We used to have a course at CCL called “Leading Creatively,” for which I was a lead instructor. It was a course that used art as a metaphor for leadership. It wasn’t easy. It was a difficult five-day journey, and its graduates were immensely grateful, tremendously loyal. They learned a huge amount about themselves, about others, and about leadership. We haven’t offered it as an open enrollment program for several years, although is it still sometimes requested as a custom program. I still think nostalgically about it from time to time because it was one of the most powerful programs I have ever had the privilege to lead, even though it was a dragon to market. We just couldn’t talk people into it ahead of time. I can’t tell you about the entire course in one little blog, but I can introduce you into one small part—the art of drawing.
One of my opportunities as a trainer was to lead our participants, over the course of several days, to the place where they finally drew their own beautiful hands. The results were without exception astonishing. Breathtaking. Leaders who accomplished this after thinking for three days that they could not were thunderstruck at the results. We used Dr. Betty Edwards’ technology and gave out copies of her flagship text, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. The reason we used it was not only for its successful drawing instruction but also because it was connected with Dr. Edwards’ extensive research into how the brain works at Cal State Long Beach.
Dr. Edwards was involved in split-brain research from an early day. She had a vivid understanding about the two different ways in which the brain thinks, and developed a brilliant vision about how to integrate both ways into whole-brain thinking, actually making people smarter by using the “two sides” of their brains together. Most of us use our so-called left brains very effectively. (Linear, rational, verbal, logical, symbolic, and so on.) It’s our right side of the brain that needs a bit of work. (Aesthetic, emotional, musical, imaginative, visual, and so on.) And then some work on integrating the two. The very best in science, art, business and leadership always integrates the two.
Everything we do at CCL has to do with leadership. Always. Even if it also has to do with creativity, or with how the brain works, or with making people smarter. So how does drawing relate to leadership?
Making a drawing is very like solving a difficult problem. The best way to start is to examine the problem very closely, like a serious detective solving a tough cold case. Not looking for short cuts that will only lead one down the path of what’s already been seen, but down the more difficult path of what’s been missed. Draw what you actually see before you, not what you think you see, we said emphatically over and over. Our expectations can so mislead us, not only in drawing, but also in problem-solving and certainly in leadership—especially when they mislead us into missing what is actually there. The results in drawing can be disappointing or amusing. The results in leadership can be disastrous.
The technology of excellent drawing requires us to slow down so we can see. Once we have learned to do this, paradoxically, we can learn to do it quickly. As leaders, being able to slow ourselves down quickly keeps us from going off half-cocked, half-ready, half-aimed. It’s too soon to fire before we can actually see what’s before us. Police officers have to slow themselves down quickly in simulated shooting tests so they don’t shoot the little girl with the puppy. The same on the street, with higher stakes. In drawing, the stakes are low. We practice with a sketchbook instead of a pistol or a nuclear weapon.
When we draw, we learn to look at the boundaries. What part of this is my hand and what part of it is a shadow? Sometimes we can see more effectively if we change the light, or look at the empty spaces. Drawing forces us too look at the edges of the “problem,” because we are drawing with a line. There are no “lines,” in nature, just as nature does not always create actual “boundaries” between countries. They are artificial boundaries, just like pencil lines. Knowing the difference between what’s “real” and what’s contrived can make the difference between strong and weak leadership. As leaders we have to learn not to be deceived by our own press, or any other contrivance of our own leadership. We have to know what part of the problem is real.
As drawing artists, we also have to look at the whole picture, not just the one line we are drawing. We have to check the fit of the line with the other lines that are already there. We have to look at the gestalt. Check the entire picture and rely on our sharpened intuition to tell us if it looks right. In leadership, we must be aware of the whole system. Those reporting to us rely on us to be aware of the things that they cannot see. That’s why we’re the leader, after all. We have that vision. We have that insight.
In drawing, as in leadership, we have to develop our ability to see things accurately and represent them effectively. We have to learn to not be deceived by our own expectations and our hopes and fears. We have to learn to put everything into perspective, including our own leadership.