Lessons for Leaders from Artists: Chihuly Exhibit

The highly popular exhibit, “Chihuly: Through the Looking Glass’’ closed not too long ago at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts.  Long lines of visitors waited eagerly to experience the artist’s elaborately theatrical imagination and his multicolored fantasies.  And I of course was one of them.

While absorbing the incredible glass creations of color, shapes and sizes, I realized that the  life and experience of Dale Chihuly provides many important lessons for creative leaders:

  1.  Artists learn from anyone anywhere.  Chihuly studied and learned formally at Rhode Island School of Design and from masters in Venice and around the world.  He was also inspired by nature, Native American Indian basket and blanket design, his brother’s red roadster, or a neon sign over the bar where his mother sometimes worked.  According to a Boston Globe article, he was fascinated by the way the color flickered and steamed in the rain when he showed up to fetch her home.  Leaders too can study nature, observe closely and look beyond their own culture for ideas and to learn.  They must also be open to where new learning may take them.
  2. Artists think expansively and experiment.  Chihuly’s sights are set not just on what he can put on a sculpture stand.  He also focuses on what he can create to change the character of the space where the sculpture is located — a room, house, field, or waterway. Early on, he worked not just in glass but also in many different mediums, such as neon, dry ice, and experimental plastics.  Leaders also must think beyond their immediate environment and be willing to try new things, while still considering how a new direction can change the character of the organization.
  3. Artists must have a thick skin.  Called by some as a “master of color and light” and a major American artist, Chihuly has also been accused of frivolity and superficiality.   Because he is passionate about his art, his attitude toward critique is “there is nothing any artist can do about people who dislike his work.”  Leaders also must walk a fine line between listening to feedback and being bold and courageous with new ideas.
  4. The art and science of creativity is in the execution.  Chihuly has been quoted as saying, “with an idea, the interesting thing is to make it work.”  As I have said many times before, leaders who figure out how to get an idea implemented can be just as creative as those who come up with the idea in the first place.
  5. The life of an artist is not easy.   Chihuly suffered through the early deaths of his father and brother, loss of an eye and bodily injuries through accidents, and took his time getting through school.  He responded to these challenges with hard work, determination, and developing a glass blowing team to create his masterpieces, instead of as a solo artist.  Neither is it easy to be a leader.  But building a team they can trust will enable leaders to became a choreographer, not dancer, an architect, not builder.

Did you see the exhibit or have you seen any of Chihuly’s works?  If so, do you have any more lessons for leaders to add to the list?

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