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.

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...