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What Business Leaders Can Learn From Artists About Navigating An Uncertain World

Businessman Sitting in a Art Gallery


Complexity is the defining business and leadership challenge of our time. But it has never felt more urgent than this moment, with the coronavirus upending life and business as we know it. Since March, we’ve been talking to leaders about what it takes to lead through the most complex and confounding problems, including the pandemic. Today we continue our conversation with Margaret Heffernan (Read Part 1 here), author of Uncharted: How to Navigate the Future. Dr. Heffernan is a Professor of Practice at the University of Bath, Lead Faculty for the Forward Institute’s Responsible Leadership Programme, and through Merryck & Co., a mentor for CEOs and senior executives of major global organizations. She holds an honorary doctorate from the University of Bath and continues to write for the Financial Times.

David Benjamin and David Komlos: What can business leaders learn from the habits of artists? 

Margaret Heffernan: In working with senior executives and CEOs, I’ve often been struck by how many think in a very cause-and-effect way in a business environment that doesn’t work that way at all. They rely on scientific management and use KPIs and targets to train their people to work that way as well. Many leaders want guarantees, and so they don’t want to approve an experiment unless they know something’s going to come out of it. That gets them into a trap, where they can only do what’s already been done, and they won’t let their minds wander so they can see anything different. I’ve worked with a number of CEOs who genuinely wanted their company to do something different but no longer had an elastic enough mind to think what it could be.

Artists, on the other hand, are free of expectations and the intellectual constraints that bedevil people in leadership positions. They’re not trying to please the market because, given how long it can take them to create their art, by the time they did, the market would have moved on. They don’t wait for guarantees because they have an urgency to do what they want and a burning desire to see what is in them – and there are no guarantees for art that’s new and interesting. Many artists (including Samuel Beckett, Charles Dickens, and Virginia Woolf, for example) spend much of their time walking, observing things around them, and getting a sense of what’s going on in the world. They collect this information, like street sweepers, sift through it to make sense of it, allow it to coalesce around particular themes, and eventually, one idea takes precedence. 

This process has huge application, not just to innovation generally in business, but to leadership. The decisions you make aren’t just about you and the company; they’re about you and the company in the world today, the meaningful relationship with each other, and the context and the mood in which you’re setting direction. If you want to be really creative and imaginative in terms of what you or your organization could do, you need to be capable of non-linear, divergent thinking, like artists. That’s why when I taught entrepreneurship in Boston, I used to ask my students on the first day to just walk down Newbury Street, and tell me what was going on; trying to get them to be better sensors. And interestingly, Andy Haldane at the Bank of England does the same thing before he tries to decide about setting interest rates. 

Benjamin and Komlos: What are ‘Cathedral Projects’ and how do they apply to uncertainty? Can you give some examples? 

Heffernan: I happen to live nine miles down the road from Wells Cathedral, one of the greatest Gothic cathedrals in Europe, and I’ve spent a lot of time there learning about their construction. These cathedrals had no architects – they had stonemasons who would start one of these enormous projects knowing they’d never see it completed. They’re fantastic testaments to people’s ingenuity and inventiveness, and they inspired Stephen Hawking to write about ‘cathedral thinking’: taking on great projects that are mired in uncertainty from their inception that will last longer than a human lifetime.

If stonemasons could get these projects started without guarantees and plans and all the cool tools we have today, why can’t we? That thought got me looking around for examples of cathedral projects in the world today, and I talk about a couple in the book: CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research), and more literally the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona. These are great examples of projects that developed over a very long period of time, which have been hugely responsive to emerging technologies, new questions, and new problems, and have driven all of the people who worked on them to invent and discover more than if the whole project had been outlined for them from the beginning. They are perfect examples of just how brilliant the outcome can be when you let objects follow this much more organic path.

After learning about the Citizens’ Assembly in Ireland, a huge experiment in democracy, it occurred to me that democracy is a kind of Cathedral project as well. Democracy’s ‘stonemasons’ started experiments in the past, not knowing how it would develop. And despite some terrible wrong turns in history (for example, the terror in the French Revolution), we’re still building democracy today. When we’re thinking about democracy and its future, especially today, we have to continue to do experiments and imagine different ways to keep it alive and relevant. What we can’t do at any one moment is to say, “Well that’s it, we’re done”.

Benjamin and Komlos: Can you explain the importance of emotional commitments, friendships, trust, and solidarity in navigating a crisis, and how these provide resilience and stamina? 

Heffernan: That’s a question I examine in the book, looking at both individuals and organizations that experienced existential crises and survived against the odds when many did not. For example, everybody knows about the collapse of Barings Bank, but they may not know that its highly-respected corporate finance business, one year later, had retrieved its luminous reputation and was doing as brilliantly as it ever had. That story came down to how much the people in that business cared about each other, had lunch together every single day, and shared a sense of values and intense solidarity. When the headhunters started circling, they all decided that as long as they could stick together, they would. 

To give another example, in 2009, Nokia looked like it was in a death spiral. This was a company that held huge meaning for its employees, business partners, customers, and the Finnish nation as a whole and ultimately, that emotional commitment was key to its survival. Today, as a fundamental part of internet infrastructure globally, Nokia is one of the top three telecom infrastructure businesses in the world. 

The really consistent thread that I noticed across these and other stories was the relationships between people in the company. They had employees with longevity, tight social bonds, and huge levels of respect and affection for each other, and they each made commitments that meant they didn’t just all fly off to better jobs where life was easier. Instead, they knuckled down and found a way through. 

I think this bears thinking about as we come out of the pandemic crisis, and into an economic crisis and an ongoing climate crisis, and as we think about the potential of the gig economy. If you want a company that’s truly resilient, a ton of cash is definitely going to help, but if the relationships between people aren’t strong, that’s what will break the business.

Benjamin and Komlos: Do you have any other specific advice leaders should heed today? Any parting thoughts?

Heffernan: The companies I work with – covering a broad range of sectors, from entrepreneurs to big, global businesses – all adapted pretty well to the pandemic. They moved to virtual work, went out of their way to look after their workforce, and demonstrated a lot of compassion. That said, I see them as falling into two groups.

The first group is thinking, “That’s done, and now we just have to wait it out so we can go back to business as usual”. They’re kind of demoralized and sad and nostalgic. They look like they’re running out of steam. The second group is thinking, “So we moved to remote working and that was much easier than we thought…and if we can make that kind of change, what else can we change right now? After all, if we’re going to change everything, let’s change everything…” 

That second group has wildly accelerated a lot of their technology development and their strategy, they’ve become much more imaginative about what they can do and they’re very, very future-focused. It’s as if the demolition of the status quo has torn down all the fences from around their brains and they’ve just exploded with ideas and possibilities and are seeing more opportunities for their relevance in the world. 

While others are sticking to their knitting and acting old and tired, these companies are just taking off because they’ve stopped being paralyzed by uncertainty.



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