From Michelangelo to the Modern Boardroom

Vision, Courage, and Creativity - Artistic Insights on Effective Leadership

2004 Volume 7 Issue 2

Artistic leaders provide valuable lessons on leadership that can be applied to the business world as well.

“Leadership breathes life into an enterprise, without which nothing truly can emerge.”[1]

Peter Senge

In 1501, at the dawn of a new century, the city Fathers of Florence commissioned a promising young artist by the name of Michelangelo to sculpt a statue of David. Since Florence was under constant military attack by other larger city states, the city leaders wanted this Biblical figure to symbolize the city’s courage and defiance against its numerous larger enemies. However, Michelangelo had a much grander vision of the statue than did his commissioners. For Michelangelo, the David was more than a Biblical character; the sculpture represented the ideal man in the classical Greek tradition, and as such, it was the symbol for the great potential of Western Man.

Michelangelo chose to depict David differently than did most other artists. They typically depicted David right after he slew Goliath, but Michelangelo focused on the young man just before he encountered the giant enemy. Michelangelo believed that this moment represented the embodiment of David’s greatest courage. At the time when David could have run or given in to his fear, he stood firmly and bravely, facing his challenger with only his courage. This sculpture was Michelangelo’s vision of a new humanism in which man no longer cowered in response to the contingencies of life and was paralyzed by fear, but stood in bold confrontation. David’s right hand, which symbolized his courage and physical power, was disproportionately large; with it David would control a new destiny and shape a new world.

Michelangelo therefore did not just carve a block of marble. Rather, he gave new vision, hope, and courage to a civilization that for a thousand years had lived in fear and superstition without making much progress.

We can argue that with the birth of Michelangelo’s David, a new Europe was born—a modern Europe that was awakening from the Dark Ages. Largely because of his magnificent artistry, Michelangelo has been called the Father of the Renaissance.

Looking back on this era, no one can argue that the giant artists like Michelangelo were not leaders. If having great influence is at the heart of leadership, then Michelangelo is the very embodiment of leadership, for he shaped new realities for his time and ushered in a new epoch.

Insights Gained from Leadership Within the Arts

Yet, it is ironic that in modern times, when we think of leadership, we instinctively associate that term with hierarchical structures in such spheres as politics, business, the military, and religion. Furthermore, by looking at leadership primarily in the context of politics or business, we overlook potential insights that can be gained from leadership within the arts, insights that have profound application in modern management.

From a review of history, several key traits emerge as comprising the common thread among all great and influential artists. This article examines three of these key traits—vision, courage, and creativity—and analyzes their applicability to the subject of leadership in general.

Leadership: Lessons for the Modern Organization

While there are common themes between leadership among the arts and in business, there are also distinctions. In order to apply lessons learned from the artistic world to modern management, it is helpful to understand what these similarities and distinctions are. In contrast to traditional management techniques, leadership in the arts does not have established systems and formulas that are restrictive and closed. On the contrary, artistic leadership opens up possibilities which have not yet been discovered or grasped and converts uncertainty into hope and difficult situations into opportunities, thereby reaffirming humanity and expressions of the heart and soul.

In his book, Leading Minds, Howard Gardner distinguishes between traditional leadership within hierarchical institutions and settings (such as politics and business) as being direct leadership and leadership within arts and sciences as being indirect leadership. In the case of indirect leadership, artists do not lead their followers directly, but rather through their “symbolic products.”[2]

History and the Modern Business World

As Michelangelo helped lead Europe’s symbolic emersion from darkness in 1501, his leadership is comparable to the creativity manifested in successful business leaders of today. A helpful way to understand the similarities between Michelangelo’s world and the modern business world is offered by Robert J. Sternberg in an article titled “Creativity as Investment.” He describes creative people:

“Practice in the realm of ideas is what financial investors do in the stock market. They defy the crowd to “buy low and sell high.” Buying low means pursuing ideas that are unknown, or at least slightly out of favor, but having growth potential. Just as not every stock with a low price-earnings ratio is a good financial investment, neither is every new idea a good creativity investment. Buying low is inherently risky. Selling high means finding buyers for one’s work, convincing them of its worth, and moving on to new projects when that work becomes valued and yields a significant return. Analogous to stock market investment success, sometimes creativity fails to occur because a person puts forth (“sells”) an idea prematurely or holds an idea so long that it becomes common or obsolete.”[3]

Vision & Passion – The Starting Point

The starting point of all effective leadership is vision. Some years ago during an executive session led by Peter F. Drucker, when asked by a senior executive as to his definition of leadership, Drucker gave a succinct answer, “Leadership is vision. There’s nothing more to say.”[4]

Artistic Leaders

Vision in this sense is an image of the future we wish to create. Similar to Michelangelo’s vision of a new Europe, other artists help illustrate the important connection between vision and passion in one’s work. Long before Stravinsky created his monumental work, “The Rite of Spring,” he saw the new direction that music must take. This vision was so powerful and foundational that it bordered on being an obsession.

Arnold Schönberg, who arguably equaled Stravinsky in musical influence and genius, has said:

“The minds of the musicians, and of the audiences, have to mature before they can comprehend my music. I know this, I have personally renounced an early success, and I know that – success or not – it is my historic duty to write what my destiny orders me to write.”[5]

These are not the words of a megalomaniac or a man stricken with a god complex, but rather are the confession of someone who is obsessed by a vision to which he is willing to subjugate everything else – including personal success – to pursue that vision.

Picasso also provided a link between the artist’s creation and the vision that precedes it:

“It would be very interesting to record photographically, not the stages of a painting, but its metamorphoses. One would see perhaps by what course a mind finds its way toward the crystallization of its dream.”[6]

Business Leaders

Leaders who are obsessed by a vision constantly see and reveal exciting new realities for their followers. They achieve an almost quixotic madness and see more than meets the eye, seeing the oak tree within the acorn and the world in a grain of sand.

In spite of such leaders’ brands of madness, most of us want to be associated with leaders who have grand visions of what could be. Jim Clemmer, a noted author and speaker says:

“People rally around passionate leaders with a compelling vision and purpose. We’re drawn, like insects to the back porch light, by those who are so passionate about their work that they have turned it into a cause.”[7]

Therefore, prior to creating any new reality, whether within organizations, cultures, or societies, one must first envision that reality.

Courage & Risk Taking – The Journey Beyond Self

Effective leadership involves a force beyond vision. That force is courage. To translate vision into a new reality and bring about real change requires that the leader be willing to try ideas that might not work. Picasso is quoted as saying that “…you can’t run a business without taking risks.”[8] Schönberg risked his reputation to achieve the musical vision he was destined to write. It took courage for Stravinsky to continue his visionary work after he was booed off the stage when he premiered his ballet score “The Rite of Spring.” This music was not written out of a self-serving promotion to be discovered, but rather to usher in a new musical reality.

To be an effective leader, whether in arts or business, one must demonstrate a low need for approval, because as innovators, leaders have to challenge the comfort zones of the majority, and rejection is part of that territory.

Visionary Business Leaders

As an undergraduate student at Yale University in the ’60s, Fred Smith, the founder of FedEx, wrote a term paper for his economics class in which he outlined his vision of creating a delivery company based on a hub-and-spoke model that would offer overnight delivery service to a national market. He received an average grade for the paper and the following comment from his professor: “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”[9] Not swayed by this criticism, Smith pursued the vision after his tour of duty in Vietnam and turned his vision into an entire industry.

Individuals like Fred Smith, Howard Schultz (Starbucks), Robert L. Johnson Black Entertainment Television (BET), and Michael Dell (Dell Computers) are but a few examples of visionaries who through their vision built not only multi-billion-dollar companies, but also created entire new industries.

Apple’s recent “Think Different” ad campaign features individuals who were unquestioned leaders within their fields and etched their imprint on the stage of history. One common denominator between all of these great figures is that they all had the courage to look beyond conventional ideas in order to set a new trail for the world.

