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 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...


  1. Hi Maurice,

    Very interesting. As I would expect.

    Particularly, I would like to see you looking more closely at the leadership elements required for successful management. Instead, I feel, you tend to mix them together and that creates a tension that I don't think is necessary. I am interested in a metaphorical picture of brain function that I think is helpful in this matter. I may have spoken about it before and it certainly came out of thinking about David Peat's thinking on synchronicity.

    You speak about horizontal and vertical learning. I think effective leadership - of self or others - will occur simultaneously and continuously. As I see that something is not working as well as I would like, I am analysing the current process, considering a more desirable outcome and figuring out what changes will need to occur to initiate and implement the improvement.

    Keep having fun
    Neil B

  2. Hi Neil, great comments, thank you.
    I guess I wanted to make a start introducing one concept in blog-form but will coming weekend look at another subject and try to explore.
    I like the idea of connecting with David Peats synchronicity and any link or metaphore you would be able to share would be great.
    Thanks again

  3. I began with the image of a dark night. Looking down onto a narrow street with street lamps dimly lighting spaces in the darkness. A figure is moving, lit briefly by a lamp before disappearing and then re-emerging under another lamp - the 'next' lamp in the street. There was nothing to be seen for several seconds between these two sightings but I assumed that a third sighting would occur at the 'next' lamp - and it did. So I now assumed that the figure was walking at a steady pace in the dark when I could not see her and would keep emerging under the lamps until she reached the corner which I 'knew' was several hundred metres further on.

    As a manager, I had set the event in motion in my mind so I could expect that it would keep occurring until affected by the change [corner].
    But why should I assume that she was even there when I could not see her? And what if, after appearing for the third time, she never appeared again. The management theory depends on activity being continuous - and on Newton's First Law of motion.

    In contrast, quantum theory makes no such assumptions. If the figure is not observable, it may not be there. If it is not matter then it may be energy. If, if, if.

    I think that the idea of the movie film is a useful addition to this line of thought. Each frame shows on the screen for about 1/24 of a second. The screen then turns dark until the next frame is in place and the projection light reveals it on the screen. In effect, we viewers sit in the dark of the cinema for about 1/3 of the time we have paid for. And because the images are projected at the rate of more than 10 per second, we perceive them as continuous. The woman under the streetlamps at high speed. So we believe our eyes!! But we are being deceived. Just as the concept of the manager in control is a deception. Seeking order, we align activity to appear continuous and productive, On time, on spex, on cost so it must be good!! And it must be under control. And, if we run it again, we will get the same outcome - production line thinking - Fritz Lang's Metropolis, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times.

    As a leader, we cannot be so sure. However, we can establish goals/aims and intentions, we can share these with our workers/colleagues/team and we can work with them towards shared outcomes - but we can also be more relaxed. Under the streetlamp, they are working towards the corner. In the dark, we cannot be sure what they are doing - or why. Maybe this one is pulling her coat tighter, that one has put hands in pockets, another is thinking about promotion. The team is working towards an agreed end but their approaches, motivations, etc are each different. As if different editors are cutting together the same film footage with a view of the end and the total length but different ideas about which shots will be most effective.

  4. Hi Neil
    I read it and will re-read to see what I can take/use/integrate from it. I like the metaphore of the streetlamps and understand how it relates to the 'assumption of being in control'.
    It makes me also think of what I read about philosopher Hume when he explains how we make assumptions with this small metaphore:
    Every day the farmer goes to the chickens and brings them food.
    At some point the chickens assume that whenever the farmer comes they will get food....
    until the day the farmer decides to slaughter the chickens...'
    Thanks again