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Art and Leadership – a two-way street | Exart Performances

Art and Leadership – a two-way street

My observations both as a singer participant and a leader myself, are that the best examples of such learning environments exist when both sides are completely open with the other, and come to the experience with a willingness to engage at a personal level.

There is a growing dialogue between business and the arts at a number of levels. Arts organisations are increasingly aware of the need to run as efficient businesses, and there has long been an association between the corporate and cultural sectors in terms of sponsorship and support, whether monetary in nature, or simply the display of work in an office environment. Such connections however, risk being superficial and self-serving; just part of a box-ticking strategy of corporate social responsibility on the one hand, or a simple need for financial support on the other.

Coming from an arts administration background, alongside my long-standing involvement in leadership training and executive education, I am well placed to both observe such links, and suggest ways in which they might be deepened, strengthened, and fundamentally altered to the long-term benefit of both sectors.

photo by Katrinet (http://www.flickr.com/photos/fuzzyblue/)

Involvement with Peter Hanke’s ‘Leadership as a performing art’ sessions over the last nine years has shown me that using an aesthetic and experiential medium as a learning tool – in this case choral music – can have profound effects on those taking part. Participants who profess no musical skill whatsoever can, and do, have a relevant and interesting impact on the skilled professional musicians they are leading. Not only that, they experience a more immediate feedback loop than they ever have before, also experiencing the effects of detail scrutiny of every aspect of their leadership persona. Whether this results in recognition of traits unacknowledged, or the opening up of entirely new areas of leadership expression, such direct connections between talented professionals in two different fields provide both direct experiential learning, and a new perspective.

I would suggest however, that there is a risk of this sort of work being seen as ‘one-way’. To superficially characterise an extreme position in the arts:

 “we artists – who operate on a different plain from you practical business people – can help you understand things that we know and you don’t. It’s slightly demeaning as really it’s all about our art, but we will open up some areas of our experience to help you understand.”

Adoption of this sort of attitude fails to recognise that the arts do not exist in a bubble, and that while we must of course pursue excellence, insularity and dismissiveness are rarely positive ways to achieve it. However focussed we are on a particular goal or result, an unwillingness to stand back and take in an alternative perspective risks underachievement. Similarly, if the contributions of all of those involved, both practical and creative, are not harnessed, we shackle ourselves. It is here that good leadership shines through, both in business and performance art – the job of the leader in this context being to provide the direction and framework in which his people can perform, with a result that is greater than the sum of its parts.

My observations both as a singer participant and a leader myself, are that the best examples of such learning environments exist when both sides are completely open with the other, and come to the experience with a willingness to engage at a personal level. We in the arts actually have much to learn from those in business, and not just about profitability and efficiency. Stood in front of a group of singers with a few minutes introductory training, talented leaders are able to engage with the task and quickly discover ways to empower and assist the specialists around them in the pursuit of a common, shared goal (even though, in an important sense, the leader knows little about what this goal might be). I can think of numerous professional conductors for whom I have worked who lack this fundamental skill of connecting with people, inspiring them to contribute, despite their technical mastery.

Musical performance is a fundamentally collective endeavour, in which specialist team must collaborate in a systematic fashion to produce a result, but good art occurs when that result is not ‘identikit’ – performance is not simply a reproduction of rehearsal. Similarly, in the contemporary knowledge-based economy, the machine metaphors so beloved of much management theory begin to break down, to be replaced by structured creativity and innovation. The leadership challenge in both environments becomes one of inspiration and connection, rather than one focussed on productivity and output.

There is a substantial agenda here around self-awareness too, and not just for those who volunteer to conduct. As a member of the group being led (whether active singer or passive observer), I not only recognise what it is about others that has a particular effect, but also what that effect is upon me. What do I see in front of me that I relate to, or indeed that fails to be inspire me? What do I look for in a leader, and how do I react when I see it, or don’t see it?

This again is where openness, both at a group and personal level, is key for successful learning environments: the sharing in a collective exercise of trust and exploration, and with clear opportunities to both experience and learn about leadership reality in an extremely personal fashion.



About author
Singer, conductor, consultant. Director of Musica Beata, and Exart Performances partner.
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