You do art like a CEO
“Can we have a chat?”
A question light on words, heavy on latency.
Is it really a question? A generous view would be to call it an invitation, but really, it is an expectation, for it is mostly impossible to refuse. To say no, would be to adopt a position of avoidance, and even if you do, it is not going away.
Regardless, it will take you from whatever you were feeling, thinking or doing and leave you somewhere else, tinged with trepidation.
My nerves tingle just a little when I hear the words.
I’d gone straight back to a place.
A time when the question was regularly asked by me, with a full understanding of the weight the words carried, and from time to time, asked of me.
I then relax, reminding myself that I am no longer a CEO. In fact, I am a first-year university student, now in my 50s, studying Fine Art.
I’d also spent 25 years as a CEO training myself not to elevate in these moments. To stay calm, trying to control the places the mind instinctively wants to take you but is unlikely to serve you well.
The “better than human nature” expectation as Ron Barassi would describe.
I have a system for these moments.
First, I pause, then I breathe, and say two words quietly to myself.
The place my subconscious took me was a life-changing event just two years earlier when I’d been sacked as CEO of the Melbourne Football Club.
A day that started with those same five words and ended with a press conference in the Melbourne Football Club Boardroom in stands of the MCG.
My domain is no longer coaches boxes and player meeting rooms, boardrooms, corporate dinners and smart offices. It is a barebones, leaky, drafty art studio shared with twenty or so, mainly 18-year-olds straight from school at the Victorian College of the Arts.
We shared more than studio space. We all had something to say but were not sure how to say it. A creative itch that needed scratching, perhaps the highest of expectations.
Never underestimate the intimidation of a blank canvas.
When you aim high and set expectations of yourself, there is a weight and tension that will obligingly join you on this journey, whether running a footy club or painting a picture.
This time, the man asking the weighted question is a wonderful artist and teacher Raaf Ishak.
About six months into my first year, Raaf walked into my studio, pulled up a chair, following up his first question with “I’ve been thinking about your work”.
“You do art like a CEO”, said Raaf.
I knew it wasn’t a compliment, but such was my respect for Raaf, it was never going to be a putdown, but it required me to work through its many layers.
It soon landed exactly where good feedback should. The more space I gave it, the more meaning it had.
The irony was, my mind went immediately back into CEO mode, a role where feedback played a critical part from a performance perspective, particularly in an elite sport environment, such that I’d developed my own three rules of feedback:
- Can you back it up?
- Is what you are saying important, valuable and helpful?
- Is it coming from a good place?
Tick. Tick. Tick. Raaf had all three well and truly covered.
When looking at my work, Raaf was telling me in his composed yet direct manner that my art was too obvious. I was giving the viewer no credit, no room for their own opinions, to find their own meaning in my work.
I feared my art being interpreted as something different to my intent.
But art, for all its meaning, is mostly about opening up the conversation, not closing it.
I lacked the confidence to do what art is intended to do. Hence I wasn’t being an artist.
I had to cross a new bridge of vulnerability, and Raaf was showing me the way.
As a CEO and leader, you have to cross many bridges, find something in yourself in the face of uncertainty while often trying to present as something quite different. To create belief, to give belief, often while struggling to believe in yourself.
I needed to embrace the ambiguity my art required, and I reflected on how often I’d been avoiding it for much of my working life.
Art forced me to rethink this approach. Ambiguity as an opportunity. Leading positively and purposefully whilst acknowledging uncertainty and the fact that you don’t have the answer invites a much better conversation.
To do otherwise, then you are not really being a leader.
“Reassurance is helpful for people who seek out certainty, but successful artists realise that certainty isn’t required. In fact, the quest for certainty undermines everything we set out to create.”
Seth Godin – The Practice
A sticky note on your screen.
I have a few around my screen.
Simple messages. Mantras of sorts. Reminders.
…and a timeless song lyric:
Get Back – The Beatles
My favourite ever group, like millions around the world are The Beatles.
Therefore, I am loving Peter Jackson’s “Get Back”.
I love a creative backstory, knowing how something of genius evolved, the struggles, challenges and grit required to get it to a place where the creator was prepared to “ship it”.
This little piece of footage captures so much.
Paul McCartney writing “Get Back”. From playing chords on his bass, with nothing much at the 30 second mark, to the basis of the familiar song 90 seconds later, and the timeless lyric:
“Sweet Loretta Modern thought she was a woman, but she was another man”
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