Reflections on art and leadership

I use my art to reflect an artist and a senior manager in the financial services industry. I notice that the deeper I understand myself the more I succeed to impact others; in both art and work.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Parchment project > Hidden sacrifice

This project was an assignment by a private collector that had several artists create their own art works from parchment. This article describes how I approached creation of my parchment art work: Hidden Sacrifice and Scapegoat

Side view of Hidden Sacrifice object
Parchment inspiration

It was inspiring to get an assignment to create an art object using parchment. Before actually starting the process of making I did see the many other art objects already created using parchment by other renowned artists; before actually seeing the other art works I had been a bit afraid to be overwhelmed and lose all inspiration; sometimes when Iook at a Van Gogh I can feel so humble that nothing gets created for days…
I then tried to get connected to the parchment as a material, which is completely new to me. It was used in the middle ages for writing letters and books and nowadays no longer used as it is completely replaced by paper. This parchment that I received from Jan was made in a monastery, only currently known place in the Netherlands where one woman is still making parchment following traditional way of working.
The parchment is made from animal skin, and in this case goat skin through a process of continuously stretching, scraping the surface. This process requires time and patience and is almost a ritual in itself. It made me more realize that nowadays we stand quite far from animals, especially when it concerns consumption of pre-packaged meat from the supermarket etc. When we see animals suffering we stand up and protest, but we accept so many animals treated wrongly and without respect when it concerns our own food.
Seeing the parchment in its original form reminds me directly of the animal that died as part of the process of parchment making. It is no longer shown but we thank these pieces of art due to the sacrifice made by the animal; a forced sacrifice that is.
I realized also that myself I had been too much into the consumption mode regarding animals, meat, and this parchment confronted me with that. I would somehow need to pay respect to the goats while going through the art making, trying to bring back the sacred part of the animal and restoring it, enriching it in the process.

The idea

One morning in New York I woke up; I had collected information on parchment during some months and the idea was actually born. I thought about actually restoring the animal in a sort of 3dimensianal way, going through the ritual of sacrifice and refer to the story of Abraham that was asked by God to sacrifice his son Isaac. Although it was very early I got up right away, somewhat afraid I would lose the idea, losing the inspiration and momentum. I made some drawing and started research to retrieve actual texts that would provide the right reference, would fit with the idea. I found text in Leviticus that describes the ritual of sacrifice; it is quite ‘barbaric’ in one way but also shows a deep engagement and respect. I learnt through some research that it is the least used text from the bible in church; which can be understood as it is quite confronting.  At the same time it would be good that people understand that text and how it shows our ‘relationship’ with animals in the many ways we do.
In addition I looked up the text on Abraham where he is asked by God to bring his son to the mountain and sacrifice him as a ‘test of loyalty’. Abraham actually is willing his sacrifice his son, and is only last minute interrupted by an angel telling him to spare his sons life. They find a ram stuck in the bushes and decide to sacrifice the ram. I would say that another parallel I would see is that Abraham is only allowed to sacrifice an animal when he has shown he is willing to sacrifice his own son. In a way it shows the respect that one should have for the life of an animal.
Writing the text

A few weeks after conceiving the idea in New York at one Saturday morning I started the process for the first object, the one that would be called Hidden Sacrifice. I ritually sprayed yellow orange and red ink on the parchment, trying to get into the actual ritual of sacrifice. I then wrote the text with Indian ink using a small brush. Trying to stay close to my feeling I made no lines to help writing, I wrote it from my heart trusting that the result would be right.
I spent that full weekend working on the different steps ending the weekend fully energized.
After that I painted with the same feelings and mind the other side in a more abstract way; it flowed from me when making it. And after that I used an aspect of parchment that is different than paper; I used fire to shape (as parchment does not burn but almost melts when in touch with fire) the outside and create a hollow object, restoring the original 3dimensional shape of the goat.

