Leadership & the Arts – What’s the plot?
“To unpathed waters, undreamed shores.”
The Winter’s Tale. William Shakespeare
The arts have always played an important role in our exploration and celebration of leadership. Leadership models have been moulded, remoulded and played out in our literature, film and theatre again and again for as long as we can remember. Leadership provides a rich theme through which to explore human strength and weakness, success and failure and runs through the central plot of many of our great stories.
In recent years the leadership theme has again come under close scrutiny, one of urgent reappraisal and deep questioning. We live in turbulent times with high profile leadership failures emerging at the same time as crisis plot lines on a global scale. We are barely getting to grips with ‘climate change’, the destabilisation of our natural systems, when we are hit by the ‘credit crunch’, the destabilisation of our financial systems. There is a call for leadership at all levels of our political, social and business organisations – some call for a ‘steady hand’ others call for ‘inspired new thinking’. What can the arts offer to encourage, nurture and sustain leaders so they are properly equipped to respond in times of dramatic and possibly unprecedented change?
“Those who danced were thought to be quite insane to those who could not hear the music.” Angel Monet.
Artists understand what it means to work on the edge of ‘what is’ and ‘what may yet emerge’, notes on the page are just marks to some but to others they are sounds full of vibrant sense and feeling . In the creative process artists work with more questions than answers; keeping alert to changing circumstances and new knowledge; remaining curios and open to possibility; working and reworking materials; sustaining awareness; challenging; sensing and judging the time to act.
Leaders now need to be tuned in to an increasingly complex and unfamiliar environment. We believe it is through the arts that they can most readily find the strategies which will allow them to feel the music as well as hear it so that the crucial bars are not drowned out by the clatter of the everyday.
The ‘unknown’ is the creative space of the artist and we are now acutely aware that this is the space we occupy. Ways of exploring the possibilities of the unknown through the arts are many and various.
“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes
We beg to differ! We have bodies and spirits as well as minds and need to use all our faculties to stay connected to our full potential. Leaders need to use all the senses to be aware of, the ‘who’, ‘what’, ‘where’ and ‘when’ of their situation both inside their organisations and far beyond. The arts provide a vital channel for making these dynamic connections. In music we touch energy impossible to put into words; energy we recognise and respond to on a level far beyond the thinking self. In dance we translate that energy into movement. We see and feel the music driven through the body much as we see the wind driving through the trees and we are touched by an energy force we cannot name but know intimately. We see the response in the smallest child barely able to stand who will sway their nappy clad bottom in perfect time to a rhythm or beat and be ’lullaby’d’ to sleep by gentler strains. The visual artist, unable to accept the confines of an accepted order, explodes the familiar, guiding the pieces back into unfamiliar form and context that challenge our assumptions about what is and what could be.
Great, but does this artistry really translate practically into the world of business? Yes it does.
The dancer responds in the moment to the dynamic relationships between themselves, other dancers, space and music; they lead and are led. This will sound familiar to many business leaders; their own dance of leadership requires the same level of awareness and skill. The difference is that the dancer/performer rehearses to practice the techniques which enable them to achieve that full awareness, sense and feeling, and maintain it throughout their performance. This concept of rehearsal, so familiar in the arts is far less so in business but could it be a powerful resource?
“Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense.” Gertrude Stein
The art of the poet and playwright involves the ability to distil information and get to the heart of what is being communicated in order to find the precise selection and composition of language that will create the most meaning and touch the hearts, minds and spirits of their readers or listeners. These are powerful skills for any leader needing to assess information in order to create and communicate a meaningful vision capable of inspiring others.
“When I'm inspired, I get excited because I can't wait to see what I'll come up with next.” (Dolly Parton).
The arts can inspire leaders, help them explore and stimulate their awareness; it can offer them a range of languages through which to communicate; it can help them objectify and rehearse situations engaging their feelings as well as their thoughts and it can help them create meaning through inspired visioning.
We live in challenging times; the need for change is universally recognised and the cry for leadership has been long and sustained and it continues: this is no time for the arts to lose their nerve. Dartington Creative Enterprise, now part of University College Falmouth, is dedicated to supporting the arts in meeting this challenge.
Mary Lidgate, Josie Sutcliffe and Diana Theodores
Article published in ‘Leadership Matters’ Issue 15 September 2008
Published by Centre for Leadership Studies, Exeter University