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Is Leadership art or science?

Is Leadership art or science?

Is leadership art or science may be a more important question than it seems. If leadership is science, that suggests one series of methods. If leadership is art then other methods are suggested.

There is another option: leadership is both art and science. Perhaps even more options: leadership is in some regards an art and in some regards a science.

From a leadership coaching point of view, what difference does it make? If any?

Good question. If it makes no difference whether leadership is an art or a science what action will come of this exploration?

Let’s see.

Is leadership art or science?

To answer that question, we will need some benchmarks against which to measure leadership. That creates our first challenge: there is no universally agreed definition that separates art and science.

Such a definitional challenge is usually overcome by choosing or creating some definitions and overtly stating them, for all to examine and challenge. Here goes with two very imperfect definitions.

“An art creates something that that has never existed before by drawing on vision, imagination, knowledge and skill.”

Does that match what a visionary leader does? Yes, pretty much. Great entrepreneurial leadership creates an organisation that did not exist before, usually to achieve something that has never been done before (or done that well, that quickly, or that cheaply).  It seems that leadership, at least entrepreneurial leadership is art. But is it science?

“Science is a sequence of steps based on a transparent and verifiable reasoning framework applied to achieve understanding of or harness a natural phenomenon.” 

Does that match what a visionary leader does? If minutes are taken of all decision making processes, as they usually are in larger organisations, then, anyone can follow and seek to replicate the steps taken, as is the case with pure science. Then, yes, leadership may be a science.

When leadership is explored at a more practical level it seems even more scientific.

A key scientific method is known as “action research”.

What is action research?

There are several types, but for the purposes of brevity the key element seems to be research that is aimed at solving a particular problem. Sometimes, when solving a bigger problem the intended end point acts as the target and the action research addresses only the next logical step. That is, action research can be undertaken when the only thing that is known is that a method must be found to take the next tiny step towards a given goal.

The action research may be to find that method or to plan how to use the method. Much trial and error of the kind used in science is required. “Method A didn’t work. Why? Understood. Let’s modify it and try again. Modified A still didn’t work. Why? Not understood. It will cost too much time and money to find out why. Let’s try method B…”

Is leadership ever in a state where it is figuring out the next tiny step to achieve the bigger goal?

If you have led anything of substance your immediate answer may have been to that question may have been: “Isn’t that nearly ALWAYS what leadership involves? I mean leading people to solve the next problem that stands in the way of the big vision.”

If that was your thought, I would agree. Leadership is one action research project after another… Well, to more accurate, leadership involves multiple action research projects going on simultaneously for anyone leading anything of substance. Leadership, in that case, seems to draw heavily on scientific method.

Some cynics may claim that “action research” is not “real science.”

If only there was an agreed definition of what “real science” was!

To illustrate the challenge: Take Einstein imagining what he would see if he could sit on the front edge of a beam of light as it traveled. Is that kind of thought experiment, (commonly used in action research), “real science”?

Since it was a thought experiment that Einstein used to change human history, and the nature of our scientific understanding of the universe, I would say it was science. Wouldn’t you?

Let’s phrase the challenge another way.

If a leader was NOT conducting thought experiments about possible future scenarios, would you be worried?

I would! Why?

Anticipatory thinking is a key leadership skill, and a great way to prepare for future scenarios is to conduct thought experiments about them. If a leader was NOT engaged in action research to solve problems, would you be worried? I would.

What can we conclude?

It seems to me that leadership, at very least, harnesses scientific methods. Does that make leadership a science? Frankly, that is a debate we should leave to academics, because it matters not one jot in the real world.

If a leader harnesses scientific methods to do a better job of leading, and if the same leader also uses art, to lead, then we can settle on this practical, time saving conclusion:

Leadership can be conducted using scientific and artistic methods. Whether it is art or science, doesn’t matter! What matters are results. And leadership, is in part about knowing when to choose scientific methods and when to run with art, and knowing how to make those calls to achieve the best results. Deciding which methods (art or science) are most effective, productive, and cost-effective in any situation is a significant part of real leadership.

Real leadership is about making real world decisions in real time with the real, readily available evidence (even if that is inadequate). Often, taking the scientific approach to making decisions would bankrupt a company. The idea of using scientific method for every decision is simply lunacy. The idea of using art to make every decision, when scientific evidence or method would produce a more cost effective result is also lunacy.

For instance, setting up a psychometric assessment centre for a short list of candidates, all of whom could do the job, and are already doing the job in other companies, is simply crazy. Even if any evidence emerges that candidate A could perform 1% better than candidate B (and that’s nearly impossible since most psychometric tests are less accurate than tossing a coin), the costs and time to make that decision massively overwhelm any tiny benefit. In any event, the key factor is cultural fit, and there are no reliable tests to “measure” that!

Back to our original question: Is leadership art or science?

The cost of answering the question is massively outweighed by any benefit that may emerge from the answer. The best answer I can offer is that sometimes it is best to take an art based approach, and sometimes best to be scientific, and knowing which is best in any given context is a key skill of leadership. 

Dr Nigel MacLennan develops techniques to improve leadership performance. If you want to improve your leadership performance using cost effective and time effective techniques contact Nigel here You can have a free development session provided by Nigel on Zoom, WhatsApp or Skype.

Copyright 2016 Dr Nigel MacLennan