Professor Nancy J. Adler

April 04, 2011

Since earning her doctorate at UCLA in 1980, Nancy J. Adler has become a leading authority on global leadership and cross-cultural management. She holds the S. Bronfman Chair in Management at McGill University in Montreal. The author of ten books and more than 125 articles, Professor Adler received McGill's first Distinguished Teaching Award in Management -- and was one of only a few professors to receive it a second time.

Professor Adler has drawn on her passion for painting to explore new approaches to management and leadership. She writes that leaders and managers can achieve their aspirations and begin to address corporate and global issues through reflection and artistry. She explains that art offers a rich vocabulary that helps people move beyond the limiting conventional language of management.

"I finally realized that creating the type of world we want to live in," she explains, "will remain impossible if we continue to use our normal management vocabulary. Accounting, economics, and finance cannot express our yearnings for the world. So, little by little, I've begun to introduce managers to artistic language and processes to support their global conversations and leadership."

Bringing management and the arts together comes from Professor Adler's personal experience as an artist, management professor and consultant who has guided business leaders through reflective and creative processes. It is rooted in her appreciation that the best leadership is ultimately a highly creative, artistic practice.

Professor Adler began painting, literally, by accident when a skiing injury in the early '90s interrupted her busy travel schedule and provided time for her first art workshop. In contrast to her analytical life as a management professor, she instinctively chose to work with the unpredictability and spontaneity of watercolors and other water-based media.

At first, Professor Adler kept her life as an artist completely apart from her life as a management scholar and consultant. Fellow artists only knew that she was a teacher. But her two worlds came together when she took a workshop on "Tai Chi and Watercolors." The accomplished artist and internationally recognized Tai Chi Master leading the workshop shared his Chinese wisdom stories with the assembled artists. Adler instantly recognized that the stories were filled with wisdom for leaders.

"At the end of the workshop," she recalls, "I invited Yung to lunch and only then discovered that, in addition to being a world renowned artist who was born in Asia and had studied in Paris, he was the founder and CEO of a global communication firm. Yung had bridged the gap between art and management, and he had done so in a way that made huge sense to me. That was the moment I began to realize how insights could be gleaned about management by going beyond the dehydrated language commonly used by managers and MBA programs."

Since then, Professor Adler has written academic articles and been featured multiple times in the popular press about the connections between art and leadership. Last year, an exhibition of her paintings in Montreal was a centerpiece accompanying the Academy of Management's Annual Meeting. "When art and leadership come together," she says, "it helps leaders remember that beauty is still possible in the world, and worth aspiring to -- even in a world where we increasingly question if anything more than 'less ugly' is possible." The exhibition featured many lectures and workshops on art and leadership.

"The best leadership can be seen as a dance," Professor Adler explains. "Most of the time you partner with clients and colleagues who offer opportunities and potential support. But to truly lead, to get out ahead of the competition, you cannot always remain in the dance. You have to regularly take a step back and ask yourself, 'What does all this mean? Does our strategy make sense? Are we going where we want to be going? Do I like who I have become and what I'm contributing?'"

Professor Adler notes that most managers are far more focused on action than reflection. "The incessant demands of managerial culture fail to support reflection, often undermining the very quiet, reflective time that is most important for success," she says. "Managers understand how important it is to remove themselves from the fray and get some perspective. The problem is making time to actually slow down and reflect."

Over the years, Professor Adler has encouraged many corporate clients to reflect on paintings and poems. Reflection is now a core aspect of the orientation program for all MBA students at McGill University. To deepen the reflection, and leverage it into the type of creativity that leaders most need, she often immerses managers in the art at galleries and museums.

Adler described one "aha" that occurred when she took senior executives from a Norwegian-based global firm to Oslo's contemporary art museum. The group included the firm's 100 most senior executives from around the world, many of whom had only recently joined the company as a part of a series of major acquisitions.

"We had talked for hours about the approaches to cross-cultural management that were needed to build a strong global company," she says. "Yet, only at the close of the second day, when the executives entered the museum's Cubist exhibition, did the CFO publicly exclaim, 'Nancy, this is exactly what you've been trying to tell us for the past two days.'"

Cubism, she explains, is about seeing something from multiple points of view at the same time. The Cubist paintings conveyed the reality of multiple perspectives in a much more compelling way than had all the talking of the prior two days. "Executives viscerally understand that they need multiple perspectives, but many of them haven't let go of the belief that their own point of view is the right one. Without accepting others' perspectives as equally valid, it is impossible to succeed as a global company. To grasp the simultaneity of multiple perspectives, you need something more powerful than just a concept. Cubism was exactly what these executives needed to transform their company from a dominant regional player into one of the most successful firms in their industry worldwide."

Another approach Professor Adler uses is to ask her clients and MBA students to draw portraits of themselves as leaders. "If I simply asked them to describe themselves verbally, they would know how to stay 'safe' by remaining slightly superficial and politically correct. But, when asked to draw a portrait, they don't know how to hide and they frequently express profound truths about themselves. When asked why they portrayed themselves as they did, out pours their real story. Many times, the exact image is less important than the personal story it triggers, leading to extremely honest descriptions of who they are as leaders as well as who they aspire to be."

Some of Professor Adler's approaches are captured in her new, highly innovative book, Leadership Insight, published by Routledge (2010). The book, which is a journal for leaders, features her paintings as well as wisdom statements from world leaders, questions for reflection, and blank pages for people to express their own insights, both verbally and visually. Leadership Insight invites people to take time for reflection. "All true leadership starts with coming home to oneself," she writes.

Professor Adler sees the ability to look at things from ones own unique perspective as an essential complement to the more established MBA competencies. "I consider the whole set of skills taught in traditional MBA programs to be necessary but not sufficient," she says. "Perhaps more important than all the conventional skills, it is crucial to recognize that, as leaders, we are the ones shaping society and the planet -- for better or worse."

She points out that the balance of power between governments and the private sector has shifted. More than half of the largest economies in the world are now multinational companies, not countries. If global problems are to be solved, companies will have to play a significant role. This additional challenge calls for hope, aspiration, wisdom and innovation -- all based in fiscal pragmatism.

"A couple decades ago, many people considered the idea that a company could do well by doing good laughable," she says. "Corporate responsibility was seen as diametrically opposed to profitability. Then, business leaders began to realize that they had fallen into the great trade-off fallacy. Green industries have proven that doing good is one of the most effective ways to do well financially. This dramatic shift in thinking required reflection. It required unhooking from the old paradigm in order to see the economy anew. Regular reflection allows managers to think the unthinkable - and to profit by it."

Professor Adler says that business tends to be far ahead of government in knowing how to succeed at global strategies. "However, for years, business thought that the overall condition of society and the planet were not their concern. But business leaders today understand how central their role is. Increasingly, they are asking, 'How can we solve society's most pressing problems? What kinds of partnerships will be needed if we are to build the kind of world and economy we most want? How can we outperform our competitors while doing good?' Those are the 21st century's new and most urgent questions."

The answers, she explains, will come from combining the global influence and entrepreneurial skills of the private sector with the inspirational creativity of the artist community. Professor Adler notes that we need look no further than financial icon Warren Buffett who asserts, "I am not a businessman, I am an artist." She contends that, "If you just look, you will find lots of common ground between creating societal benefit and leading successful businesses."

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