Recently I saw the special exhibition on Edward Hopper at the National Gallery in Washington D.C. You must see it. Hopper was one of the leading American realist painters of the 20th Century. He captured moments of city life seen in cafes, diners, through apartment windows, and with the eyes of a tourist. If you look for growth in technique across his career, you will be disappointed: his human figures remain a imperfect. But what his brush-strokes lack in detail, his paintings make up in mood. Hopper’s special gift was to portray certain emotions of life in a big city, such as loneliness, detachment, and introspection. His scope was not life triumphant, but rather, everyday life, the kind you have to work at. I like his work very much. But for me, the special impact of the exhibition came from a comment by a guide, halfway through the show: “if Hopper had been a better painter, he wouldn’t have been as good an artist.” Think about that.
Business life is filled with lots of painters and fewer artists. The “painters” are the technicians, such as actuaries, time-and-motion efficiency experts, accountants who get the books to balance down to the last penny, logistics honchos who slim down your inventory, and derivatives analysts. Most entry-level jobs for MBA graduates are to be painters, or assistant painters, or just people who hold the paint pots. The world needs lots of “painters,” the technicians who will deliver the functionality needed by customers, firms, and markets. For many operations, we want information and decisions that are exactly right—for instance, any decision having to do with human health and safety should not be just “sorta” right.
However, the technical mind-set is too often focused on reporting data rather than creating knowledge (or better yet, wisdom). And it is too often given to “silo” thinking rather than reflecting on consequences for other individuals, the firm, and society. “Artists” are the antidote to a superabundance of “painters.” Artists in business are visionaries, inventors, entrepreneurs, and general managers, people who create something larger out of the assembly of resources, 2+2=5. They are quick learners; they recognize problems and opportunities ahead of the crowd; they shape large visions and enlist others in support; they communicate well and are socially-aware (in the “macro” sense of understanding big issues in the world and in the “micro” sense of reading a room full of people to understand their issues); they serve with integrity; and leaders have a bias for action. Carlos Slim of Telmex and Richard Branson of Virgin Group, personify qualities of audacity and vision. Bill Crutchfield of Crutchfield Electronics, exemplifies social awareness when he argues that the most successful firms have a special “soul.” Ann Mulcahey, who turned around Xerox, personifies superior communication. And so on. Perhaps every one of these could be a better “painter” or technician in some respect. We expect a lot of leaders and are disappointed when we learn that they have human flaws. But like Edward Hopper, the “artists” in business create something more sustainable and impactful by deploying their strengths in service of a larger vision.
Can business schools create such artists? The capacity of capitalism to deliver the kind of sustainable growth that will lift the standard of living world-wide simply depends on our ability to generate more of them. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the leading economists of the 20th Century, emphasized that economic advancement is fundamentally led by such people. Given the vast size of the field of management education, it is hard to know today how effective it is in creating the leaders of tomorrow. But speaking for one school, I can say that Darden is focused on serving the business world with people who are both high-potential artists and masterful painters. Our mission is to “improve society by developing leaders in the world of practical affairs.” Our MBA Program is typically ranked among the best for general management. Our flagship executive program, The Executive Program, was recognized as the best in the world by the Financial Times. In all we do, we emphasize integration of functional competencies. Our Batten Institute is deepening our research and teaching in entrepreneurship and innovation. And through our successful honor system and our world-recognized business ethics group, we shape students into leaders with integrity.
Toward the end of his life, Hopper said, “The man’s the work. Something doesn’t come out of nothing.” Perhaps reality imitates art, for one could say the same thing about business. Our task then, as educators and business practitioners, is to focus on developing the depth of character and skill in individuals necessary to deliver on the potential for invention, growth, and sustainability that resides in the free market system.
Posted by Robert Bruner at 12/16/2007 03:44:15 PM