In this blog post I’d like to turn my thoughts in a different direction and address leadership in the context of an arts organization. I’ve begun to compile a list of traits, characteristics, and attributes shared by the arts, artists, and arts organizations based on my own research and that of Keith Sawyer, the Root-Bernsteins, and others. Even though others have made various lists like this, no one has thus far combined them or attempted a categorization (to my knowledge), so the following list represents a first step in this direction. As the list hopefully makes clear, these factors distinguish the arts from businesses, educational institutions, and other fields of human endeavor.
Abstract, ambiguity, courage, creativity, failure (learning method), flexibility, innovation, iteration, metaphor, model, multiple variables, open-ended problem solving, resiliency, risk tolerance, skills.
Analogize, analyze, ask, choose, collaborate, criticize constructively, fail, feel, fuse, incubate, iterate, learn, make, observe, play, represent, synthesize, think, transform
Attributes (thoughts or emotions):
Conceptualize, empathize, ideate, imagine, non-linear thinking, recognition, sonification, visualization
Explaining each of these terms in a single post would be cumbersome, but I’ve highlighted a few that are worth a bit of analysis in that they highlight some key differences between an arts organization and a business. To begin, however, I want to examine the nature of businesses and educational institutions. Businesses exist to produce and sell a product or service. They are motivated by maximizing profit, which necessarily involves minimizing waste and increasing efficiency. In business, the adage “time is money” is not merely a cliché but a concrete reality. Because businesses exist to make a profit, they must always be concerned with persuading people to purchase the product or service they are trying to sell. Part of this involves providing customer service, part with producing a desirable product or service, and perhaps most of all with offering this at the highest price that people are willing to pay while producing it for the lowest possible cost. These factors engender a focus on efficiency, productivity, competition, and other defining traits of capitalism. The driving force is almost always motivated by financial gain.
In contrast, educational institutions exist for three reasons, although these might not be as equal in actual practice as they are sometimes portrayed to be: providing students with an education, producing knowledge through research and creative activity, and serving the surrounding community. Funding for these institutions comes through student tuition, monies contributed by alumni and other donors, grants, and from governmental entities. As with a non-profit company, there must be fiscal accountability for these monies, but there must also be evidence that students are receiving a good education, the knowledge produced through research and creative activity is of value, and there is benefit to the community housing the institution. Compared to corporations or businesses, educational institutions are perhaps differently concerned with efficiency or profitability although they may adopt a Responsibility Centered Management (RCM) model of operation, which applies a model of fiscal efficiency to decisions made about staffing, facility utilization, class size, and other considerations. The primary identity is still that of an educational institution, but the benefit of making decisions based on sound business judgments rather than simply on traditions does have merit. Educational institutions may, however, be seen to be more-bound by habits of mind, traditions, and longstanding policies and procedures than many for-profit businesses tend to be. Education is perceived to have a value of its own apart from the financial gains sought by for-profit businesses, just as it is distinct from non-profit companies that have specific driving missions (providing basic needs for the poor, collecting funds to seek cures for disease, raising awareness of social issues, and so on.)
Arts organizations operate much differently than businesses or educational institutions. Going back to the chart on the first page of this letter, a few of the more distinctive features include holding a positive view of failure as a learning method, acceptance of multiple variables, non-linear thinking, iteration—although not compulsively or negatively—and incubation.
First, let’s address failure. In business, of course, failure is usually something to be strenuously avoided. Indeed, Lexus prided itself on success, formerly using the slogan, “The relentless pursuit of perfection.” Businesses need to be perfect (or nearly perfect) or suffer financial loss. Conversely, in the arts failure is merely a mechanism by which ideas that have been put into practice are subsequently rejected, making room for further attempts, new ideas, and innovation. To be overly obsessive and insist upon perfection is to demonize failure, which effectively strangles creativity and instills fear that can be paralyzing to the organization or to individuals within it. In business, failure is almost always seen as a negative, but in the arts it’s merely a way to determine the relative effectiveness of a strategy and to set a new direction for further attempts. On one of my recent research trips I had the privilege of visiting MIT, where they have just this kind of mindset. If something doesn’t work, they analyze it thoroughly, take what they’ve learned from the experience, and use it to inform their next steps. There is no penalty for failure, only a view of it as a door to opportunity.
