Art, Leadership… and the Art of Leadership

Laura Gibson, the Art Curator at the Center for Creative Leadership provided the following article as a companion piece to her podcast with Ren Washington, a Leadership Solutions Partner at the Center for Creative Leadership, Art, Leadership… and the Art of Leadership

Whether on vacation or in professional development, at an office building or a home office, we intrinsically know that our experiences are shaped by our environment. What we don’t often realize, however, is exactly how that plays out. We rarely take the time to ask, what about our environment makes us comfortable? Uneasy? Relaxed? Tense? Things like the chair we sit in, the temperature of the room, and even the art on the walls can shape our sense of time and experience in a particular space.

During the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many people learned that feeling comfortable in their own space played a role in how they fared through a global lockdown. We took stock of our surroundings. We looked over our shoulders and made changes to what became our backdrops for virtual meetings. To make our time working from home more pleasant, we upgraded the things in front of us when we could.

As people now return to working in the office and continue to use home workspaces, employers are recognizing that, more than ever, environment impacts experience.

Connecting Artwork to Development

At the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL), we recognize the interconnectivity between creativity, innovation, leadership, and purpose. To that end, we have embraced an element of our environment – the art on the walls of our physical buildings – and its impact on leadership development.

Art is baked into our programs. In fact, one of the exercises we often use with participants is asking them to select an image they feel resonates with where they are in life or represents how they’re dealing with change. Artwork is used as a tool for “mediated dialogue,” and putting pictures in the middle helps people illustrate, then articulate their feelings. After all, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Our Greensboro, N.C., campus has taken this one step further and features the work of local and regional artists to help shape our visitors’ experiences. It began as simply filling a need – we were a brand-new nonprofit many decades ago that lacked art on the walls but had no budget to decorate – but has since become a key part of the culture of our global headquarters.

Art has become a way to welcome the community into our building and learn about what we do, with three local art exhibitions annually, as well as a permanent collection. It has kept the building fresh for employees and supported local businesses. And it’s also a reminder of our commitment to our broader community and the people within it.

What we didn’t realize, at first, was the impact the artwork was having on those who attended our programs. Our in-person program participants often show up on a Monday, not knowing exactly what to expect and usually not knowing anyone in the room. At the end of the week, they are asked to give us feedback on their time with us. Surprisingly, the art surrounding their experience is often at the top of their list. It contributes to a retreat-like environment that provides an opportunity for reflection and development.

One recent illustrative example was a call from a former program participant who wanted to know the name of an artist whose art we had displayed in our buildings during her time at CCL nearly a decade before. During that conversation, she commented on how the art made her feel at home as soon as she saw it, and that she would stand in front of it during breaks. The personal transformation she experienced in the program continued to positively impact her career over the next decade. Now, she wanted a piece of art to serve as a reminder of her time at CCL, the things she learned, and her continued growth. (Thankfully, we had records and could provide her with the artist’s name!)

The environment created with art positively impacts the experiences of our program attendees, during their time with us, and for years beyond.

The Impact of Artwork on Leadership

From altering mindsets and perspectives to creative problem-solving and emotional connection, art may offer aspiring leaders more than they realize and even more than perhaps they thought they needed.

  • Art is an act of perspective-sharing and community- and consensus-building. By taking in another person’s view through their creation, a leader can spend a moment reflecting on a different perspective. You don’t have to LIKE a certain piece of art, but you can certainly learn to appreciate its value as coming from a perspective that is not your own. You can loosen your grip on a single idea as you explore the color of a painting or the curve of a sculpture, and suddenly your mind opens just a bit more to that differing viewpoint. Especially in the equity, diversity and inclusion space, one of the ways we learn about organizations and its people are the cultural artifacts (e.g., the things on the wall in the office, behind our little boxes on Zoom screens) to see the tapestry that weaves us together and informs our path forward.
  • Art can provide a mental “break.” Stepping away from a routine or a problem that is becoming a struggle is important. Many get up from their desk and “walk it out.” Stretching your legs is a proven way to engage the body and let the mind relax. Artwork can serve the same purpose. It offers the brain an opportunity to take a detour, a chance to take in something creative and different. It might be a soft landscape that is a reprieve from stress. It might be a bright abstract that sparks renewed energy. Whatever the response, art can encourage a person to return to a task refreshed.
  • Art is an emotional conduit. Looking at art often creates an emotion. Executives are known to be pragmatic, and emotional reactions may be seen as weakness, although this is far from the truth. As our colleague and CCL faculty member Mike Mitchell, Ph.D., often notes, leaders who are in touch with their emotions can be more self-aware and able to recognize the emotional needs of others. Emotional intelligence is important for effective leadership. Being surrounded by artwork that evokes different emotions allows people the opportunity to recognize an emotional reaction, and deal with it in appropriate ways.
  • Art can be a connection – to your goals, and to others. One of the ways that we bring the hard work of professional and personal development to life is making our goals visual and visible. And by putting them in observable places, whether it’s an image or something that someone sees when they walk into the office, they can spur moments of connection or shared accountability.

Like an artist, a leader must draw on their own unique personality, values, social identity, and vision. As with art, organizations must arouse creative energy, provide inspiration, and promote self-expression and out-of-the-box-thinking by building an inclusive leadership culture of belonging.

Art is just one reflection of how an organization can inspire creativity within its environment to foster a nurturing space for learning, collaboration, innovation, and leadership to flourish.



Laura Gibson is the Art Curator at the Center for Creative Leadership, having taken over the program in 2005. In her role, Laura secures artists for rotating exhibits and receptions open to the public, as well as managing CCL’s permanent art collection. She is passionate about the impact the art has on staff, participants, and the community.

Ren Washingtonis a Leadership Solutions Partner at the Center for Creative Leadership. In his role, Ren is committed to helping clients address their most challenging and complex issues around organizational change and innovation, equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI), executive presence and image, influence, and resilience. 



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