Why Do We Call the Exercise of Leadership Art?

By Dr. Herb Byrd III 

One of these days I aspire to learn to paint. To really take some image I have in my head, to apply colors and blends and hues and textures to a canvas, and to be able to recognize it as a close approximation. I admire anyone who can do this in any medium or artistic frame.

Most would agree upon the reasons we call this art. But today, I could take the same paint, the same brushes, the same canvas, and the same image and compared to the painting a real artist completed, mine would not even qualify as art. Not even if we called it “modern art” or “abstract art.” 

Leadership is called art for many of the same reasons. The skills, principles, communication and other components can be the same, but different people employ them in different ways. When it all comes together well, leadership is art.

In thinking about this, I did a Google search for books with “Leadership” and “Art” in the title. That search generated more than 50 books! One, Fables and the Art of Leadership, took lessons from Mr. Rogers. Several linked leadership, art and warriors. Another applied the concept to combat, the boardroom and the kitchen table. It is interesting to see the many thoughts around leadership and art just in book titles. 

Our IPS Leadership Team has just finished reading the book Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. These authors, near the end of the book, illustrate some of the reasons that the exercise of leadership may be considered an art. They point out some of the dichotomies of leadership. 

The Dichotomy of Leadership

A good leader must be:

  • confident but not cocky;
  • courageous but not foolhardy;
  • competitive but a gracious loser;
  • attentive to details but not obsessed by them;
  • strong but have endurance;
  • a leader and follower;
  • humble not passive;
  • aggressive not overbearing;
  • quiet not silent;
  • calm but not robotic, logical but not devoid of emotions;
  • close with the troops but not so close that one becomes more important than another or more important than the good of the team; not so close that they forget who is in charge.
  • able to execute Extreme Ownership, while exercising Decentralized Command.

These are a lot to consider, especially when thinking about how much of each, when, and how they should be applied.

How do you consider the artistry of leadership as you L. E. A. D. !. ?

Willink, J., & Babin, E. (2017), Extreme Ownership: How U. S. Navy Seals Lead and Win. St. Martin’s Press: New York. (pp. 277-278)