September 2012 | 

What Business Can Learn from Art

Business Learns From Art

Jack Welsh, Vijay Govindarajan, Stephen Covey; Cezanne, Picasso, De Kooning: who do you turn to for advice? If you attend one of Wharton Executive Education’s senior management programs, lessons are as likely to come from prominent business gurus as from artistic icons. Sessions that draw from the arts and humanities not only allow participants to tap into their creativity, but also sharpen their ability to observe, think critically, solve problems, innovate, and lead.

David Heckman, who serves as the practice leader of Wharton’s Senior Management Programs, explains, “Programs such as Wharton Fellows: Master Classes and Networking for Senior Executives and Global CEO Program: A Transformational Journey use the arts to develop self-awareness and  a broader view of current challenges and opportunities. Artists see more than what is there, reinterpreting reality, and that visionary capacity is something today’s leaders need to develop more of. You can gain a distinct advantage by gaining a broader sense of our collective humanity through an expanded set of lenses.”

In the Advanced Management Program, participants experience the discipline and rigor of modern American contemporary poetry to understand how prosody, rhythm, and cadence influence and shape communication. In Global Strategic Leadership, a session is held in the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where executives experience modern masterpieces and how artists ushered in new genres of art that differentiated them from the predecessors without forgetting their past.

Wharton marketing professor Jerry Wind notes that as executives experience art, they can connect both with the work as well as with its creator to gain key insights. “A work of art represents a different way of seeing. The artist makes a choice about what to interpret, and how to communicate the message, and it is important to consider those choices. But the meaning of art,” explains Wind, “is not in the art itself, but in the interaction between the art and the viewer.”

A contemporary artist who explores this interaction explicitly is Michelangelo Pistoletto, who integrates the viewer and the art by painting on reflective surfaces — the viewer literally becomes part of the painting. Wind notes, “Pistoletto pushes the boundaries of what art is, transforming it from object to experience. It’s much like current branding efforts. Every manager should understand what artists already know: branding is how you are perceived. Your product or service doesn't matter until it is experienced, and you have an opportunity to shape that experience.”

There are also valuable lessons to be learned from artists themselves. Like today’s business leaders, they rely on previous traditions. But building on the past is not the goal; moving beyond it into new territory is. Leadership in art and in business becomes a balance between a preconceived plan with its roots in tradition and an agile response into that new territory, in the moment.

Wind, co-author of The Power of Impossible Thinking, notes that artists exemplify thinking out of the box and can inspire others to do so. “Although they live in the same world as the rest of us, they see things and make connections that others don’t. They push the boundaries of what is possible. If that is what you expect of yourself as a leader, or of those who you lead, finding ways to facilitate encounters with art can be a powerful and profitable business strategy.” SEI Investments CEO Alfred West, for example, displays his large collection of works by emerging artists throughout SEI’s campuses. The asset management and technology solutions provider expects its employees to push the boundaries of what is possible, just as the artwork that surrounds them does.

As Michelangelo Pistoletto describes, “Traditionally, art was seen as a window on the world, but now the mirror reverses this perspective and becomes the ‘Door to the world.’” Visionary leadership also provides a “door to the world,” showing us what is possible — whether in terms of sustaining growth, responding to cultural changes, or managing stakeholders — rather than what already is.