Frederick Winslow Taylor may well be considered the progenitor of modern scientific management. Developed at a time when the industrial revolution was just gaining steam, so to speak, Taylor’s views on labor and management continue to influence  our management education today: don’t rely on great people, rely on great systems. The application of “scientific methods” to the function of managing an enterprise infiltrated every management program for well over a hundred years.

And who can argue with the efficiency of TQM or lean manufacturing or Six Sigma? From the Gilbreths, who followed Taylor and chronicled by their children who wrote the book “Cheaper by the Dozen” (which is a hilarious movie) to Demming, the thrust of management education has been how to exercise command and control over aspects of an operation to maximize profits and minimize costs.

I would assert that as valuable as that education is, it is only half of the equation that is necessary to grow new generations of managers and leaders. The other half, and the one that is most neglected in management education, is the Arts. Yes, I said it. The Arts.

Is management an art or a science? Well, in some ways, it is a science: it measures things, repeats actions with predictable results and outcomes, and attempts to establish universal laws that govern the behavior of human beings in an organization. In other words, and I would argue, more important ways, management is an art.  Human beings are notoriously unpredictable, as are markets and global events. Suppose you are in the hospitality industry and life is good: people have disposable income, are spending lots of that on holidays and vacations. You are the manager of a resort and your systems, metrics, and outcomes are humming along nicely. Then Covid-19 hits. One day, you wake up and everything is cancelled. You do what you are supposed to do: cut costs, lay off workers, shut your resort until further notice. Jobs gone, investments withering away, buildings falling into disrepair. Everything you learned in management school is meaningless now. 

Unless you understand the role of the arts in management education. What does an artist do? They take raw materials, paints, rock, clay, metals, words, and fashion them into a vision that communicates something unique to those who view it. They start with a vision, though. That is the first thing. They must have, in their mind, what it is they intend to communicate. Whether it is an historian or a painter or a sculptor, they all have a purpose in their minds before they pick up the tools. 

Whether it is an historian or a painter or a sculptor, they all have a purpose in their minds before they pick up the tools. 

You see, art acts in the world of “first principles” whereas science works in the world of “second principles”. What is a “first principle”? A first principle was defined by Aristotle over 2000 years ago: it is a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption. That’s a lot to take in, so here are some examples: Truth. Beauty. Freedom. These are ideas that drive our actions. Logic (and science) flow from these ideas. Try to define “Truth”. We all know what truth is (with a small “t”) but Truth? Well, we know it when we see it. Beauty? Freedom? Human Rights? Justice? We cannot logically get to “Justice”; quite the contrary: Justice informs our courts, our social relations, our behavior within our communities.

We get to first principles through “metaphor” or the bringing of dissimilar ideas/things into a new space. “Love is a rose” is a nice metaphor, but it does not mean that “love” is literally a rose. It means that love blooms, is fragrant and beautiful, withers, and dies. It may also have thorns. 

Consider, for example, The Orphan’s Tear by Parvin Etesami:

From every street and roof rose joyous shouts;
The king that day was passing through the town
An orphan boy amidst this speaks his doubts,
What is that sparkle that’s atop his crown?

Someone replied : that’s not for us to know,
But it’s a priceless thing, that’s clear!
A crone approached, her twisted back bent low,
She said: that’s your heart’s blood and my eye’s tear!

We were deceived by shepherd’s staff and robe
He is a wolf; for many years he’s known the flock.
The saint who craves control is but a rogue
A beggar is the king who robs his flock.

Upon the orphan’s tears keep fixed your gaze.
‘Til you see from where comes the jewel’s glow.
How can straight talk help those of crooked ways?
And frank words will to most folk deal a blow.

This poem is clearly NOT about a king or an orphan or even tears. What is it about? I think it is about how the trappings of power and authority are representations of corruption. What do you think it is about? Read it again (or read it in Arabic, the original language). 

Science cannot make a poem. Science can tell us how many syllables each line has, how long it is, and even what others have said about the poem. Science can tell us where the words came from and what they mean. But science cannot tell us what this poem means. Science is about “how”. Art is about “why”.

Science is about “how”. Art is about “why”. 

A manager who is educated in the arts (history, art, music, poetry, literature) will be a person comfortable in understanding metaphors and in understanding or creating new first principles. When the old models no longer work, when the “How’s” no longer get the job done, then the Art of Management comes into play. Communicating a vision for a company that is shared by all the members of the firm is only one aspect of the art of management. Take the company Patagonia for example: they do not sell gear and outdoor equipment. Not at all. They are all about sustainability and to achieve that goal, they sell gear to support their mission. They are phenomenally successful. Their product is saving the Earth. One of their activities is to fund “multipronged campaigns that push for greater environmental protections and force the government to abide by its own laws.” They have reimagined the business of outdoor gear as an enterprise that sustains the environment.

A manager who is educated in the arts (history, art, music, poetry, literature) will be a person comfortable in understanding metaphors and in understanding or creating new first principles.

Back to our little resort that has closed. What would you do, using the art of management, to reimagine this resort and make it successful for employees and stakeholders? PeopleSoft will have no answers for you. Your ERP or CRM will hold no answers for you. I might pick up Henry David Thoreau’s Walden Pond, open it to the chapter on Solitude, and read:

Some of my pleasantest hours were during the long rain-storms in the spring or fall, which confined me to the house for the afternoon as well as the forenoon, soothed by their ceaseless roar and pelting; when an early twilight ushered in a long evening in which many thoughts had time to take root and unfold themselves.

And then I might reimagine my resort as a place of tranquility, meditation, and solitude in the midst of a global pandemic. A respite from the ravages of a chaotic world.

William Painter 

Dean – Westford Education Group 

Dr. William Painter is a visionary and inspirational leader in the field of transnational provisioning of higher and post-secondary education. Since 1988, he has been active in international private and public post-secondary and higher education.