Be Humble - Be Artistic


Photo by Denis Collette — Creative Commons License Some Rights Reserved

What’s the best way to be an artistic leader? Do we expect the excessive-ego, force-of-personality model?

As many gathered for the memorial service for Wolfgang Wagner, Richard’s grandson who led the Bayreuth Opera Festival from 1951 to 2008, perhaps it is worth considering what will help the next generation of artistic leaders succeed. In a recent column, the New York Times’ David Brooks tackles the consequences of falling for the wrong type of leader in the political realm.

Brooks usually represents the conservative political point of view for the op-ed pages of the New York Times. Before coming to the left-leaning New York Times, Brooks was the senior editor of the right-leaning Weekly Standard. Previously, he worked for the Wall Street Journal, where he covered Russia, Middle East, South Africa and European affairs. Earlier he had been the Journal’s editor of the book review section, and even did a stint as the paper’s movie critic. He knows his politics, and enjoys shining light on contrarian points of view.

Brooks notes that we usually think of our leaders as the lions in the room, who “call for relentless transformational change” in their company’s management and product development. These are the hard charging, go for broke leaders who like to be the face and force of the company’s PR and brand. We all know the type — especially in the arts.

Yet, as Brooks points out, research done by management consultant Jim Collins, shows that the more reliable leaders combine “extreme personal humility with intense professional will.” This kind of leader has more of an awareness of the downside to any decision, a better understanding of risk and a better feel for learning from failure. Brooks writes, “Even walking involves shifting your weight off-balance and then compensating with the next step.”

For Brooks, the key to this leader is not convincing everyone how great they are, but rather the humility which comes from the focus on the company’s work:

“She spends more time seeing than analyzing. Analytic skills differ modestly from person to person, but perceptual skills vary enormously. Anybody can analyze, but the valuable people can pick out the impermanent but crucial elements of a moment or effectively grasp a context. This sort of perception takes modesty; strong personalities distort the information field around them. This sort of understanding also takes patience… She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark the failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.”

It’s not about seeing, it’s about perceiving. It’s not about Sturm und Drang, it’s about action with clarity.

Leading a business, let alone taking one from a start-up, is no different than leading an arts organization. You never have enough resources. You never have the option to solve every problem with money. You never have the perfect team. When you don’t have much, the type-A, large ego, hard-charging approach to leadership isn’t enough.

You do have to figure how to attract the best you can. You do have to figure how to reward those who do the best work. And, you have to figure out to sell the product — i.e. the art — you are making, whether that “sale” is to ticket buyers, funders, or your community.

In other words, better to perceive the landscape than to see yourself centered in the landscape.

There’s an old adage that people don’t give money to organizations, they give it to individuals. True enough that there has to be the person willing to take responsibility for the artistic choices and be the front person to the company’s integration into the community. However, as Brooks notes, the success of the arts company will have less to do with an leader’s bravura and more to do with the leader’s humility.

- Bill Reichblum

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4 Responses to “Be Humble - Be Artistic”

  1. Ann Jareckie
    April 12th, 2010 14:21

    I would like to suggest a good book on the subject of leadership. Jaworski promotes leadership as one of a servant who sets an example for working with staff rather than wielding power from a dominant position.

    “Synchronicity: The Inner Path of Leadership”, by Joseph Jaworski

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