Yang: Bringing Arts Into Organizations…

Los Alamos

Bringing Arts Into Organizations: Not just for leadership education; art is about life for us all – Part I

It takes a while for a management theory or a framework to catch the imagination of practitioners and become commonly known and practiced.  The converse is also true; it takes a while for management academics to notice what’s been developed into recent practice in the working world. This is by way of excusing myself to write about a decade-old article. 

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. All creative people, regardless of how their work is perceived and received, are artists, but not all painters, sculptors, writers, musicians, poets, etc., are creative. I am sure every artist has her/his own creative process. 

How to help managers benefit from what art entails through the creative process, is a huge and complicated issue, but the journal articles treat it mostly in generic terms.  Maybe that’s partly what provoked my dissatisfaction. But first of all, why bring arts into only “leadership” and not the entire organization? I’ll address the former in this column and the latter in the next column.

Nancy Adler is a highly 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 am using her article as a reference point; just about all other articles in this special issue share a similar view. I accepted Adler’s 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, Adler’s points are that as globalization becomes ever more pervasive, we become more interconnected. As a result, any movement in one corner of the world is likely to be felt in other corners almost immediately. These days, our communication is so instantaneous that we get thrown into chaos at times. With demands now clamoring 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 strategies and planning tools that were useful for the 20th century (which were at best marginally effective back then) are no longer adequate. 

Managers/leaders need to be ever more creative. Enter the artists. Many regard artists as being more prescient than your average citizens. Artists’ creations are often timeless (at least the good ones) and transcend national and cultural boundaries. But none of these authors in this special section made a clear case regarding how to choose artists and what kind of creative processes are desired. I’ll come to this aspect in the next column. 

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. In the social world, reality is socially constructed, “that the same event can be perceived as multiple realities by different players” (link). 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? Just think of the Sandy Hook “massacre,” some agree that it’s “massacre,” some would choose “tragedy” to describe it, and still others would say it’s a crime committed by a mentally-ill person. All true, but each conjures up different images and evokes different emotions. 

If Adler were to emphasize the point that managers need to practice looking for multiple possibilities with which 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.

In the fast moving global economy, 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. Remember the chaos in 2008 financial meltdown? the bailouts? countries on the brink of bankruptcy? 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, does that mean that Enron’s collapse, Arthur Anderson’s fall, or the implosion of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, all resulted from these companies’ denial of reality or just “wishful thinking?” There is a profound difference between operating on illusions and willfully committing deceptive or 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 persist in 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, link). 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.

Direct Contac: taso100@gmail.com