The Art of Leadership

Lessons from the Art Studio

“Students who are truly student-athletes have a chance for a life-transforming, life-shaping experience. I can tell you how thankful I am for having had that experience and how it’s shaped me in countless ways. It’s an absolutely formative experience.”
– U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Speaker at the 2010 NCAA National Convention in Atlanta, Ga.

Leadership is one of the most important topics of our time.  And it’s likely one of the most important attributes for effectiveness in any human endeavor.  The success of any institution, organization, group, or team, is grounded in the effective application of leadership.  For any organization to sustain success requires the development of leaders—current and future—to avoid a regression towards mediocrity.

Since the dawn of civilization, groups have utilized leadership for various purposes beginning with the need for survival.  Organizations today view leadership as a necessity for success and it is hard to find a person today who does not give at least lip service to the importance of developing leaders.

Yet despite this apparent intent to nurture the development of leaders, we still find ourselves desperately searching for leaders that can create and sustain success.  Perhaps part of the problem is the way we teach leadership.

I teach leadership courses in two different graduate colleges for the same university.  Different students, same classroom.  The classroom consists of a podium, tables with chairs and a white board.  The rooms are designed for teachers to stand and students to sit.

However, the classroom in which my colleague teaches art is quite different.  In her art studio she often does not stand and students don’t sit.  The simple structure of the classroom leads to a different mode of learning.  Students in the art classroom poke around, observing the work of their fellow students.  They ask questions, exchange insights, and offer praise or constructive critiques.  Mistakes are not seen as failures.  Rather, the art student returns to the canvas to try again.

I’ve learned some powerful lessons from studying learning in the art studio. Two, of them in particular have reshaped the way I approach leadership development.

  1. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
  2. The fear of failure will guarantee failure.

Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly
Not the orthodox way of looking at excellence.  However, leadership is a messy proposition for anyone learning to lead.  Leadership is worth doing badly.  Encourage your student-athletes to get going, start leading and take the lumps that comes with learning to lead.

The art studio provides a model for crafting one’s leadership mindset and skill set.

The art studio encourages the student to take risks.  Taking risks—experimentation—and being willing to do leadership badly are part of the learning process.  In the art studio students are encouraged when they do something badly.  They quickly look at the bad product and figure out how to improve upon their work.

To offer some real-world perspective on bad leadership as a learning opportunity, take a quick look backwards to when you took your first coaching job.  Who among us can’t look back and see incompetence and failure in our leadership efforts during our formative years?  I’m on pretty safe ground knowing that all competent coaches attended Hard Knocks University.

Here’s a simple way for you to guide your student-athletes to face the fact that risk is necessary for them to fully develop as a leader.  Have them set up a matrix that involves listing leadership goals on one side of the ledger with possible risks on the other.


Leadership Goal
To promote team unity through a weekly players only meeting

One or more team members do not want to attend and see the leaders as “better than them”

Fear of Failure Will Guarantee Failure
While the artist’s palette contains a wide-array of vibrant colors, the only color emerging leaders see is gray.  Nothing appears to be black and white for the beginning leader.  She’s not sure where to start, what to do, how to take leadership action.  Fear of failure is real.

Failure often affects confidence and self-esteem.  However, failure is not fatal.  Giving your leaders the license to fail is a starting point.  Creating a learner-centered approach to leader development can help the novice and the experienced team leader. Artists that persevere face their fear of failure. Failure in the art studio is guaranteed.  Perfection is desired, but failure is acknowledged as part of the process.

I’ve noticed far too many young leaders fearful of leaving their comfort zones, clinging to what is comfortable and secure.  The art student is encouraged to venture out and explore new styles and tools.  In the art studio it is folly to discount mistakes.

In the art studio, students are confronted with reality.  What they put on canvas is available for all to see.  Sometimes the visible picture doesn’t match the artist’s heart and effort.  Such moments can be both disheartening and empowering.   Vulnerability is a vital part of learning to become an artist—and a team leader.

Leadership certainly can begin to be taught in a conventional classroom.  Leadership development, however, must be learned in the unconventional classroom—which in sports is the practice and playing field.  Leadership lessons are found everywhere.  Keep searching and teaching.

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