In the Academy of Management Learning & Education December 2006 issue, there is a special section on “arts and leadership.” I like some of the points, but overall, I feel disquiet and annoyance after reading the section. I am a painter who’s still not ready to be labeled as “an artist,” even though some of my artist friends have tried to elevate my opinion of my work. All artists, regardless of how their work is perceived and received, are creative, but not all painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, etc., are creative. I am sure every artist has her/his own creative process. How to help managers learn to benefit from what art entails, through creative process, is a huge and complicated issue, but the journal articles treat it mostly in generic terms. Maybe that’s partly what accounted for my dissatisfaction. But first of all, why bring arts into only “leadership” and not the entire organization? I’ll address the former in this entry and the latter in the next entry.
Nancy Adler is a very respected management scholar who has done considerable work in the international/cross-cultural area; I referenced a lot of her work in my dissertation. So, I was surprised by my own negative reaction to her piece on this topic. I accepted her analysis of the five trends driving the need for businesses to totally retool their ways of doing things in light of globalization:
- “ Rapidly increasing global interconnectedness
- Increasing domination of market forces
- An increasingly turbulent, complex, and chaotic environment
- As advances in technology decrease the cost of experimentation, organizations’ scarcest resource becomes their dreamers, not their testers
- Yearning for significance – success is no longer enough”
Basically, her points are that as the global economy becomes ever more pervasive (does that mean we focus on primarily only those large organizations that carry business across borders?), we become more interconnected (both at the producer’s end and receiver’s end), and then any movement in one corner of the world is likely to be felt at other corners almost immediately. With the omnipresent computer, emails, Skype, Blackberries, Smartphones, our communication is instant, indeed so instantaneous in nature that we get thrown into chaos at times. With demands now present 24/7, we can no longer wait around for more data, evidence, or desired information; managers (who may not be leaders!) need to make decisions here and now. Furthermore, the strategy and planning tools that were useful for the 20the century (not sure if they were even effective back then) are no longer adequate.
Managers/leaders need to be ever more creative; enter the artists. Artists are regarded as more prescient than your average citizens; their creations are often timeless (the good ones, I presume) and transcend national and cultural boundaries. But none of these authors in this special section made a clear case of how to choose artists and what kind of creative process is desired. I’ll come to this issue in the next entry.
In order to “lead/manage” artistically or creatively, 20th century managers who stressed conformity need to let that go and allow dreams, unique perceptions or visions to come into play. “…leaders today must have the courage to see reality as it actually is, even when no one else has yet appreciated that reality. Such reality-based perception is not easily acquired, either for managers or for artists.” I was beside myself when I read this passage. Regular readers may recall from my comments on “socially constructed reality,” that the same event can be perceived as multiple realities by different players. Can we ever pinpoint “reality as it actually is?” How do we judge one person’s reality to be more convincing, more inviting, more real, than another person’s? If Adler were to emphasize the point that managers need to practice looking for possibilities to create a different reality for the future, that would be more palatable. And “reality-based perception?” Our perception is our reality; or, our reality is, by definition, our perception. For multinational corporations, cross-cultural differences and perceptions must present very different realities.
The speed of global economic activity seems to increase with time. The margin for error is shrinking. Companies can no longer rely on their past successes to buy them time to develop the next generation of new products and services. But such a frantic pace is causing havoc in the world, as we are still witnessing bailouts, countries on the brink of bankruptcy, stock markets’ wild swings…etc. Part of Adler’s point is that business leaders in today’s environment need to be even more aware of the here and now and not fall for illusions or wishful thinking. While that’s true, it is difficult to accept her assertion that Enron’s collapse and Arthur Anderson’s fall resulted from these companies’ denial of reality. There is a profound difference between operating on illusions and willfully committing criminal acts.
And I do worry about the pace of this globalization. If simultaneous listening-observing-while-doing is the norm, will we ever get a chance to sleep quietly and soundly? Without rest – metaphorically — where do we find the energy to create? It feels as if eventually, we’ll explode, or implode.
Adler calls for leaders of the 21st century to be courageous and to dream big. This notion, while poetically encouraging, also invites danger. This article was published in ’06. Could she have envisioned the financial mess we experienced in ’08? I’ll bet that those hedge fund managers were dreaming big; the mortgage companies’ CEO’s all thought they were being creative, and the bankers were all touting their “successes…” till the moment they needed bailouts. These leaders (why do we insist on calling them “leaders?”) presented their bright “visions” to some segments of society, and quite a few people felt inspired to go along. There were a few level-headed warnings prior to the global financial meltdown, but… And we collectively seem to keep committing such suicidal acts again and again and again.
How shall business leaders in the 21st century establish their trustworthiness? If being more artistic means closer and better connection with others, employees, customers, maybe even their families (I mean the employee’s and customers’), or being more compassionate about society at large, or being more concerned for humanity and our planet, I am all for it. But if being artistic means crafting better ways for manipulation, then, that’s a total betrayal of art and what artists have always strived to do.
The ending of Adler’s article offers examples and pleas that are more promising: Essentially, what’s required of leaders is to look for possibilities, outside our current ways of being and thinking, and to adopt the mode of abundance, not of limitations (the premise of appreciative inquiry). In creating business environment, leaders need to think less about what resources to take but more about what to give and what to return to the environment. Or, as other management scholars put it, “What we need is not an economy of hands or heads, but an economy of hearts.” But shouldn’t all this have been our goal even in the last century?
Beautiful notion, not sure how to get there. Definitely not convinced that infusing leaders with the creative artistic process would provide the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I love the notion of marrying art and business worlds, but this special section on the topic feels a bit faddish.
This saga continues in the next entry. Till then,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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