Three Quick Leadership Lessons from an Illustrator

by | May 16, 2016


He worked fast and it was mesmerizing to watch.

I was speaking at Asbury Communities on leadership decision-making using infotuition. As I spoke, Bruce drew.  Bruce is an illustrator who graphically records programs as they unfold.  It is remarkable to watch him work. His approach is an artistic metaphor for leaders.  Here’s what Bruce taught me.

Plan Ahead.  Working with huge 4’x8’white boards, Bruce thoughtfully planned ahead before starting to draw.  He studied the content before arriving and had an understanding of the key points and the milestones in my program. He knew what to listen for as he drew. This gave him a feel for how much content would fit on a board and how to space out the work. It’s the same for those who lead.  You don’t have complete clarity about exactly how the future will unfold. Still, you must study enough to have a sense for the major indicators and milestones to watch for.  It’s a plan of what to watch for as you go. That’s how it was for Bruce.  He had a general feel for how the program would unfold and he adapted as he went.  Leaders, too, must adapt as they go. They must make their best guess in the moment, plan ahead and be ready to adapt in the moment.

Listening.  Bruce’s ability to illustrate matched his listening skills.  He wasn’t attending to his own thoughts and judgments; he was listening to me and to the dialog from the audience.  He didn’t impose his interpretation; rather, he reflected what he heard from us. Leaders must also be good listeners.  You have to intently listen to others in order to create a well-balanced picture of a situation or decision. Leaders truly hear what others have to say, and allow diverse perspectives to color their opinion and final decision. Like Bruce’s drawing, the result emerges as a combination of input from the group.

Clear Message. When each segment of the program was complete, Bruce spent a few minutes to refine what he’d captured and enhanced it visually.  This final step aided the viewer to more easily view and appreciate his work. In the many interviews I conducted with leaders, they have a note-worthy ability to simplify a message so that the receiver grasps and relates to the concept.  That’s not so different from Bruce. He had to represent what he heard in a way that others saw themselves in the illustration and they related to it.  A complicated, jumbled message will not resonate, connect or be received well by the observer.  The art of clarity and simplification is a key attribute for a successful leader.  An executive friend once told me, “If I can’t explain it, I can’t sell it.” And so it is for leaders.

On the surface, Bruce’s work looks like art but dig under the surface and you find that he planned, listened and represented a conversation so it would be memorable and relevant to others.  That’s what an artful leader does. Plan ahead, listen to others and skillfully interpret the message. When it’s done well, it’s mesmerizing.

Illustration by  Bruce Van Patter/Crowley & Co.


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Author Byline: Founder and CEO of Blue Fjord Leaders, Shelley Row P.E. CSP, was named by Inc. Magazine as one of the top 100 leadership speakers. Professional engineer and former senior executive, she was recognized as one of the best minds in advanced traffic management systems.

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