Why Great Leaders Are Like Great Artists

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By Jas Singh

Last year I visited the offices of one of the best known financiers in New York. With a thirty year track record in raising capital for some of the most well known companies in the world, this man is a legend on Wall Street. Known by all the big investment banks, the Fortune 500 and venture capitalists.

The first thing I noticed when I entered his building was the stunning artwork. In all honesty, I wouldn’t consider myself a follower of art – in our house it’s definitely my wife who has the creative genes. But this was different – the power of the art was truly overwhelming. It was stunning – from contemporary originals to replicates of classics like Van Gogh’s Sunflowers, it left a strong and lasting impression.

After our meeting, as he was walking me outside the building, I commented on how great the art was. “Are you an art follower?” I asked.

“I find it inspiring” he replied. “And often my job is purely to inspire others. In a way, leadership is painting visions that will inspire others to act.”

Not something I’d previously associated with an ex-JP Morgan executive.

But it got me thinking. In a way he was right – great leaders are like great artists.

Although not relying on watercolours or chopping up sharks, great leaders use their words, actions and decisions to create visions that inspire others.

Here are some ways in how great leaders are like great artists.

Great leaders must be original

In today’s increasingly competitive business world, just being one of the rest will kill you. You have to stand out. You must stand for something. You have to be original.

Just like a revolutionary piece of artwork generates massive publicity and accolades, the same is true in business. Nowadays, the greatest leaders across all organisations are those who think outside the box and develop industry changing solutions to problems.

Take someone like Angela Ahrendts, previously CEO at Burberry (and now SVP Retail at Apple). When she joined Burberry a few years ago, the company was on its knees. Struggling to survive, its stock price rock bottom. Through a unique vision, she pioneered Burberry to become the first established digital luxury brand. To appeal to a new demographic of young, aspiring professionals. Creating a totally new image – associated with up and coming pop stars, cool new celebrities and fresh new models like Cara Delevingne.

Like an artist, she created a new and fresh identity.

Great leaders are proud of their work

All great artists are painstaking perfectionists. Constant adjusting, recoloring – even regularly tearing everything up and starting again.

Whether painters, musicians or architects, a dedicated artist is never done. He or she is constantly seeking to improve and is hugely proud of their work. So they are obsessed with detail and trying to be the best they can possibly be.

The same is true in leadership. Great leaders take immense pride in their work, and the end goal is never money, recognition or title. No, it is to create something of beauty – a business, an organisation, in some cases even a nation. Great leaders consider their actions carefully since they realise that every decision they make has an ultimate effect on their final masterpiece.

And just like all great artists, great leaders treat all their instruments – their companies, their capital and most importantly their people – with precious care.

Perhaps Lady Gaga said it best: “I’m just trying to change the world, one sequin at a time.”

Now that’s attention to detail.

Great leaders must inspire

But perhaps most important of all, great leaders are like great artists because they must be able to inspire others. The shareholders, the customers and most important of all, the people they work with.

Art is perhaps the ultimate profession for pleasing other people. An artists’ success is in fact purely based on how much he can connect with and inspire others. Edgar Degas, the famous French painter even once famously said “art is not what you see, but what you make others see”.

This is often so necessary in leadership.

Leadership is often about leading others into the unknown. The promised land – where everyone must pull together to get to. Something that doesn’t exists today, so requires a strong vision on behalf of the leader. A vision that must inspire others – to take action, to work hard, to endure pain – in some cases even make sacrifices.

Just like a great piece of art, the more beautiful the leader’s vision the greater the inspiration.

Conclusion

Like artists, great leaders need to be able to inspire those around them.

For the greatest leaders of all, this inspiration becomes infectious.

Hiring managers should ensure that in finding the leaders of the future they focus on those who take pride in their work and who want to build something more than just their careers. Something of beauty.

Which art inspires you?

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