Reflections on the Art of Leading

Why the art of leading?  Why not the skill or competency of leading?  Or the science of leading? Whatever your beliefs about leadership or experience as a leader, there is something unique and distinctive about every expression of leadership.  This is true because in the end the primary tool of a leader is the self, and there is no one paradigm or formula to which the self must conform.  We are all unique beings with multiple dimensions to who we are. Similarly, art is the manifestation of a unique perspective on the world created by someone whose passion defines his or her expression, most powerfully in a way that engages others, transporting them to new insight and understanding.

Consider how the art of leading informs your experience, most especially with attention to: (1) perspective; (2) passion; and (3) expression.

The artist brings a perspective that invites new ways of viewing the world, disrupting or challenging our most comfortable and familiar modes of interacting with our usual environment and ourselves. As leaders we must provide vision, going where no one has gone before. Too often we are inadvertently drawn into the heart of the battle, seduced by the tasks at hand, despite our best intentions otherwise. The art of leading requires daring expression of alternatives that others have not yet embraced or even imagined. And that requires some distance and perspective from today’s most urgent and imminent demands.

Without passion we can go through the motions of leading but will seldom engage others for the long haul of transformational change and sustainable development. The artist persists sometimes for years, if not decades, laboring to bring to life that which others may not appreciate or recognize as having any value whatsoever. Passion is the breakthrough virtue that differentiates the “art of leading” from just managing to keep things stable but failing to achieve breakthrough.  A leader must know his or her own heart, honoring that place where one’s deepest yearnings meet the world’s greatest needs.

Whatever school of art or leadership model you may embrace, you are one of a kind.  There is no other you.  Expression of your unique gifts and talents as well as acknowledgment of your limitations (and failures along the way) is what brings your leadership to life.  An artist may seek to emulate a Picasso or learn from a Chinua Achebe or sing like Youssou n’Dour, but in the end, while art might be reproduced, it cannot be copied authentically.  Similarly, leadership cannot be faked.  Great leadership is never a caricature of some other’s modus operandi.  A leader must find his or her authentic expression aligned with one’s sense of identity and purpose.

How might you categorically establish new perspectives?  Where is your passion ready to be ignited in distinctive creative ways?  How will you risk unique expression of your self as leader?   Try practicing more the art of leading today.

(written for the 7th annual African Leadership Network Gathering)