Executive Advice: Take the Artist's Walk
by Frank P.Bordonaro
Books, books, books
Leaders have difficulty applying what they read and hear from us “experts.” Their reality usually doesn’t synchronize with the examples they’re asked to follow. The limitation of print and speech to reach leaders’ real lives recently prompted me to look to my own experience in the artist’s studio for insight and advice.
Creative Leaps International and the Power of the Arts
If I ever had doubts about the power of the arts on business executives, my work with Creative Leaps International at McDonnell Douglas and SC Johnson put those doubts to rest. In each case, the companies were battling tradition in order to reach new levels of performance, and the leaders were under pressure to re-think and re-design some deeply rooted management habits. That meant personal discovery would be foundational to their work.
White papers, speeches and conceptual models all have their place. But savvy executives are inured to much of the inspiration offered therein. Music, movement and performance are closer to the bone—more direct—less controvertible. Sharing in, and participating in experiences designed and delivered by Creative Leaps International set our learning dialogue on a new, more candid, more inspirational path—and cracked a few protective shells. In both engagements, Creative Leaps helped us leap to a better place more quickly. And…it was fun!!
- Frank P. Bordonaro
Drawing a comparison
For leaders and artists alike, life generates its challenges in endless permutation. The executive in the midst of a product launch must commit assets into a fluid consumer market. Painters see landscapes change moment to moment with the movement of the sun.
Executives and artists know they must risk wrestling with unknowns. Before anything can be commoditized, somebody has to introduce the chip, the wafer, the on-line auction house. The best artists, like the best leaders, are able to produce distinguished work repeatedly across endless variations of experience, in spite of stress, distractions, shifting priorities, and their own human limitations.
What is it that top artists know that we, as leaders, might like to know? What is it they do that we might like to do?
I took these questions with me last week to the Silvermine School of Art, in New Canaan, CT. I had enrolled at Silvermine to nurture my own skills as a portrait artist. Little did I know I’d unearth executive insight along the way.
The teachers at Silvermine are top-notch artists with a startling power to communicate. After careful observation and a few discussions with these pros, I came away with a practical reality they embrace and commonly share. I also found a favorite technique they practice in order to respond to that reality.
The longer you stare, the dumber you get
Top visual artists are not the freewheeling splatterers they are sometimes thought to be. They are ambitious and disciplined with their projects. They work intensely, appraising the overall effect of each new stroke on the whole, interpreting and reinterpreting hundreds or thousands of times. But they know that this close scrutiny also holds dangers.
For the portrait artist, making a likeness that is more “true“ than a photograph is a sort of Holy Grail. So fond is the desire to capture reality, and so great is the effort required, the artist begins to see the intended strokes in place of the actual ones. Neurological changes make differences in light and dark harder to see. Marks on the surface get filtered through the hopeful brain, and the aspiration is what you end up seeing. You can even enhance this effect by pressing your nose close to the surface, at which point the eyes cross slightly and you are enveloped in fuzzy self –delusion. But top artists are tougher than that. They will tell you that the most important move they learn is not done with the hands, but with the feet.
The most important twenty feet in art
If you watch a studio full of artists and students, you soon see that the savvy ones routinely break and step back a few paces from their work. They know the dangers of self-deception that comes with intense work. They realize that truthful art must “read” across distance. Otherwise, it will not be convincing to others, those who are not so personally invested in its worth.
Visitors to an art museum do not typically rush up to press their noses against a canvas in order to decide whether they are moved by it. They are drawn by the initial impact caused by a sense of merit before they see the details. Artists understand this. As they step back themselves, they open the work up for observation from other artists, especially other good artists.
This is not a political buying-in exercise or a bit of commercial market testing. On the contrary, artists are reluctant to defer judgment of their creations to others. Rather, seeking feedback is an extension of the stepping back technique. It is driven, not by the hope of supplanting one’s judgment with the views of others, but by the intentional sharpening of the artist’s own critical eye. The creator wants to add what others see that they themselves have missed. Artists listen to other artists, not to gain acceptance of their work, but to help them decide how to change it.
What artists see that executives miss
In business, we review the works of others at some distance, and often end up scratching our heads. How could a leader address a high-stakes problem by sequestering him/herself with close allies and like- minded experts? How could they settle on an answer so at odds with obvious realities and common sense? From the management experts, we’ve all read the explanations about group pressure, hierarchy and professional blindness. For me, the artist’s wisdom provides a more direct path towards a solution.
That ‘wisdom” rests in the artist’s matter- of -fact acceptance that self-delusion is a part of the creative process. That’s a lot better than the usual business attitude, which sees all distortions as shameful failures of leadership. Shame engenders denial, and the dangerous belief that “it can’t happen here.”
Suggestion for leaders:
Ego investment is natural in executive work. Rather than deny or suppress this habit, we can use it to fuel our creativity. But we have to be aware of our capacity of for self-deception. We can’t let ourselves and our teams become so fascinated with the nifty intricacies of our plans that we forget to check whether they “read” from a distance. We must resist dismissing feedback from more dispassionate viewers by thinking they “don’t get it” …that they don’t understand our business, our strategy, our profession, our financial system, our whatever. Thinking our business problems are unique and our solutions arcane is an illusion caused by too much unbroken time at the easel. Don’t dig in; step back.
Respect for the intelligent, more distant, viewer can help us avoid the idea that we can convert non- believers by showing them more and more brushstrokes, (Power Point mavens, take note). If our initiative doesn’t “read” from distance, we can instead take that opportunity to ask what is missing or wrong with the overall message or approach. And we can re-approach with confident curiosity and a readiness to revise.
Business leaders, lighten up! The truth is, everyone who creates with passion is, at some point, going to go cross-eyed. We just need to put down our pencils once in a while and take the artist's walk.
Frank Bordonaro, former Chief Learning Officer for McDonnell Douglas and Prudential Financial, consults, writes and teaches in corporate learning. He and his wife, Sally, live in Wilton, Connecticut. Frank continues to study drawing and painting at the Silvermine Art School near his home.