The connection between leadership and art has been made many times over, usually as a way to single out certain properties of the arts that carry over to leadership, such as a jazz musician's ability to create through improvisation. These analogies can be compelling, but there is a wider point: leadership is an actual art, not metaphorically an art. Indeed, we would say, like art, what matters most in leadership is hard to explain.
The same attributes that distinguish great from mediocre artists distinguish exceptional leaders from their ordinary counterparts. The best leaders and artists give us perspective on our social condition (good or bad) and greater appreciation of our world, ourselves, and our choices.
They challenge, excite, comfort, and motivate. They bring us closer together by providing a forum for shared experiences and by forging a sense of community. Leadership and art both animate social encounters. They can change our lives in ways that are invigorating and real.
While people may disagree about the quality of a given work of art, we generally know how to communicate our experience of what we've seen or heard. And the same criteria that govern how people respond to particular artworks apply to this other art form, leadership.
On the positive side, for example, leadership may be described as inspiring, consistent, creative, unique, passionate, and engaging. Alternatively, leadership may be perceived as unpleasant, phony, inept, unfocused, and pedestrian. Evaluative terms like these serve as the basis for some consensus about what constitutes greatness.
Here are 12 artistic criteria, suggested by others, for judging the art of particular leaders. To appreciate their leadership, we should ask about:
1.Intent. Do they make an express commitment to achieve certain (exceptional) ends?
2.Focus. Do they highlight certain features of the environment to separate the important from the trivial?
3.Skill. Do they demonstrate mastery or virtuosity in critical aspects of the world; do they possess a foundation for understanding people, organisations, and the way work is accomplished?
4.Form. Do they combine their communications, structures, policies, etc. into a unified, coherent whole?
5.Representation. Do they convey meanings, in captivating ways, as opposed to giving simple directives and making straightforward declarations of fact?
6.Imagination. Do they make surprising and unconventional departures from the ordinary that create a new sense of awareness or understanding?
7.Authenticity. Do they present a stylistic distinctiveness that is an honest expression of their individuality and personal beliefs?
8.Engagement. Do they offer complex and challenging information that stimulates intellectual effort and imaginative contemplation?
9.Pleasure. Do they provide emotionally rewarding experiences that are shared among members of a group, promoting stronger bonds and fostering personal fulfilment?
10. Human significance. Do they facilitate personal reflection about who one is, what is most important, what is culturally valuable, and what is possible?
11. Context. Do they take actions that are commensurate with institutional practices, customs, demands, and norms, and communicate in a style that is understandable and appropriate?
12. Criticism. Do they welcome discourse and evaluation from others regarding how well they have performed and the amount of appreciation they should be afforded?
Succeeding on all these criteria is difficult, and not even the best leaders do so routinely. All have their strengths and stand out in unique ways. Leadership deficits become apparent when a person resembles a leadership caricature: when they possess only a couple of criteria to the exclusion of all others.
For example, there are the humanistic types who never miss a birthday, who sponsor team dinners at the house, who go out of their way to make the workplace pleasurable, enriching, and fun.
There are the traditionalists who only do what is prescribed by "the book" and would never contemplate deviating from what a leader is supposed to wear, say, or do.
There are the skilled and bureaucratic technicians who manage numbers and sheets of paper, and who attempt to orchestrate every conceivable employee behaviour through a carefully planned and rigid set of rules, compensation designs, policies, and organisational structures.
There are the wildly imaginative but non-directive shape-shifters who hop from one idea and initiative to the next, dragging befuddled employees along in their wake. Great leaders are immensely more complex.
Notably absent from the list of criteria is results. My point is that while, yes, we expect good leaders to win against rivals and have a tangible product to show for their efforts, we wouldn't appreciate them as leaders unless their process had some identifiable quality that made them and their work worthy of our admiration.
To succeed as an artist, a leader must orchestrate the organisation's activities and create a relationship with its people in ways that demand respect for the skill involved. That is, there has to be some evidence that the results were achieved through genuine strengths attributable to the leader.
The 12 criteria outlined above would allow us to differentiate the relentless cost cutter whose exploits over a three-year span dramatically increase earnings from the leader who prudently and artistically reshapes an organisation while minimising the detrimental effects on its future and gets results in doing so. Where the former creates a wasteland bereft of focused, forward energy and employee engagement, the latter, the leader, shepherds the flock through the trials of a troubled organisation while enlarging their interests and their capacities to perform.
Managers will always worry about results and especially short-term results. What is important is that we do not demote the concept of good leadership to the simple question of their attainment. The market doesn't care how leaders get results as long as they are achieved legally. Making money doesn't require the same skills as leadership does. It is possible to be a successful businessperson, excellent financier, and marvellous deal-maker without being a very good leader.
The connection often made between leadership and bottom-line results is too facile. Making money in the short term is not an art. Leading an organisation towards a sustainable, long-term future is.