In the movie, Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts plays Katherine Ann Watson, a new faculty member at Wellesley College, teaching a course on the ‘History of Art’. Sensing a significant energy and tension among the students, Watson arrives one day to present a specific question to the class:
What is Art? And just as importantly, when do you know if it’s any good when you see it?
Through the scene, Watson challenges many paradigms of the students; some who have a great amount of exposure to the classics and others whose past experiences in art are far less worldly.
Watson begins to present slide images to the class, and challenges both the students’ assessment of the images—“is it any good?”—to how these assessments are being made. One student suggests that a painting seems grotesque, but another student quickly questions if there are rules that exclude ‘grotesque’ art from being ‘good’.
As Watson next shows a painting she did as a child for her mother—while not immediately informing the class who painted very basic illustration of a cow but suggesting, “25 years ago, someone thought this was brilliant”—one student openly supports the notion. But when Watson explains she herself painted it at the age of 5, and asks the class, “Is it art?” one student replies it can only be art if the ‘right people’ say so.
By the time Watson displays a photograph of her mother that is too easily dismissed by a student as “just a snapshot”, Watson powerfully challenges that student’s indifference by asking, “If I told you Ansel Adams had taken it, would that make a difference?” The student immediately begins to reflect on her assumptions.
Art, like quality, and to a great degree, leadership as well, does have standards. It can be measured, judged, compared, assessed and valued. But perhaps more importantly, leadership—like quality and art —is often dismissed because ‘the right people’ did not refer to the actions of others in that manner. It is interesting that leaders and the accounts of their actions have been recorded throughout history, but the concept of leadership only evolved around the 13th Century. While odd at first thought, could the notion that leadership would be found anywhere other than with the highest ruler have been deliberately ignored or suppressed over time to preserve the very leader’s authority or power?
If we examine a variety of organizations of today, we immediately recognize that there is often a familiar, defined ascension to the top of that organization, and that there are typically core types of work or roles that perpetuate that paradigm. For example, the military and law enforcement use a very clear rank system, i.e., Generals, Colonels, Majors, Captains, Lieutenants, Sergeants, etc. In professional and amateur athletics, there is usually a Manager or Head Coach, Assistant Coach, and Players. In the medical industries, most people identify Doctors as being in charge (e.g., ‘Chief of Staff’), Nurses, and so on.
The common theme here is that in every case in which a defined leader of an organization is in place, that individual almost always has risen through the various levels of the organization or profession to where they ultimately find themselves as the head of a team or group. But along the way, their acts of leadership and the acts of leadership from many others are far more plentiful than the one person who directs the agency or company. At each and every level, we regularly find an infinite supply of examples in which persons of a lesser rank, professional position or assignment are leading others—subordinates, peers and superiors, alike.
Which brings me back to the movie. Toward the latter portion of the story, one of the young women is shown a picture of the Mona Lisa and is asked, “Is she happy?” The young woman replies, “Who cares—as long as she’s smiling?”
This question is no less relevant to those that contribute to the direction of our organizations every day, but who may not be ‘The Leader’: “Who cares, as long as they are leading?”
Leadership is an art, and we are all, most certainly, the artists.