The art of good leadership



Poor leadership in the workplace can have devastating consequences and pose immense costs to an organization. The development of leadership competence is a serious task to be handled by organizations aiming to improve work productivity and promote employee performance and health. 

A new study published in the Journal of Personnel Psychology examines the use of art as an intervention-based leadership program. The researchers propose that the use of dramatic art might serve to deepen an individual’s self-awareness, a known key asset when it comes to leadership effectiveness.

In the study, the researchers looked at the effects of both an art-based intervention versus a conventional leadership development program on participants’ leadership competence.

Art and the self-aware leader

Effective leadership in the workplace is imperative to ensure employee productivity and well-being. Poor leadership can be especially costly due to the fact that negative social experiences in the workplace are found to trump positive ones with respect to their psychological impact

Poor leadership is usually characterized by a lack of action. In fact, recent leadership research has narrowed in on an especially devastating style of leadership: laissez-faire leadership due to poor stress coping. 

Laissez-faire leadership is defined by the avoidance of responsibility, passivity and indifference; that is, a leader who doesn’t do much leading at all. This common style of leadership is linked with stress and interpersonal conflict because of a lack of organizational control. The inability to cope with stress often goes hand-in-hand with this style of leading and is usually what causes a leader to withdraw from his or her responsibilities.



There exists an important link between this type of leadership style and a leader’s self-awareness. Self-awareness is an introspective process used to understand the complex nature of the self and make use of this information to navigate one’s environment. The current research aims to explore the influence of art on improving individual self-awareness. 

The authors propose that the experience of human complexity provided by art might help mitigate the ingrained patterns of thinking linked with laissez-faire leadership and instead promote self-reinterpretation and understanding. Furthermore, they predicted that complex art forces an individual to experience the world through the eyes of the artist, which might promote an enhanced sense of empathy and compassion - two essential character traits of an effective leader.

The Study & Findings

Fifty participants working in a managerial position were recruited to take part in the study. All participants had at least four subordinates and were recruited from a wide variety of professional fields. Participants were informed that they would be randomly assigned to one of two different leadership programs but were not given any information regarding the nature of the programs. 

The researchers blindly randomized the participants into either the art-based or conventional intervention program. The two programs both consisted of twelve 3-hour sessions over a period of ten months.

In the art-based intervention, participants took part in writing and group reflection exercises along with a 60-70 minute performance combining literary texts and recorded music. The performances were designed to convey a broad spectrum of human experience, including elements of sorrow and suffering as well as compassion and dignity. Group reflection and writing exercises were led with open ended questions such as “What is on your mind?” and made no direct references to participants’ leadership skills or professional lives. Instead, they focused on freely expressing reactions to the performance.

The conventional intervention combined the use of lectures, group discussion and assignments to convey traditional organizational and leadership themes such as  self/group psychology and decision-making. This intervention made direct references to participants’ leadership skills and professional development and its purpose was to enhance participants’ understanding of new methods and theories in organizational and leadership research.

For the primary outcome variable, the researchers applied the self-other rating agreement (SOA) which compares leaders’ ratings and subordinates’ ratings of them, forming an agreement indicator of self-awareness. Self-awareness, defined by the SOA, is the degree of alignment between the leader’s self-ratings and others’ ratings of the leaders.



Results were in line with predictions. Following the art intervention, subordinates perceived leaders as less avoidant and more willing to take a stand and make responsible decisions. Further, the self-rating of the leaders in the art condition were significantly more in line with the ratings given by their subordinates, yielding a higher self-awareness score. The art group participants displayed less laissez-faire behaviors and better stress coping abilities, as indicated by higher ratings from their subordinates. Meanwhile, contrasting results were found in the conventional group. 

The negative effect of conventional leadership training is somewhat surprising, though still consistent with previous work. It’s been shown, for instance, that typical leadership training tends to inflate an individual’s self-confidence when compared to how their subordinates see them. Art-based training doesn’t lead to this element of narcissism.

Results Applied: experience & reflect your way to stronger leadership

  1. Provide experience:
    One factor that set the art-group apart from the conventional group was the use of performance art in place of informative lecturing. The participants in the art group were indirectly exposed to topics covering the whole spectrum of human experience without any direct reference to their own professional life.

    When trying to enhance leadership qualities in your workplace, try a less formal lesson. Replace documentaries with films, info-clips with TV episodes or perhaps even new music. The message the art provides can be just as useful and might actually get you thinking a little deeper about its meaning and how it connects to your daily behaviors.

  2. Promote open reflection
    The participants in the art group were loosely guided through a reflection period after the performance. Reflective exercises are commonly observed during workshops and information sessions and are shown to have immense benefits on work performance. In this case, the reflection sessions the participants experienced in the art group were unique in the sense that they were almost entirely self-guided.

    Try the following prompts to promote an open reflection period:

    “What is on your mind?”
    “How’re you feeling at this moment?”
    “Please share the first thought that enters your mind.”