Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Opinion: Why Artists Can Be Incredible Leaders

For my sixteenth birthday, I went to see a psychic, who predicted that I would end up as an artist. They also predicted that my older sibling would end up in business. We laughed at the notion; that I, an overly serious and analytical teenager, might end up with the free-thinking and creativity needed to be an artist, and my sibling, who possessed more stereotypically creative traits, would end up in a more disciplined career. 

Fast forward twenty years, and the psychic was right. Sort of. 

For more than fifteen years, my career has been in arts leadership; primarily in some of the country’s largest institutions or governments. Through this, it’s become extremely clear how blurry the line between creator, administrator and leader can be- and how similar each of those roles really are. Although we often think of business leaders and artists as polar opposites, art lends qualities and insight that leads to effective leadership.

For example, in the 1960s, the anti-establishment movement of a younger generation culminated in Woodstock, while Andy Warhol offered criticism through Pop Art. Twenty-five years later, Live-Aid brought major acts together to create a world-wide response to famine in Ethiopia. More recently, Banksy’s presentation of art brings questions of classism and accessibility to the forefront. If we consider moments of change, there’s always art or music to accompany it- the soundtrack of each generation or key moments in time. Art is always at the forefront of change. 

The descriptions that we use to describe the creative minds responsible for those movements and change, may not be much different than other changemakers. For better or worse, those that we consider key corporate leaders- Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Bill Gates- are all casually referred to as “visionaries,” “dreamers,” “outside of the box thinkers,” or “breaking the mould.” All terms we use to describe talented artists.

Those same traits are not just seen as critical to the success of those leaders and the subsequent companies that they’ve built. These traits are also essential to the creative process that any artist embodies. 

It works in reverse as well. Starting with an artist, consider the attributes that might distinguish a great artist from a mediocre one. Perhaps it’s someone who makes bold moves; thinks and acts with a purpose; or drives their vision with an almost obsessive passion. These are all attributes that are also given to exceptional leaders. 

Often faced with a lack of resources or other barriers to their work, artists are incredible problem solvers by nature. This creative bent is transferable to difficult leadership situations in which fresh perspectives are needed. Through the grant writing and work development process, project planning is arguably one of the most practical skills that an artist possesses- also highly transferable to navigate challenging situations.

Finally, have you ever heard an artists’ source for inspiration as they speak about their work? Artists have an incredible awareness of the world around them, and are able to draw inspiration from the smallest of details. In a similar way, leaders need to possess this same sense of awareness and react accordingly.  

These traits alone don’t make a successful leader, and the traditional models of leadership that we once considered or relied on may not be relevant in a post-pandemic world. Leading by example no longer means just being good at what you do, but helping others to do the same. 

Both arts and leadership require purpose, distinct vision, constant effort and a willingness to be different. When successful, both have the ability to shape not only the creator, but those who experience it. 

Like a great work of art, great leadership can be utilized and transformed into positive outcomes, driven by innovation, empathy, enthusiasm and risk. And in the same way that art and artists have always played a pivotal role in evolving the culture of the future, leaders can do the same to bring change. Artists are inherent leaders- and there is much to learn.

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