Guest Column

The Artful Leader: Reflections on Creativity and Innovation


Fashionable among many critics of public education is the assertion that the solution to all the ills is to run the school more like a business.

In other words, let free market influences reward those who can produce — and punish those who do not succeed.

Given the remarkable economic demise of businesses worldwide over the past year, one has to wonder whether running a school like a business is a good idea. Instead of hiring superintendents as the CEOs to manage the business of schooling, now more than ever we need to carve out space for artistic, aesthetic leadership, a style of leadership that uses sensory experience to inform decision making.

Building on the important research of the arts by retired Stanford Professor Eliot Eisner, I have developed an understanding of what the artful leader in K-12 education might look like.

Recognizing Subtleties
In considering these attributes, ask yourself to what extent this might be you or, equally important, to what extent might others see you this way?

•  The superintendent as artist can make good judgments about qualitative relationships. Arts-based leadership recognizes the subtleties of teaching and learning and that the best teaching and learning often are not captured in simple, reductive assessment models. Arts-based leaders understand the larger context of schooling and are able to resist simplistic conclusions about the important relationships in the school. 

•  The superintendent as artist can see that multiple solutions to problems and diverse teaching choices all can be effective. The arts-based leader invites teachers and principals to create unique approaches to the myriad challenges that students bring to classrooms. As such, instructional leaders invite alternative approaches to assessing performances in teaching. Even when a state-mandated test exists, arts-based leaders know that to rely on only one type of evaluation invites partial understanding. And sometimes teaching that escapes prescription is often the very performance that embraces the aesthetic in life, the learning that can matter most to children.

•  The superintendent as artist celebrates multiple perspectives. Empathy is an essential leadership skill and represents the capacity to understand, feel and recognize the perspectives of others. Just as a viewer of art might “feel” the images from an artwork and the emotions of the artist when constructing the work, the arts-based leader can feel the emotion and perspective of the principal, teacher, parents and students. Arts-based superintendents push for different perspectives.

•  The superintendent as artist can engage in complex forms of problem solving given differing circumstance and opportunity. The arts-based leader knows the difference between grappling and griping. Some ineffective leaders find disputes and challenges as a sign of griping by stakeholders when in fact they are grappling to understand. Arts-based leaders, however, find when stakeholders do not dispute and challenge, then they may in fact not feel their voices matter.

•  The superintendent as artist knows that small differences can have large effects. The arts-based leader knows that some days the most important thing he or she can do is the simple act of being present in a classroom, at a bus stop or at the carpool line. Or maybe that day the leader takes time to sit with a group of teachers at lunch. When a teacher or student realizes his or her absence is noticed, that his or her presence matters, the artful leader has made a big difference with a small act. 

•  The superintendent as artist knows that some important messages and truths cannot be reduced to words. In some schools, there is a balance and comfort that seems to emanate from the interaction between leaders, teachers, parents and students. There is a sense of civility and acceptance that transcends all activities and choices. The degree to which human dignity is emphasized is in large part the measure of artful leadership.

•  The superintendent as artist can experience the aesthetic joys of successful schooling. In many struggling schools, the focus of evaluation is more and more about less and less. Arts-based leaders find a way to acknowledge and celebrate the specific and technical successes of good teaching but also embrace the ambiguous and aesthetic successes as well. Not only is the key question “What do you know?” but also “How do you feel about what you know?” and “Why does it matter?”

Human Dimensions
As we rush to school to do the business of educating children, to complete the next testing exercise or to construct the next report for the state education department, we sometimes can forget about the human element of our school world. In the past week, how many times have we stopped and allowed ourselves the time to pay attention to a friend, a colleague or a child? How often do we pause to listen not only to the words, but the meaning behind them? How many times have we taken time to consider the other person’s state of mind and followed up with meaningful, probing questions?

Artful leaders indeed support academic performance, but they also embrace the aesthetics that help schools be places that create a smart product and a good person.

Zach Kelehear is an associate professor of educational leadership and policies at the University of South Carolina in Columbia, S.C. E-mail: