Leadership is an Art

In Every Leader is an Artist, Michael O’Malley and William F. Baker champion that Leadership is an Art and every Leader is an Artist.

Leadership Distilled as Art explores the book’s content in more detail!

Foundational Understanding of Leadership

We have neither a solid foundation of what leadership is nor a shard way to talk about it.

There is no common formulation, method of development, or means of evaluation for leadership.

Despite ubiquitous references to leaders and leadership, we still have a poor idea about what constitutes true leadership and special difficulty indentifying those elite few who excel at it.

Many descriptions of leadership are thoughtfully executed and clear, but they are incomplete because they address only certain aspects of leadership. In other words, each conception captures only a sliver of the whole. … transformational, transactional, visionary, charismatic, transcendent, authentic, servant, spiritual, shared, leader-member, path-goal, participatory, contingency, and situational … If each of these were elevated to the status of a comprehensive theory intended to convey everything there is to be said about leadership, the result would be utter confusion. And that, in fact, is what we often get as discussions about leadership move back and forth across alternative ideas that address different aspects of what it means to lead.

We lack a foundational understanding of leadership and most descriptions of leadership are incomplete because they focus on certain aspects and not a holistic view of leadership, which is demonstrated by the utter confusion that plagues many conversations concerning leadership (that attempt to delve into specifics versus mere generalities).

Essential Criteria of Leadership

Ideally, we need a structured, agreed-upon set of criteria that meaningfully encompass most of what is meant by leadership that, in turn, could be used to inform our judgments about leadership.

When appraising leadership ability, then, our solution is to assemble a set of criteria that most everyone would agree is essential for leadership excellence, and use that set as our standard for evaluation.

We have done just that: produced the signal characteristics of leadership.

With essential criteria of leadership, we can leverage a “standard for evaluation” of “leadership excellence.”

The advantages of our approach…

It [our approach] corresponds to our intuition about leadership that there is no one best or true form.

Our approach can accommodate changes in context and culture because the way we interpret the criteria may change with the times.

Our approach allows us to use the same universal criteria for all kinds of leaders at all organizational levels — without having to create new categories or resort to fine and unnecessary distinctions.

By acknowledging that “there is no one best or true form” of leadership, “accommodating changes in context” wherein to interpret leadership criteria, and using “universal criteria” for leadership that is independent of organizational levels, essential criteria establish a foundational understanding of leadership.

Leadership is an Art

We think leadership is a separate discipline. Regardless of whether the study of leadership rises to the status of a profession is immaterial. The more central point is that people accept their responsibilities as leaders and work at improving their performance in this domain. Leadership is a special form of art that takes time and persistence to master. In fact, in taking on the slippery questions of “What is leadership?” and “How do we know it when we have it?” it is helpful to think about leadership in precisely this way — as an art form.

Our claim isn’t that leadership is metaphorically an art, rather, that it is an art. It covers the same territory and can be viewed in the same light as the arts. It is helpful to think of the work of a leader as a work of art since the connection highlights the leader’s very public mission and the need for both superior technical abilities and acute nontechnical sensitivities to pull it off well.

Therefore, our thesis is literal. The same traits that distinguish great artists from the mediocre distinguish exceptional leaders from the ordinary.

Both leadership and art are forms of expression that made the trip from antiquity to the present because both have been worth preserving in human societies — and not just for the functional advantages they afford but for all the reasons that make us human. Leaders and artists both give us perspective on our social condition, good or bad, and greater appreciation of our world, ourselves, and our choices. They challenge, excite, comfort, and motivate. They bring us closer together by providing a forum for shared experiences and forging a sense of community. Leadership and art animate social encounters and have the potential to change lives in ways that are as invigorating and real as if hit by a wave.

You, leaders, are artists: a realization that should overwhelm as well as humble.

Leadership is not metaphorically an art, but literally an art where leaders are artists — both fundamentally “make us human!”

Leadership Criteria

While people may disagree about the quality of a work of art, people generally talk about the same sorts of things when viewing art. … Art critics would add a few more items that the public may have overlooked, but in the end, we would have an inclusive list of the criteria that govern the attitudes of most people toward art. That is the list we present below, and it applies to all arts, including the one we wish to address — leadership. The dozen attributes we provide represent the distinguishing characteristics of leadership: what separates great leadership from poor leadership, or from activities that would be difficult to classify as leadership at all.

Leadership criteria, the attributes that are the distinguishing characteristics of leadership, establish the many aspects of leadership.

Satisfying all these criteria is difficult, and it is possible to recognize leadership archetypes when certain criteria stand out to the exclusion of others. … We could go on, but you see how this exercise works, and you can readily identify leaders you have known in which some aspects of our criteria are prominent and others are depressed.

The many descriptions of leadership that are incomplete generally only focus on certain aspects of leadership and not a holistic view of leadership — Intent, Focus, Skill, Form, Representation, Imagination, Authenticity, Engagement, Pleasure, Human Significance, Context, and Criticism. Does such criteria “correspond to our intuition,” “accommodate changes in context,” and are “universal criteria for all kinds of leaders at all organizational levels!”

Leadership is Common Sense

C. S. Lewis once remarked that philosophy is the study of what we already know. We would put leadership in the same camp. A common lament from those who read leadership books is that it is all common sense. What else could it be? Leadership is about a relationship between one person and others. As a relationship, it is subject to the same human interests and concerns that infiltrate other areas of our lives. Therefore, if we are accused of common sense, to that we would say, “Good, it should be.” Both leadership and art are intimately connected with our daily affairs and to living a good life.

Because leadership and art are connected with our daily affairs, we must have a common sense of leadership! And the reason we often don’t is because we (using limited descriptions of leadership) focus on certain aspects of leadership and not a holistic view of leadership.

Leadership involves Profound Responsibility

If you call yourself a leader, you are inviting a special look from others who will study the evidence and make a conclusion about whether the label should be forfeited or duly honored. There is no escaping the profound responsibility that comes with leadership or the expectations of those who are counting on you to practice your art well.

Our definition of both art and leadership is “the distillation of chaos.”

Leadership fundamentally involves profound responsibility for the distillation of chaos!

There are elementary skills to be perfected if one is to have any chance at success at leading others. We would say that it starts with a love of the constituent materials and an appreciation for what they are capable of producing. In leadership, that means people. It is possible to get a batch of bad clay; and people, too, may disappoint. But at heart, if leaders don’t have affection for the people who depend upon them, we do not see how they can ever excel. Great leaders don’t curse the resourceful variability of people. Rather, they embrace their infinite possibilities, the nuances, the personalities, and, at times, the miraculous. A predicate of leadership achievement is a foundational love of people and their individual aspirations.

Leadership fundamentally involves love!

Every Leader is an Artist offers a worthwhile perspective on leadership!


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