The Art of Leadership: How to Paint Paintings, Write Stories and Create Things That Last

September 12, 2016

Deke Copenhaver

Leadership Focus is written by Deke Copenhaver, Principal with Copenhaver Consulting LLC. The former mayor of Augusta, a triathlete, writer and runner, Deke is focused on transforming great ideas into great actions.
Growing up writing, painting, listening to music and being in creative environments helped teach me the skill of creative problem solving which is a skill I put to good use everyday while spending nine years as a public servant.

Where some individuals try to resolve issues with an either/or mentality, it has always been my observation that those leaders exposed to the creative arts have a greater tendency to look at problems from every angle while seeing more than just the monochrome tones of black and white. Where often times the either/or approach can lead to gridlock on an issue, more often than not a creative and multi-faceted approach towards overcoming obstacles results in the same issue simply being resolved.

During my time as mayor of Augusta I relied heavily on my background in the creative arts while viewing the city as a beautiful, yet unfinished, painting on which I could lovingly apply careful brush strokes to help breath new life into the well laid foundation established long before my season in office. I also viewed my city as an ongoing narrative in which I could use my leadership role to help author another colorful chapter in its long, rich history.

In effect I simply applied artistic sensibilities to set a tone to move Augusta forward down a fruitful path while painting a picture and telling a story of what the future could look like. Ultimately, this path would lead to the beginnings of transformation for our urban core through major municipal building projects, the revitalization of long neglected neighborhoods which now engender a sense of civic pride in their residents and the instilling of a great sense of hope for the future in the citizens I was blessed to serve.

To lead like an artist may not be the first idea that comes to mind when any of us find ourselves inhabiting a leadership role wherever we may be in our walk of life. However, the ability for leaders to think and act creatively is a skill which when learned will undoubtedly be of lasting benefit to whatever organization you may serve. With this in mind I’d like to share five points which should help you think a bit more like an artist in your leadership endeavors.

1) Focus on using as many colors on your palate as possible
Great paintings are a beautiful blending of colors which provide contrast and depth while drawing the viewer into them. Rather than relying on any one group or point of view within the organization you serve, make certain to blend these disparate points of view while formulating a path forward. Adding a tone to your canvas you may never have used before will ultimately help paint a much clearer picture of the direction you need to be going.

2) Focus on being an orginal
The thing that often sets great works of art apart is simply that they’re original. Whether you’re developing a city or building a business you ultimately want to create something that is new and original. Using the building blocks of tried and true principles to establish a foundation is a good way to start, but remember to use that foundation as a platform to go into new directions where others haven’t ventured to go. At the end of the day you simply don’t want your work or the narrative around it to look or sound like everyone else’s and get lost in the crowd.

3) Focus on infusing your work with passion
For me, one of the greatest things about artists is their passion for their work. Instilling this same artistic passion in your leadership role makes your endeavors contagious to those around you. Being extraordinarily passionate about what you do can lead to great heights and depths of feeling, but the end result of passionately pursuing a goal in your leadership efforts will ultimately be of great benefit both to you and to the people around you.

4) Focus on creating things that will stand the test of time
When I was in office I had no authority to issue edicts with regards to how we built new buildings. However, I was able to share my perspective with our city staff that when we built buildings they should engender a sense of civic pride in our citizens and be structures that in a hundred years people would fight to preserve. Whatever work you’re focused on creating in your leadership role, keep an eye on the big picture and think how it can be appreciated by future generations and what lessons they can learn from it.

5) Focus on instilling as much light into your work as possible
The great Dutch master painters Rembrandt and Vermeer were renowned for their use of light and its ability to draw viewers into the scene before them. Instilling a light at the center of what you’re doing as a leader in any position will ultimately achieve the same result by drawing people into your efforts. In leadership roles, whether it be through words or actions, there is always the opportunity to help create a brighter picture of what your efforts are seeking to achieve and how these efforts can contribute to the greater good of the organization you serve.

Great works of art are never created over night but rather are brought about by a painstaking attention to detail, a commitment to seeing them through to the end and an enduring passion towards the creative process. Whether it’s in business, government or any other profession, leading through artistic sensibilities may not seem a common route to choose, but it undoubtedly can lead to the creation of organizations and institutions that will simply stand the test of time while continuing to have a positive impact long after our season of leading them has drawn to a close.

Whatever leadership role you may find yourself in, I hope this story will contribute something to your efforts and if you enjoyed it please feel free to pass it on.

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