I am by no means an art connoisseur, but I do enjoy art. I’m particularly struck by those artists whose work you can identify almost immediately by their style. Picasso is one of my favorites. Of course we know him most by his cubist and surrealistic work, but he didn’t start out this way. He once said that when he began his art at 15 he painted like Velasquez but that it took him “80 years to learn to paint like a child.”
So many artists whose work we know by their unique vision started out with a much more traditional style. They learned the basics and through their life developed their own inimitable voice. As leaders, we can learn a lot from that.
It’s easy to see leadership as a formulaic exercise. I get that. To begin you want to find that principle, that one clear axiom that can be applied consistently and across the board. The problem is that leadership as a practical endeavor is not that simple. There is a variable that, if forgotten, can undermine every leader’s effectiveness as an influencer: people.
In my own leadership I’ve discovered that I can have every formula and principle memorized (and, to be honest, we all tend to gravitate toward those principles that resonate with us more because they appeal to our particular style and not because they are always the best ideas) but what cannot be addressed by a simple leadership idea is the variable of the individual. This is because every person whom we have the opportunity to influence looks at the leader through the lens of their own unique experiences that are shared by no one else.
Every person has a lifetime of successes, failures, letdowns and achievements that are singular to them. The leadership principle that may work in one situation may not work in another. This is where the art of leadership comes in to play.
Like artists who begin painting with the basics and through their lives find their own style based on their engagement with foundational principles, we as leaders begin with sound leadership ideas but, through our successes and failures, find our own style of leadership that is unique to who we are. This can be frustrating for a young leader, but if she misses this she will miss everything. I promise you that as a leader what appeals to you now will not carry the same weight with you five, ten and twenty years from now. And it shouldn’t.
If you’re starting out as a young leader, take in everything you can. Read good books. Attend valuable conferences. Interact with the leaders on your path. But never forget that every author, speaker and leader with whom you engage is a unique voice built by experiences that are their own.
Live your life and know that you won’t always get it right. What you will do is build your own unique style. That is what will set you apart.
Don’t make it your goal to be the best executor of someone else’s leadership principles. Make it your goal to be the best proclaimer of your leadership voice. You may start out leading like Colin Powell or Steve Jobs or Nelson Mandela. But, if you work hard enough, you might just learn to lead like Picasso learned to paint.
You might just learn to lead like a child.