#262 from R&D Innovator Volume 6, Number 2          February 1997

Principles for Transforming Business:  The Artist’s Way
by Stephen R. Grossman

Mr. Grossman is president of Double Dominance, an innovation and creativity consulting service in Maple Shade, New Jersey (phone 609-779-0702).  He is a faculty member of The Creative Education Foundation and is co-author of Innovation, Inc. (Wordware Publishing, Plano, Texas, 1988).  gdoubledom@aol.com www.consultants-mall.com/grossman.htm

Walk through the public area of many of the Fortune 500 companies and you’ll find the walls and atria lined with artworks.  Paintings and sculpture are as much a part of the trappings of corporate success as the skyscraper and golden parachute.  Go beyond the public areas, however, and the aesthetic gives way to the practical.  The sole image in most company board rooms is the austere portrait of the company founder.

Traditionally, art and commerce are separated.  When Donald Trump titled his book, “The Art of the Deal,” the result was raised eyebrows in both the artistic and corporate communities.  Business leaders see themselves as practical problem solvers.  Use the word “creative” and it had best be followed by “solution.”  In business, “creativity” and “art” are most comfortably confined to the advertising department.

However, practicality and problem-solving skills never built a great company.  Creative leaders build great companies, and the marks of a great leader are also those of the great artist:  1)  A discontent with the status quo, 2)  The development of a vision that responds to this discontent, and 3) The creative communication of that vision in a way that has a strong impact.


We all walk around in a present that’s filled with compromise and tradeoffs.  Over time, our consciousness is dulled as we tend not to be personally affected by much of what is.  We accept that this is the way things are and, therefore, should be.  The great business leaders and artists, however, don’t accept what is as a final, inexorable declaration.  As the painter Delacroix, said, “What moves men of genius, or rather, what inspires their work is not new ideas, but their obsession with the idea that what has already been said is not enough.” 

Artists and leaders remain sensitive to these small irritations, and it is this sensitivity that motivates them to search for something better.  George Prince in The Practice of Creativity (Collier Books, New York, 1970) has called this state “constructive discontent.”  Constructive, because it initiates a process whose final outcome not only nourishes the leader, but enhances the quality of life for all those who are affected by it.

Turned inward, this heightened sensitivity and dissatisfaction could create physical or psychological pathology.  Turned outward, and used as a source of problem solving, it initiates a creative search whose successful conclusion serves as a monument to the artist or business leader.  Someone once said that the well-adapted person adapts to society, while the ill-adapted tries to make society adapt to him.  All significant change, therefore, is determined by ill-adapted people!


For the imaginative person, “constructive discontent” leads to a dream or a sense of  “what could be.”  The artist or business leader structures a place within himself that transcends what he perceives as the shackles of the present.  He starts creating a future in which he’s an active participant.  Henry Luce, the founder of Time, Inc., observed that “Business, more than any other occupation, is a continual dealing with the future; it is a continual calculation, an instinctive exercise in foresight.”

As the future takes form, the visionary leader can see, feel, hear and even sometimes can touch or taste what it’s like to “walk around” in this state.  As more and more imaginative data enters his consciousness, the future finally coalesces into an articulate vision of the way things could be.  Gates’ vision of a computer on every desk, Kennedy’s “man on the moon, King’s heterogeneous march of equality, even Disney’s mouse are examples of this kind of imaginative effort.

The vision becomes quite seductive for the creator, pulling him inexorably towards its realization.  Leonard Bernstein even characterized the visionary in music as “portraying the whispering promise of things to come.”  To the outsider, the visionary appears to be detached from what’s going on around him.  He may sometimes appear insensitive to the concerns of other people in the organization, as they go about resolving the day-to-day problems that are an inherent part of any complex business.  This seeming insensitivity doesn’t indicate a lack of caring.  Quite the opposite, he is spending more and more time in his future, which he fully expects will be the present for everyone else—eventually. 

This obsession is important, for it continuously motivates him as he tries to bring everyone else in to share in its ultimate benefits.  His attitude may be summed up quite well by E. F. F. Chandi, the father of acoustical geometry:  “People have often asked me by what stroke of luck I came to make certain discoveries, but luck never favored me.  To obtain success, I always had to employ  an opinionated persistence.”


Having developed an internal vision, it now remains the task of the artist/leader to communicate that vision.  For the artist, this is a matter of articulating it on canvas, shaping the clay or carving the stone to capture the elegance, using his skills and being limited to the materials of his trade. 

The business leader has an equally daunting task—there is a significant gap between where he wants to be and where the organization is now.  Closing this gap isn’t easy because, as Walter Bagehot, the 19th century critic noted, “One of the greatest pains of human nature is the pain of a new idea.”  Artists and leaders often make others uncomfortable because they do nothing less that ask people to move forward and jeopardize some very hard-won equity in the status quo.  The leader’s executive group whose task it will be to spearhead this movement to the future have a personal stake in resisting the journey.  They have risen to their positions of power by behaving according to a set of norms, and these have served them well in creating a secure comfortable position in the organization.  The leader’s creative work then is to overcome the inertia that this security has engendered and create a new hunger for change that the successful execution of his vision will feed.  His ability to do this is determined in large part by both the beauty and truth of the new reality he sees.

To successfully communicate this vision in a way that stirs the emotion and awakens a pioneering spirit in his constituents, the visionary’s picture must contain two major components:

It must provide a clear and unambiguous place for everyone involved in its execution.  They must be able to see themselves in the picture.  As much as verbal language is touted as the power of magic, it is visual language that creates the clarity needed for acceptance of a new idea.  Seeing is believing.  People have faith in the leader’s vision because they believe something that doesn’t yet exist.  The vision must be visual!

It must be a treasure map, providing a well-marked path to the destination.  This path will provide the insurance that allows everyone to leave their comfort zone, and move in the indicated direction.  Henri Matisse observed, “I don’t paint things.  I paint only the difference between things.”  The vision as a map provides the illumination that allows for detours when obstacles are encountered.  It becomes a source of creative problem solving as well as offering clear criteria for decision making.

When the vision fills these criteria, the desired future will inevitably take place.

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