Learning Leadership through Art

April 18, 2017

As part of the “Nature of Leadership” retreat I helped run last week, everyone painted an oil painting. For most, it was their first one ever and it was clear that this experience deeply impacted each person and the team on many levels.

First, though oil painting is not as “adventurous” as mountain climbing, our clients found that they had to overcome a different kind of fear, so they could break through a different kind of limit. As C-level executives at technology companies, oil painting is a very unfamiliar challenge. When they first learned they would be painting, many responded with, “Impossible.” They had to alter their thinking, applying the same positive attitude they use in their professional life to overcome this fear of painting. The hardest step was to put down the first stroke on the white canvas.

Second, while oil painting appears to be an individual exercise, our clients realized that team support makes a big difference for everyone’s success. After overcoming their initial fear of getting started, many of these normally very confident and authoritative executives soon experienced a “break down” moment – they felt desperate from their lack of skills and their self-confidence plunged. Several people almost wanted to throw away their brushes and trash the canvas. At such moments, sincere compliments from colleagues, along with advice from the coaches, was a huge morale boost that encouraged them to continue the work.

Third, as they compared paintings later, it was very amusing and amazing to see how everyone painted dramatically different paintings from looking at the same spot. The art of painting is not just a copy machine production of the world in front of us, but a recreation of the world from the painter’s mind. It’s not just what they see, but how they interpret it, how they wish it to be, and what they desire. Regardless of skill level, the painting also reflects the person’s personality in an amazingly accurate way!

The same thing happens in our communication and collaboration with others. We hear the same thing and see the same thing, but everyone can interpret them differently; some would rather believe things are what they wish for, instead of what they actually are. Then we pass on our understanding of the situation to others, naturally adding our own intentions, wishes, and pre-judgments. It’s important to realize that everyone’s opinions and understanding of the same situation can be justifiably different. Instead of trying to quickly judge the other person, we should try to understand them first.

Finally, after we finished painting, we had a round-table discussion where everyone explained his/her motivation and the process behind his/her painting; then, other members of the team talked about what they saw from others’ paintings. It was very interesting how everyone noticed different things from the same painting and got different feelings about the person or personality behind the same painting.

This is like any review/reflection process we have after each project or event because reflection is the most important part of the learning experience. How the artist intended the painting and interpreted his/her own painting is totally different from what it looked like to others. In fact, who we are in our own eyes can be quite different from who we appear to be in others’ eyes. It’s hard to see ourselves. Sometimes we miss our greatest attributes, and, of course, sometimes we miss our biggest shortcomings. Through listening to how other people interpreted each painting, we get a direct connection as to how others understand the artist’s personality, style of communicating, and/or behavior.

More important, for a leader, it’s important to understand other people’s unspoken intentions, unexpressed emotions, and unvoiced desires. When we are giving our take on others’ paintings, we are actually practicing understanding others beyond words, or, in this case, beyond the surface of the painting.

Art is not only a healing and self-discovery experience for each person, and when done as a group, it is a great team building process. Not only did the team encourage each other during painting, but helped one another by offering ideas and feedback. More importantly, the whole team gained an understanding of each other at a much deeper level through their reflection, so they could bond at a much more intimate level.