“The problems that exist in the world today cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them.”
– Einstein (attr.)
Most of us have heard this quotion which says that we are limited by the quality of our own reflections. That is, the paradigm we live from and the language we use determine what we see and do. Our conceptual framework constantly shapes the questions we ask, the targets we set for ourselves and the way that we measure success. While our language empowers us to create successful systems and to change them, our language also limits our thinking and perpetuates the problems we want to solve – if we are resorting to ‘reflexive fixes’ and failing to address the fundamentals that created the difficulty. Thus, the linguistic-mental framework that created our success becomes a prison locking us into actions that feed the problem rather than solve it. What we need is a new type of reflection.
Among the daily challenges for leaders should be the development of a new level of thinking that is not at the same tier where the problems were created. This applies to the leader as an individual, as well as to the organizations they manage. I would argue that due to the deep, systemic nature of current global problems, a ‘third order’ change is called for — beyond doing the same things more efficiently (1st order) or slightly changing the rules (2nd order). We need change of a fundamentally different nature.
Organizations need to be able to create that change and leaders are the essential catalysts in such a process. Leaders need to develop the ability to appropriately respond to rising complexities by creating the conditions that will stimulate fundamental change as it is needed. From business thinkers come suggestions for developing leadership competencies in the areas of ethics, aesthetics, and wisdom in response to early 21st century needs. In the brief space of this article I would like to touch on the merits of giving attention to the middle quality – aesthetics – as a leadership compentence.
Aesthetics and Business
There are at least three different ways that aesthetics and business meet: in the tactical importance of design and aesthetics for products and services, in attention for aesthetic leadership as a personal quality and as the strategic application of an aesthetic paradigm to rethink business and economy. “The MFA is the new MBA” is probably the most concise way of introducing the growing importance of ‘the right brain mind’ in business. Daniel Pink made this comment in the 2004 Harvard Business Review, when remarking on large corporations hiring promising arts school graduates in a market placing increasing importance on creativity.
Design and the ability to ‘create experience’ increasingly determine the value of products and services and this requires new competencies for key employees and managers. They must be able to identify, stimulate and organize the creative and narrative powers that shape these products and services. Already such competencies moved from ‘nice to have’, ‘need to have’.
During the 1990’s, Pierre Guillet de Montoux started unlocking the deeper potential of aesthetics at the Stockholm School of Business. In Aesthetic Leadership- Managing Fields of Flow he talks about “aesthetic management” and describes how companies and managers can use their aesthetic abilities to envision their future and inspire their organizations. His treatment makes clear that aesthetics is part of a long historical development:. “Arthur Schopenhauer extended philosophy into a new market for metaphysics where art could work. Joseph Beuys extended art into society. Now the time has come to expand the art firm from … theatres to business on a vast aesthetic field…”. This trend is found in other business schools – Helsinki, Copenhagen, Oslo and Insead who are all adopting programs or activities researching the promise of aesthetics, while companies themselves are engaging in practical programs that draw from art appreciation in order to stimulate creativity and innovation.
Strategic Aesthetics and Third Order Change in Business
Matthieu Weggeman of the Netherlands identifies aesthetics as one of the distinguishing characteristic for a possible “Rhineland model’ of doing business, offsetting it against the Anglo Saxon approach. Back in 2006 and 2009 Göteborg University School of Business organized a conference “The Design of Prosperity: The Driving Forces of Our Present Future” and the Borås summit on “The Design of Change and Innovation”. The underlying question on the summit’s announcement asked “The dream of modernity of over: what happens to prosperity?”. During its lectures and workshops, Scandinavian CEO’s met with European artists to discuss possible relationships between art, design and new roads for prosperity, economics and business. Their aim was to see whether using a humanistic, cultural paradigm allowed new questions to be asked and new solutions to be formulated. This sort of development may seem elusive, but there is nothing trivial about aesthetics in business. Its development can mean the difference between success and failure, while its adoption might completely transform organizations. For leaders to benefit from this trend, however, they need to first be aware of it and able to distinguish its different levels/possible effects as well as having the competency to engage its support when necessary.
Ideally, leaders will be encouraged to develop their ‘rhapsodic mind’ and be able to think like a Leonardo da Vinci, or at least emulate this sensitivity with its requisite ability to respond appropriately and from a place of depth. To do so we will need to identify new sources of inspiration, develop new qualities of reflection in order to develop that potential into practical solutions for business and society at large.