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Artists Can Illustrate How to Be The Leader of a Corporate Staff

August 19, 2003View for printing

Unlike business leaders who are judged by their ability to cultivate and preside over innovation in their ranks to meet financial goals, artists always are assessed by their own inventiveness.


But there are similarities between successful artists and executives in their approaches to their work. Both must be self-confident about making a product that can hold the attention of paying customers. They must be astute in assessing and developing talent, as well as making sure that talent works well together.

Executives, however, could learn from artists' ability to dare to break molds, lead changes in taste, raise funds and be productive while being frugal. Artists also can show how to take criticism but not let it thwart their individuality or stop them from developing their work.

Mark Morris, one of the foremost modern choreographers, is one artist who has been successful in turning his innovations into viable business ventures. "Art depends on inventing something from very little," he says.

Mr. Morris, who first formed his own modern dance troupe in 1980 at the age of 24, in recent years raised $6 million for permanent studio and teaching space in Brooklyn, N.Y. He is prolific, with a repertoire of more than 100 dances. He works quickly, he says, and spends time working on his choreography nearly every day. "Business people have to be creative problem solvers, which is also true in dance," he says. "You don't want dancers running into each other on stage."

Mr. Morris always gleans an idea for a new dance from a piece of music that moves him. He listens to the music again and again -- sometimes over months or even years -- and does preliminary work figuring out how many dancers he wants.

He watches how his dancers execute steps and uses his observations to refine his ideas. "But they don't choreograph, I do," he says.

Although he doesn't have to win over his dancers to his ideas, he doesn't expect obedience. "I hate people who won't fight with me, and I tell dancers that if they are too frightened to argue or speak up it isn't going to work between us," says Mr. Morris, who admits that he is a demanding boss. "I'll scream at people if I don't think they are dancing authentically."

Mr. Morris doesn't let criticism intimidate him or halt his progress. When his troupe was the resident dance company of the Belgian Royal Opera House for three years in the late 1980s, they were booed by audiences and vilified by European critics, who called his dancers fat and him untalented. Mr. Morris retreated to his studio and choreographed several major new works.

He took advantage of the generous financial backing he had in Belgium for musicians and elaborate stage sets to broaden his repertoire. When his overseas contract expired, he returned to the U.S., where he was more popular.

Shelly Lazarus, chairman and CEO of Ogilvy & Mather, has learned many lessons from artists in having to marry business with creative work for her New York-based advertising agency.

Ms. Lazarus has worked at the advertising agency for more than 30 years. In that time she has learned to be willing to collaborate with clients and meet their demands while also supporting her staff of copy writers and designers. "In advertising, you want to create something that is clever or beautiful, but a campaign also has to drive sales," she says.

Because clients must approve the work her company does for them, it is essential that her employees clearly communicate their ideas. "There's never an argument with a client about the great stuff," says Ms. Lazarus, who has worked on such signature accounts as American Express and Kraft. "The arguments tend to occur when the work is somewhat less than brilliant."

She says it is easier to work with employees who enjoy the business challenges as much as the creative challenges of ad campaigns.

She also appreciates corporate clients who trust her employees to make important decisions about their own creative work. Earlier in her career, she oversaw an advertising campaign for a new CEO who discussed in detail his strategy for a new product. When her team presented three different advertising-campaign proposals and asked him to select the one he preferred, he became silent.

"I told him he was supposed to tell us what he felt about each of the proposals and he replied, 'That would be silly, I don't know anything about advertising, and that's why I hired you,' " she recalls.

Mr. Morris and Ms. Lazarus agree that innovation can be encouraged but never mandated, and require consistent effort. "The ideas that are most original usually flow most easily," says Ms. Lazarus.

Mr. Morris says his new studio gives him ample and well-designed space in which to choreograph. "But I still have to come up with ideas that will attract an audience," he says. • E-mail comments to To see other recent columns, go to
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