Willing to Risk Failure

Willingness to take risks means that the leader must also be willing to fail. Jeff Mauzy, the author of Creativity Inc. argues:

“Business leaders have a hard time accepting, much less encouraging, failures. Yet people who perform at or beyond the edge of familiar knowledge, people who take creative risks, have to fail a significant portion of the time.”[10]

Howard Gardner has said that leaders have to be “prepared to take chances or risks, being robust, deflecting criticism and pursuing long-term goals with resoluteness.”[11] University of California at Davis Professor Dean Keith Simonton, who has done extensive research on creativity leadership, maintains that “…if you are going to be a major innovator, you can’t care too much about what people think of you.”[12]

In 1978, Arthur Blank and Bernard Marcus were fired by a corporate raider from the Handy Dan home improvement chain in Los Angeles. Unfazed by this setback, these men courageously pressed on raising capital and in 1979, opened three new Home Depot stores in Atlanta that ultimately generated $7 million in sales.

It took courage for Conrad Hilton to hang on during the Great Depression and not file for bankruptcy. He ultimately guided his hotel chain to profitability. It took courage for Sam Walton, founder of Wal-Mart, to boldly bet his company’s future on supply-chain, inventory, and point-of-sale technologies. It took courage for Michael Dell to drop out of his pre-med college education and pursue his business idea. It took courage for Anita Roddick, the founder of Body Shop, to integrate environmental awareness, animal protection, and social campaigning into her business model. As Peter Drucker has said, “Whenever you see a successful business, someone once made a courageous decision.”[13]

Daring to Be Different

As Picasso has observed, “…every act of creation is first an act of destruction” offering both “salvation and revolution.”[14] Therefore, it should not surprise us that people who have truly shaped the world have been those who have had the courage to be different.

These kinds of leaders offer ideas that both inspire and frighten us because they carry the uncertain potential of both success and failure. Artists like Michelangelo, Picasso, and Stravinsky didn’t know what a potent force they had unleashed in their respective work. Most leaders realize the danger of presenting new ideas, which is why they frequently keep their ideas buried inside.

Yet, when we look throughout history, it is quite clear that all of human progress has grown out of courageous ideas full of risk and potential pitfalls. This concept of courage is not much different in a department, division, or an entire organization. Potential solutions to existing problems come from looking at reality in a different way and having the courage to propose alternative ideas and methods while knowing that they may fail.

Creativity: The Tool for Change

It was not sufficient for Michelangelo to have a vision about the future direction of art, nor was it sufficient to have courage and to take the risk of failure to pursue that vision. What makes leaders of artists such as Michelangelo, Stravinsky, Picasso, and other architects of the modern age is that numerous other artists and leaders have been inspired by the creativity of their work and have used that inspiration as a platform upon which to build a lasting change of culture.

Creativity in business management means coming up with innovative and original ideas that add value to the stakeholders of the enterprise: customers, employees, suppliers, owners. Consequently, creativity becomes the tool to bring about innovative change in an organization—a change that is born in a vision, which grows to a passion and engenders the courage to take risks in order to bring value and improve the enterprise

Robert J. Sternberg, Ph.D., James Kaufman, Ph.D., and Jean E. Pretz, Ph.D. are three psychologists who have done work on creative and cognitive leadership. They argue that the common denominator for all creative contributions is that creative leadership propels an organization forward while influencing the benefactors in the wake of such creativity. In other words, creative contributions assist the organization in leap frogging past and current obstacles.

Eight Types of Creative Leadership

Based on their “Propulsion Model of Creativity,” Sternberg, et al. categorize creative leadership into eight major types.[15] These types vary based on their level of creativity, level of innovation and novelty, and on the quality of the proposed ideas. These types of leadership also vary based on the kinds of reactions they provoke. Leaders who preserve major paradigms will have an easier reception than will those who defy existing paradigms. The eight leadership types are:

Replicators – those who maintain the status quo.

Redefiners – those who put a new spin on existing leadership or innovation.

Forward incrementors – those who move a field or organization a step farther in the direction it was headed.

Advanced forward incrementors – those who attempt to lead a field farther than others are ready to go.

Redirectors – those who point an organization or field in a new direction.

Regressive redirectors – those who reintroduce an idea that worked well in the past.

Reinitiators – those who initiate a fresh start for a field or organization.

Synthesizers – those who integrate the best ideas from what’s been done previously.

The key for organizational leaders is to understand the dynamic business situation in their charge and to determine what kind of creative contribution is needed for a healthy and competitive business future.

