Leaders as Artists / Artists as Leaders

Happy 101st post, you guys! This is a super disorganized collection of thoughts to celebrate!

Got this article in my inbox yesterday via a friend (and You’ve Cott Mail, an arts-oriented daily mailing list) on Leaders as Artists. Forgive, if you will, the insane image of  a palette of oil paints in the background. Essentially this is an article about bringing creativity, innovation, social consciousness and skill into the workplace. Managing by shaping, not by slashing. Throughout the piece, the author distinguishes between great leadership and simply good leadership, and great leadership and making money. The piece clearly has a very high opinion of art.

I wonder why that is? Clearly, this is an article designed to describe leadership as an art form, and to bring some clarity to the idea of the non-quantifiable traits that differentiate a great leader form simple a good leader. There are 12 criteria by which we can evaluate great leaders, and none of them have to do with profit margins or sales quotas.

The article seems to imply that there is something about great leadership that is inherent in a person, or instinctual. Jazz improvisation is an example that is floated, of course. This is where I can really buy into the connection. Artists often talk about moments of inspiration, when creative projects just seem to flow out of them. It always sounds to me like an artist is talking about seeing the fabric of reality in a new way (like the matrix!) and making it manifest. The marble speaks to the sculptor, the paint finds its way into the canvas, the actress lets a speech flow from her without even thinking about it. These instincts are powerful.

But the list of 12 criteria also involve a lot of planning, and a lot of mission-alignment. For instance:

1. Intent. Do they make an express commitment to achieve certain exceptional ends?


4. Form. Do they combine their communications, structures, policies, etc. into a unified, coherent whole?

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?

I love mission-alignment. If you develop a new program and you can’t explain persuasively why or how it fits into your overall vision, it is probably not mission aligned. (I had a great professor in grad school who used to say that any arts organization, in his opinion, had the right to open a restaurant, condo complex or parking lot to generate revenue, because making money to make more art is absolutely mission aligned). In the nonprofit world, it is so easy to chase funding, and not to think clearly about what your long-term goals and mission are. I once convinced a colleague not to create an education program for a theater company (we needed money, and there were several education grants available that he wanted to apply for) by gently asking him, “who is going to teach these classes? You?” We laughed, because he would have hated every second of it, and we wouldn’t have been able to spend the money on making plays anyway, which is what we wanted to do. The plan was not mission-aligned.

(insert transition here)

Which brings me to my real point, which is about artists as leaders. Here, I will think out loud a little bit, so bear with me. I come from the theater, where there is a very long tradition of artist-managers, those leaders who actively participate in the creation, production and management of the work. Shakespeare himself was an actor-playwright-manager. Moliere was an actor-playwright-manager. The great actor-managers of England brought theater to the Colonies. There were free African-American actor-managers before the Civil War. Artist-managers exist in every phase of the American theater. Theater is a collaborative form, in which directors are leaders in the rehearsal room, stage managers are leaders during tech, playwrights are leaders during a development workshop and so on, and so on.

But take these artists and plunk them down in the middle of an “institution” and things can get hairy. (Now, don’t get me wrong, arts institutions that operate with no/few artists involved (ahem, museums), make me CRAZY.) Whereas in the corporate world, a manager can get by without any artistry, the same is not true in reverse. Artists must be managers in order to run even the smallest arts organization. (Individual artists can also struggle with self-management, as I learned in my previous work with professional development.) And while the skills of creativity, dexterity and passion are all excellent skills for a manager to possess, the basic skills of running a business are often lacking for artists who become managers. This is because they are simply not taught in BFA and MFA programs (still!), and sometimes because the artist refuses to participate in a Capitalistic structure, doesn’t want to “sell out,” won’t “market” the work, and so on. I find this is particularly true in smaller, younger organizations, which is natural. These attitudes are deeply entrenched, but slowly changing. But I have watched artists found an organization and then spend the rest of their careers struggling against the strictures of running an organization. Artists are so entrepreneurial (a term that people have used to describe me that has a double meaning) and often struggle to find their own place in the market because their work is unique and the number of opportunities for paid work are few. But we can’t start an organization just because nobody else will hire us (different post). Leading an institution, even a nonprofit (which doesn’t mean no money, it just means no profits) institution, requires massive amounts of creativity, vision, planning, strategy and focus. Because you are starting a dynasty. Arts institutions are different from projects. Every day, we have to ask ourselves, “what are we trying to accomplish, and how does X help us to achieve that goal?” An institution can’t be run on impulse.

So maybe the best artist-leaders are able to be visionaries who are also constantly managing towards long-term outcomes. (I have been doing some research into Theory of Change, which is a strategic planing tool, and I constantly wonder if it could be applied in an arts context.) Maybe the truly great arts institutions are run by teams of artists and managers who are constantly pushing and challenging each other towards greater outcomes. My own instincts tell me that this is the real solution. Leadership seems like an individual pursuit, but maybe it’s actually a team sport? In actuality, it’s probably different for every institution, and for every iteration of the executive leadership of that institution. We think of these structures as rigid, but with Board approval, restructuring is both possible and often more efficient.

I have had many different experiences with artists in leadership positions (both in and outside of arts organizations), some positive and some negative. I would love to hear yours. This post will never be finished.

Link: HBR: Every Leader is an Artist 

H/T You’ve Cott Mail and the awesome Colleen!


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