What businesses can learn from the arts


Picture a lecture session at a business school and you probably envisage students gazing at screens filled with equations and acronyms. What you might not expect is choristers attempting to sing “O clap your Hands”, an eight-part anthem composed by Orlando Gibbons and first performed in 1622. But Bartleby was treated to this delight, and others facing MBA students, on a visit to Saïd Business School in Oxford earlier this year.


There was a catch. Some students had to try conducting the choir. The first to take the challenge was a rather self-confident young man from America. It didn’t take long for him to go wrong. His most obvious mistake was to start conducting without asking the singers how they would like to be directed, though they had the expertise, and he was a complete tyro.


The experience was doubtless chastening, but also instructive. The session, organized by Pegram Harrison, a senior fellow in entrepreneurship, cleverly allowed the students to absorb some important leadership lessons. For example, leaders should listen to their teams, especially when their colleagues have specialist knowledge. All they may need to do, as conductors, is setting the pace and then step back and let the group govern itself.


It was noticeable, too, that the choir managed fairly well even if the conductors were just waving their batons in an indeterminate fashion. The lesson there, Mr Harrison said, was that leaders can only do so much damage—provided they do not attempt to control every step of the process. The whole exercise illustrated it is possible for a lesson to be instructive and entertaining at once.


Other business schools have also realized that their students can learn from the arts. At Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, Leanne Meyer has introduced a leadership-training program that includes poetry, art installations, and a book club. Involvement in such pursuits can help develop empathy in future leaders, she argues; for example, reading a novel helps students get into the mind of a character. She also believes that the program benefits students in terms of how they promote themselves to recruiters.


It is hardly surprising that art-based programs are popular. They provide a welcome diversion from the stodgy content that marks out most MBA courses. But are they really helpful? Intriguingly, there are signs that successful businesses are incorporating the arts into their training. aqr, a fund-management group best known for its number-crunching skills, has started a professional- and personal-growth program called the Quanta academy; one component is a book club where members have read “Destined for War”, a book about American-Chinese relations by Graham Allison.


Rather than turn the pages, some business people tread the boards. The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (Rada) has trained many great thespians, such as Sir Anthony Hopkins, Alan Rickman, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It also offers training courses for executives, ranging from half a day to six days.


“Acting is about finding the truth in the character and in yourself,” says Charlie Walker-Wise, one of the rada’s tutors. “We help people to become more aware of their habits; what they do without realizing it. How people manage their physicality—their breath, their voice. Not many people are aware of how they come across.”


It might seem odd to link running a business with a profession that ranges from Laurence Olivier proclaiming Hamlet’s soliloquy to Robert de Niro training like a boxer to play the lead in “Raging Bull”. But Mr. Walker-Wise says that middle managers are often delivering speeches that are not their own (because they were devised by head office) or trying to inspire staff to meet an objective that was set by someone else. “The lesson from acting is how do I connect to this message without betraying my own personality,” he argues.


Being a manager involves a lot more than just setting targets and entering numbers into a spreadsheet. It requires empathy and an understanding of human nature. It makes sense that an education in the arts might help develop those qualities. Above all, the students on Mr. Harrison’s course at the Saïd school were experiencing something Bartleby never expected to see in those attending an MBA lecture: they were having fun.