Guest Columns

Developing artistic leadership

Michael McCann
Michael McCann

Over time there have been numerous books, projects, articles and discussions on the art of leadership. The term “art of leadership” could be defined as the application of the skills of leadership. 

However, perhaps if we take the word “art” and repurpose it from a noun (the application of skill) to the adjective of artistic (having or revealing natural creative skill) we can drill down a new outlook of leadership which I like to refer to as "artistic leadership."

Leadership, in all of its complex forms, basically brings us to a world of operations and organizational structures focusing on alignment and, managing resources and is typically viewed as the bane of creativity. Having artistic ability generally states that one is thinking outside the box, breaking cultural norms with creative combinations that most cannot see working. 

Traditional leadership typically will take a more conservative approach to strategic thinking, using the same resources and individuals to help make slow, safer decisions. There is value to this, but it can lead you to find that your organization is slow to turn, much like a large ship. You see this battle of styles occur in sports between a coach and ownership or perhaps even in Hollywood, where a creative director is constantly advocating and protecting their vision from the producers and studios.  

Artist leadership is about innovation, using creativity to bring about change through communication and application. This style of leader is someone who uses bravery, insight, creativity, and boldness to challenge the status quo.

These leaders carry themselves as an artist who is passionate about their vision and they can take what they do very personally as they push their vision forward which can cause some frustration between peers. A pitfall the artistic leader should be aware of: Is every leader a natural artist? Unfortunately, no. However, every leader can be an artist. It's creating an experience from nothing.

How does this relate to a senior living organization? A community's life enrichment team is typically the organizations best strategic thinkers, planners and executers. They are not in strategic planning mode once every three years. They are continuously planning every day. A wise administrator should be able to recognize the benefit of these practiced strategic thinkers when it comes to planning, crisis management and overall vision of the organization.

Artistic leaders inspire by influencing feelings. They help us take new approaches to how we interact within our organization and how the organization interacts with the customer. These leaders are never satisfied with the end result. They are constantly re-evaluating programs, events and functions, looking for new angles and approaches.

Have you met an artist that did not hate his/her own work at some point? They are the most critical of their results because their passion to excel is never satisfied. You can find these leaders continually creating new designs, new approaches, and new systems. There is never such a thing as a full plate, because there is no off switch for the creative process. These leaders are constantly saying “feed me more” as the creative process becomes tangible mission moments that impact the customer/residents they are serving. This brings an environment where ideas and new passions get created; maintaining existing programs while letting old, out of date systems die. These people generally have no interest in ruling. They are all about changing perceptions.

So as we are talking about artists and leadership, one would have to define the qualities of a great artist. These can be broken down into five traits:

Art is the core. These artists wake up and go to sleep thinking about art. They carve out time in their day making art or marketing it. (In fact, for these artists, there seems to be no clear distinction between the creativity of making and marketing.)

Understand the creative process. Successful artists understand the creative aspects of making a living as an artist. When they encounter something new or unusual, they investigate and learn to do it and develop ways into integrate it into the process.

Strong work ethic. They manage themselves, their creative energy and resources. They balance the time to produce art and to market it. At times we all have to undertake tasks we really do not enjoy. These artists know they must be done and they do them without complaint or resentment.

Resiliency. They know that success does not happen overnight – it requires hard work. These artists understand that things don't always work out the way they expect. When they make mistakes, they own them and then focus on solutions. They learn from experience and experiment to improve.

Team-Building. Successful artists spend time only with people who are 100% supportive of their art career. They limit their time and emotional involvement with people who are negative, especially about art as a career choice. If people close to them have the skills and inclination to be more directly involved in their art career, the artist can produce more and better. Successful artists do not allow unsupportive people to be an obstacle to their plans for success.

The same attributes that distinguish great from mediocre artists distinguish great leaders from the mediocre leaders. The traits listed above not only apply to artists, but apply to all. Being an artistic leader gives perspective on our social condition (good or bad) and greater appreciation of our world, ourselves, and our choices. 

Moreover, they challenge, excite, comfort, and motivate. They bring us closer together by providing a forum for shared experiences and by forging a sense of community. Leadership and art both animate social encounters. They can change our lives in ways that are as invigorating and real as being hit by a storm.

Let's look at the dynamics of a powerful life enrichment team. If at the very basic definition of an artist is someone who creates something from nothing, then your activity team must be filled with people that have artistic traits. A truly creative activity team should be accomplishing their goals with the following qualities;

  1.  Ability to lead a project from start to finish
    Many mediocre activity programs culminate with the writing or discussion of plans that rarely lead to funding or success. Most times these ideas are not even given time to fail which would let them evolve into something else. Meanwhile, highly performing teams create a concept from scratch, refine it so they can articulate a compelling vision, recruit skilled labor, and manage everyone to completion on time and on budget, since canceling is never an option. This process is completed by quality activity teams countless times a year.
  2. Ability to manage dynamic people effectively
    People like to describe artists as eccentric and strange, and many are. So are your activity teams. So are the legendary leaders, innovators and creative minds in history. So imagine trying to manage an entire team of these “weirdos." These people happily and consistently deliver highly creative and effective product, even with strict time and resource constraints. The work they deliver almost always considers a powerful customer experience as the primary objective.
  3. Ability to ensure total accountability
    "There are no small parts, (there are) only small actors” is usually credited to theater director Constantin Stanislavski (1863-1938) of the Moscow Art Theatre.
    The saying means that all roles are important and must be performed well. Artists live and die by their dependability. Yet non-artists consider them flaky and irresponsible. Artists develop in an environment where the production is only as good as its weakest participant. Individual performers with both big and small parts are inherently motivated to bring up the entire company rather than showboating personal performance like the sports players business people love to exalt.
    Even most stars in the arts know they shine best against a rich and unified background.
  4. Ability to implement big picture thinking
    From the day you take a role in a production, art project or film, you immediately understand that you are part of something much bigger than yourself. The size of your contribution only matters as far as it contributes to the quality and impact of the whole. That forces all successful artists to submit their often-large egos to the service of the overall experience. Those who lead others collaboratively to do the same are rewarded with continued opportunity and success. Those who are selfish or stuck in their own vision are doomed to poverty and dissatisfaction.

Creativity occupies a great importance in companies to differentiate themselves and compete. Creativity must be an essential tool so the businesses can move forward. It is a seed which can emerge a product or service with high added value and can change an entire organization.

Michael McCann, M.S. is the Director of Lifestyles at Friendship Village of Schaumburg in Illinois. 

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