This month we welcome a guest post from our colleague and collaborator Kim Lisson. Kim is a ‘late onset artist’ (a writer) and the Principal Consultant at Karrak Consulting. After 30 years in the leadership development field, he has finally realised artists are his tribe and he’s enjoying making and sharing the now-so-very-obvious links between art and leadership, that each might learn from the other.

Leadership has been hijacked by management, and it’s time to liberate it! I’m looking for volunteers for a rescue party.

BUT FIRST, A STORY…I live in Denmark in Western Australia’s Great Southern region. The town has a population of only 5,000 people, but it’s growing due to the tree- and sea-change appeal of our temperate rainforest landscape. I should know, it’s why I moved here, despite the commute to Perth and beyond for work.

You can tell we are growing because our post office had to increase the number of post office boxes a few years back. After they were installed, the wall space around the boxes was initially left unfinished, in ‘asbestos grey’. A blank canvas. With this image of a canvas in mind, I approached the post office manager with an idea to surround the boxes with murals painted by local artists, depicting local nature scenes and representing community life. A resident himself, he didn’t need much convincing nor did he need me to point out the savings in labour and material costs.

But, of course, the suggestion he passed ‘up the line’ was turned down by someone, somewhere. It was decreed that the corporate livery, with two shades of grey and a thin red line, were the order of the day. That was that. There is no happy ending here, unless you’re a big fan of grey and corporate Darwinism. The opportunity to engage local community artists, to create folklore and to imbue our local post office – a town hub – with beauty, local meaning and community pride was missed. It could have also been a talking point for tourists, highlighting our local attractions.

Unlearning managerial leadership

My work involves helping people ‘unlearn’ what I’ll call ‘managerial leadership’. You know the type… rational and logical, unfailingly evidence-based, conventional and conforming, and often unwilling to take risks or embrace change. (Not to mention top-down, command-and-control and bottom-line driven.) There’s nothing wrong with these things per se, but not when that’s all there is, and not when they’re the ends, not the means. This ‘old paradigm’ approach appeals to the part of us that wants our life and our organisations to be certain, predictable and controllable.

But we know life, including life in organisations, can’t be controlled. Life and people are infinitely unique and bring with them all sorts of weird and wonderful stuff, along with some not-so-wonderful stuff. Nature too has this annoying capacity to upset the best-laid plans. We can’t control it, but we can influence it. In fact, we can’t not influence it. The only question is how?

Enter ‘artful leadership!’

Artful leadership

Now, I’m not suggesting we all need to become artists in the conventional sense but I am suggesting we can see our leadership as art and that we can exercise our leadership artfully. What might this mean?

The core of art is, of course, creativity – bringing something new into being. Artful leadership involves honouring possibility and ‘what might be’. As Fritjof Capra says, ‘Life constantly reaches out into novelty,’creating new forms. Our leadership is strengthened when we recognise, allow and act upon our own natural creativity – when we act upon the novelty that arises within us with our own ideas and initiatives, however grand and however small. In artful leadership everything is potentially a canvas or a blank page; a pen or a brush; a costume or an instrument; a stage or a gallery.

‘The painter draws with his eyes, not with his hands.’– Maurice Grosser

Engaging our creativity necessarily means owning our distinctiveness and unique expression, and living with authenticity and integrity in keeping with the full range of who we are. Art is not a production line and neither is leadership. The power of both relies on authentic self-expression. You may work with the canvas of the universe but your art, your leadership, are uniquely you.

A big part of this self-expression involves appreciating the value of playfulness and of beauty, and their roles in all our lives. These have a universal truth that is generally shunned by organisations as too childish and too subjective respectively. Yet art and artful leadership involves working with our natural childlike desire to have fun and to bring joy to how we do things. As Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi says, ‘When we are playing, we are usually unaware of ourselves … and we become free.’Free to exercise our leadership potential.

Of course, to be meaningful, leadership is always bigger than just creativity and playfulness. It involves care – acting from passion and compassion in the service of a vision beyond ourselves. But embracing creativity and playfulness, and seeking to bring beauty to the world, isn’t opposed to service and accomplishment — indeed the opposite is true. Artful leadership means honouring what attracts us and makes life ‘worth living’ so that our leadership performance both enriches and entertains others.

Here’s to murals around post office boxes everywhere, and to the colour, stories and leadership they unleash.

Photo by Terry Lee: Silo at Sheep Hills, Victoria, painted by Adnate. Part of the Silo Art Trail.