Kinji Akagawa, a warm and enthusiastic man, is a sculptor. From his early youth in Japan, during the 1950's, he wanted to be an artist. His uncle was a lantern maker. Some of his cousins taught art history to high school students. Other cousins painted movie posters in downtown Tokyo. In elementary and junior high school he participated in theater and art club. He said:
"I thought I would become a poet. There was some kind of connection that drew me into the world of senses and emotions. That was my fascination. I liked the solitude."
Kinji came to the United States to study when he was 22 years old. He did not know anyone and did not speak English. He said:
"When I came I was so scared. I was absolutely scared. Every night I prayed the "stupidities" are good to me. Insecurity was my middle name. I became aware of my possibilities as well as my limitations. I knew a lot of defeat. There was a lot of humiliation. Without humiliation I would never have become a human being."
Kinji studied English, he went to class, and he waited on tables to earn money for his tuition. As a minority, he felt he had to work harder than others to be valued. He read each book three times so he could understand it as well as the other students did. If the art class required three pictures, he produced nine. He wanted to go home many times but he didn't. He said: "It was life I was learning, you know." Kinji went through his fear and humiliation:
"The other side of fear is courage. Courage is the basis of creativity. It is scary to face the white canvas, to uproot the clay which you have to mold into something. When I sculpt, I know the context I am working with, but I cannot see the end. Those who are courageous enough will discover their creation and that gives more courage. Fear is there but out of it we discover courage. Going through this fear is real courage."
Kinji Akagawa had a clear purpose for his life: he wanted to be an artist. His powerful sense of purpose inspired the courage and commitment he needed to venture to a strange land, to learn a new language, to provide for himself, and to complete his education. As his life entered a chaotic time, his core identity remained strong and constant.
Kinji endured the humiliations of the novice as he learned what was required to fulfill his purpose. He dared to face his anxieties and fears and struggled through them. He journeyed through many transitions. His personal development required the courage of a pioneer, the honesty of a child, the confidence of the naive, and the imagination of the artist he wanted to be.
He understood that the demons are as necessary as the angels for creativity. Hopelessness, worthlessness, and a sense of inadequacy would be companions from which would emerge capabilities he didn't know he possessed. With the wisdom of hindsight he came to believe in his ability to learn as he proceeded and to trust the larger process of life. His faith in his inherent potential matured. He grew stronger in his artistry. His growing mastery reflected his intense commitment to his purpose. He understood Albert Camus who wrote, "The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man's heart."
Kinji understood that creation would require the fear and loneliness of solitude. In isolation he listened to his inner voice. Silent contemplation provided the place for connections to be made and insights to be gleaned. From quiet reflection inspiration was born, intuition surfaced, and understandings attained. Solitude eventually became a comfortable friend.
Kinji did the hard work of becoming who he could be, and he emerged from the chaos of his life an evolved man--an artist.
Even today, when it takes five single-spaced pages to list his artistic accomplishments, Kinji has to confront his resistance to his own creativity every time he faces the formless clay. He realizes, in his work as in his life, that he will always venture into uncertainty (the place for imagination) as he creates. He revises his creations constantly. He focuses on expressing his authenticity and lets the invisible become visible, living out what Samuel Becket said, "I have never in my life been on my way anywhere, but simply on my way."
We live and lead in a context of chaos, uncertainty, and multiple transitions. We will be in this place for a long time. It's a perfect place for artistry, creativity, and imagination. This is a state where artists can convert anxiety to inspiration. Today's great leaders are artists at heart.
Those who aspire to lead must face themselves honestly as Kinji Akagawa did and must understand that few know how to lead in this unique context of accelerated global change. To be a leader requires a willingness to be a novice in learning new leadership beliefs, skills, and actions. Self-examination and feedback are required. This process is threatening and, at times, humiliating. It cannot be avoided if people are to do the hard work of development necessary to lead in today's leadership context.
