Finding Beauty in a Fractured World

Art Inspires Leaders — Leaders Change the World

Nancy J. Adler

October 13, 2015

What we cannot comprehend by analysis,
we become aware of in awe.

Abraham Joshua Heschel (2001: 3)

In the midst of chaos, how do we see beauty? Surrounded by turbulence, how do we discover simplicity? Living together on one planet, how do we simultaneously celebrate our collective humanity and the unique resonance of each of our individual voices? Given the power of analytic understanding—driven as it is to claim life as knowable—how do we re-recognize the unknowable? Knowing all that we know, how do we surrender to the humility it takes to stand in awe
of life’s mysteries?

Allowing a painting to be born is to stand in awe of one of life’s most beautiful mysteries. Invited by the blank paper, my best intentions enter into a dance with uncontrollable coincidence. Neither the process nor the resulting art is ever completely defined. Which way will the colors run? What surprises will the ink reveal? I purposely work primarily with water-based media and monotype print techniques as there is never any illusion that I control the process or the outcome. I enter the dance; paintings and monotype prints emerge. Creation—whether on a canvas of words, visual images, organizational spaces, or the world’s stage—is about giving birth to the possibilities inherent in mystery.

As an artist and a global leadership scholar, management consultant, and educator, I draw inspiration from many of the world’s most influential artistic and societal leaders, including Marc Chagall. Many of Chagall’s contemporaries rejected him for refusing the avant-garde’s invitation to create art for art’s sake, dismissing him as a colorful painter whose art simply conveyed his joie de vivre. Years later, in a major twenty-first-century retrospective, critics no longer wrote him off but, rather, acclaimed his paintings’ striking humanity and offered him their highest praise: “Marc Chagall gave this nihilist century a worthy concept: hope” (Riding, 2003). Art, and artistic processes, have the power not only to offer us hope but to guide us in rediscovering and creating beauty in our fractured world. Art does not dismiss science but, rather, partners with all ways of knowing to go beyond what any one approach can produce on its own.

I didn’t begin painting with a plan to integrate my art into my management world. Far from it. Best described as two solitudes, I purposely kept my art and management worlds completely separate, not even allowing my artist friends to know that I was an international management professor. My agreement with the Emily Carr Institute of Art and Design, when they invited me to be a guest artist with them in Vancouver for a half year, was that no one would know my other identity. Luckily, they agreed, but requested that, at the end of my time at EmilyCarr, I give a lecture to the entire artist community. That lecture, “The Artist As Leader, Leader As Artist,” was the first time I realized the profound overlap between my two worlds. It was then that I began to understand that art was giving me a process and a vocabulary to talk about what had become most important to me as a management professor. Art was allowing me to support people—myself included—in bringing beauty into the world. Following the Emily Carr talk, I stopped hiding in my two solitudes and began going public with what has since become known as leadership artistry. That said, to this day I have never gone to the studio thinking about leadership, management, or that I am a professor. I’m simply drawn to painting and to making art; I paint because I am excited to discover what will be born.

When I am working on a problem,
I never think about beauty.
I think of only how to solve the problem.
But when I have finished, if the solution
is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

Buckminster Fuller, Architect,
Designer, Futurist

After painting for a decade, I first heard singer and songwriter Phil Ochs’ prescient plea, “In these ugly times, the only true protest is beauty.” I knew immediately that he had captured a truth that brought my artist and leadership worlds together—a truth I had sensed but never articulated. Only then did I more consciously begin asking the questions that previously had remained within me, unvoiced as I traveled between my two solitudes. Initially, they were conversations I held privately with myself within the pages of my journal. Only later, having gained confidence in what was emerging, did I begin to bring the same questions and conversations out into the world in my writing, speaking, and teaching. What follows offers a glimpse at those conversations, held with both artists and leaders.

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