Educating Artful Leaders

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Tuesday, May 1, 2018
By Tricia Bisoux
Founded on the idea that leadership and the arts are interconnected, the Bled School infuses creativity throughout its culture and curriculum.
Photo by iStock/SDI Productions
Founded on the idea that leadership and the arts are interconnected, the Bled School infuses creativity throughout its culture and curriculum.

Not many business schools place art at the center of leadership education—let alone use it as inspiration for their buildings’ designs. The IEDC-Bled School of Management in Slovenia, however, does both. That emphasis is driven by Danica Purg’s belief that the arts should be a part of business education. The school’s president, Purg notes that she herself is a product of this mindset.

“When I founded IEDC in 1986, it was the first modern business school in a socialist country. I had to use creativity and imagination, and develop a sense of artisanship,” she says. “I gradually built on these elements in the school’s programs.” Today, the school serves approximately 3,000 students in its PhD, EMBA, and executive education programs, including its General Management Program and Young Managers Program. Each year, approximately 250 students enroll in its shorter executive development and customized programs.

The building that houses the Bled School has been designed to resemble an art gallery, with more than 200 works of art, many donated by businesses, displayed throughout its rooms, halls, and stairways. The building, says Purg, is a tangible symbol of the school’s motto and brand: “A creative environment for creative leadership.”

The building’s design exposes students to the arts both consciously and unconsciously. “I am happy when I hear a participant say, ‘I always come a little bit earlier to look at the paintings and reflect,’” Purg says. Faculty use the art as a teaching tool to help students learn to tell more compelling stories, strengthen their ability to improvise, or develop the confidence to explore new directions with no guarantee of success.

For instance, Arnold Walravens, a professor emeritus of economic sociology, created a course that explores the connection between leadership and the visual arts. He presents artwork from ten different genres or periods—some from within the school’s own collection—and discusses with students the characteristics of the works. Next, he asks students to describe one or more world leaders using an art style. After this exercise, he asks the students which painting style best reflects their own leadership. Says Purg, “Students are able to talk about their leadership mindsets in an open and clear way.”

Professors as Artists

The Bled School exposes students to several different artistic mediums during the school year, such as music, film, the visual arts, and storytelling. The school has invited a theater group to use dramatic performance to show students the impact their decisions have on the community. A renowned violinist has played and deconstructed a Bach sonata for students, so they could explore the inner workings of creativity and concepts such as disintegration, integration, chaos, and harmony.

The school’s Centre for Arts and Leadership Development and Research, opened eight years ago, serves as a platform to help IEDC faculty conduct research and make connections with other institutions dedicated to issues related to arts and leadership.

Not to mention, many among the school’s faculty are artists themselves. Among its professors are theater director and filmmaker Haris Pašović and violinist Miha Pogačnik. Until two years ago, pianist Ian Sutherland served as the school’s associate dean of research and director of PhD studies—his particular interest was the intersection between arts and business. In 2016, he was appointed dean of the School of Music at Memorial University in Canada.

Because IEDC’s faculty is small—ten full-time professors and approximately 50 visiting professors—the school can keep its curriculum flexible, inviting different faculty with nontraditional skill sets as the needs of business changes, says Purg. “Eighty percent of our faculty have their backgrounds only in business, while 20 percent come from the arts or have dual backgrounds in business and arts, like Arnold Walravens,” she explains. The only way for the Bled School to base its curriculum on the arts and leadership, she adds, is to seek out professors who have an affinity for art and sufficient business experience to mentor students.

Meaning and Purpose

The arts are an important tool for business schools when it comes to teaching topics such as ethics, values, leadership, and social responsibility, Purg emphasizes. “We are convinced that questions about meaning and purpose are most relevant in business education and leadership development,” she says. “We use art-based skills to show students the importance of concepts and of styles of artistic performance, to encourage students to ask questions of ‘why’ and ‘how.’ We want to make clear that every decision and its implementation can be made in an ugly or beautiful way.”

When the Bled School first opened, she adds, companies and participants were initially skeptical about the relevance of the arts in the Bled School’s business curriculum. But over the years, business leaders and recruiters have increasingly understood the importance of the arts to management and leadership development. “These times of disruptive changes demand more open and creative managers and leaders who use their senses and imagination to resolve problems,” Purg says. “The arts offer a very good tool to teach these skills.”

Tricia Bisoux
Editor, AACSB Insights
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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