic criteria for judging the art of particular leaders. To appreciate their leadership, we should ask about their...

  1. Intent. Do they make an express commitment to achieve certain exceptional ends?
  2. Focus. Do they highlight certain features of the business environment over others to separate the important from the trivial?
  3. Skill. Do they demonstrate mastery or virtuosity in critical aspects of the business; do they possess a foundation for understanding people, organizations, and the way work is accomplished?
  4. Form. Do they combine their communications, structures, policies, etc. into a unified, coherent whole?
  5. Representation. Do they convey meanings, in nonobvious and captivating ways, as opposed to giving simple directives and making straightforward declarations of fact?
  6. Imagination. Do they make surprising and unconventional departures from the ordinary that create a new sense of awareness or understanding?
  7. Authenticity. Do they present a stylistic distinctiveness that is an honest expression of their individuality and personal beliefs?
  8. Engagement. Do they offer complex and challenging information that stimulates intellectual effort and imaginative contemplation?
  9. Pleasure. Do they provide emotionally rewarding experiences that are shared among members of a group, promoting stronger bonds and fostering personal fulfillment?
  10. Human significance. Do they facilitate personal reflection about who one is, what is most important, what is culturally valuable, and what is possible?
  11. Context. Do they take actions that are commensurate with institutional practices, customs, demands, and norms, and communicate in a style that is understandable and appropriate?
  12. Criticism. Do they welcome discourse and evaluation from others regarding how well they have performed and the amount of appreciation they should be afforded?

Succeeding on all these criteria is difficult, and not even the best leaders do so routinely. All have their strengths and stand out in unique ways. Leadership deficits become apparent when a person resembles a leadership caricature: when they possess only a couple of criteria to the exclusion of all others. For example, there are the humanistic types who never miss a birthday, who sponsor team dinners at the house, who go out of their way to make the workplace pleasurable, enriching, and fun. There are the traditionalists who only do what is prescribed by "the book" and would never contemplate deviating from what a business person is supposed to wear, say, or do. There are the skilled and bureaucratic technicians who manage numbers and sheets of paper, and who attempt to orchestrate every conceivable employee behavior through a carefully planned and rigid set of rules, compensation designs, policies, and organizational structures. There are the wildly imaginative but non-directive shape-shifters who hop from one idea and initiative to the next, dragging befuddled employees along in their wake. Great leaders are immensely more complex.

Notably absent from the list of criteria is results. My point is that while, yes, we expect good leaders to win against rivals and have a tangible product to show for their efforts, we wouldn't appreciate them as leaders unless their process had some identifiable quality that made them and their work worthy of our admiration. To succeed as an artist, a leader must orchestrate the company's activities and create a relationship with its people in ways that demand respect for the skill involved. That is, there has to be some evidence that the results were achieved through genuine strengths attributable to the leader.

The 12 criteria I've outlined would allow us to differentiate the relentless cost cutter whose exploits over a three-year span dramatically increase earnings from the leader who prudently and artistically reshapes a company while minimizing the detrimental effects on its future—and makes money doing so. Where the former creates a wasteland bereft of focused, forward energy and employee engagement, the latter, the leader, shepherds people through the trials of a troubled organization while enlarging their interests and their capacities to perform.

Corporate managers will always worry about results—and especially short-term results. What is important is that we do not demote the concept of good leadership to the simple question of their attainment. The market doesn't care how leaders get results as long as they are achieved legally. Meanwhile, making money doesn't require the same skills as leadership does. It is possible to be a successful businessperson, excellent financier, and a marvelous deal-maker without being a very good leader. The connection often made between leadership and bottom-line results is too facile. Making money is not an art. Leading an organization is.

This blog first appeared in Harvard Business Review on 08/24/2012.

Michael O’Malley, Ph.D. is Vice-President of Human Capital at Sibson Consulting and the author of The Wisdom of Bees and Every Leader is an Artist (with Bill Baker).

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