Art and the Zen of Leadership

Take The Lead Board chair Dr. Nancy O’Reilly, me, and board member Loretta McCarthy are ready to take on the challenges and bring women fully in to leadership parity!

Issue 58 — July 22, 2018

Recent articles reporting David Solomon as Goldman Sachs’s next CEO invariably toss off that his hobby is being an electronic dance music DJ. They say this is “unexpected” or “unlikely” for a financial industry executive.

But I think that seeming quirk might well be exactly what qualifies Solomon to take on the top role in a fast-moving and often chaotic industry.

In my own leadership experience and now as someone who trains and consults with leaders, I observe that those who engage in any of the arts, whether as an active participant or a fan, benefit greatly from it.

It lets you see differently, think differently, and do differently.

Art shakes out the mental cobwebs so you can innovate and solve complex problems. It builds empathy and enables you to coalesce others around a vision.

It’s chicken soup for the leader’s soul.

I had a chance to witness a microcosm of these processes at Take The Lead’s July 18 fundraising event hosted by artist Linda Stein.

The award-winning actress Kathleen Turner joins me in welcoming everyone while artist Linda Stein strikes her own power pose in front of one of her iconic pieces.

After navigating down three steep flights of stairs into the subterranean cocoon of Stein’s gallery, the guests typically stopped to take in the surroundings, transfixed by Stein’s over-the-top gorgeous body-swapping sculptures, wall pieces, and wearable art. We had entered a different culture.

Not like Alice going down the rabbit hole to a fantastical alternative universe where nothing made sense. Instead, this felt like female power was magically given its rightful space for a change.

And suddenly that made perfect sense.

No, we don’t have to cross our legs demurely. Yes, Stein’s “Bully Proof” Vests with Wonder Woman peeking out here and there are sure protection.

Linda Stein explaining her mural — check out the video from the night at the end for her brilliant tour of this piece!

And as the guests one by one were helped to try on Stein’s signature feminine and feminist armor, they got into their power poses. Even the most buttoned-up, super serious people exuded sheer joy.

Take The Lead’s Laura Smith Dunaief who is launching not just arrows but a 50 Women Can Change The World in Finance this fall!

Journalist Farai Chideya, now of the Ford Foundation, dons boxing gloves and armor to assist Sally McCartin.

Some donned boxing gloves. Some posed with a bow and arrow. Some required no further props to reach full self-expression. They were in touch with their own superpowers.

In short, they were able to experience the world and their space in it differently.

“The real act of discovery,” Marcel Proust wrote, “consists not in finding new lands but in seeing with new eyes.”

Music, visual arts, performance, writing, or whatever form it takes, art helps leaders excel in at least three ways.

First, you are freed to see problems and opportunities in new ways.

People in Stein’s gallery that evening, female and male alike, started to see the entire construct of gender differently. The conversation about the mission they had come to support — women’s leadership parity — became lighter, more open and optimistic.

Powerful women: Take The Lead board chair Dr. Nancy O’Reilly and actress Elisabeth Ness, both spoke passionately about The 50 Women Can Change The World programs — Elisabeth just finished the four-month immersive with the Media & Entertainment group. Hear them both in the live tape of the evening.

Seeing with different eyes is the first step to sparking innovation and creating solutions to complex problems.

“Today the most successful companies don’t just out-compete their rivals. They redefine the terms of competition by embracing one-of-a-kind ideas in a world of copycat thinking. Which means, almost by definition, that the best leaders see things that other leaders don’t see,” writes Fast Company magazine co-founder Bill Taylor in the Harvard Business Review.

Second, immersion in arts teaches or allows leaders to coalesce people around a vision. Literary metaphors, for example, can drive change and communicate vision more powerfully than dry facts.

Metaphors literally help us think. They enable us to visualize and organize our thoughts so that we can go forward even or perhaps especially in tough times to achieve our mission. We can make the complex simple enough that our teams can coalesce and have the courage to do what seems impossible.

Howard Schultz of Starbucks [used this metaphor] when returning as CEO in 2008 to address a cascade of issues that threatened the organization’s culture and future. He said, “There’s a metaphor Vincent Eades likes to use: ‘If you examine a butterfly according to the laws of aerodynamics, it shouldn’t be able to fly. But the butterfly doesn’t know that, so it flies.’”

The third way art opens the mind and feeds leader’s soul is that by listening, looking, or creating, you expand your own appreciation of diverse talent and cultures. Empathy is enhanced and that in turn draws people together.

I routinely build poetry, drawing, and music into our 50 Women Can Change The World programs. These are immersive programs based in the 9 Leadership Power Tools to Advance Your Career for emerging women leaders in various sectors such as healthcare, finance, journalism, and entertainment. For the most part, the participants don’t know each other before they come together. But soon they form cohorts.

Last year, for the #50WomenCan program for nonprofit leaders, I was able to secure free tickets for the cohort to attend an evening of performance and storytelling headlined by Glennon Doyle, Amy Wambach, and Luvvie Ajayi.

Says Ajayi of why she participates in the tour, “I know that my audience will benefit from hearing the stories of women, who, on first glance, they may think they have nothing in common with.”

It was a long evening and I was afraid that the women would be tired the next morning.

Instead, the group was energized. They came in buzzing with new ideas for how they could better serve their clients and community. They talked about being ready to lead. And they had organically bonded in a new way to support each other on their journeys.

Stein asks the question, “How do we find the courage, the bravery to break these molds [of gendered constrictions]?”

Certainly, one answer is through the leadership of her art.

When I asked the audience at our event how they felt when they donned the armor, “Powerful!” was the resounding reply.

P.S. I know so many of you couldn’t join us but here’s a tape of the short program and a unique opportunity to hear Linda Stein talk about her art and its inspirations and ways you too can be a part of the new kind of power our 50 Women Can Change The World programs are building.

GLORIA FELDTis the New York Times bestselling author of several books including No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, a sought-after speaker and frequent contributor to major news outlets, and the Co-Founder and President of Take The Lead. People has called her “the voice of experience,” and among the many honors she has been given, Vanity Fair called her one of America’s “Top 200 Women Legends, Leaders, and Trailblazers,” and Glamour chose her as a “Woman of the Year.” As co-founder and president of Take The Lead, a leading women’s leadership nonprofit, her mission is to achieve gender parity by 2025 through innovative training programs, workshops, a groundbreaking 50 Women Can Change The World immersive, online courses, a free weekly newsletter, and events including a monthly Virtual Happy Hour program and a Take The Lead Day symposium that reached over 400,000 women globally in 2017.