The Monday after

The day after I had went to a museum in Paris with colleague and friend Aziz, we had dinner at a Moroccan restaurant where they seemed to know him quite well. I explained him about the art object and after some time he interrupted me…He asked me if I was aware what this weekend had taken place…it turned out that it was the weekend where Islamic people celebrate the sacrifice of Abraham (and his son Ismael). It was the same friend who came to me the day after handing me the text from the Koran in traditional writing and in French. That would be the text that I would use for the second object.

The goats resurrected
In the end I was looking for the best way to resurrect the goats. I have considered many things, but at some point I saw stainless steel and thought to use that, it reflects a bit the actual inside writing of the object but also provides a firm basis; and it nicely integrates with the silver thread. I wanted to connect the parchment to the steel and thought to use the traditional way of sewing thread through the skin; silver thread seemed to be pure and elegant to make it decorative and functional at the same time, fitting the many aspects of the concept I had developed.

A personal letter of sacrifice

Attached to the object there is a letter. It contains bible text that I found and that related most strongly to me and a personal sacrifice I would and should make in the process. It is sealed as the message is hidden, like many sacrifices, and the purpose is not for people to admire or get shocked by the sacrifice, but more to be a personal statement; the learning experience  should be in me and not about how people see my experience.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Images frozen on paper - process of creating a modern art work

Recently when selling a painting I was asked to write about the process of making that series of paintings. So, below you find the process of making the 'Subconscious power' series.

I go out with my papers, paint, brushes and bottles
to a river or sometimes to the sea.
When arriving I put down my materials,
I breathe the air,
I absorb the lively place around me,
its colors, the light in the sky.
I let the papers float in the river, to absorb the water and absorb nature.

Every river or sea has its own way of working with the painted colors, sometimes giving beautiful shades and sometimes a more rusty texture.
It is the soul of the water showing itself
through the way it works, leaving its pigment traces on the paper.
Then before starting I connect with the trees, the sand, the birds...
There are many ways to draw a portrait, a landscape, a tree.
One way to draw a tree is by copying the shapes, the lines, the colors.
It will become a nice copy.
Myself I let the tree show itself in me
and through me,
concentrating on breathing,
on connecting to the earth,
I let the tree flow into my body and show itself.
Then I dive into this feeling
I get the paper from the river and start painting.
The colors spread over the paper, mixing and fading
I keep sculpting the shapes until the moment that I awake from this dream.

In a way I try to create the right conditions, to get myself in a sort of flow.
It is like in dreams, where rational filters disappear
and images that have been suppressed show themselves.
These images are touching the heart of me,
and later when I am back in my atelier they help me
to easily recreate the original feeling with all its depth and emotions.
There I continue building the details
as in a flow or meditational repetition;
it creates and creates without 'thinking'
and I trust the intensity of this feeling
until I wake up for the last time
and a very rich painting appears,
clearly showing harmony despite the numerous detailed patterns it holds.
It is like awaking from a dream and seeing the images frozen on a piece of paper.

If you would like to read more about the background of my concepts just visit my art page section about concepts or just send me a mail.

Monday, November 7, 2011

Shared Imagination

Years ago I managed for the first time a large team of around 40 people, and we were responsible for processing financial transactions. Things were not going so well when I started as the team was located at a satellite office and felt a bit left alone at its separate location, isolated from the world. There were also some elements where they were clearly treated differently than teams at the headquarters. One example was that it was impossible to participate in the project aiming to put art on the walls; reasons were very practical and I tried to change things but it didn’t work.
Then team managers and I had an idea to turn this issue around and have an event where each team would create its art work. Although first reactions were quite skeptical (‘I cannot paint’ people would say) team managers and I decided to move forward and we organized an event after work; we organized drinks, snacks and some food. And being an artist I made sure all the materials were there.
Once the teams started it turned out they took it more seriously, had made several designs that they shared in the team, divided the roles within the team, and were actively painting. They looked at each other’s art work and at the end of the evening there were 4 paintings.
I observed a few things:
- people were proud of their art work, and wanted it placed as near as possible to the team.
- others were not allowed to be very negative about it, and it made the groups act more as one
- although people had to make compromises in the process, and objectively the art work probably would not have been considered 'the most beautiful', still people felt connected and thought their own painting as more special than the others.
"Je crois que non"
Power of subconscious concept

This event made me aware how strong the value of building a shared image where everyone contributes is. And the power of the image being there, remaining and reminding the group of what they share.

