Leading through your Art: Why creatives must be prepared to lead others

Despite our focus on creativity, we can't forget the power of influence

If your actions inspire others to dream more, learn more, do more and become more, you are a leader.  – John Quincy Adams

Artistry and leadership don’t necessarily seem to belong in the same category. We usually equate leadership with political or cultural movements, but typically we don’t expect our artists to have leadership qualities. However, the reverse is often true. Artists have been among the most influential figures in history, helping to shape culture in ways politicians and social activists could only dream of.

Take for example, the many social concerts that have raised awareness of humanitarian efforts, such as Live Aid and the famous “We are the World” recording that benefited famine stricken areas in Africa. Or, consider the striking photographs of Chinese protesters standing up to tanks in Tiananmen Square. In these instances, artists influenced the world in a way that shifted opinions and fostered new cultural discussions.

A responsibility to lead?

However, leadership is more than simply drawing attention to an issue. Not only do leaders cast vision and create movements, they also have to lead the people who are following the movement. This begs the question – must the artist who desires to be great also take on the responsibility of being a leader?

Some artists may balk at the suggestion that they have to lead people. Remember athlete-turned television personality Charles Barkley’s famous quip, “I’m not a role model”?  At the time, he rejected the notion that he was responsible for influencing a younger generation of athletes. He felt his actions on and off the basketball court were his choice, and his alone. In the same way, creatives might argue that their focus is on their art, not on leading followers.

Granted, not every creative has an innate ability to connect with people or inspire them to achieve greater things. Many of us are introverted. Some shy away from taking stances and are adverse to conflict. However, if this describes you, this doesn’t mean you’re not a leader. You’re just a reluctant one.

Steps to creative leadership

Creativity by its very nature requires a point of view. Once we express our point of view through our art, others who share that point of view can then come alongside and say, “I agree.” That’s the first step of leadership – identifying a common viewpoint and uniting people around a certain goal.  You’ll find this step is often achieved when artists create fan bases and interest groups. Often the goal is simply shared admiration of the artist. In other cases, there is a social, creative or cultural viewpoint that the artist wants to champion.

The second step of leadership is the harder one – determining how to reach a goal. Again, not all artists are willing to set up a pathway to a certain achievement. They are content to simply create. Again, being unwilling to lead doesn’t mean you’re unable to lead.

For example, Miles Davis didn’t set out with the goal to lead a revolution in jazz from the high-energy, harmonically dense music of bop to the more introspective, melodic driven style of modal jazz. He simply wanted to make his music, his way. However, by being driven and dedicated to his vision, he became a leader. What was his pathway? It was simply consistent adherence to his creative principles. His determination to forge a unique path ended up providing a roadmap for other artists who could replicate his methods without duplicating his output. Thus, collaborators such as Herbie Hancock, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane all became leaders in the world of jazz , and each of them shaped the future of the genre in a unique way.

Great art requires great leadership

Anytime you find an example of an artist who achieved greatness, you’ll also find that they became leaders and influencers of the culture. From Michelangelo to Maya Angelou, Beethoven to The Beatles, Dostoevsky to Dr. Dre – these artists weren’t trying to be leaders. Leadership was a natural extension of their artistic greatness.

Being a leader in your creative field means accepting that others will attempt to do what you have done, and be what you have become. This accrual of influence will define you as a leader.  John Maxwell asserts this principle this way: “Leadership is influence. Nothing less, nothing more.”

Not all leaders are artists, but you can’t become a great artist without becoming a leader. If you want people to follow your art, you must also be ready for people to follow you.

Make sure you are giving them something worth following.

Question: In what areas of your creative life are you expected or asked to lead? Are you comfortable doing so? Why or why not? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

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