Leadership, Arts and Aesthetics

Study Unit Aims

•Explore aesthetic approaches to leadership

•Reflect on implications for leadership

Aesthetics and Leadership

•Aesthetics as a concept can be described as ‘sensory knowledge and felt meaning in relation to objects and experiences’ (Hansen and Bathurst, 2011)

•Aesthetics has entered the field of leadership studies in recognition of the complex, ambiguous and uncertain nature of organisations (Wheatley, 1994)

•Leaders need to be prepared to accept and deal with this environment and to find ways of working with it

•Tools based on traditional logic and rationality assume that the world is stable, knowable and predictable – this is limiting

Aesthetics and Leadership

• We therefore need to engage not only with the mind but also with the body and emotions to deal with ambiguity, the un-knowable and uncertainty

• We need to transform our understanding and praxis of leadership through a stronger focus on sensory experiences and sense-making as a core focus of leadership (Hansen and Bathurst, 2011)

• Non-logical activities enable people to solve problems and enact their potentials

―Accessing intuitions, feelings, stories, improvisation, experience, imagination, active listening, awareness in the moment, novel words and empathy

Aesthetics and leadership – Some contributions

• (2006) has explored the aesthetic assumptions underlying authentic leadership and how beauty in the eye of the beholder affects notions of authenticity

• Kotter (1996) has stressed the importance of aesthetic awareness in change leadership where leaders need to carefully engage with processes of sense-making and sense-giving

• Ladkin (2008) has advanced our understanding of leading beautifully and linked this to classical philosophy

• Sutherland (2013) argues for the value of arts-based methodologies in leadership development to leverage aesthetic experiences that engage actively with complexity and ambiguity in leadership and organisations

Aesthetics and Leadership – An Emancipation

• Hansen and Bathurst (2011) see the aesthetic turn in leadership studies as a way of breaking free from the dominant traditional views of managers and leaders as rational, powerful and in control

• This requires a more critical understanding and practice of leadership where critical self-reflection and self-transformation are a core part of the emancipatory process

• Leadership can then be seen as a relational process of ongoing sense-making of self and others

• O’Sullivan (2006) stresses that such aesthetic action is difficult as it sets out to rupture deep set routines and habitual ways of living through critical introspection and intra-spection

• Yet through rupture may emerge creativity

Arts and leadership

• Pye (2005) argues that the ultimate aim in leadership is to master the art of deep, active and ongoing sense-making and meaning-making

―It is the ability of a leader to distil and translate what is going on inside and outside the organisation to the group they are leading in a way that is meaningful to the group

―It calls for aesthetic processes of sensory knowledge, self-reflection and highlights the great responsibility the leader has not to abuse their ability to influence the group

• Hughes and Avey (2009) have explored humour as another form of sense-making and their research particularly links humour to successful transformational leadership where humour enables greater trust building with and commitment from followers

Arts and leadership

• Learning for leadership practice through engagement with the philosophical arts, fine arts, martial arts and drama – a means to improving skills around organisational identity/ strategy/ tactics and communication

• Hatch et al. (2005) draw on different arts such as story telling, drama and mythology to aid leadership development

–Stories are a powerful tool to convey valuable messages and inspire followers

–Creating and reflecting on different forms of drama as another means of communication

–Understanding yourself through the eyes of Greek gods and their values

• Grint (1997, 2001) has also drawn on the arts of poetry and war to inform our understanding of leadership

Arts-Based methods in Managerial Development (Taylor and Ladkin, 2009)

• Contribution of arts-based methods to development of managers and leaders:

Skills transfer – learning artistic skills that can be applied to org setting

Projective Technique – accessing inner thoughts and feelings

Illustration of essence – apprehend essence of a concept, situation, tacit knowledge

Making – deeper experience of personal presence and connection to counteract feelings of disconnect and fragmentation amongst leaders

The Fresh Caviller or ‘The Morning After’ (1846)

•“…one of Fedotov’s biggest hits. When he exhibited it at the 1846 Exhibition thousands of people crowded round to see this satire of a rather small minded cavalry officer. He’s been given a medal and he’s spent the whole night carousing and celebrating this honour that’s been bestowed on him. He’s a vain man his hair is in curlers. He’s also immoral because he has spent the night with his mistress. ” 21.29

•“Fedotov was a huge fan of Hogarth and of the European satirical tradition and you can see that in his love of incriminating details, look at the drained champagne bottle, the broken crockery symbolising smashed virtue, the guitar without its strings which is a symbol of discord and the cat scratching away at the silk cover of the chair. And I think the cat in someway is a symbol of the man himself, a privileged person who is abusing his status.” 21 mins 55 secs.

Barge Haulers on the Volga (1870)

“In the 1870s Repin created the most celebrated painting in the history of Russian art, it was to shock the nation with its unflinching depiction of peasant life… a great work of social protest, I’m not interested in painting light and colour he said, I want to paint content, and the content here is unadulterated human misery… they are human beings who have been reduced to the level of beasts, now these figures draw the eye in so much that it’s quite easy to miss a very important detail… this little tug boat, and what it tells us is that there is another way of doing this, we’ve got steam power, but the fact is that human labour is still so cheap and our disregard for any sense of human rights is so enormous, that we are still willing to treat people like this. Now one of the things that is most interesting about this picture is that from the very moment it was painted it was hugely popular and its popularity has never diminished.  It was, for example, Stalin’s favourite painting, this was the picture that he held up to the artists of communist Russia as a model on which they should base their own work… to a communist this would look like a depiction of the energies and the will that would lead to revolution. And the key figure of all, and this was said at the time when the picture was painted, the key figure, who is picked out by the light is this boy in the middle. He is the only figure looking up, looking out, as if to a better life, as if to a more optimistic future, he even looks as if he is taking off the shackles of slave labour… This was more than a painting, it was an incendiary work of art, a manifesto for political change.” (34.37)


• The paper suggests that if we are to take this aesthetic reformation of transformational leadership, then it firstly, supports previous writers (Knights and O’Leary, 2006) in that we have been too individualistic in our interpretation of leadership, and in particular, transformational leadership.

• Secondly, the paper highlights that the composite parts of transformational leadership, inspiration, vision, charisma, are preceded by a caricatured satire of the previous process, a down play of authority that stands in the way of the transformative process.

• In addition, there appears a spiritual process that connects to the transformative process from an early stage.

• These elements are missing from the commonly held views of transformational leadership.


• Bouilloud, J.P. and Deslandes, G. (2015) The aesthetics of leadership: Beau Geste as critical behaviour. Organisation Studies, 36, 1095-1114.

•Edwards, G. (2017) From the Black Square to the Red Square: Rebel leadership constructed as process through a narrative on art. Leadership, 13(1): 20-40.

• Hansen, H. and Bathurst, R. (2011) Aesthetics and leadership. In A. Bryman, D. Collinson, K. Grint, B. Jackson and M. Uhl-Bien (eds) The SAGE Handbook of Leadership. London: Sage, 255–266.

• Hatch, M. J., Kostera, M. and Kozminski, A. J. (2005) The Three Faces of Leadership: Manager, Artist, Priest. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishing.

• Hawkins, B. (2015) Ship-shape: materializing leadership in the British Royal Navy. Human Relations, 68(6), 951-971.

• Ladkin, D. (2008) Leading beautifully: how mastery, congruence and purpose create the aesthetic of embodied leadership practice. The Leadership Quarterly, 19(1): 31–41.

• Pye, A. (2005) Leadership and organizing: sense-making in action. Leadership, 1(1): 31–50.

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