Lessons From The Arts: Providing Direction To Experts

I neglected to note who had posted it on Twitter, but an article in The Economist about what the arts can teach business came across my feed today.

One of the first examples was an exercise used by a professor at the Saïd Business School at Oxford which asked MBA students to try their hand at conducting a choir.

The first to take the challenge was a rather self-confident young man from America. It didn’t take long for him to go wrong. His most obvious mistake was to start conducting without asking the singers how they would like to be directed, though they had the expertise and he was a complete tyro.

…The session, organised by Pegram Harrison, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship, cleverly allowed the students to absorb some important leadership lessons. For example, leaders should listen to their teams, especially when their colleagues have specialist knowledge. All they may need to do, as conductors, is set the pace and then step back and let the group govern itself.

It was noticeable, too, that the choir managed fairly well even if the conductors were just waving their batons in an indeterminate fashion. The lesson there, Mr Harrison said, was that leaders can only do so much damage—provided they do not attempt to control every step of the process. The whole exercise illustrated it is possible for a lesson to be instructive and entertaining at once.

While these lessons seemed to be laid on with a heavy hand, I couldn’t help think back to the video I posted yesterday which showed the first opera rehearsal with the singers and orchestra together.

There, the discussion of the role of the conductor and prompter was all about helping the artists to maintain pacing and remind them where they were in the process. That is pretty much what the passage I cited above discussed, so heavy handed or not, the use of a music ensemble to illustrate groups can be productive if left to govern themselves is valid.

I have come across the idea that performing arts groups can be used as examples of teams joining together to execute complex projects before. However, there was an example of the value of acting lessons I had never come across or considered:

But Mr Walker-Wise says that middle managers are often delivering words that are not their own (because they were devised by head office) or trying to inspire staff to meet an objective that was set by someone else. “The lesson from acting is how do I connect to this message without betraying my own personality,” he argues.

I am not sure that I would want acting to be valued for helping people to become better liars, but there are definitely times when we all need to learn to subsume our personal feelings in order organize others to accomplish a task. The military does this by instilling a sense of discipline and obedience, but their methods are not ones the general public will easily accept. Acting and other skills derived from performance training present an alternative method to get people working together as teams.

Feeling Less Conflicted About Conflicts of Interest

As the year comes to a close and you start attending parties hosted by different non-profit organizations, it may appear that the same people seem to be involved with every non-profit organization in town. With the flurry of fund raising appeals that are made this time of year, you may rightly wonder how these people balance their advocacy among all the groups with whom they are involved. Someone must be getting the short shrift, right?

It is with those types of questions in mind that I recently wrote a piece on ArtsHacker covering a conflict of interest article that appeared on Non-Profit Quarterly (NPQ).

There were a couple points I took away from the NPQ article by David Renz:

  • Where US conflict of interest rules address private benefit and financial gain, European rules take a broader view encompassing conflicting influences associated with being involved with many groups as in my example.
  • Not all conflicts of interests are equally severe. Openly recognizing, evaluating and accepting the risks involved can be beneficial to a non-profit organization.
  • It isn’t enough for a person to abstain from voting on an issue with which they are involved, they must abstain from exerting influence on others. And the organization must actively guard against the exercise of said influence
  • Disclosures of conflict should be made on an ongoing basis to the whole board rather than an annual ritual to be filed away or evaluated separately by an individual or small committee. In my mind, this contributes to organizational culture that has a constructive and educated understanding of conflicts of interest.
  • As is the case with policies and bylaws, don’t copy yours from another organization or the IRS boilerplate. Create a conflict of interest policy that meets the particular needs of your organization.

This post is an abridged version of my ArtsHacker post which only excerpted part of the excellent NPQ article. If your New Year’s resolutions are going to include taking a pro-active, less anxiety-driven approach to conflicts of interest, it may be worth taking a deeper look at both.


Toward Crafting Better Conflict Of Interest Policy And Practice

Life Beyond The Thunderdome

A few months back, Andrew Taylor at the Arts Management program over at American University linked to an interview with Ed Schein, professor emeritus of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  Schein basically says that the environment in which corporations operate these days is so complex that CEO’s don’t have the capacity to provide direction by themselves. However, the expectation that they should be able to do it all as an individual keeps them from admitting a different leadership dynamic is required.

Or as Schein says, “Leadership is a group sport, not an individual heroic activity.”

Even though Schein was primary speaking about the corporate environment, you can pretty much see this dynamic will be present in every size company and organization. What initially caught my attention was when Schein said in his eyes, leadership is the pursuit of something new and better but many CEO don’t really know how to accomplish that and don’t do the research and testing to discover what is viable.

Again, the seems to be a factor in non-profit arts organizations. We want to find that new audience or implement something new, but work more on hunches than data.

But Schein says, in the US at least, there is a strong societal expectation that the CEO be all-knowing expert who will move the organization forward with a mix of genius, charisma and sheer force of will.

So many CEOs don’t know how to ask their people what to do. They think they have to own it all. They have to be the big-shot hero, and the world expects them to be.


Because we have these monstrous notions of what leaders are supposed to do, all based on this old model. We need a whole new concept of what a leader does, what leadership is, and get rid of all this command and control.


Well, people being afraid is also the society saying, “You’re supposed to be in charge. And therefore, if you don’t know the answer, you’re not doing your job.” So naturally, the leader is going to feel afraid—he feels, “They’re going to discover that I don’t really know, and then they’ll fire me.” But this notion that the leader ought to know is, I think, a particularly American, individualistic idea.

