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Why Art? Reflections on Art and Leadership at a CEO Roundtable Retreat


I recently had the pleasure of facilitating a leadership retreat for members of the CEO Roundtable in Boston. Here is an account of the day from Loren Carlson, CEO of the Roundtable:

In 20 years of annual CEO retreats we have repeatedly explored the arts and humanities – poetry, classical music, jazz, mythology, Shakespeare, Homer, Beowulf – to learn more about ourselves and our world. This year we looked to the visual arts for guidance. Artist and author Linda Naiman, founder of Creativity at Work, lead the 2017 CEO Roundtable Retreat and invited members to view art as an invitation to have a conversation.

“Artful reflection helps us identify patterns, decode complexity, seek new perspectives, and enables a deeper inquiry into matters of importance in our lives and companies.”
– Linda Naiman

Ceo art retreat 2

Art is a potent catalyst for dialogue, reflection, and can be a process for self-discovery Click To Tweet

“What do you see?” Linda Naiman asked the room of CEOs as she called up a slide of an abstract painting. Some said they saw a cat. One attendee said a cat with a rat. Someone else claimed mountains while another saw a cow. Linda advanced to the next slide and there was a cow outlined in bright orange.

“I never saw it,” one CEO admitted. “I only looked in the corner, not at the whole canvas.”
We studied works by Hans Hofmann, Chris Jordan, Picasso, Henri Rousseau and others as Linda pointed out details and concepts in each. Roundtable members quickly learned that looking at something with different people can provide more points-of-view and discoveries than looking at something alone. It opens up opportunities for creativity.

Linda invited CEOs to paint their own pictures. But there was a twist: they would be creating a painting with a partner, working on the same sheet of paper without speaking. Only when one partner put down his or her paintbrush was the other allowed to take a turn. This exercise was repeated three times.

Participants found collaboration awkward at first. Some hesitated to move into what they perceived as their partner’s space. Others struggled to see where the joint painting was headed. But as boundaries relaxed, the exercise became easier and more relaxed with each consecutive collaboration. Finally, Linda asked each CEO to individually paint “the ideal.” Then, participants were asked to step away from their own paintings and make a contribution to another person’s painting, being careful to honor what was already there.

Discovering our own personal leadership strengths and weaknesses, the importance of understanding the perspectives of those around us, how to let go of our own perhaps very structured or tight leadership qualities that may restrict our ability to create, how to use a new nonverbal language and vocabulary that is found in the process of art, and that allows a deeper collaboration of mind and body and spirit, that words alone cannot achieve.

CEO Roundtable Retreat

Lessons Learned: CEOs in their own words:

“Not only do we have to be on the same page, but I have to leave more space on the page for other people in the organization to contribute.”

“The art in leadership is to make space for others and incorporate their ideas.”

“I tend to be too focused on the analytical. I can now see how creative I can be if I allow it.”

“The lesson is changing your perspective, letting go, and collaborating.”

“It was amazing! Magical! Educational! Therapeutic! I learned a lot about myself that will help me become a better leader and parent.”

“I’m a control freak. I covered every inch of the paper with my idea. I wanted it to be perfect. Now I’m thinking I have to learn to let others blossom and grow…open it up to other people to be creative and innovative and to contribute.”

“I learned how to communicate in a new language – the nonverbal language of art. This will help me communicate with my spouse who is losing her ability to speak.”

“Thank you for Friday’s retreat.  I found it to be refreshing and left with some ideas to use in my business and family.


Related: Reflections on the Power of Visual Art

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Copyright 2017 Creativity at Work