Seven years ago I was in the process of completing an essay in which I brought forward an argument for teaching beauty in a business schoolâ€”a document that would form the basis for a 12-week course for business students at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where I was to be a visiting guest artist/lecturer. At the outset, my goal with the â€œbeauty courseâ€ (as I and the students came to call it) was to create an alternative approach to business ethics. I was deeply curious about how aesthetic experiences and examination of beauty might foster wiser, more responsible decision-makingâ€”essentially, moral imagination.
Among other outcomes, students reported that through the course they learned how to slow down, attend to process (and not just product), see different perspectives from their own, think about relationships differently, notice things previously overlooked, do things they wouldnâ€™t do (i.e. take risks), approach challenges with creativity rather than dread, and care for others.
Hearing such responses, I began to refer to it as a course in human developmentâ€”and began seeing the value of such a course not only for those studying business, but arguably any field of study. Letâ€™s face itâ€”you donâ€™t need to go to business school to see the world and all of your relationships through an economic lens. As Harvard University professor of political philosophy Michael Sandel argues in his book What Money Canâ€™t Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, market values and market thinking have now come to dominate nearly every area of social life.
The beauty course was experimental and successful; however, it was a one-off by design. While many business schools are attuned to creativity and ethics these courses are mostly icing on the cake; at their core they are oriented around such courses as accounting, finance, statistics, strategy, economics, marketing, business analytics, operations management, and the global macroenvironment. And, yes, at the core one will often find a course in leading organizations / people / teams; however, such a course often reinforces the overall capitalist logic of business school. Leadership is quite often conceptualized as achieving the companyâ€™s (i.e. ownersâ€™ or shareholdersâ€™) goals, taking action quickly and efficiently, besting the competition, getting employees onboard with change strategies developed by senior leaders aided by a consultant, and motivating high performance.
As 2022 comes to a close, I am six months into the launch of a new MA in Creative Leadership at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD)â€“a program for folx in any industry or sector (the more diverse, the better), working at any scale. For instance, at the moment we have a student working in food justice as a volunteer, a student working in an educational nonprofit with a budget in the tens of millions, and a student working for a dental-care related corporation with a budget in excess of $750 million.
The MCAD program is, in a sense, an inversion of this business school cake; and that inversion is the topic of this post. More specifically, this essay attempts to address a question that I am asked quite frequently: What would you say to someone trying to choose between this program and an MBA program? I’ll aim to do this in three parts:
- â€œWhat is creative leadership?
- â€œWhy study leadership at an art and design college?â€
- â€œWhy pursue an MA in Creative Leadership rather than an MBA?â€
Much of what I am writing here has benefitted from and also reflects to a great extent almost two years of conversations with leaders at MCAD, administrative colleagues, co-faculty, field colleagues, and students in the program. I am particularly indebted to my research partner of the past three years, Shannon Litzenberger and to MCAD’s VP of Academic Affairs, Robert Ransick, who has held a goal to create a program like this ever since he pursued and achieved an MBA, all the while imagining a different kind of curriculum and experience. Having said this, any shortcomings or deficiencies in the thinking in this essay are mine alone. Additionally, counter perspectives are welcome!
Part I: What is Creative Leadership?
I have encountered myriad definitions of creative leadership; and they all seem to boil down to some version of envisioning and realizing change and innovation while attending to shared values, mission, and social impact. A central tenet of the program at MCAD is that leadership is a collective capacity, functioning akin to an artist ensemble, and that all players, so to speak, need to be able to step-up and step-back as the moment requires. More specifically, we conceptualize creative leadership as a capacity to collaborate across differences with the goal of imagining and enacting necessary transformational change. Our particular program in creative leadership is built on four pillars:
- Creativity, or the capacity to move towards uncertainty, as well as imagine and make beyond existing narrative frames, systems, and seemingly intractable problems.
- Culture, or an understanding that the work of transformational change requires that we work at the level of values, beliefs, and ways of being, doing, and knowing; and that therefore, we must create conditions and structures, as well as develop individual and collective capacities, to converse and collaborate across differences in worldview.
- Equity, or attention to and repairing of imbalanced social systems and the commitment to build new systems and cultures that are not structured to oppress, discriminate, disempower, or otherwise harm.
- Sustainability, or attention to working within planetary limits in a way that is regenerative: that goes beyond reuse, reduce, recycle to improve projects, organizations, or systems in such a way that they become healthier, thriving, and capable of sustaining life.
Much of this is relational work done at the level of embodied self with othersâ€”the work of dismantling, unlearning, exploring, and stretching to accommodate alternative worldviews. To begin, this work requires that â€œwe intentionally change in ways that grow our capacity to embody the just and liberated worlds we long for,â€ as writer, activist, and facilitator adrienne maree brown writes, describing her take on the concept of Emergent Strategy. Much of the work takes place within and across the intersecting layers of transformational change at the level of self, organization, and system.
Part II: Why Study Leadership at an Art & Design College?
Creativity is consistently ranked as one of the most important skills for navigating the complexities of the 21st century. When I was teaching the beauty course at UW-Madison, the administration really wanted to get the word creativity into the title of the course; but I refused to use the word creativity. Creativity was equated in business schools with the scaling of innovations towards the ultimate goal of stimulating economic growth. I didnâ€™t want to hook beauty onto that value chain. I would sometimes quip: This beauty course is not aimed at putting beauty in service of business. My aim is the opposite. I want leaders to put business in service of beauty.
