As both a leader and an artist, I often think about what art can teach us about leading. One of my favorite artists is Gerhard Richter, a brilliant German artist who has exhibited internationally since the early 1960's. Richter's genius is in his wide-ranging exploration of two-dimensional imagery and his deep analysis of his own thought processes about what he creates. His interviews are legend for their intellectualism and insight and should be read by everyone who is interested in creative thought.
Chance plays a huge role in Richter's abstractions. He states that he monitors and manages what happens to the materials with which he works, but he never fully controls the outcome nor entirely conceptualizes a work in advance. Instead, he takes advantage of the moment, allowing a painting to become what it will be. Richter also states that he learns from his paintings. He says that his paintings, as in his famous grey series, teach him, as long as he remains open to hearing their lessons.
When applied to leadership, Richter's perspective seems somewhat counter-intuitive. How can a leader not control the outcome? How can a leader listen to everyone, particularly the naysayers? Controlling outcomes and making decisions is what we have to do to get things done. Listening to what everyone says can be tedious at best and a complete waste of time at worst. However, applying Richter's thoughts to leadership this way misses the point. Of course he is in charge of his paintings. Of course his paintings aren't literally teaching him to be a painter.
I think the true lessons are in humility and respect. It is arrogant to think we know all the answers. It is arrogant and disrespectful to think that no one else's opinion matters. Humility is acknowledging our own human limitations and embracing that we need to listen, learn, grow, and collaborate to become the best leaders that we can be.
Respect for others is the canvas upon which we leaders should paint.