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Professors explore the art of leadership

September 27, 2006

Book shows ways successful executives exhibit skills seen in dance, music

“Rhythm rings true to me immediately,” says George Fisher. “You want to increase the pace, but organizations are really fragile – and unless you understand the pace and rhythm of an organization, you would be in jeopardy of destroying the organization in a single day.”

Fisher, the retired chairman and chief executive officer of Kodak, recognizes that leadership includes elements of “art” as well as science. He is among several heads of business, government and society who discuss the artistic elements of leadership in Robert and Janet Denhardt’s book “The Dance of Leadership.”

The husband-and-wife team from ASU’s School of Public Affairs has authored a book that uncovers new ways of sharpening one’s leadership skills by employing material from art, music and dance.

“If you listen to leaders talk about what they do, they will tell you there is at least a significant part of leadership that relies on forces that can’t be explained in rational or scientific terms,” say Robert Denhardt, Lincoln Professor of Leadership and Ethics. “There is an aspect of leadership that remains a mystery. There is that ‘special something’ that some people seem to have – either innately or by training and experience – that sets them apart.”

Indeed, like art, most people are hard-pressed to define good leadership. But they know it when it’s there – and miss it when it’s not.

If leadership is an art, as the authors assert, then one way to learn about how leadership might be developed is to study the more traditional arts to see how people in those disciplines approach their work, and then apply those lessons to the art of leading.

That’s exactly what the Denhardts did. They conducted in-depth interviews with some of the country’s premier artists, dancers and choreographers – people such as David Parsons, whose Parsons Dance Co. is one of the leading proponents of modern dance, and Septime Webre, artisitic director of the Washington Ballet and one of the “cutting-edge” choreographers in contemporary ballet.

What they learned form chapters of the book that focus on the importance of space, time and energy in shaping the human experience, as well as the many varying rhythms of human interaction.

“The act of leading involves shaping and giving direction to the energy that individuals have and that energy that is constantly shifting between people,” Robert Denhardt says. “The best leaders have a special sensitivity to the shifting rhythms of social energy, and they have a special talent to touch and move people and groups. This is different than the traditional view of leadership as giving orders or creating structures of control.”

Says Robert Johnson, retired chairman and former president and CEO of Honeywell Aerospace: “I think the leader’s job is to find the speed to go around the corners right on the edge, right before we go off the cliff – not slower, not faster. The leader has to know whether we can go 70 miles an hour or 90 miles an hour and help the organization go just that fast. That might mean that sometimes I take enough time to listen so I don’t leave the gate without them. It might mean that we change the engine in their car. But you have to get there together.”

Other book chapters highlight the importance of images and symbols in communicating human emotions, improvising with creativity and spontaneity, and the importance of focus, passion and discipline.

“Good leadership, like art, touches us,” says Janet Denhardt, a professor of public administration. “It stimulates not just our minds, but our emotions, and makes us come alive. Certainly we expect that leadership will help us to accomplish things we might not otherwise accomplish, and so we look for results.

“But leadership touches us in more personal ways. Good leadership excites and activates us, it inspires and encourages us, it makes us feel better about ourselves. It is this emotional side of leadership that provides the energy to move and to change small groups, large organizations, and even whole societies.”

The authors point out that leadership is distinct from management, which is concerned with rational processes that largely operate within a given space and time. When people are asked to draw up a list of personality traits of good managers and leaders, traits such as honesty, credibility, intellect, insight and strong communication skills come to mind.

But leaders are concerned with more intuitive processes.

If observers identify those tasks that leaders undertake and the skills that they need beyond those of managers, the authors maintain, these are the items that associate most easily with art. They have to do with perspective, intuition, rhythm, timing and developing a sense of the situation.

The Denhardts summarize, quoting former secretary of state Colin Powell: “Leadership is the art of accomplishing more than the science of management says is possible.”