The Leader as Artist

photocredit: istockphoto

Artists see things other people don’t see, and are driven to make it somehow real in the world. They are relentless, and often perfectionist.

In his book “The Craftsman“, philosopher Richard Sennett looks at the nature of craft, and in particular the need to always be improving, always searching for a clearer expression of what they see and understand.

I’ve always liked the story of how the Impressionists got off the ground. Initially, they couldn’t get their art seen because the Salon (aka “the establishment”) didn’t think it was “proper art”, and so even when it was shown it was in an obscure part of the Salon often lost amongst 30,000 other paintings.

Things changed when they found their own space up in Montmartre, made their own rules and in between the absinthe and the angst, made themselves the force that they remain. (For more of the story, see Malcolm Gladwell’s “David and Goliath” where it’s beautifully recounted)

I think that today, we have a similar issue with leadership. There is a view of what it is, recounted in thousands of self help books and autobiographies. For the most part, these seem to be retrospectives – “here’s how to be successful because this is what I did” . I often wonder how many of them had a clear picture of what they were going to do in advance. What we learn from them is always useful. as long as we remember that our truth may be different to theirs, and is equally valid.

The dragons we may want to slay are different to theirs.

When I work with clients, I always have an “observe” phase – blending into the background to see what goes on before moving to the “orient” phase to make sense of it. I always look for the artists – those with some combination of passion, purpose , sense of what’s needed and originality who are in search of a voice.

They are often like the impressionists. Tolerated but marginalised, pushing inconvenient truths that need to be heard. My job is to find them a stage.

Today, we need them as rarely before. The “Salon” of the way we have run business for the last hundred years is dying on its feet. We need those with vision, ideas and a desire to make a difference.

If you want leaders, look for the inconvenient artists in your organisation.

Generational Decisions

My grandson and me. Today, the decisions I take, or agree to are shaping his future children’s world.

Decisions that matter span generations. They always have, and today we still feel the ripples, and the unintended consequences of what seemed like a good idea generations ago.

Steven Johnson talks about this in his latest book, Farsighted. It’s a welcome addition to a vital but largely under utilised canon on decision making.

My favourite though goes back much further, to aboriginal wisdoms, in particular the Native American peoples.

I’m familiar with two versions.

The first is that of the of the founding document of the Iroquois Confederacy, which states that “In our every deliberation, we must consider the impact of our decisions on the next seven generations“. The link will take you to it. It’s worth a read.

The second, given to me by one of my teachers I can’t attribute, but it works on the same principle. It refers to us all being the fourth generation, shaped by the preceding three, and shaping the following three.

We are making decisions today with enormous consequences that will affect those yet to be born, and it seems we still have much to learn about real leadership.

When the wind blows

the view from the office. credit: Richard Merrick

When the wind blows, we have a choice. To dig in, or move on.

Looking out over the valley where I live, there are trees that are hundreds of years old. I know most of them by sight, and notice the changes in them during the seasons and over them.

They will see us come and go, but continue to adapt and thrive without moving.

Dandelions are different. When the wind blows, they thrive by moving, going where the wind of the moment takes them.

No value judgement, just different strategies.

Each has its implicit values.

Right now, in Europe and the USA, as well as further afield, the economic and political winds are blowing. The reactions are interesting to see.

Here in the UK Midlands, companies we thought were trees are turning out to be dandelions. They have determined that their interests are best served by following the winds, and moving to economically warmer climes. Others, who we thought were dandelions, are turning out to be trees, and digging in.

Again, no value judgement, just interesting. Actually, I don’t mean that. I think it matters.

I after decades – in some cases centuries, we uproot and move we leave behind the vast majority of what has sustained us as we grow in the hope that where we land will serve us better. That’s a brave move.

Meaning and purpose is multi faceted, and is the soil in which what is worthwhile thrives.

It involves communities, networks, commitment, implicit knowledge, tradition and trust.

Transplanting large trees is expensive, difficult, and has a high failure rate. Ask any gardener.

And the wind will turn.

Dandelions can thrive anywhere for a short period. I do not however notice the dandelions in the valley like I recognise the trees. (Particularly the Copper Beech in the centre)

I think that matters