The power of images was not new to me; I used it already in many of my papers, reports and plans. I had discovered that when I start approaching a subject it would be difficult to start writing large texts; there were so many things to explain, and how would I present those as a whole comprehensive approach or description. How to make sense and at same time seem completely logical to any of the readers. Exploring this many times in the past I had found that it was best to start drafting an image. The image would try to provide a simple overview of the whole subject I was describing; the issues we were facing, a new service that needed to be offered, etc. In the process a few things would happen that then helped to contribute to the final document:
1. collect all the relevant information; taking time to obtain all relevant information during some time, not necessarily start writing or creating an image.
2. start drawing an image and simplifying it; at the start when trying to draw an image that represents the issues and the way forward it would have too many boxes, arrows and text. I would continue until the moment that the image would really be 'simple’ or show 'harmony', and still respecting an adequate coverage of all issues and required elements. When the image was still too complex and 'messy' this meant that I was not yet fully mastering the situation; I was still documenting information, but not showing insight.
3. writing with the image as starting point
Last step would then be to write the document around the images; I would use much less text and the images would make it easy for people to 'see' the natural 'logic’ of the story and more easily connect.

The example of creating the paintings with the group showed me new elements:
It is good if I take in all information and create an image to 'sell’ my view. It is even better if I can involve others in the creation, so it becomes our shared image; and they feel it also represents their view and aspirations. And in addition it will make the image better if we are able to benefit from all different views in the group.
The process where I interact with a group to find a 'shared image' I call Shared Imagination.

Some interesting elements I have found in other disciplines that support parts of this idea:
- David Peat explains in his book Gentle Action that we are all a 'molecule in the sea'. We are too small to create whole new movements by ourselves, but we can try to see the waves coming and be ready to be in front of the wave. When our shared image for the team is including all people’s views, we take the benefit of all connections and senses we have out there to ensure we see the waves coming.
- In social psychology it is known that 'we find what we look for'; what is 'activated' in our minds will influence our perception. Example: (i) If I am thinking about buying a new Toyota car, all of a sudden I see Toyota cars driving...(ii) If I suspect other people of a conspiracy or political behavior, I will start seeing strange behavior around me.
We can also use the positive element; if people connect with an image of where they want to go they will see everything around them in that view and what they will do will more easily follow that approach.

At a workplace the most complex part of Shared Imagination is that it requires some things from the manager:
- communication skills to really connect to everyone on the team; to guide the process but leaving people the option to bring in their ideas and help create the resulting image
- understanding the strengths of people in the team as well as which elements motivate the people. Frequently I try to find out what people feel their added value is in the team, and what they want to get out of the team work (what energizes them).
- using strengths of the people in the process; someone who can make nice designs, an expert bringing real insight, someone good in maintaining team spirit, another person good in organizing the sessions, etc.
- important element is that the manager lets go of his/her ego, and truly opens up, accepts to be wrong, and instead focuses on understanding all views and opinions.

Creating an image that is fully shared requires lots of energy and passion. It is easier to push your own image or structure on the world, and in current hectic world with many tasks it is tempting to keep pushing our ideas; and I still notice that I am tempted myself. The benefits of creating an image of where we want to go seem to grow exponentially when we tap into the Shared Imagination, as many things will go much more organically afterwards, building on the shared experience and insight we have created.

I also used this concept during a workshop in Tuscany with other artists and scientists when we made an art work together. Feedback received was great: people thanked me for the insight, suggested I write a book about this very organic way of leading. This lead to the articles on this blog, and I thank all in that group to have voluntarily participated in that experiment.

