January 22, 2023
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Op/ed: Cultivating leadership through the arts


By Ritch K. Eich

One constant in business is the need for leaders who can inspire their teams and bring creativity to the challenges of global competition.

While battlefields, universities and public service have long been a repository for leadership, there remains one important, untapped arena from which we have much to learn: the arts.

On the political front, we have stumbled in developing the George Washingtons, the Abe Lincolns, the FDRs, the Eisenhowers and the Ronald Reagans — strong leaders who rallied wide support and accomplished many of their goals. On the business front, we need more successful leaders like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs who can extend America’s lead in entrepreneurship and innovation.

We need to look to new places to develop our nation’s leaders in government and business. The art world remains an under-recognized learning laboratory for leadership.

General Motors’ new CEO Mary Barra, a genuinely humble, practical leader with a defined sense of style, is an excellent example of an engineer-humanist who thinks and acts outside the lines of a carefully scripted job description. And, she strongly encourages her employees to do the same. As a result, GM employees trust her, admire her and work hard for her.

It’s time to bolster and support the arts in existing leadership programs. Many leadership skills can be learned from the arts. Consider what a theater producer, an orchestra conductor, a dance team captain and a marching band director have in common.

They lead a collaborative effort where teamwork, discipline, cooperation and creativity are essential. They pass on to their groups invaluable skills like the experience of dealing with adversity, learning to be inventive, sacrificing for the good of the whole, practicing joint decision-making, following instructions and the importance of preparation.

Artists of all kinds — from singers, dancers, trumpet players and actors to set designers, costume makers, directors and stagehands — learn originality, innovation, advanced planning, time management, discipline, collaboration, cooperation and how to inspire others. Artists learn to work within a budget and improvise.

Business owner and author Lisa Phillips wrote about the power of the arts and their tie to leadership skills. She detailed specific leadership skills offered by the arts:

• Confidence and the ability to take command of the stage, deliver a message, make a presentation and perform in front of large audiences.

• Problem solving and the ability to reason, understand and overcome failure.

• Perseverance. When faced with challenges, great leaders don’t quit; they see it through and find a solution to overcome obstacles.

• The ability to collaborate.

Apple’s Steve Jobs often spoke of the connection between technology, the humanities and the arts. In 2010, while introducing the iPad, he said, “It’s in Apple’s DNA that technology alone is not enough. It’s technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing.”

Jobs was not alone. “Arts education aids students in skills needed in the workplace: flexibility, the ability to solve problems and communicate, the ability to learn new skills, to be creative and innovative, and to strive for excellence,” said Xerox executive Joseph M. Calahan.

Clifford V. Smith, president of the General Electric Foundation, said, “GE hires a lot of engineers. We want young people who can do more than add up a string of numbers and write a coherent sentence. They must be able to solve problems, communicate ideas and be sensitive to the world around them. Participation in the arts is one of the best ways to develop these abilities.”

And, former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett observed, “The arts are an essential element of education, just like reading, writing, and arithmetic … music, dance, painting, and theater are all keys that unlock profound human understanding and accomplishment.”

Perhaps it’s not too late for our nation’s leaders to take a day off to attend the symphony or the theater. They might learn something that will make them better leaders.

• Ritch K. Eich of Thousand Oaks is the author of two leadership books, a retired Navy captain and a management consultant.