Artists are also adventurers who take a personal journey with every creation. As they lead change, they too are changed. To lead into the unknown requires a strong and constant core identity. The industrial era was about external journeys. The era we are moving into is mostly an inner journey of conscious evolution. People weather the storms of internal and external chaos by being clear about their purpose in life, their values, and their vision for themselves and the organizations they lead. The leader's core purpose and values remain constant and give the adventurer the courage and commitment to go forward into uncertainty, learning along the way. Vision can change as people proceed, as their horizons broaden, and as new discoveries are made. People and organizations lacking a clear and conscious core identity place themselves and their organizations at risk in today's leadership context.
The essence of leadership is going first to show the way. Artist leaders proceed into uncertainty with limited information and with faith in their ability to learn and adjust as they proceed. Effective leaders are great improvisers. They do not require a complete picture of the situation before acting, nor do they require a detailed plan. They understand that leading in chaos is a process of adaptation to a continuously changing situation. How do you know your vision is the right one and that people are doing the right thing? You don't know. You cannot know. You can only proceed with faith and courage and learn as you travel.
Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi wrote of research into creativity. Art students who approached the canvas without a clearly worked out image of the finished product were significantly more successful (by the standards of the art community) 18 years later than their peers who worked out the details of the finished product beforehand. Great organizations, like great art, emerge from a complex interplay of variables and choices influenced and guided by the artist's wise and firm hand.
Guided by a core purpose and strong values, the leader moves in the direction of the goal. The boundaries between leaders and followers blur as people at all levels of the organization learn to lead when their unique gifts are called upon. The best guides are to be flexible, observant, reflective, open to new information, and to utilize the wisdom of fellow travelers. Also a sensitive judgment gained through leadership experience.
When leading into uncertainty, learning comes in hindsight. The leader artist takes the time to think, to reflect, and to be alone to gain insight. Imagine spending one-half hour a day in reflection for ninety days. Do you believe you would be a wiser leader because of this time of solitude?
Leading as an artist is difficult work filled with inefficiencies difficulties, and frustrations. The artist knows that monthly change programs are not art: they are like throwing cans of paint on the wall hoping for a great image to emerge. Great commitment is necessary for great art. The leader artist understands that difficulties are the greatest opportunities for growth and innovation. They are tested when the change process become difficult and tense. Many fail the test and revert to old ways of doing things. Those who remain committed find new ways to proceed and are rewarded with new learning and development.
The artist does not avoid tension and conflict. Albert Camus wrote that the artist's peace is in the heat of battle. In times of chaos, uncertainty, and multiple transitions the shadow side of organizations swells with energy and cannot forever be contained by the mental models of control. The danger is that this energy will erupt in destructive ways. The opportunity is that the artist can engage the shadow as a living system and guide the energy for noble purposes. People are most alive engaging "what is" for "what could be." Those who scorn human emotion reject the artist within themselves and block their wholeness and humanity.
People are born to create. Creativity may be the core dynamic of life. Artist leaders understand that everyone has creative potential, and the leader creates the conditions for creativity to emerge throughout the enterprise: freedom, great goals, information, immediate feedback, no fear of failure, and skills equal to the challenge. Authentic expression is the artist's goal, and the artist leader treats everyone as if they can do great things. Importing creativity from outside the organization may provide an innovation quick-fix, but the leader understands that sustainability depends on creating conditions for the inherent creativity of employees to emerge on a daily basis.
In chaotic times the best artistry and the best leadership may well come from outside the established structures: the management hierarchy, the consulting organizations, and traditional academic institutions. Pay attention and look behind positional titles, the slick presentations, the marketing machines, and the over-intellectualization of matters not that difficult.
Robert Greenleaf wrote that we have too many critics and experts with too much intellectual wheel spinning, to much retreating into research, too little preparation for and willingness to go into the guts of an organization and undertake the hard and high risk tasks of building great organizations in an imperfect world.
Observe what people live and what they do rather than what they profess and exercise your judgment in choosing your prophets. The world (and organizations) will be changed by the countless solitary and anonymous artists who get their hands dirty expanding the boundaries of the possible, not by those who spend their time pontificating.
Tom Heuerman, Ph.D. is a consultant, writer, teacher, inspirer, former special agent in the United States Secret Service, former business leader, change agent, photographer and adventurer. Visit A More Natural Way for more of his work and life strategies services.