Lessons in Leadership from Artists

by | Jan 21, 2021

2020 was a year that demanded, more than ever, leadership from all sides: political, social, and business. The issue with leadership is that we tend to only think of it as something hierarchy related or related to only business or politics. Yes, the choices of business leaders, politicians, and our own managers have a large effect on our daily lives, but people in these roles are not the only leaders we can look up to. 

With the way our social culture is constantly changing, especially given increased interconnectedness across various platforms, we need people who can feel those changes and respond accordingly.

Look at Amanda Gorman, the poet laureate who recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb,” at the inauguration of U.S President Joe Biden. Through her words, she painted a vision of hope for the future. She tapped into people’s feelings of anxiousness and created a work to share with others. A look at any one of the glowing reviews written about her shows just how much people connected with what she said. 

That is part of the roles artists take in our society – painting a vision for the future that taps into our hopes and desires. They help set the cultural compass and point us to where we need to go. Sounds a lot like a leader, right?

While before, we may have praised leaders who focused on high financial returns, younger generations are praising leaders who are pairing this with social awareness policies. Suddenly, sustainability and social impact are no longer taboo in the business world but are actually being included in business strategy. 

These changes require today’s leaders to adopt a wider lens of the world. They need to see from diverse points of view and look beyond their current reality. Without this lens, they might miss – not only changes in society but also changes within their own organizations.

While we don’t usually think of artists as leaders, they are well equipped to deal with this new challenge because leadership does not only belong in the worlds of business or politics. Leadership is broader than that – it’s about people. And artists are already natural, cultural leaders who know how to predict changes, spark movements, and respond to challenges.

They are always a step ahead of society because they are also the ones creating it!

And on top of that, they know how to present these issues in a way that appeals to people on an emotional level. So not only can they present a variety of issues, but they can also do it in a way that pulls in diverse audiences. 

Our podcast guest Nico Daswani, head of Art and Culture at the World Economic Forum, saw firsthand the effects of arts and artists on business leaders. The World Economic Forum, an international, not-for-profit organization, strives to provide a platform to changemakers in business and policy.  The Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, according to Daswani, was the perfect place to see just how impactful artists, and their mindset, could be in the world of business. 

Through his observations, we were able to determine the three main traits that make artists the leaders of the future:


Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion, Plate 626, 1887 | Source: Wikimedia Commons National Gallery of Art


Diverse Perspectives

Artists are constantly trying to understand the world around them – from why society operates the way it does to how people interact with each other. A skill like this doesn’t just result in being empathetic. It also means being interested in a variety of things, and not sticking to only one discipline or sphere of knowledge.

With this curiosity, they can understand a wide range of issues. By actively seeking out different points of view, they can better understand how to lead and communicate their message effectively.  

Business people and artists are often thought to contrast each other completely. However, the interaction Daswani cultivates between the two allows them to see just how influential they both are as cultural changemakers. It also allows each side to share ideas and information about certain topics. 

Think about climate change – one of the most popular topics in recent years. Many of us know about it and have probably experienced its impact. But we still don’t seem to be actively changing our behavior. How can we communicate the urgency of a topic like this to the general public and world leaders?

Well, Daswani’s idea was to invite American artists Milica Zec and Winslow Porter to create an installation at the World Economic Forum’s meeting in Davos. Their creation, called Tree VR, turned the user into a tree through virtual reality, making their body the trunk and their arms the branches. 

The work creatively presented the issue of climate change to business leaders in a way that caught their attention. And it created a conversation about sustainability among the top business leaders that attended, planting the seeds for change. 


Tree VR Experience at Annual Meeting 2019 of the World Economic Forum | Photo: Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary | Source: World Economic Forum


Artists being linked to creativity seems pretty self-explanatory: they are imaginative and open to a world of possibilities. They can look at the world in a completely different way than what we’re used to. 

But what does creativity mean for business? Well, like Daswani said, “you can’t really fix the [same] problems with the same mindset.”

It means applying those traits of imagination and openness to the way we approach doing business. It means business leaders need to be open to new solutions to new, unexpected problems. It means not being afraid to use their imagination to think outside the box.  

Look at the coronavirus pandemic and the many challenges we faced because of it. Situations like this make it easy to want to quickly retreat and ride out the storm. Yes, the situation is bad, but in business, like in a Harvard Business Review Daswani read, it is important to also look at the possibilities. Instead of focusing on the barriers and what you can’t do, focus on what is now possible.

It takes times like these to develop the structure for the leadership of possibilities. An idea beyond our reach for now, still has the possibility of being implemented with success in the future.

Some of the greatest artists prove this very point. When the camera was invented, taking over the purpose of painting to capture a moment, Picasso changed the way he painted – sparking a revolutionary art movement. Eadweard Muybridge wanted to capture a horse in motion but didn’t have the technology to capture video, so he created a system of multiple cameras to capture each frame, resulting in what would later become cinema. 

In business, we can see how this way of thinking benefits a company, with many successful companies starting as a way to fulfill a need that we did not know we had. 

Forward Thinking

Being able to think outside of the box gives artists another important trait: thinking ahead. As leaders in business, this trait is an important necessity for steering a company towards a certain long-term goal or seeing changes coming and pivoting accordingly. 

Right now, business culture tends to praise short term thinking – the next quarter’s fiscal results, strategies for the next 3 years. But artists differ. They are already constantly challenging the current status quo with possibilities from the future, often with a vision for the next 15 or more years. They also sense changes in culture and can bring those changes to the front of society through their art, helping rewrite society’s narrative. 

One of the largest changes society is facing is the rise of robots. “We should teach our kids sports, music, painting. Everything we teach should be different from machine.” Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba Group, already understands this, suggesting that the key to staying relevant in the future is through the arts. 

Even though society focuses on STEM thinking, Ma is thinking of a future where robots excel at these tasks. Things like music, painting, and sports would give us the soft skills we would need in the future. 


Fish Flies on The Sky | 1975 Nam Jun Paik | Source: Michael Bielicky

Going Forward

If Jack Ma, one of the world’s leading businessmen, sees the potential for including the arts in the future, maybe we should take his advice. Maybe we should aim to incorporate these lessons into leadership practices. 

Seeking diverse perspectives, getting in touch with our creativity, and pulling inspiration from the future are all supplements to an evolving leadership style. Maybe try talking to different coworkers to get their points of view regarding topics within an organization. Maybe try getting in touch with your creativity by tapping into your imagination during everyday tasks, and use these ideas to think ahead to the future. 

And if you’re still curious about how to develop an artistic mindset among you and your team, drop us an email to learn about our program for business organizations, “Artistic Leaders – From speaking to the mind to speaking to the hearts.”


Nico Daswani The Artian Podcast

To learn more about lessons in leadership, stay tuned for future articles…

To listen to Nico Daswani’s experiences with business leaders and artists at the World Economic Forum, tune into The Artian podcast!


-Marisa Cedeno

What can we create together?