Likewise, creativity in the context a leadership program embedded in an art and design college has a conscience and is motivated by widespread recognition of the inequities and harms designed into the present â€œpetro-capitalistâ€ and â€œmodern-colonialâ€ world; the need to understand how we got here; and then, importantly, the desire and ability to work with others to collectively disrupt, transgress, imagine, iterate, and make radically new institutions, systems, logics, or worlds.
The creation in creative leadership as we are interpreting it at MCAD is based in a foundational premise that there are ways of being, doing, and knowing that are inherent to artmaking and design that are both undervalued by society-at-large and incredibly valuable at a moment in which we are looking at the â€œend of the world as we have known itâ€ and the need to make a new one. Artists and designers know a thing or two about imagining and making new worlds.
Among others, here are some creative leadership capacities that are inherent to training as an artist or designer that are central to worldmaking:
- Imagination: The ability to disrupt patterns and make the new; or to engage in what Otto Scharmer calls, â€œpresencingâ€â€”a combination of presence and sensing that involves listening or perceiving from the future.
- Discipline: Resourcefulness, attentional capacity, and the ability to shape future possibilities and scenarios within constraints.
- Agility: A sense of play and the capacity for collective improvisation in response to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and seemingly insuperable barriers and challenges.
- Emergent Strategy: Comfort with moving in the direction of uncertainty, with making without a goal much less a plan, and with zig-zagging (or failing) towards the creation of something with structural integrity.
- Care: Skilled at empathy and moral imagination, or the ability to imagine from the perspective of others and to take decisions with those perspectives in mind.
- Comfort with Discomfort: Capacity to ask and sit with catalytic questions, give/receive critique, to facilitate difficult conversations, and to be receptive to opposing views or ambivalence.
- (Eco)-Systems Thinking: Contextual intelligence, the ability to sense and analyze parts in relationship to each other and the whole, to recognize beauty and its opposite (injury), and to give sustained attention to that which tends to be neglected or invisible to others (e.g. the broken, harmed, orphaned, disempowered, colonized, extracted, injured, destroyed, etc.).
- Disinterest: The ability to distinguish excellence from its potential byproducts: money, power, or fame. (H/T to CalPoly Finance Professor John Dobson for the germ of this idea.)
- Influence: Storytelling ability, the capacity to reframe, imagine alternatives, craft engaging narrative, and thereby shift perspectives.
- Ensemble: The desire and ability to build trust, foster generalized reciprocity, engage with diverse aesthetic values, and balance individualism and collectivism in the process of co-creation.
Part III: Why an MA in Creative Leadership rather than an MBA?
Which brings me to the question I am most often asked: Why should I pursue an MA in Creative Leadership rather than an MBA?
My assertion, in brief: because the cake of creative leadership contains the essential ingredients for 21st century living and working. Put another way, we do not need even more MBAs for the challenges facing the world at the moment; we need more creative leaders. Leaders and managers need to rethink everything (starting with shareholder primacy). They need to strengthen their capacities to adapt to the non-hierarchical, non-extractive, non-discriminatory, non-oppressive, cultures, structures, and practices that are increasingly demanded by both employees and customers.
Is there also an argument for studying finance, accounting, strategy, macroenvironmental forces, business analytics, operations, and marketing (the business school cake, so to speak)? I would argue only insofar as such offerings are oriented to this dramatic shift in the wider cultural context; and anchored as they are in 20th century management practices, most business schools are not able to hold, much less realize, such an orientation with integrity.
The core elements of the creative leadership program at MCAD (an MBA alternative or complement, if you will), which arise from the values and capacities listed in parts I and II include:
- Progressive organizations & management, meaning such things as flat structures, decentralized decision making, collective budgeting, cooperatives, community-driven change, DAOs, and hybrid workplaces.
- Cultural competence and inclusive workplaces, including anti-racism and anti-oppression work, decolonization, conversational receptiveness, collaboration across differences, and a culture of care.
- Centering methods and practices of artists and designers, because we need to collectively sense, imagine, and make new worlds (systems, organizations, selves) that do not reproduce the harms of the present systemsâ€”and this work is inherent to the practices of artmaking and design.
- Attention to and care for the natural world, most notably the wisdom of regenerative models coupled with an abiding belief that the climate crisis is something with which all leaders need to concern themselves and their organizations.
I want to end by mentioning one other aspect of this work.
We are intent on helping to mobilize and animate a much larger conversation on creative leadership; and one way we are working to do this is through the creation of a Creative Leadership Community of Inquiry, Practice, and Care. This community space is being initially built with our students, alumni, faculty, guest artists, and partners; however, we are already planning for it to grow over time to bring many others into the conversation, so to speak.
We want to locate and connect with others who share our goals, with whom we can ask questions, learn new practices, and offer encouragement and solidarity as we collectively build the next, more beautiful world. We know you are out there in your own organizations and networks, doing great work. We want to know about it and engage with you.
- adrienne maree brown, Emergent Strategy, p. 3.
- Natalie Loveless, How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research Creation, p. 101.
- Vanessa Machado de Oliveira, Hospicing Modernity: Facing Humanityâ€™s Wrongs and the Implications for Social Activism. The author writes, â€œI have often referred to modernity as modernity/coloniality, Thesis term functions as a reminder that the benefits we associate with modernity are created and maintained by historical, systemic, and ongoing processes that are inherently violent and unsustainable. In other words, this term underscores the fact that modernity cannot exist without expropriation, extraction, exploitation, militarization, dispossession, destitution, genocides, and ecocides,â€ p. 18.
- Loveless, How to Make Art at the End of the World, p. 101.
- John Dobson, Aesthetics as a Foundation for Business Activity