Monday, October 31, 2011

Exhibition West Amsterdam 5-6 November

Part of an exhibition in restored ancient mill, together with 4 other local artists. Some of my new art works from the concept 'subconscious power' will be displayed. Wanna know which? >>
Exhibition open 5+6 November from 12-5 PM. Will be there myself most of the time, but send me a message if you want to make sure I will be there.

More art works and concept descriptions you can find on my website

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Searching for pain

Sometimes I notice that people are speaking about company politics preventing the right decisions to be taken; lack of support from management to do the right thing; bad behaviour of other people; others attacking them which puts them on a defence; working much harder than others but not being valued; others not playing ‘team’ etc.
Worse is when I hear myself speak like that. I have noticed that sometimes when I am tired I start talking like this, and generally my energy level does not go up. It's a bit (and sometimes more than that) like complaining. And why should I complain while as a manager myself I could have more influence on the situation than many others?

Art work:
Mooi gekwetst / 'Beautifully hurt'
Basically this type of complaining behaviour is a way to externalise the issue, kind of finger point at someone or something else - other people that have to change or having to solve the ‘real’ problem. This thinking becomes a reason to not have ownership of the issue we are facing. And what happens if all of us do that, if all managers do that...?
In fact putting the blame outside ourselves prevents us from facing the real pain: our personal limitations in influencing the situation. And it prevents us from making real choices; in fact for all these challenges we have only 3 options:
(i) Change or influence the situation
(ii) Accept the situation as is
(iii) Walk away
All 3 options may be okay. Choosing the option to change things requires acceptance that it is an important issue and that you have sufficient energy and fascination and take time to reflect, explore and learn. This is not always the case and there is no need to engage with each challenge or 'battle'. So accepting it (for now) can be an option and sometimes it is just best not to pursue but take another road that fits more with your personal values or skills. Sort of a “Pick your battles” approach. Complaining, however, is a way to avoid taking a decision on how to deal with the issues and therefore only takes away energy without solving anything.

As a famous expression from Chinese philosophy states:
When you are in pain you are just before the point of learning something important about yourself.
Basically, when we are frustrated or feel anger, it implies that something is touching us that we can not handle and that is close to our values. As an example, someone telling me that there is an issue with a slide in my presentation will probably not hurt me, but someone telling me I have not provided an honest view of the situation and I am just ‘arguing in my own interest’ could hurt me (the impact would also depend on the person that tells me this). The frustration and anger I feel in these situations come from the point that a couple of my key values are honesty and transparency. And people challenging me on these values while ‘I have done everything possible to take all arguments into account’ seems unfair.
My natural reaction to what I would see as an 'attack' would be to defend myself, but is that the right way to react?
In fact when I take a close look at the situation I could really learn from it, for example:
- How do I react when people 'attack' me when I am making a proposal in a meeting?
Defending somehow always keeps focus on me and my integrity. And when I keep arguing it increases the part this issue will have in the decision and whether management is willing to follow me. Maybe it is better even not to speak when under attack, because somehow I observe that whatever I say and how neutral I try to express myself, it just comes out in a defensive way. After reflecting and trying I have discovered a few ways to deal with these situations: (i) asking an open question: "which arguments do you feel should be added or changed?” This will take away the topic from my integrity and focus on the content. And it gives me some time to 'discharge' and reflect on what is happening and how I want to take it forward. (ii) Another option is to take a step back, lean backwards and share an observation about the situation: "Hmmm, somehow it seems we end up in a discussion about personal views and qualifications. I wonder what would be the best way to continue the discussion. Maybe we should sit down together and ensure the overview is complete and then present the updated view in this group?”
I have observed that this approach is much more effective, and helps to ensure that people follow me. And as a friend of mine used to say: "definition of a leader is someone that people decide to follow".