Schein gives a number of examples of people he felt were humble leaders because they recognized that they needed to depend on the expertise of a group of people if success was to be achieved. This is not to say, they were completely team players who sought consensus in decision making. One of those Schein mentions is Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, who Schein acknowledges was an autocrat as much as he might have been humble enough to recognize he needed a team of experts in the transition from British rule.

If you have seen those lists defining leaders vs managers, you have probably sensed a negative connotation associated with management. However, that is what Schein says there needs to be more emphasis on:

…we may be overemphasizing leadership and underemphasizing managing. Is there no room for anything staying the same? We need a term for that, and the word “managing” is a pretty good one. We want the railroad to run on time, and that requires managers, not leaders. So we need to honor both what managers do to keep things moving and what leaders do who are really obsessed with improvement. What leadership does is make it new and better.

However, his concept of cultivating management is in terms of creating relationships that provide you with the data and experience informed advice and judgment necessary to make it new and better.

One of the problems of the managerial culture is that it is built on a transactional concept of how people should relate to each other. You have your role, I have my role. And we maintain a lot of distance because, if we get too close, I’ll be giving you favors and it’ll be too uncomfortable. Let’s stay in our boxes and in our roles.


To describe the process of getting from that role-based transaction to this more personal relationship we’re coining the word personize—not personalize, but personize. Get to know each other in the work context…My son-in-law doctor takes his nurse or his techs out to lunch. They build a new kind of relationship. So we call that a Level 2 relationship, or, to use another term, “professional intimacy”.

And if the potential leader doesn’t see that, that he or she needs that relationship to get anything done, then nothing will happen. They’ll complain, “Bureaucracy has stymied me once again.” But they reinforce the bureaucracy by maintaining distance.

That last line about distance reinforcing bureaucracy really gave me something to think about. I haven’t come to the conclusion he is right, but I definitely see an element of truth in there that I hadn’t recognized before.

In many respects, I think arts and cultural organizations tend to already have a work culture oriented toward the personized relationships advocated by Schein so perhaps the key is to pay closer attention to that and leverage it to our advantage in getting things accomplished.

I was going to title this post, “We don’t need another hero,” which made me think of the song Tina Turner did for Thunderdome. When I actually looked at the lyrics, I saw the lines:

And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains
We don’t need another hero,
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

The idea of life beyond Thunderdome being one that has moved beyond fear seemed more apt.

Gradually Finding The Leader Within

Long time readers know I am a fan of Peter Drucker’s short piece, Managing Oneself.  It has been awhile since I have sung its praises so it is timely that a TEDx Talk by Lars Sudmann about self-leadership came across my social media feeds recently.

Actually, it was a written summary of the talk on the TED website that initially came to my attention.

One of the first things I appreciated about Sudmann’s talk was that he acknowledged that good leadership is a lot easier in theory than in practice. As a subordinate, we always have ideas running through our heads about how we would do a better job than our bosses if we were in charge. Then when we are actually put in charge, we get bogged down with all the details and demands for our time.

Sudmann talks about walking in to his first staff meeting, resolved to be an inspiring, dynamic and awesome leader only to have the conversation bogged down by a discussion of email signature files.

Where I really agree with Sudmann is his suggestion that self-reflection and introspection is one of the most important traits of a good leader. It isn’t enough to simply make a list of your strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge them, you have to be in the practice of evaluating your daily decisions and activities.

Drucker covers this in his piece too. He urges people to become aware of their strengths and what they need to become better and encourages people to share how they work best with co-workers as a way of enlisting their in providing materials and opportunities in a manner that aids your improvement.

Sudmann cites Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher recognized as one of the better Roman Emperors, who focused much of his time practicing self-leadership versus trying to lead others.

Sudmann suggests that a little self-examination can result in a realization that we share many of the traits we dislike about those we consider bad leaders. You can do the same thing with the traits you admire in others:

Every day, take 5- 10 minutes to think about the challenges you’ve recently handled and the ones you’ll soon face. While Marcus Aurelius was fond of reflecting in the evening, Sudmann likes doing this over morning coffee. Questions to pose include: “How did my leadership go yesterday? How would the leader I’d like to be have faced the challenges I faced? What about my challenges today? What could I do differently?” Write down your thoughts so you can refer back to them and learn from them.

Prioritizing issues is also an important part of leadership. If you hadn’t guessed it already, a discussion about email signatures shouldn’t occupy important staff meetings.

You should engage with 9s and 10s right away, but you’ll find that many things which shatter your calm will be of lesser importance. With anything that’s a 6 or lower, either excuse yourself physically (“I need to take a quick break; be right back”) or figuratively (“Let me take a minute to go over what you’ve said”). Then, give yourself a moment to think: “How would the leader I aspire to be handle this situation?” The answer will come to you.

There are pretty much direct parallels between strategic plans and developing leadership skills. Just as you shouldn’t put a strategic plan on a shelf after investing time in examining the state of your organization and creating a plan to guide the organization into the future, you don’t want to scrutinize your strengths and weaknesses and do nothing to address them until the next crisis or next scheduled board/supervisor evaluation.

I also see parallels between the approach Sudmann  espouses and Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative.  (You knew I was going to tie something back to that sooner or later!)  Just as building public will for arts and culture is a long term plan focused on continuous improvement and consistent messaging, so too is the process of becoming a better leader.


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