Conclusion: A Mandate for Leadership

According to Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D., the history of reward systems for job satisfaction and productivity has gone through three stages: financial, psychological, and philosophical.[16] During the financial stage, most important rewards take the form of tangible benefits such as salary increases, bonuses, perks, and promotions. During the psychological stage, workers look for intrinsic rewards as the primary form of benefits, such as an interesting and challenging job and environments for self-development and self-actualization.

Wong says that we are now witnessing the end of the “Economic Man” and are entering the third stage of reward systems in which meaning and fulfillment are becoming the primary forms of benefits. People are looking for both meaningful work and a meaningful work environment, one that meets their deepest needs for meaning and fulfillment. From this perspective, work is rewarding when the work place helps individuals fulfill their higher purposes.

During the financial and psychological phases, management traits are more important than are leadership traits within the enterprise, particularly among mid level and lower level managers and supervisors. However, the philosophical stage requires greater leadership skills at all levels of the business hierarchy. To infuse meaning and higher purpose and satisfy people’s deepest needs requires precisely the type of leadership that this article has examined.

Besides providing competitive salaries with bonuses as well as creating interesting jobs that promote self-development, the successful companies of tomorrow will also provide meaning and a higher purpose to their employees. To reach these admirable goals, leaders have a mandate to generate unconventional visions, to show deep passions and uncommon courage, and to develop innovative methodologies to successfully propel the modern boardroom well into the New Century.


[1]Marshall Goldsmith, Iain Somerville, and Frances Hesselbein (Editors), Leading Beyond the Walls (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1999): 79.

[2] Howard E. Gardner, Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

[3] Robert J. Sternberg, “Creativity as investment”, California Management Review, Volume 40, 1 (Fall 1997): 8.

[4] Peter Drucker, as quoted by Peter Senge in Leadership in Living Organizations (New York: Jossey Bass, Inc.): 5.

[5] Arnold Schonberg, “BBC Music Profiles”, http://www.bbc.co.uk/music/profiles/schoenberg.shtml.

[6] Pablo Picasso, as quoted in the film: “The Mystery of Picasso” by Henri Georges Clouzot, Released by Milestone Films, Harrington, NJ.

[7] Jim Clemmer, Pathways to Performance: A Guide to Transforming Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization (Roseville: Prima Lifestyles, 1995): 86.

[8] Pablo Picasso, as quoted by the Hugh Williamson Foundation on Leadership Quotes.

[9] Robert J. Sternberg, James C. Kaufman, and Jean E. Pretz, The Creativity Conundrum: A Propulsion Model of Kinds of Creative Contributions (New York: Psychology Press, 2002).

[10] Jeff Mauzy, Richard A. Harriman, Creativity Inc.: Building an Inventive Organization (Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 2003): 128.

[11] Howard Gardner as quoted by Jamie Chamberlin, “Considering Creativity Inspiring the Masses Through Creative Leadership,” Monitor on Psychology, 34, Issue 10 (November 2003): 50.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Peter Drucker as quoted by Duane Knapp, The Brand Mindset: Five Essential Strategies for Building Brand Advantage Throughout Your Company (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1999):173.

[14] Pablo Picasso, as quoted by William Bridges, Jobshift: How to Prosper in a Workplace Without Jobs (New York: Pereseus Publishing, 1995) 207.

[15] Robert J. Sternberg, James C. Kaufman, and Jean E. Pretz, The Creativity Conundrum: A Propulsion Model of Kinds of Creative Contributions (New York: Psychology Press, 2002).

[16] Paul T.P. Wong Ph.D., “What Contributes to Meaningful Work” (International Network on Personal Meaning).

About the Author(s)

Sean D. Jasso, MBA, is a practitioner faculty member in marketing and economics at the Graziadio School at Pepperdine University, and he also maintains his private management and leadership consulting practice. He holds an MBA from Pepperdine, a Master's in Public Policy from Claremont, and later this year he will complete a Ph.D. in politics and policy from Claremont. Professor Jasso worked for several years in the hospitality and healthcare industries, which combined with his training in politics has helped foster his consulting expertise in international relations, entrepreneurship, strategic marketing, executive management, and political and economic risk. Jasso's objective in teaching, research, and consulting has always been to build a transdisciplinary approach of applying politics and management theories and applications to help organizations and individuals reach their potential in what he calls The New Corporation.

Goran Dragolovic, MBA

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