Why we should seek the wisdom of artists. Nancy J Adler and reclaiming our ability to “see beauty”.

Textile Warrior, Dance to your own tune. Mixed Media Collage 21cm X 29.5cm. http://www.textilewarrior.com

By Grant Hall, Founder of League Cultural Diplomacy

Just the other week I read in the Guardian that the exam board in England had decided to drop Art History as an A-level high school subject “in a cull of perceived “soft” subjects”. England seems to have a government that is hell-bent on ensuring economic self-destruction, although just this morning I read a headline indicating that, like Brexit, this stupid decision may also be reversed.

I’m fortunate to have a great education. I’m a devotee of lifelong learning and have amassed a considerable pile of pretty looking parchments to go with my shitty posture as proof of the amount of time I’ve spent typing away on laptop keyboards. I’ve studied a broad range of subjects, although in recent years I’ve been taking mostly business courses, and I’m about midway through a Masters of International Business, which will be my second Master’s degree once I complete it.

At university, I’ve taken courses in management, marketing, accounting, strategic management concepts, economics, event management, international business strategy, human rights, Indigenous studies and much more.

At high school, I studied the usual subjects, like maths, English, history, science and physical education.

But the best part about my education was my teachers. At high school, I was lucky enough to have Beethoven, Mozart, Goethe and Shakespeare as my teachers.

At university, I studied under Leonardo DaVinci, Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, to name but three.

“That’s great they’re all dead.” you might say, like the Robin Williams character said to Will Hunting in that Good Will Hunting film.

“Not to me they’re not” I reply.

You see, in my final year at high school, I studied a subject called Music History and Literature. In this course, we looked at world history through the eyes of the musicians, artists and writers to examine how their art reflected society and society reflected their art. This subject made a huge impression on me as it highlighted the connections between the various art-forms and between the arts and society. I also studied music performance and drama at high school, and later went to college to study music, obtaining a Diploma in Music Performance.

When I was older I took some university studies in Art History which earned me a Graduate Certificate, though I intend to complete a Masters in this area too, which would be my third! Art history also allowed me to encounter history through the eyes of the artists, and these studies encouraged me to really see things from different perspectives and apply critical thought.

Recent scientific literature says that my education in, involvement with and exposure to the arts has helped me develop empathy, something that I wrote about in Solving global challenges. Listening and the importance of learning music and languages.

Now, as a business owner, I reflect on my education and what becomes apparent to me is that the subjects that most helped me to become a competent manager were the so called “soft subjects” of music and art history.

That’s right, my studies in music and art history have been much more helpful to my business career than my management and business studies have. This is because as a business manager, I need to understand beauty, be analytical, creative and able to display empathy.

Managers need to be able to understand beauty, because as managers, we are trying to create beautiful things, even if they are product lines or HR systems rather than string quartets or oil paintings.

We need to have analytical skills and be able to examine things from a broad range of perspectives to make good business decisions.

We need to be creative, because creativity is what drives innovation, and innovation is what drives business growth.

We need to have empathy because we work with people on an increasingly fragile planet.

I learned my leadership skills from the world’s great artists via my arts education. That’s how arts education works – you learn from the greats! This might sound ridiculous to some, but it’s not; many of the world’s greatest leaders, managers and entrepreneurs also learned a great deal from the worlds artists. Isaacsons’ biography of Steve Jobs offers Jobs as a compelling example of this, listing John Lennon, Bob Dylan, Pablo Picasso, Charlie Chaplin, Martha Graham, Ansel Adams, Richard Feynman, Maria Callas and Frank Lloyd Wright as being among Jobs’ personal heroes, noting that “they tended to be creative people who had taken risks, defied failure, and bet their career on doing things in a different way”. Each of these artistic heroes featured in Apple’s famous Think Different marketing campaigns. An arts education gives people the tools to ‘think different’.

In a way, my life revolves around business, the arts and education. Once I completed my music studies I became a professional musician where I spent a great deal of time writing and performing my own music. As I gradually moved more into arts management, a natural progression for many artists, it dawned on me that many of the principals of artistic creation and business management are much the same. You have a vision, and you set about trying to fulfil that vision. When hurdles arise, you work out ways to get over them. You constantly need to use your creativity to solve problems. The list goes on and on and I think I’ll dedicate a full post to the topic one day.

Another person whose life appears to revolve around business, the arts and education is Dr. Nancy Adler of Montreal’s McGill University. Perhaps because Dr. Adler and I both work internationally in a field that encompasses business, education and the arts, her Academy of Management Review article Finding Beauty in a Fractured World: Art Inspires Leaders—Leaders Change the World strongly resonated with me. In the article, Dr. Adler questions:

“Could it be that the leadership approaches we can learn from artists offer us the potential to transform the world’s ugliness back into beauty? Could artistic perspectives and processes support leaders in transforming recessions back into vibrant economies, environmental disasters back into flourishing ecologies, and poverty back into prosperity? Could artistic perspectives transform our conceptualizations and research paradigms, rendering the impossible a bit less improbable?”

Dr. Adler is regarded as one of Canada’s top university professors and is the Chair in Management at McGill. She conducts research and consults on global leadership and cross-cultural management and has authored more than 125 articles. She consults to private corporations and government organizations on projects worldwide and her online McGill profile details an extensive array of awards, honors and high-profile appointments.

She is also an artist who exhibits regularly whilst her paintings adorn private collections worldwide.

As an artist, leadership scholar, management consultant and educator, Dr. Adler is in a good position to discuss how an understanding of the arts and artists, and having the ability to learn from them and use some of their creative techniques can contribute to leadership in all its forms.

It’s not too unusual to find artists, musicians, poets or the like working within the realms of business academia; in former lives, one of my former business lecturers was Demis Roussos’ bass player whilst another toured the world in Liberace‘s brass section!

In her roles as an academic, consultant and artist, Adler is a problem solver. When an academic writes papers, they are usually doing so to contribute to the literature in regards to a particular problem that needs solving. As an international consultant, Adler is helping businesses to solve problems. As an artist, she is also a problem solver because creating art requires the creator to find solutions over and over again, as I’ve written about in previous posts:

“Most of the time that an original artist spends creating their art is on solving problems. Take for example the songwriter who solves problems like “this chord doesn’t sound right”, “this lyric doesn’t fit” and “this tempo’s uncomfortable”. To write a novel, writers solve problems such as “this character’s actions aren’t believable”, “this plot device leads nowhere” and “this section is really boring””.

Adler says that she draws “inspiration from many of the world’s most influential artistic and societal leaders”, and in Finding Beauty she discusses how learnings obtainable from great artists can be used to solve many of the most pressing problems of our times, which she describes as a “long experiment in ugliness”.

“Whether we look at the incessant wars and lack of peace or at the ecological disasters, whether we look at income inequality–induced poverty or at the startling incidence of curable diseases, the evidence of ugliness assaults our senses and our sensibility”.

 Dr. Adler argues that humanity needs to reclaim its ability to see beauty, which can only occur once it’s reclaimed its ability to see. Once we reclaim our ability to see and care, she says “what seems impossible, while not probable, may, in fact, be achievable”.

Discussing her own experience, one that mirrors my own and that of countless others, Adler points out that art and arts education arms us with the ability to see beauty. She quotes her friend, artist and renowned MIT management professor Edgar Schein:

“Art and artists stimulate us to see more, hear more, and experience more of what is going on within us and around us”

She cites research conducted at Yale Medical School as a powerful example of this.

“After conducting an experiment in which half of Yale’s medical students attended an art history course in addition to their regular medical school curriculum, researchers discovered that the art trained students’ diagnostic skills improved significantly more than did the skills of their non-art-trained colleagues (Dolev, Friedlaender, Krohner, & Braverman, 2001). It appears that the medical students who had studied art not only had fundamentally learned how to see but also had gained a deeper appreciation of the relative nature of interpretation. The art-trained physicians-to-be saw more detail and recognized more patterns than did their non-art-trained colleagues. They saw more of what they were looking for and, more important, more of what they were not looking for. Their diagnoses were therefore based on a richer set of data and, not surprisingly, were, on average, more accurate. Equally important, they were more aware than their non-art-trained colleagues that their diagnoses were best guesses and not, in most cases, definitive conclusions. They were therefore more likely to notice variations in patients’ responses to treatment and to modify their initial diagnosis accordingly. They appreciated that, as with art, there are always multiple possible interpretations when viewing complex images, whether presented by patients or paintings. The research at Yale leads me to question how our interpretation of data from qualitative and quantitative studies might improve if we used an artist’s lens to see more and to interpret what we see in more novel, complex, and multilayered ways”.

Adler says that “the first essential skill that art offers artists and non-artists alike is the ability to see” and discusses some classic art studio exercises that are these days “being brought from the artist’s studio into the management classroom”. For example, contour drawing, through which “artists very slowly, almost meditatively, draw the exact outline of an object – a flower, a leaf, the artist’s own hand, or any other object”, the drawer begins to feel like their drawing hand and the object are becoming one. Adler says that

“Such exact drawing forces you to see what is actually there, rather than allowing you to impose a caricature of what you might imagine the object to look like… In the context of leadership, contour drawing gives us back the capacity to perceive uniqueness – for example, the dynamics of a specific company at a particular moment in time, rather than a composite of how most comparable companies act in similar situations”.

“Leadership artistry, whether for executives or scholars, requires not only that we take responsibility for returning the world to beauty but that we acquire the conceptual frameworks and practical skills to do so. The challenge is not merely to attempt to make the world a little less ugly. That’s pedestrian, and so much less than what we, as leadership artists, are called to do. As artists, “less ugly” is never good enough, and we know it. The time is right for the artistic imagination of each of us to cocreate the conceptual frameworks, scholarship, and global leadership that the world most needs and deserves”.

The arts enable leaders, and everyone else, to ‘think different’, ‘see beauty’ and ultimately create beauty. This has always been the case, but we need to recognise it more and enshrine it on the list of ‘arguments for the value of the arts’. The contribution that an arts education has made to the lives of some of the world’s most esteemed leaders, in terms of their success, is under considered, under acknowledged and could be better understood following some further investigation.

Finding Beauty in a Fractured World: Art Inspires Leaders—Leaders Change the World is a propelling argument for us all to bring some leadership artistry into our lives and workplaces. It’s a good approach from which many people, including Dr. Adler herself, have professionally benefited from. The benefits extend past the professional and the self, and leadership artistry has the potential to bring beauty into our lives, workplaces, communities and to the entire world. Adler closes Finding beauty with the following paragraph, and I think it’s a good note for me to finish on too.

“Why would we seek out the wisdom of artists? Why would we embrace beauty? Why would we adopt the unconventional and risky conceptual and leadership approaches of artists? Because we passionately care about the future of our families, organizations, and country— because we care about our planet and civilization. Now is the time for each of us to reclaim our artistic skills. Now is the time for all of us to invoke beauty”. 


Posts about the value of the arts
Posts about the visual arts
Posts about music education


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