Acceptance of multiple variables is another distinctive feature of arts organizations. Business, certain forms of research, and education tend to be reductive, limiting the number of possible variables in order to achieve a measure of control and efficiency. A scientist, for instance, will limit the variables on an experiment in order to examine certain conditions but not others. The arts, however, are comfortable with multiple variables and a comparative lack of control, content to allow things to develop as part of a rich creative process without placing arbitrary limitations on the process itself or its components. When limits are placed on the variables, it also limits opportunities for innovation, for serendipitous discovery, or for unexpected flashes of insight. To a business executive or scientist, this might be uncomfortably messy and unpredictable, but to an artist, it is an optimal climate for productive creativity.
Business, science, and education might be characterized by linear thinking: the goal is to get from Point A to Point B as directly and efficiently as possible. Thought processes of artists and those working in the arts are much less likely to operate this way. We might compare it to the difference between a laser pointer and the path of electrons around the nucleus of an atom. One goes in an entirely straight line in one direction only. The other bounces around in a seemingly random pattern. Each, however, serves a particular function and is well suited to its use. For those used to a laser-focus in thinking, the non-linear patterns of the arts can be difficult to understand, but the non-linear approach of the arts results in ideas and solutions that a straightforward thought process might miss, doubling back, pursuing tangential thoughts, jumping ahead, and then doubling back again until an answer is determined, a problem is solved, or the product is developed.
Iteration is yet another feature of the arts. A creative product or performance is not developed in just one or two attempts. Multiple trials and versions are necessary in order to achieve an optimal end result. (Iteration, however, should not be mistaken for compulsive perfectionism.) Indeed, pressing forward before enough iterations have been accomplished often has disastrous consequences. For instance, Boeing rolled out the Dreamliner over the objections of its engineers, who believed that further iterations of the battery housing were necessary. The drive to sell the product trumped the engineers’ warnings, and as a result the Dreamliner was quickly grounded until the flammable battery housings were fixed, costing far more to rectify than it would have to do the job right in the first place and irresponsibly endangering the passengers and crew. Iteration is also sometimes an integral part of a work of art. Witness Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, where a four note motif is repeated throughout the entire work. Or consider George Seurat’s La Grande Jatte, comprised of over 6.4 million dots requiring two years to complete (an extraordinary amount of time for an artist to spend on a single work). What if someone had said, “Come on, Beethoven, that’s enough of those same notes already!” Or someone had said to Seurat, “Monsieur, couldn’t you have done this just as well with only one million dots? You’d have finished the painting so much faster!” Iteration is necessary and desirable in the arts, even though those in other fields who are driven by arbitrary timetables cannot always fathom this fact. Another example of iteration might be seen in Facebook. This incredibly successful company has been through constant iterations, continuously working to improve and innovate. The same can be seen with Apple and the numerous versions of iPhones or iPods that have revolutionized the way we live. No one at either of these companies says, “Ah ha! This is it! The perfect product! We can stop working now. It can never get any better than this.” Rather, they launch products, analyze their performance, make improvements, and launch more products.
The final quality of the arts I’d like to address is incubation. Ideas must be allowed time to incubate before they are ready to come to fruition. Application of pressure to perform is antithetical to incubation, as is the push to accomplish creative projects before they can be considered fully or have the time to develop. Incubation often happens at a level below consciousness, when the brain is at work on an idea while the thinker attends to other tasks. When the idea is ready, it comes to the surface. The classic example would be Sir Isaac Newton’s famed insight into gravity while lying under an apple tree, or the well-known propensity of Einstein, Edison, Churchill, JFK and numerous other great thinkers to credit napping with their ability to generate novel solutions to complex problems. The mind needs to relax, giving it time to work—time to incubate ideas.
