Art And Leadership

Every human being has some leadership in them. And, every human being has some artist inside them as well. Is this true? We discussed and debated with Elsabe Donovan, founder of Open Window Institute, a private university that, in essence trains modern day artists or designers. Could the awakening of the artist inside someone improve their leadership capability?

Donovan started her leadership career teaching art to mothers and friends in her garage and took this to eventually becoming a private university of international repute. It is an amazing story! Listen here

During our leadership master lesson portion of the leadership master class (Listen here), we first looked at what art is? For me, if you asked what art was I would answer that it’s a painting, or a sculpture. For Donovan Art has been around for as long as humans exist. It is a form of expression, unique and authentic; it makes the invisible visible. Art is a visual language; a way to make sense of the world; it reflects the way we see or interpret things.

Art has developed with new mediums like digital, light, sound, and more. So art has been redefined in a way; its purpose has changed over years, according to Donovan.

Today Applied arts is an important part of our society and indeed it is shaping the world. We refer to it as industrial design, graphic design, and interior design. More than ever creativity is required in all kinds of industries, which means creative thinkers are very much in demand.

As she explained art to us I already started seeing the similarities between a so called artist and a leader. Do leaders not make the invisible visible, by way of a vision or dream that eventually becomes a reality? Do leaders not try to make sense of the world?

Donovan described the typical artist as someone that finds the balance between letting go and being disciplined; someone that breaks new ground, invents and innovates; someone that’s curious, investigative, and experimental and who is willing to fail. Again, see the similarities to a leader?

She believes all human beings have some artist in them, to some extent. However, this is where she started differentiating between a real artist and creativity. For Donovan we all definitely have creativity inside us, but it has to be brought to the surface, cultivated, which can be done via deliberate exercises.

What doesn’t help is that society is not very creativity friendly. We live in a world of rules and regulations, which easily inhibits the artist and even creative capacity of human beings. Despite this the artist has always played a leading role in society by pushing creative boundaries. Therefore, a creative artist will not be held back by societal norms. According to Donovan “most true artists are strong minded and will not allow their creativity to be suppressed. A real creative person is ruled by his creativity”.

I reiterate the similarity with leaders who always push boundaries for change, often creative change and they don’t allow rules and regulations to stop them from affecting this.

According to Donovan “leaders of today must be creative because they constantly deal with problem solving”. She also believes they should celebrate the creative thinkers in their organization; learn to develop lateral thinking skills, ‘agile’ thinking; cultivate positive thinking because negative thinking prevents creativity.

Donovan is convinced that

“without creativity, there is no innovation, with no innovation, no transformation, with no transformation the world does not evolve to become a better place”.

Innovation is essential for our world to move forward. We cannot argue with this.

How does she believe we can unlock the artist or creativity of ourselves and our people?

  • Firstly believe in your capacity to develop a more creative approach to life – you are your own biggest stumbling block
  • There are various exercises to improve creative thinking: Edward de Bono books can help
  • Creative thinking is no talent but rather a learnable skill, although creative aptitude runs in a family
  • Exercise 1: Brainstorm – you have to find 25 solutions; go beyond the obvious
  • Exercise 2: How would you resolve something if you had no money?
  • Exercise 3: Deliberately challenges existing rules and systems and create new rules

Finally, Elsabe Donovan shared some leadership and life lessons that she picked up along the way:

  • Good people make your product
  • Create a culture of leadership through an established value system – what does the company stand for; where does it go
  • Develop good decision makers
  • Change is the only constant – accept the dynamic nature of the organization
  • Everything is changing all the time – people, trends, economy, technology, consumer needs
  • Be change sensitive – change management is a given for sustainability
  • Pre-empt what is going to happen: where are your competitors are moving?

There is no doubt that the age we live in yearns for more creative leaders that sculpture or design and re-design their organisations and future. In todays interconnected and ever changing world we need leaders that think more like Artists – breaking new ground; inventing and innovating; that’s curious, investigative, and experimental and who are willing to fail fast, recover fast and move fast.

For more on what we do to empower individual leaders, teams and organisations – read here

Adriaan Groenewald is a leadership expert and commentator. Do you recognize some areas in yourself or your team that need improvement? Email Adriaan on for more on creating “Leadership Fit” leaders that generate successful movement (performance) inside your organisation. Follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP or @LeadershipPform.




Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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Leadership Platform is a specialist leadership development consultancy, focusing on creating measurable impact to the bottom line through the enhancement of leadership understanding and engagement.


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