Théodore Géricault Portrait of an Artist in His Studio

Rather Art than Business: The best CEO’s get along without a MBA

Dirk Dobiéy Business, Education, Insights 0 Comments

The Harvard Business Review released last week a list of world’s best-performing chief executives. One statistical detail easy to overlook deserves particular attention beyond the ranking: Only 25% of the top 100 CEO’s have an MBA. So, clearly there must be something else that matters when it comes to leading for long-term performance and the triple bottom line. Already some years ago leading thinkers and education experts such as Sir Ken Robinson stated “The master of fine arts is the new master of business administration,” and supported his claim in saying “a study of the educational background of leaders in 652 engineering companies in Silicon Valley — you would expect that they had a background in science, engineering and mathematics,  yet . . .  40% had backgrounds in science and engineering, 60% had backgrounds in the arts and humanities.”

Australian Art & Design Professor Ross Harley is another member of the long list of proponents that likes “to suggest that the MFA is the contemporary degree for our time, even if much of our business community may not immediately recognize the acronym.” […] “The MFA, or Master of Fine Arts, and a wide range of other art and design degrees and programs, have creativity and originality at their heart. They foster new, innovative ways of thinking and doing, referred to variously as ‘creative practice’, ‘design thinking’, ‘creative thinking’, or even ‘speculative design’. Whichever term we use, one thing is certain: thinking outside the box is an essential attribute for anybody who wants to tackle the mind-boggling complexities and challenges of modern life.”

Like Robinson and Harley best-selling author Daniel Pink is promoting the MFA over the MBA as Janet Rae-Dupree wrote in the New York Times already in 2008. The title of her essay: “Let Computers Compute. It’s the Age of the Right Brain.” And she was providing many examples to support her claim: “When General Motors hired Robert A. Lutz in 2001 to whip its product development into shape, he told The New York Times about his new approach. ‘It’s more right brain. It’s more creative,’ he said. ‘I see us as being in the art business. Art, entertainment and mobile sculpture, which, coincidentally, also happens to provide transportation.’ When a car company like G.M. is in the art business, every company in any other industry is, too”, Rae-Dupree concludes. But what does it mean to be in artistic in a business setting?

Peter C. Doherty explains one portion of it when he says „My characteristics as a scientist stem from a non-conformist upbringing, a sense of being something of an outsider, and looking for different perceptions in everything from novels, to art to experimental results. I like complexity, and am delighted by the unexpected. Ideas interest me.“ Doherty is one of two Nobel Prize Winners in Medicine in 1996.

We are all aware the world is complex and doing business within is a complicated, volatile and ambiguous task for people and organizations. Little can be planned. Linear and purely rational approaches do not work anymore.  Organizational structures and management styles of the past represent a risk to the enterprise and society overall. Our lives are characterized by acceleration, change, diversity and a perceived increase in uncertainty and pressure. To succeed an enhanced skill set is required. We need to develop other competences: Perception, Reflection, Creativity and Performance. These skills as well as the ability to work with uncertainty and ambiguity are fundamental human properties that cannot be digitized and automatized in the foreseeable future. Without exception those are skills that are particularly pronounced in the arts.

Whether we promote an MFA or improve established MBA programs to include those competences should not bother us that much as long as the overarching concept is understood. And the concept is certainly not about making everyone an artist in a traditional sense but it’s essentially about another way of thinking. An attitude that incorporates artistic elements as an alternative or extension to outdated ways of doing things.

Rae-Dupree states “that alternate way of thinking has traditionally been marginalized in corporate America, as it has been in the rest of our culture. Dr. Sperry, another Nobel Prize winner, who had a doctorate in zoology, noted the prejudice in 1973 when he remarked: ‘Our educational system, as well as science in general, tends to neglect the nonverbal form of intellect. What it comes down to is that modern society discriminates against the right hemisphere.’ It’s a message Dr. Sperry seemed to understand when he accepted the Nobel Prize in medicine in 1981. ‘The great pleasure and feeling in my right brain,’ he said, ‘is more than my left brain can find the words to tell you’”.

So perhaps an artistic attitude it’s not just a means to becoming a good leader but also a great scientist.


Picture Source: Theodore Géricault, Portrait of an Artist in His Studio, Wikimedia Commons / Louvre

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