Thoughts on an MBA, the Arts, and Leadership

There has been a lot written over the last several years about the MBA falling out of favor. The idea that with the worsening economy, graduating with a Master’s in Business Administration doesn’t guarantee you a job.  And, also that graduating with an MBA may not guarantee that you’re really qualified to lead in business.

I am loving the buzz that is springing up around how integral the arts may be to leadership.  And, how an arts background may actually better prepare a person to lead in business.

In this Harvard Business Review blog post, John Maeda describes the values he sees in the arts discipline –

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.

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.

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.”

Here’s another perspective in this article by Kevin Daum, where he describes the four leadership lessons that are regularly taught in the arts –

1. Lead a Project from Start to Finish

Many B-school programs culminate study with the writing of business plans that rarely lead to funding or success. Meanwhile, performing arts students must 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 moving opening night is never an option. They also get to sell their product and collect immediate customer response in the form of ticket sales and applause. This process is completed by millions of students several times a year, all over the world.

2.  Manage Dynamic People Effectively

People like to describe artists as eccentric and strange, and many are. So imagine trying to manage an entire company of these weirdos. And yet somehow, unlike your company, these people happily and consistently deliver highly creative and effective product, even with strict time and resource constraints. And the work they deliver almost always considers a powerful customer experience as the primary objective. Most artists are drilled repeatedly on how to lead their artistic colleagues in a collaborative manner to achieve an effective experience. And despite the frequent presence of professional egos that would crush a Goldman Sachs exec, they learn how to bring all people forward together, or no art would ever be created.

3. Ensure Total Accountability

Let’s say you are a stagehand in a simple community production of Hamlet. And you are given the job of placing the skull for the famous Yorick scene. The first time you forget, everyone in the production will chastise you. The second time you will be fired. And you will forever be known as the guy who screwed up the scene, or the violinist who went flat in Beethoven’s Ninth, or the dancer who fell in the Nutcracker. 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. 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.  Artists willingly accept this approach as the entire success of output is dependent upon the merit of what they can deliver. Nepotism, longevity and cronyism may provide opportunity, but only true connection with the customer creates longevity. 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.

I would love to see the arts come back into their own in our education system.  Think of where we could be a generation from now!

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