Cory Dobbs, Ed.D.
Lessons from the Art Studio
“Students who are truly student-athletes have a chance for a life-transforming, life-shaping experience. I can tell you how thankful I am for having had that experience and how it’s shaped me in countless ways. It’s an absolutely formative experience.” –
U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan,
Speaker at the 2010 NCAA National Convention in Atlanta, Ga.
Leadership is one of the most important topics of our time. And it’s likely one of the most important attributes for effectiveness in any human endeavor. The success of any institution, organization, group, or team, is grounded in the effective application of leadership. For any organization to sustain success it must invest in the development of leaders—current and future— to avoid a regression towards mediocrity.
Since the dawn of civilization, groups have utilized leadership for various purposes beginning with the need for survival. Organizations today view leadership as a necessity for success and it is hard to find a person today who does not give at least lip service to the importance of developing leaders.
Yet despite this apparent intent to nurture the development of leaders, we still find ourselves desperately searching for leaders that can create and sustain success. Perhaps part of the problem is the way we teach leadership.
I teach leadership courses in two different graduate colleges for the same university. Different students, same classroom. The classroom consists of a podium, tables with chairs and a white board. The rooms are designed for teachers to stand and students to sit.
However, the classroom in which my colleague teaches art is quite different. In her art studio she often does not stand and students don’t sit. The simple reversal of classroom roles leads to a different mode of learning. Students in the art classroom poke around, observing the work of their fellow students. They ask questions, share stories, exchange insights, and offer praise or constructive critiques.
I’ve learned some powerful lessons from studying learning in the art studio. Two, of them in particular have reshaped the way I approach leadership development.
1. Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.
2. The fear of failure will guarantee failure.
Anything Worth Doing is Worth Doing Badly
Not the orthodox way of looking at excellence. However, leadership is a messy proposition for anyone learning to lead. Since leadership is a social process, it follows that team leaders will need to experiment with such things as peer accountability. Invariably, the beginning leader will stumble. Encourage your student-athletes to get going, start leading, and take the lumps that come with learning to lead.
The art studio encourages the student to explore. Taking risks—experimentation—and being willing to do leadership badly are part of the learning process. In the art studio students are encouraged when they do something badly. They quickly look at the bad product and figure out how to improve upon their work. Poor outcomes are not seen as failures. Rather, the art student returns to the canvas to try again.
To offer some real-world perspective on bad leadership as a learning opportunity, take a quick look backwards to when you took your first coaching job. Who among us can’t look back and see incompetence and failure in some leadership efforts during our formative years? I’m on pretty safe ground here knowing that all competent coaches attended Hard Knocks University.
Here’s a simple way for you to guide your student-athletes to face the fact that risk is necessary for them to fully develop as a leader. Have them set up a matrix that involves listing leadership goals on one side of the ledger with possible risks on the other.
Sample Leadership Goal
To promote team unity through a weekly players only meeting.
One or more team members do not want to attend and see the leaders as “better than them”
Fear of Failure Will Guarantee Failure
While the artist’s palette contains a wide-array of vibrant colors, the only color emerging leaders see is gray. Nothing appears to be black and white for the beginning leader. She’s not sure where to start, what to do, how to take leadership action. Fear of failure is real.
Failure often affects confidence and self-esteem. However, failure is not fatal. Giving your leaders the license to fail is a starting point. Creating a learner-centered approach to leader development can help the novice and the experienced team leader. Artists that persevere face their fear of failure. Failure in the art studio is guaranteed. Perfection is desired, but failure is acknowledged as part of the process.
I’ve noticed far too many young leaders fearful of leaving their comfort zones, clinging to what is comfortable and secure. The art student is encouraged to venture out and explore new styles and tools. In the art studio it is folly to discount mistakes and failure.
In the art studio, students are confronted with reality. What they put on canvas is available for all to see. Sometimes the visible picture doesn’t match the artist’s heart and effort. Such moments can be both disheartening and empowering. Vulnerability is a vital part of learning to become an artist—and a team leader.
Leadership certainly can begin to be taught in a classroom. Yet conventional methods of leadership training often fail to prepare students for the messiness of leadership. The art studio provides another model to explore as a bold approach for developing your team leaders. Experimentation, exploration, and action will involve mistakes and failure. Guiding your young leaders through the risks of leadership may well be the most important role you assume as a leadership educator.
New to the Second Edition of Coaching for Leadership!
We are pleased to announce a new chapter to the second edition of the best-selling Coaching for Leadership. The chapter, The Big Shift: Unlock Your Team’s Potential by Creating Player-Led Teambuilding, connects the previous edition of this book to its origin, as well as to the future of team sports.
The new chapter sets forth a practical and applicable agenda for change and improvement. The reader is introduced to seven vital elements of change; seven shifts of traditional mental models that lead to the new core principles necessary for creating a player-led team culture. Click here for more information about Coaching for Leadership
About Cory Dobbs, Ed.D.
Cory Dobbs is the founder of The Academy for Sport Leadership and a nationally recognized thought leader in the areas of leadership and team building. Cory is an accomplished researcher of human experience. Cory engages in naturalistic inquiry seeking in-depth understanding of social phenomena within their natural setting.
A college basketball coach, Cory’s coaching background includes experience at the NCAA DII, NJCAA, and high school levels of competition. After a decade of research and development Cory unleashed the groundbreaking Teamwork Intelligence program for student-athletics. Teamwork Intelligence illuminates the process of designing an elite team by using the 20 principles and concepts along with the 8 roles of a team player he’s uncovered while performing research.
Cory has worked with professional athletes, collegiate athletic programs, and high schools teaching leadership and team building as a part of the sports experience and education process. As a consultant and trainer Dr. Dobbs has worked with Fortune 500 organizations such as American Express, Honeywell, and Avnet, as well as medium and small businesses. Dr. Dobbs taught leadership and organizational change at Northern Arizona University, Ohio University, and Grand Canyon University.