Aesthetic Leadership: Improving Performance Through Creativity and Empathy

Avatar photo

Recently, during a school visit by an author and illustrator, my kids learned an unexpected lesson: the importance of daily doodling. This idea challenged conventional wisdom, which often dismissed doodling as a distraction. Intrigued, I delved deeper and discovered a discipline that melds neuroscience, psychology, and art history. This field explores the neural foundations of aesthetic experiences and creative processes across various art forms, like visual arts, music, dance, and literature. It also uncovers how art fosters empathy, enhances cognitive functions, and contributes to mental well-being.

Research, utilizing functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS), highlights how activities like doodling, coloring, and free drawing activate the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s center for focus and meaning-making. These practices increase blood flow, evoke pleasure, and boost focus and memory. It’s no surprise that today’s educators advocate for them among young learners.

The implications extend beyond the classroom, reaching the realm of leadership. Leaders who embrace this mindset tend to excel in empathizing with others, nurturing creativity, introducing innovation, inspiring followers to embrace their vision, and fostering occupational well-being. In essence, embracing an aesthetic mindset isn’t just an artistic pursuit; it’s a strategic asset that can elevate leadership effectiveness across organizations.

So, are you an aesthetic leader?

“Every child is an artist; the problem is staying an artist when you grow up.” – Pablo Picasso

First, it helps to define what an aesthetic mindset is. It requires being present and attuned to your environment—not distracted by phones, thoughts or anxieties. According to Susan Magsamen and Ivy Ross in “Your Brain on Art,” an aesthetic mindset also includes:

  • A high level of curiosity.
  • A love of playful, open-ended exploration.
  • Keen sensory awareness.
  • A drive to engage in creative activities as a maker and/or beholder.

Assess your mindset by asking yourself how aware you are of arts and aesthetics around you and how intentionally do you incorporate them into your life.

How does an aesthetic mindset bring value to leadership?

An aesthetic mindset brings value to leadership in three important ways: by bolstering creativity, fostering greater emotional intelligence and supporting mental and emotional well-being.

Bolstering creativity: Creativity, open-mindedness and the ability to question current ways of doing things are important for leaders to be able to think critically, help their organization stay relevant and bring value by identifying efficiencies and taking calculated risks.

Recently, Summit analyzed leaders who identified higher on the Hogan Motives, Values, Preferences Inventory (MVPI) Aesthetic scale to understand trends in their performance. We found that aesthetic leaders tended to more frequently question the status quo, drive creativity and innovation, and were better at driving the company forward through strategy development and leadership.

Fostering Emotional Intelligence: According to the 2022 Harvard Business Review article “The C-Suite Skills That Matter Most,” a strong set of social skills (including a high level of self-awareness, the ability to listen and communicate well, the ability to work with diverse people and groups, and the capability to infer the feelings of others) is emerging as the most sought-after qualification for new CEOs. Engaging with art can increase one’s capacity to empathize and connect with others and foster the development of a greater understanding of different cultures, perspectives, and emotions, which promotes social cohesion and tolerance.

Additionally, art can contribute to personal growth and resilience. In Summit’s analysis, we found that aesthetic leaders were more likely to be rated by their colleagues as empathetic. They tended to be more social, more interested in others and more altruistic. They demonstrated curiosity about the world around them and showed more of an interest in learning. These skills often serve as a basis to be able to build trusting relationships with others and mentor or coach people.

Supporting Mental and Emotional Well-being: Since the pandemic, there has been an accelerated shift in how we achieve better work/life balance and an increased focus on mental and emotional well-being. Art can help you process emotions and relieve stress in a multitude of ways. There is an entire body of research that suggests harnessing our regret (from Daniel Pink’s “The Power of Regret”) and leaning into our bittersweet feelings (from Susan Cain’s “Bittersweet”) is important and instrumental in understanding ourselves and moving through the world in a more productive way.

Rather than push away people, situations or obstacles that are painful, scary or sad, why not use them to become stronger? Say you have a disagreement with a co-worker. How can you work through that situation? Yes, it might be difficult, painful, frustrating or defeating. But what if you are successful? Rather than push emotions aside, try to name those emotions and work through them in a constructive way rather than getting stuck. You may find this practice can unlock something deeper and more meaningful, and it could prove instrumental as you navigate tough situations with others.

How can art help us process emotions?

Research from Daisy Fancourt at University College London in 2020 studied the effect of the arts on health and found that people (across socioeconomic levels) who participated in art activities more than once a week, or who attended cultural events at least once or twice per year, had higher life satisfaction (including lower mental distress, better mental functioning and improved quality of life) than those who did not engage in arts activities in those ways.

More and more, physicians, psychologists and experts are “social prescribing,” meaning they recommend arts-integrated activities based on an individual’s life and needs. For burnout: regular nature walks. For stress: singing classes or a doodle diary.

So, how do leaders influence our mental and emotional well-being? A recent article published by Hogan Assessments, “Well-Being Around the World,” mentions the critical role leaders play in impacting the well-being of their team members. It cites a survey where 69% of respondents indicated their manager and romantic partner have an equal impact on their mental health. Leaders with an aesthetic mindset tend to be more sensitive, empathetic and more often seek out and advocate for methods that can increase others’ overall well-being too.

How can I strengthen my skills and tap into aesthetics more often?

“If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.” – Edward Hopper

To tap into your aesthetic mindset, consider engaging in activities that immerse you in the world of art and aesthetics:

  • Use your eyes: Observe natural beauty, visit museums, and explore novels.
  • Use your ears: Listen to audio content, music, and the sounds of nature.
  • Use your body: Engage in physical activities, art, and outdoor experiences.

Now, Put your phone down and embrace the world around you; it will enhance your creativity, emotional intelligence, well-being, and even improve your leadership skills.