The Art of Leadership
I recently attended a screening of a documentary on the life of the famous Irish artist Patrick
Scott at Killruddery House and it got me to thinking about leadership as a craft, or as an art
in itself. All the leaders I have ever known could be plotted along a continuum that runs
from the Technical Expert (finance, technology etc) at one end – all the way to Artist at the
other. Unsurprisingly, at either extreme of the continuum what you get is pretty feckless
leadership. One is too tied up in technical specifics whilst the other is too detached from
current reality. Either way, they both suffer the terminal impact of leaders – that of losing
the dressing room.
This experience tallies somewhat with a 2017 New York Times experiment which ran an
algorithm to discover what occupation (from the 974 listed at the federal US government
Labour Department) was most directly opposite to another in terms of skill-set. You punch
in your profession and it calculates the job that is most diametrically opposite. By its
method, at the extreme other pole of an Artist is a Physicist. With the advance of
technology and finance in particular in recent decades, the values associated with the
Physicist (process, precision, metrics) have been promoted in leadership across the board at
the expense of the more esoteric attributes of the Artist (holistic, connective, intuitive). You
only have to look at the CEO vacancy, and how often it is filled by the CFO or CTO as
opposed to the CPO.
So, in spite of the flavours, fads and short-term biases of the time who overall and over time
makes the best leader? One popular – but misleading – fallacy is that the measure of good
leadership is simply results. However, I have encountered many very talented leaders that
have been undone by (as Harold McMillan put it) “events, my dear boy, events”… and
equally some very mediocre leaders who have been the beneficiaries of circumstantial good
fortune. As JD Rockefeller once replied when asked by an interviewer about his recipe for
success “You need three things: Go to bed early. Get up early. And strike oil.” Many leaders
are guilty of mis-attribution – taking personal credit for their victories in benign conditions,
whilst blaming external forces for their failures in the storm.
Equally, the leaders that adopt a cut-throat, win-at-all-costs approach to achieve results
only ever succeed in creating a toxic, dysfunctional culture that gains on the numbers but
loses on the people. Jack Welch was loved by Wall Street and at the time dubbed “Manager
of the Century” by Fortune magazine. Sure he oversaw business growth and created
shareholder value at the time, but he promoted an ego-centric fear-based, survivor culture
that, along with his rank-and-yank firing policy ultimately ran GE into the ground. Over the
years I’ve witnessed countless mini-Welchs who generated short-term profits with long-
term consequences. And in a world of Triple Bottom-Line, that’s no longer cool.
Any leader can get right-place, right-time lucky; any leader can game the system for short-
term results; but the best leaders I’ve encountered have all been Artists. I’m not talking
about art in a dressed-up, self-promotional sense as in Donald Trump’s book title “The Art
of the Deal”, so let me elaborate.
By Artist, I mean that all the best leaders I’ve encountered have in common a desire to
create something beautiful. The opposite of what this means is a CEO I met for the first time
last week who, in answer to my question “What are you trying to achieve?”, replied that his
mission was to “double the company revenue in the next 2 years”. Whilst there is nothing
inherently wrong with the ambition, when that represents the leader’s whole mission then
it lacks the capacity to inspire others. And inspiring others is the very raison d’etre of
leadership. It doesn’t inspire mostly because it lacks beauty. (Not to mention he was dull)
Compare this with JFK’s ambition to put a man on the moon; or Steve Jobs desire to put
1,000 songs in your pocket with the iPod and you start to get close to what it means to be
the leader as an artist trying to create a thing of beauty.
In the present I’m working with a pharma-tech CEO bent on upskilling hundreds of
thousands in the developing world so they can get jobs and rise out of poverty. People love
working for the company not because it pays better, or has free food and funky games room
but because they connect to the cause. The CEO treats the company as a canvas, and invites
everyone along to paint.
There has been so much produced lately in self-help literature on techniques for charismatic
or authentic leadership that totally misses the point – in the guise of “How to…(this)”; “10
Tips…(that)”. Charisma and authenticity can’t be “techniqued”. Authenticity and charisma
are not something you can act or stage-manage. They are not something you do. They are a
consequence of how you are – a consequence of someone’s commitment to a virtuous
purpose greater than just shareholder value. This is what is actually at the heart of the
magnetism, and it is this magnetism that wins the heart and generates followership – and I
don’t mean the Instagram type.
And so back to the documentary on artist Patrick Scott. One contributor – the poet Seamus
Heaney – described the artist’s craft as a thing of beauty. Scott was able to create Beauty
through his art and connected it to the 3 primary characteristics of beauty defined by
medieval philosopher Thomas Aquinas as : Radiance, Integrity and Consonance.
Heaney applied the Beauty principles to (Scott’s) actual art, but the characteristics are just
as applicable to life, nature, relationships and enterprise. The best leaders I have found each
have an artistic sensibility about their work whether leading a team of software engineers,
running a hotel, managing a fund or leading a sales team.
Artistic leaders are distinctive in that they think about their work differently to others, and
view it through a different lens. They ask (although they will have their own language for it
of course) whether their work is fulfilling the Aquinas Beauty principles:
Radiance – does it give joy and invite connection?
Integrity – does it possess all the component parts to make it complete or whole?
Consonance – do all the parts resonate with one another?
Jobs and JFK certainly had it in mind.
Imagine you as a leader asking those 3 questions about the work you do with your customer
in mind – at the very minimum, striving towards fulfilling them serves certainly to improve
quality and also inspires more discretionary effort and innovation in your people.
The elite Houston architecture firm Stella Maris has gone so far as to declare the 3 beauty
qualities as “the ideal to which this practice aspires” and provide examples in their website
manifesto of how each might apply in the creation of a military academy.
Finally, to return to the most diametrically-opposed careers of artist and physicist, they have
far more in common than you might think. Both professions rate “originality” as one of their
most valued skills for instance. South Korean artist Yunchul Kim, who spent time as artist in
residence at the CERN nuclear research facility in Geneva, backs this up by observing
“Creativity and Imagination are the most important factors for both physicists and artists.
They are not standing on opposite sides, but looking at the same world in different ways.”
Perhaps the twentieth century Daddy of them all Albert Einstein was onto to something
with his profession that “Imagination is more important than Knowledge”.