So what does this have to do with leadership? I contend that an arts organization requires a different skill set in a leader than does a business or an educational entity. Any institution must be headed by someone who has the cultural and academic capital to be an effective leader of that specific entity. A surgeon might have significant cultural capital in the hospital, but very little in a skate park. Likewise, a champion skateboarder would have impressive cultural capital at the skate park, but little in the hospital. Just so, an arts organization must be led by someone who not only embraces but exemplifies the traits, characteristics, or attributes of the arts. Among the problems many arts organizations face is that their leadership can be comprised of those who are not artists, who try to force an organization into a business model rather than recognizing that arts organizations simply don’t work that way. Indeed, this common practice verges on post-colonialism: the outsider moves in and declares that everything native should be made over in his or her own image. It’s not just ineffective, but offensive. Business can’t colonize the arts and turn them into something they’re not.
Although I’ve said this in previous blog posts, it bears repeating here as well: leadership and management are not the same. Management focuses on the immediate task at hand, applying requisite pressure in order to accomplish a task. Leadership, on the other hand, sustains an effort (or department, cause, organization, etc…) as a whole over the long term. An effective leader has a vision that is communicated to others in such a way as to inspire and positively motivate, causing people to enlist themselves in the accomplishment of a cause. Leadership naturally leads to sustainability. In the case of an arts organization, this is often true of the leader’s artistic vision, passion for creativity and innovation, or ability to inspire creativity in others.
As an example of how effective arts organizations and their leaders function, I’d encourage you to view The Deep Dive an ABC News Nightline segment about how IDEO—a well-known product design firm in California—approaches problem solving. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Dtrkrz0yoU . Although this piece was originally aired in 1999, the core values of the company continue to serve as a model for other creativity-based firms. One notable characteristic is that leaders are not those with the most seniority, nor those with the largest offices. Leaders are those with the best ideas. Employees have no titles or permanent assignments. All are considered to be equals and they work collaboratively with little regard for their respective educational backgrounds or professional disciplines. The company’s approach can be summed up by a team leader’s statement: “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the approach of the lone genius,” a collaborative method of problem solving through sharing ideas and strategies in a way that appears to be chaotic and disorganized, but is in fact highly productive and successful. When the process seems to bog down or become sidetracked, the leaders step in and re-direct the designers, becoming autocratic for a very brief period of time in order to set a deadline or assign people to sub-groups (for example), but then stepping back and allowing the team to do its work.
Arts organization are open to trying new things, to making mistakes and learning from them, to embracing the reality of who and what they really are and communicating this effectively to all stakeholders in order to create understanding and acceptance. They should not attempt to model themselves after for-profit businesses or to the pursuit of perfection through reductionism, arbitrary high-pressure deadlines, or rejection of reasoned iteration. Compression doesn’t work well within the arts. Timeliness can mean two things: getting things done quickly or taking the time needed to do something right. It’s not possible to remake the arts just because or pressure to meet external deadlines: professionalism within the arts involves some trial and error and watching to see how things develop. They try everything, analyze it thoroughly, and then change it, keep it, or move on to something else. This may sound counter-intuitive to someone coming from a business mindset that prizes efficiency, productivity, and success, yet the “fail often to succeed sooner” mentality of IDEO is highly successful. The company also fully embraces play in the workplace, and the CEO prizes employees who disagree with him. Moreover, people at arts institutions are remarkably happy: creativity-based corporations like Apple and Google are consistently rated among the best companies to work for.
Those who lead arts organizations must not be false prophets: they shouldn’t preach the value of the arts if they don’t practice this model themselves. As a former business owner, I would never deny that there are things that businesses do well and which other institutions, including those in the arts, would do well to copy. That said, I left the business world because there are many other things that business does very poorly. I’ve seen how well the arts-organization model works at places like Stanford, U.C. Berkeley, or MIT, among many other schools. Changing from a business mindset to that of the arts may not be easy, but I firmly believe that it can lead to greater productivity and enhanced employee satisfaction.