Business Leadership: Art or Science?

Jill Anderson, LFGSM Faculty

Friday, April 24, 2015

Is business leadership an art or science? And, if it’s both, what comes first?

It’s a simple question often applied to specific business disciplines like strategy, operations or marketing and sales that seemingly tries to explain why some people are better at it than others.

When I ask these questions in Lake Forest Graduate School of Management classes there are always mixed opinions. Most people believe that it’s a combination, but that’s an empty explanation!

When people are successful without a formal education or real-life experiences to draw upon, we jump to the conclusion that it’s simply innate. “Oh, she’s just a born leader!” Or, “It’s an art.”

Art is created or observed and is subjectively judged to have aesthetic merit. People may not know why they like it or not; they just do. You don’t learn art; you learn how to create it or intuitively evaluate it. It’s a feeling and a perspective and therefore, unique to each of us. The more experience you have following your own best practices or others’, the better and more artful you will become.

On the other hand, there are mountains of scientific research and analysis based on provable facts and outcomes that define successful business leadership. Business circumstances are never exactly the same but you can improve your outcomes by learning about specific subjects and proven techniques. Leadership models provide disciplined approaches for actions that yield repeatable results, but with unlimited human variables, outcomes may vary widely.

We can identify things that successful leaders do whether they know they do it, or not. Just like scientists, the very best business leaders use a proven approach that shapes activities into expected outcomes. When it comes together as planned it may look like a work of art to the outside observer.

Science exists with or without art, but rarely does a fine work of art exclude the use of scientifically proven principles. Children’s art looks best when it follows scientific principles of form or color combinations whether the child understood those principles or not.

So, the age old question remains: the chicken or the egg? When science comes first, artful finesse “may” follow but in business leadership art requires a scientific foundation to succeed. What makes some people better business leaders than others, therefore, is that the very best rely on scientific principles to create the most pleasing, and artistic outcomes. You can learn the science of successful business leadership but then you must practice making it your own art.

jillanderson Jill Anderson teaches Strategic Thinking and Leading Organizational Change in the Lake Forest Graduate School of Management MBA program.  In addition, she facilitates sales training courses, including coaching and  negotiations, for the Corporate Learning Solutions team.  Jill has held managerial positions at Johnson Controls, PepsiCo, and Quaker Oats.  Currently she is the Owner/Head Coach of The Avenue Development Group.  In this role she develops strategies for new and/or expanding small businesses and trade associations.



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