Business in service of beauty
Diane Ragsdale was on a quest to center beauty in finding and forging a more curious, creative, compassionate, and just world.
This beauty course is not aimed at putting beauty in service of business. My aim is the opposite. I want leaders to put business in service of beauty.
—Diane Ragsdale (2022)
The world lost a brilliant mind and beautiful spirit with the passing of Diane Ragsdale last week. Elsewhere, in time, I will share more about her extraordinary life and work. Those words haven’t found me yet. But here I want to raise up a small portion of her impactful ideas to keep them moving in the world of Arts Management.
In her thinking, writing, advocacy, and action throughout her career, Diane challenged herself and all of us to notice and name what is beautiful, and what distracts or discourages us from building “the next, more beautiful world.” Beauty, here, doesn’t mean “prettiness,” but rather a state of coherence, creativity, vibrancy, justice, discovery, and deep connection to shared, lived human experience. The opposite of beauty, said Diane, is injury.
As she details in the excerpt below, centering beauty and creative practice can transform what it means to lead – an arts organization, a community, a commercial enterprise. Perhaps find a moment to reflect or act upon one of the “creative leadership capacities” she describes. And we can all continue her work of finding and forging the next, more beautiful world.
The following is an excerpt from Diane’s Jumper blog (2022):
I have encountered myriad definitions of creative leadership; and they all seem to boil down to some version of envisioning and realizing change and innovation while attending to shared values, mission, and social impact. A central tenet of the program at MCAD is that leadership is a collective capacity, functioning akin to an artist ensemble, and that all players, so to speak, need to be able to step-up and step-back as the moment requires. More specifically, we conceptualize creative leadership as a capacity to collaborate across differences with the goal of imagining and enacting necessary transformational change.
The creation in creative leadership…is based in a foundational premise that there are ways of being, doing, and knowing that are inherent to artmaking and design that are both undervalued by society-at-large and incredibly valuable at a moment in which we are looking at the “end of the world as we have known it” (Loveless 2019) and the need to make a new one. Artists and designers know a thing or two about imagining and making new worlds.
Among others, here are some creative leadership capacities that are inherent to training as an artist or designer that are central to worldmaking:
Imagination: The ability to disrupt patterns and make the new; or to engage in what Otto Scharmer calls “presencing” – a combination of presence and sensing that involves listening or perceiving from the future.
Discipline: Resourcefulness, attentional capacity, and the ability to shape future possibilities and scenarios within constraints.
Agility: A sense of play and the capacity for collective improvisation in response to volatility, uncertainty, complexity, ambiguity, and seemingly insuperable barriers and challenges.
Emergent Strategy: Comfort with moving in the direction of uncertainty, with making without a goal much less a plan, and with zig-zagging (or failing) towards the creation of something with structural integrity.
Care: Skilled at empathy and moral imagination, or the ability to imagine from the perspective of others and to take decisions with those perspectives in mind.
Comfort with Discomfort: Capacity to ask and sit with catalytic questions, give/receive critique, to facilitate difficult conversations, and to be receptive to opposing views or ambivalence.
(Eco)-Systems Thinking: Contextual intelligence, the ability to sense and analyze parts in relationship to each other and the whole, to recognize beauty and its opposite (injury), and to give sustained attention to that which tends to be neglected or invisible to others (e.g. the broken, harmed, orphaned, disempowered, colonized, extracted, injured, destroyed, etc.).
Disinterest: The ability to distinguish excellence from its potential byproducts: money, power, or fame. H/T to CalPoly Finance Professor John Dobson (2007) for the germ of this idea.
Influence: Storytelling ability, the capacity to reframe, imagine alternatives, craft engaging narrative, and thereby shift perspectives.
Ensemble: The desire and ability to build trust, foster generalized reciprocity, engage with diverse aesthetic values, and balance individualism and collectivism in the process of co-creation.
Which brings me to the question I am most often asked: Why should I pursue an MA in Creative Leadership rather than an MBA?
My assertion, in brief: because the cake of creative leadership contains the essential ingredients for 21st century living and working. Put another way, we do not need even more MBAs for the challenges facing the world at the moment; we need more creative leaders. Leaders and managers need to rethink everything (starting with shareholder primacy). They need to strengthen their capacities to adapt to the non-hierarchical, non-extractive, non-discriminatory, non-oppressive, cultures, structures, and practices that are increasingly demanded by both employees and customers.
PHOTO: Hermann Hesse’s watercolor set, in the collection of Museum Hermann Hesse Montagnola, photo by Andrew Taylor.
Dobson, John. “Aesthetics as a Foundation for Business Activity.” Journal of Business Ethics 72, no. 1 (April 1, 2007): 41–46.
Loveless, Natalie. How to Make Art at the End of the World: A Manifesto for Research-Creation. Durham: Duke University Press Books, 2019.
Ragsdale, Diane. “Approaching Beauty in a Business School.” Jumper (blog), January 22, 2015.
Ragsdale, Diane. “Co-Creating with a Conscience: Or, Why Study Leadership at an Art & Design College?” Jumper (blog), December 11, 2022.
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