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.

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