Why Business Leaders Should Act More like Artists

Stereotypes abound about artists: they range from the mild (“they have fuschia-colored hair”), to the absurd (“they starve,”), to the disturbed (“they do things like uncontrollably peeing in the fireplace as depicted in the popular movie Pollock.”). Granted I know artists with wild-colored hair and others who are certainly struggling to make ends meet, but they all choose to use the restroom. I’ve also met artists who are quite plain-looking and plain-acting CEOs, lawyers, stockbrokers, and scientists.

Even as someone who has worked to weaken some of the sillier stereotypes about creative types, I must admit that I’ve carried a few stereotypes around myself. In particular, I’d always believed that artists are much like the kind of geeks I grew up with at MIT — passionately focused on their work with little regard to their own physical or financial circumstance, and often more comfortable working as a lone constructor instead of as a collaborative player on a larger team. So when I observed RISD students exhibiting the classic “lone wolf” traits of this kind of “creative geek,” my mental model was confirmed. But when I recently spoke with two RISD textile entrepreneurs in Chicago about this stereotype, my mind fortunately re-opened.

The three aha’s I received from my conversation with partners Robert Segal and Alicia Rosauer were:

  1. Artists constantly collaborate. The example given was the common occurrence of an exhibition with multiple artists showing together, or the so-called “group show.” Even in the context of a solo show, the artist works with the gallery owner, the curator, the framers, the installers, the lighting person, the publicist to bring their vision to life. Every exhibition is a collaboration to the nth degree.
  2. Artists are talented communicators. The whole point of a work of art is to communicate something — a thought, an idea, a feeling, a vision. More explicitly, the artist frequently gives a talk to explain the thought process behind the artwork. Engaging the audience in a meaningful, expansive dialogue is often critical to the exhibition’s success.
  3. Artists learn how to learn together. Perhaps the reason why artists collaborate and socialize so well is that they learn in the studio model — ten or more students in the same room for hours on end. Bonded together in a personal space of intimate self-expression, they come into their own through the familial ties of the studio setting. When interviewed recently about the differences in her education at Brown and at RISD, one student who is getting a dual degree from both institutions said, “At RISD there’s a lot of learning from your peers. Brown (in the classes I’ve taken so far anyway) is about listening and note-taking in class.”

Whether they explicitly acknowledge themselves as leaders or not, artists often move others to follow them — into neighborhoods, into a new a social movement, or even just a dialogue. They do it through the skills that are inherent in their work as professional “inspirers” and provocateurs. Sure, some artists might be introverts and some extroverts, but through their art, they act as creative leaders in their boldness to often express a point of view as the naked truth.

We’ve all seen the business world increasingly crave an approach that balances values with profits. One natural way to do this is to adopt an artist’s point of view; the honesty and integrity that artists naturally bring to their work will be increasingly relevant.

View original here, by John Maeda & Becky Bermont @ Harvard Business