"At some point in their evolution, humans deliberately set out to make things special or extra-ordinary, perhaps for the purpose of influencing the outcome of important events that were perceived as uncertain and troubling, requiring action beyond simple fight or flight, approach or avoidance."
Ellen Dissanayake: 'Homo Aestheticus' (p.51)
Ellen Dissanayake's view of the creative 'making' process opens up a new way for us to see what 'leadership' might entail. Conventional specifications of leadership attributes usually include skills such as the ability to motivate staff, handle conflict, negotiate well, take risk, etc., but I rarely see the capacity for creativity listed as a key competency on the leader's job description. Yet the ability 'to make special' seems to be precisely what leadership is about; making our guiding visions, relationships, organisations, processes and products compelling and attractive is a fundamental requirement for a progressive enterprise.
In a conversation with one of my coaching clients, I began to hear about a stressed, workplace (I guess most are...) where it felt like there was little room for generative change. The pattern was one of reactivity, exhaustion and constantly 'doing more with less'. Against this oppressive backdrop, my client's creative outlet was use her spare moments to make beautiful and elaborate greetings cards for family, friends and colleagues. I asked if she might make one as a way of differently knowing her relationship to her work.
This is a small section of the card she made. Deeply intricate, sophisticated and delicate, it became the focus of our inquiry into her values and purpose and, as she spoke, I became increasingly intrigued by the significance of the glistening magic that was quite literally shielded and under wraps. In developing these ideas, the next card was incredibly subtle and a new theme of elegance and understatement emerged. When the conversation shifted from the structures and insights that were contained in the cards to how my client might catalyse creative potential in her workplace, I could sense a different kind of confidence and presence developing in our dialogue.
At it's inner core, leadership is a fundamentally aesthetic occupation. Rather than simply requiring leaders to control and coerce, true leadership is about helping people to see and become fascinated in new possibilities and emergent structures. It's easy to imagine that this kind of 'insight' is a product of looking 'out of the box' or into the 'blue sky'. Yet insight is a sensitivity to pattern and similarity that happens inside our minds and imagination.
We often dismiss the products of our creative 'play' as irrelevant to corporate life but they work as an unconscious path to the aesthetic structures that, according to Dissanayake, ultimately make us feel good.
And if our leaders can help us create organisations and workplaces that make us feel good then we might not be surprised if they were also to do us good.