The Leader as Artist

Great artists
and great leaders
emphasize the same
things: to see reality,
imagine possibility
and inspire others.

Dr. Nancy J. AdlerDr. Nancy J. Adler

Inspirational leaders do more than practice a set of skills, apply a series of management techniques and solve an array of problems. They bring artistic creativity to imagine fresh possibilities of hope and beauty. The world needs leaders who are artists.

Dr. Nancy J. Adler is a highly acclaimed management professor at McGill University in Montreal, international leadership consultant and author of many books and articles. She is also a visual artist working chiefly in watercolors who keynoted the Women in Educational Leadership Conference in Lincoln NE in October.

“If you think about how often you hear about beauty on the media, you’ll find zero,” she said. Beauty has little presence in discussions of leadership and management. It is not even central to contemporary art, where in-your-face ugliness is the norm.

What happened to beauty? Consider the state of the world. War, oppression and poverty are rampant. Policy decisions disregard the welfare of future generations. A billion people around the globe are illiterate, mostly girls. The loudest response to climate change is denial. Opinions carry more weight than facts.

What can we do besides feel overwhelmed and helpless? “We can’t make the ugly less ugly,” Adler said. But we can bring beauty back into the conversation, including business and higher education.

In September the corporate identity consultant Interbrand announced that Apple is now the most valuable brand in the world. The computer company perceived a need, had a good strategy and introduced good design: beauty.

Apple co-founder Steve Jobs was an artist as well as an entrepreneur. He studied calligraphy after dropping out of college, learning the artistry of how letters are formed and spaced. Designing the first Macintosh computer ten years later, it all came back to him, making the Mac the first computer with beautiful typography.

Great artists and great leaders emphasize the same things: to see reality, imagine possibility and inspire others. They have the courage to stand alone. “What would happen if we begin to look at the world from the standpoint of beauty?” Adler asked.

See reality as it is

In contour drawing, artists get into a meditative state. They stare at an object to see exactly what is there, not how society might describe it.

In business and finance, crashes and collapses have followed widespread refusal to see things as they are. Enron used bad accounting practices to hide billions of dollars in debt, leading to the largest bankruptcy in U.S. history up to that time. Did we learn anything from it?

Bernard Madoff eventually went to prison for an enormous, illegal Ponzi scheme in which phony profits came from new investors rather than from operations. Questions were raised as early as 1999 but the scandal didn’t break until nine years later. Banks invested with him and regulators turned a blind eye.

It’s easy to throw stones at the financial sector, where investors and regulators denied the visible reality. “Is the educational community immune to that?” Adler asked.

Look closely. Student debt is too high, the achievement gap too wide and teaching quality too low. Adjuncts are replacing tenured professors. We’ve lowered expectations and forgotten the Pygmalion effect: If I expect you to do fabulously well you will, and vice versa. Higher education needs artist leaders with the courage to see reality as it is.

In her work on death and dying, Dr. Elisabeth Kubler- Ross described five stages of response to diagnosis of terminal illness: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. In the United States today we are in the denial stage, refusing to accept that we are no longer #1: not in education, not in medical outcomes, not in social mobility or economic opportunity.

We also see lots of anger, bargaining and depression. Reinhold Niebuhr wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore, we must be saved by hope.” The artist leaders who see the true contours of our current world can also point us toward a more beautiful future, whether or not we will live to see it.

Similarly, Native Americans consider the effects of their actions on seven generations into the future.

Imagine possibility

Where others stop at what is or their opinions about what is, artists imagine possibility and beauty. Others call them naïve. Can you imagine world peace or global literacy? Can you imagine education transformed by beauty?

Finland always ranks top in education. The Finns believe all children need beautiful schools to learn in; they can’t learn without beauty. Can you imagine telling your local school board that school buildings need to be beautiful?

Higher education is beginning to make some progress toward recognizing the educational value of beauty. Ten years ago the Yale medical school started an experiment by introducing an art history class. A leader in the medical school concocted the idea while playing tennis with an art history professor. Half the students in the course on diagnosis also took art history; the rest took diagnosis alone.

At term’s end, students who took art history far outperformed others in their ability to diagnose medical conditions.

Why? First, studying art history had increased their powers of observation. They had learned to pay more attention to detail, noticing composition and the juxtaposition of colors.

Second, they became aware that they couldn’t see everything at the first glance, so they looked harder. Doctors are trained to be right, to blame bad results on the patient or the drug dosage, certainly not on themselves.

After the art history class, they learned to question their initial response, because in art there is no such thing as right. They learned to look at objects and patients from different perspectives.

Since then many medical schools have added art history to the curriculum. Harvard, MIT and Johns Hopkins introduced art courses to strengthen visual skills. Students also learn to think more flexibly and deal with ambiguity. Effective physicians complement left-brain analysis with rightbrain intuitive perception.

How do we train ourselves to see the possibilities? It takes courage as well as creativity. Consider massive open online courses (MOOCs), a recent development creating huge possibilities in higher education. Enrollment is unlimited and students have free access online. Dozens of major universities have partnered to offer courses and millions of students are enrolled.

At her university only the provost saw this possibility and he was censured for mentioning it. “There are millions of people around the world who are motivated but don’t have access to education. People actually want to learn,” Adler said. Yet the possibility of offering them this opportunity at no cost feels threatening to some in the educational community.

Some schools are experimenting combining a MOOC with bringing students together face to face. Students respond with enthusiasm. It should not be surprising; after all, people come to live concerts even though they have the CD. In experiments at several schools, students in a MOOC or blended course strongly outperformed those taking the classroom version of the same material.

What possibilities can you envision as an artist leader in higher education? What is your dream?

Inspire others

Just as it takes courage to see what is and envision what might be, it takes courage to lead people from reality toward possibility. “To be a leader requires standing alone,” she said. “Almost all are ostracized as dangerous coots.” Imagine being the first person to suggest the world is round instead of flat, or the sun is the center around which Earth revolves instead of the other way around. Some promoted such ideas at the risk of their lives.

How do we inspire people to move from reality to possibility? Inspiration is distinct from motivation. We might motivate students by paying them for good grades, but the students are not transformed in the process. Nora Zylstra-Savage, a writer in Ontario, worked with the school system to help high school seniors become better writers. She partnered with a community working with stage one Alzheimer’s patients. Students interviewed the patients and wrote their life stories.

The teens started out thinking ugh, why talk to old people? In the first meeting with the patients their thinking changed dramatically. They came to her afterward for tips on how to structure an interview. The patients were transformed too: more vocal and less confused or depressed.

“She had jumped from motivation to inspiration,” Adler said. The school project had jumped from just another assignment to something bigger. Something beautiful.

Great leaders reflect every day, looking at what truly is and dreaming of what could be and how to lead people there. Their work is that of an artist. They pay attention to beauty and use it to enrich the world.

Contact her at

Cook, Sarah Gibbard. (2013, November). The leader as artist. Women in Higher Education, 22(11), 1-2.


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