Another element here is that people normally learn 'more of the same'. When things go well they add knowledge that is similar to what they know. Even artists would often reduce experimenting once they have found a style that is rewarded by a certain audience and give them perception of success.
Similar things can happen when we have developed a style and approach of making presentations that seems effective in most cases. Why would we go and look for structural improvements to our presentation skills then. It is easier to blame the audience that they did not pay attention this time than to explore how I could have better influenced the dynamics. This type of learning makes us comfortable with our present skills and we just make small variations on our own patterns; I would say that this type of learning is stagnant and I would call that 'horizontal learning'.
It seems that when people are in pain they are shown that their current skill level is not enough and when they have the courage to face the challenge they could actually learn on a different level. It requires to ask different sort of questions.
‘What can I do ahead of the meeting to ensure I have some people there advocating for me?’.
‘Which seeds can I plant ahead of the meeting to ensure I can harvest during the meeting?’.
‘What will be the flow of the meeting to make view and decisions logical?’
‘What are the hot topics and opinions for the audience and how can I include that in delivering my message?’
Reflecting on pain and experimenting with new approaches brings people to a new level, it is vertical learning. And whenever there is pain there is the opportunity to discover a new level; and as it shows there is an infinite number of levels and there is therefore no end to the learning; and as a result it is good to accept that then there is no end to the pain.
An additional point this raises is that we should be humble as we are never done with learning, and we should keep listening to others to keep adjusting our views. In fact as Edward De Bono explains:
"A difference of opinion is based on a difference of information, experience or values". This means that when we approach issues we should see them as an opportunity to explore what information, experience or values of other people make them have another opinion. Instead of defending we can try to explore, and often then I have discovered that opinions are not that different and I learn new things.

So what can we do with all this information?
On a personal level I will challenge myself when hearing myself complain about the same thing for the third time. I will write this down in my notebook and take some time to decide how I want to deal with it.
When I feel frustrated I try not to vocalise my frustrations. People do not tend to follow a complaining manager that shows no ownership and influence on the situation.
When people on my team complain about something for the third time I will set up a one-on-one meeting. I will use the concept of 'pain' to verify whether they are at the point to learn new things. I have observed that these moments in fact are a valuable opportunity to make people change views, transform knowledge into insights and behaviour, and make leaps in influencing the team results. What helps in these conversations is: create a reflecting moment, sit back and openly explore the situation, what are the root causes and how could the person be influenced in order to change. Also important is to see where the manager can help or support, and/or if the manager needs to change an approach to help achieving the result.
I have also noticed that sharing concepts and views of types of learning and putting things in a broader perspective help people to step away from daily issues and really openly reflect.
I noticed when taking this approach that - once people see what they can learn after going through this experience- it is easier for them to develop energy the next time. The focus is no longer on the pain - it is on personal development that will be the result at the end.
In fact: we shift from focus on 'what is blocking’ towards the creativity of exploring new ways to influence our skills and results'.

Leadership comes when having the courage to transform your pain in showing ownership to change the situation and behaviour. It will show people the right role model and help to maximise effectiveness of the team.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What managers can learn from art: inspiration

In the Western world from very young age we are taught to push our structure on the world. And when it does not work...we learn to push even harder. In the work place managers traditionally do the same: they push methodology or their personal structure on their teams, and check that everyone delivers in that structure. When applying structure, and when forcing other people to deliver within the manager’s structure it seems the manager gets more in control. Plan-do-check-act and multiple other control cycles seem to guarantee results, and if the results are not delivered we confront the people and make them improve.

I had the same approach when I started my career as manager, but art made me see limitations of the 'control' approach. I could see that I was implementing controls, but actually needed to find the people that were willing to invest all their energy in the team and its services. I would say that the most important role of a manager or leader is to inspire people; energize the team to reach its maximum potential, remove barriers, and create a shared image of where the team needs to go.

What can we learn from art about inspiration?
This article is too short to cover all elements so I will just focus on a few aspects.

Inspiration for an artist becomes an important topic…
...when it is not there.
One of the most frequent moments for artists to lack inspiration is just after art school. During art school artists would have assignments and they would naturally find a direction and create the art works that go with these assignments. When they leave school they need to find their own direction; what do I want to do in my art, what role does it have in my life, which to choose out of all possible directions, what will become my style, what surface do I work on, what subject do I take and even which colors for my painting, etc.
For an artist therefore it is important to find a clear direction, some subject close to experiences and passion, a subject that touches the artist. A subject that is a drive, and at same time, gives courage to make decisions and make choices early in the process and then continue exploring the way forward. Setbacks in the process then no longer become a burden, they become the adjustment of the view of the artist and the growth even inspires the artist to explore new ways.

In companies I have observed several times that managers are not seen as inspiring. As a start a manager has to be able to inspire him or herself before being able to inspire others.
To inspire a whole team the manager needs to create a clear direction for the team. I would say that the manager needs to create a shared image of the added value of the team, the role the team has to play in the future; what does the team need to bring to its customers. The shared image should be a simple insight built on the contributions of the individual team members; it is not only the view of the manager. If a manager wants people to follow him/her, he/she needs the courage to accept the views and directions of others. The image should not be too close, as energy can drastically decrease when reaching the image and people would feel 'we are there'. The image should not be too far away as it makes people paralyze 'this is just impossible' or 'not realistic'. I call this process Shared Imagination, as creating an image with a team of how to approach their role or tasks is a valuable process. In fact, it can be compared to having a muse; unreachable but beautiful and clearly visible.

The next important step is how to engage people with the shared image. If a manager splits the overall journey into small tasks, providing everyone clear deliverables and timelines everything should be okay, or maybe not?
The key element is to see each person and their key talents and what they can bring to the team, and what is important for them to get from the team. A shift in thinking would be to provide the shared image to each individual and ask them to present to you how and what they will do to help the team get there. This allows the person to find a way that fits with talents and preferences, and remain energized during the journey.
But what about risk; how will you make sure that the person reaches the goal without your structure? Well, ask the person: "how can we ensure that we see when you are on the right track and when you need support?" In my experience this approach leads to a fully committed answer. Sometimes it takes time as people have been brainwashed in the current structures of deliverables and manager generated planning. But they will get there.

It is interesting that we see similar observations and approaches in recent leadership literature. For example John P Kotter refers to: creating a clear strategy, clearly scoping the role of the individual and make the person take ownership and provide support when needed.
Philosopher Heidegger put it very nicely: People are required to shape their own world around themselves. With that we follow the principle of reducing pressure and burdens. Because there is already so much to do we strive to organize things and ourselves to function reducing spontaneity, motivation and energy. Human kind therefore tries to get rid of its eccentricity and reflexivity by structuring its environment that it discharges it of those values that use to be seen in philosophical tradition as the climax of human dignity: spontaneity, reflexivity, freedom.

In my art I have also faced issues in getting inspired. But after some time I found my personal direction:
"I reflect on how I live my life, wherever I feel I can be a more beautiful person and with that intention I create a new concept. The concept is the translation of the intention into the way-to-create the art works. I integrate the intention into actual behavior while making the art work, connecting the idea to a deep physical and mental experience'.
One example of such a concept:
Personally I have also been raised with structure and discipline. This has brought me to where I am; a successful manager in financial service industry. But sometimes these 'programs' in my mind prevent me from being free, from daring to discover new things. In this concept I make beautiful drawings and paintings. And when they are ready I tear them in pieces… With these pieces I force myself to find a new composition. And in many cases the resulting collage becomes a more beautiful image than the original painting. This process makes me less afraid of letting go of my personal structure. And whenever I see such a painting when getting up in the morning, I smile and think: "let’s not be afraid today to let others the freedom to work in their way'.

…and then metaphorically… I walk naked into the sea with an inspired smile on my face...