The Art and Science of Leadership
Truly great leaders are both artists and scientists.
Leadership draws ideas from across the intellectual spectrum, and it forges them into something unique and its own. Unlike so many areas of thinking it can’t be neatly stuck away in a box labeled ‘art’ or ‘science’. There are acts of analysis and of empathy, of slow careful refinement and sudden intuitive leaps. There are times to measure what we already have and times to create something completely new.
Leadership is both art and science.
The Art of Leadership
It’s easy to miss the artistic side of leadership. We don’t get to paint murals across the walls of the executive suite. We don’t get to make presentations in the form of interpretive dance. We don’t get to write reports in flowery, flowing prose – well, not unless we’re feeling lucky.
But leadership is built around an act of pure imagination, one that lies at the heart of all art. Because so much of leadership, especially your relationships with people, is built on putting yourself in other people’s shoes. It’s an act of empathy, and empathy is an act of imagination, of recreating someone else’s thoughts and feelings in your own head so that you can understand and work with them. All great literature is built upon empathy, and yet when leaders empathize we don’t recognize this for the art that it is. But the art of empathy is vital to understanding the people you work with and for, and so finding ways to motivate and interest them.
Creating and innovating are also the works of an artistic mindset. Think of Apple and the great success they’ve had with their products. That comes from a focus on design and aesthetics, and how these affect the experience for their customers. It comes from imagining new products that no-one has seen. The iPhone was once just a figment of somebody’s imagination.
Or look at the experiments Google has conducted with using and sharing information. Creative leadership has led to dozens of different products. Some, like Google Wave, have failed, but the ones that succeed have proved so useful that we now take them for granted, whether it’s Gmail, Google Drive or Google+. The ability to see the potential in new ideas is an act of imagination, an act of art.
The artistic side is vital to making leadership creative and empathetic. Without it, leaders cannot innovate or understand the people around them. It is the use of imagination to further your goals.
The Science of Leadership
There is some obvious science in the way that modern leadership works. In the age of big data and predictive analytics we are constantly working with the science of statistics, with complex equations and models of the world around us, with understanding the patterns behind the behavior of people and of markets.
But even if leaders don’t need to be data scientists, even if others do the analysis for us, we are still following the fundamental process of science in every decision that we make.
At its core, science is not microscopes and telescopes, theorems and equations, evolution and quantum mechanics, the scientific method is about looking at the evidence in front of you and using it to form conclusions. It is, as YouTube star Hank Green sings, a process not an ideology.
That process is one that leaders use every day. We look at the information we have been provided with, whether that’s sales figures, health and safety legislation or low staff morale in the admin team. We use the available evidence to draw conclusions about what is happening, why it’s happening and how we can best deal with it.
That right there is the science of leadership. But why does it matter?
Simply put, without science we could not get closer to the truth. That scientific side of leadership – looking at the data, analyzing it, understanding what it means – brings us an understanding of our business and the environment in which it works. It allows us to work on the basis of facts, not assumptions. Without it, we could easily put all our effort into work that achieves little or nothing.
Leaders Aren’t Alone
Modern culture often sets up art and science as if they were totally separate, or even in conflict with each other. But the reality is that leaders bridge that gap, and that we are far from the first people to do so.
That scientific side of leadership – looking at the data, analyzing it, understanding what it means – brings us an understanding of our business and the environment in which it works.
Leonardo da Vinci is one of the most famous figures in the history of art. The Mona Lisa and the Sistine Chapel remain among the crowning achievements of human creativity. But Leonardo was also a man of science, constantly examining, measuring and seeking to understand the world around him. He analyzed the flowing of water, the parts of the human body, the very systems of the world. He applied both his fine scientific understanding and his wild artistic imagination to create machines unlike any the world had seen.
For modern leaders, art and science represent innovation, motivation and insight. We use artistic thinking to understand and motivate others, as well as to introduce new ideas and ways of working. Through the scientific method of data capture and analysis we are able to see whether our innovations are working, where our businesses are heading, and where to turn that imaginative attention next.
None of us leading modern companies would claim to be the next da Vinci, but we can learn from his example, follow in his footsteps and combine art and science to achieve great things.