Category Archives: Leading Artfully

Reflections on the Art of Leading

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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)

Leading with the Artist

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“Every day I see or hear something that more or less kills me with delight…”
-Mary Oliver, the poet

Some months ago I was challenged by a trusted friend to lead more with the artist in me. I wasn’t even sure there was an artist in me, though I believe I have some artistic sensibilities. In any case, I chose to try leading more with that intention – to discover and honor the artist in me. I am already aware of three specific outcomes:

  1. Less concern about performance and more attentive to expression
    I have a strong feeling function (Myers-Briggs). Still, I am perplexed by how much I can over-think how I want to show up in the world. Consequently, I fail to step into action as much as I would like. Expressing myself with more heart and choosing to think less about what is happening is one consequence of leading more with the artist in me. I am calculating less how I am performing and choosing to explore in action new ways of being myself.
  2. Don’t necessarily need to scale
    My work with social entrepreneurs and innovative leaders immersed in design thinking reinforces the belief that one’s “project” should always be capable of expansion and growth. Bigger is better! The world certainly needs visionary change agents who can transform an entire enterprise or maybe even a whole continent. But as John Seely Brown astutely contests: “Artists are not included in our debate on how to build the economy for the future.” I am more at peace with myself these days as a professional whose contribution may be less about replication and more about insight.
  3. See the world differently
    The artist sees the world with more color and texture, different nuances and variations, greater depth and broader perspective. In the spirit of Mary Oliver’s poetic wisdom, I am frequently more animated and enlivened by what I encounter these days, whether close to home as part of my routine or distant venues as I travel. My blind spots are less prevalent perhaps.   My vision is changing. New energy results.

I am learning not to be so self-conscious.

Art and Logic

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from The Power of Story by Tom Peters
Sometimes a picture speaks a thousand words. Are we evolving to the place where art and logic indeed can play in the same space? Is there really any alternative?

James Watson, co-discoverer of the structure of DNA, writes in The Double Helix: “Science as I hope this work will demonstrate, rarely proceeds with the logic laymen attribute to it.”

Is it possible that is true of business models and planning processes as well?

Daniel Pink argues in A Whole New Mind: “The MFA is the new MBA”. Perhaps there is some common ground here for research scientists and their business partners??

Improvisation and Relationships

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Last week I had the opportunity to hear Rob Cross deliver the results of a social network analysis to the top 100 R&D; leaders in a client organization. He highlighted, among other things, the importance of managing overload points as well as leveraging the periphery of the informal networks revealed by the mapping. This prompted me to juxtapose our work with relationship capital.

We define relationship capital as the sum total of interfaces, interactions, and interventions among and between people. It includes the tacit, often unrecognized behaviors and patterns of interaction that define and differentiate an organization’s performance. The practice of the Politics of Creativity helps leaders more effectively invest in relationship capital.

An essay in the McKinsey Quarterly entitled “Competitive Advantage from Better Interactions” helpfully describes how tacit interactions more and more define how employees must relate to one another. (The authors’ research was based on a study of some 8,000 companies.) One of their conclusions: “Tacit interactions reduce the importance of structure and elevate the importance of people and collaboration. …Tacit work is improvisational and difficult to define in advance, for it follows the problem being solved and the nature of the opportunity at hand.”

I actually spent a day not too long ago at an improvisational workshop with Stevie Rae. While it may seem like a big stretch from an improv routine to a research lab, there were many aspects of the workshop that informed our work with “relationship capital”. For example, Stevie Rae reminded us again and again, “At the end of the day, the audience won’t remember your words but whether they liked playing with you.” ‘

When, if ever, have you last asked yourself the question “What feeling or emotion do I want others to leave this conversation or presentation with, not simply what information?” This is a specific way for one to invest more in relationship capital. Too simplistic? Too soft? Pay attention and see what happens.

There is mounting evidence that such tacit dimensions differentiate those who successfully generate trust and establish an environment where creativity and innovation flourish. All the information and data in the world is no substitute for some of the most rudimentary principles of building relationships that are more than connections on a network map.