Leadership does not exist in a vacuum; others observe it while a person is leading,  found while experienced within a particular context. Removing the person leading from the context creates confusion and uncertainty. Leadership connects to the actions and practices needed to resolve a challenge or make progress.

To make sense of this practice, I argue that leadership is a continuum that combines art, craft, and science, each valuable and practical when in balance while ineffective and useless when out of balance.

The table below lists various characteristics of leading under art, craft, and science.

  • Art encourages creativity, resulting in ‘insights’ and ‘vision.’
  • Science provides order through systemic analysis and assessments.
  • Craft makes connections, building on experiences.

Accordingly, art tends to be inductive, from special events to a broad overview; science deductive, from general concepts to specific applications; and craft is iterative, back and forth between specific and general. This leadership continuum is expressed most evidently in how each approaches strategy:

  • as a process of visioning in art,
  • planning in science,
  • venturing in craft.
The Three Poles of Leadership
 ScienceArtCraft
Based onLogic (the verbal)Imagination (the visual)Experience (the visceral)
Relies onScientific factsCreative insightsPractical experience
Concerned withReplicabilityNoveltyUtility
Decision making asDeductiveInductiveIterative
Strategy making asPlanningVisioningVenturing
MetaphorThe Earth (rational) can get stuckThe air (spiritual) can get lostThe sea (sensual) can go adrift
ContributionScience as systemic analysis, in the form of inputs and assessmentsArt as comprehensive synthesis, in the form of insights and visionsCraft as dynamic learning, in the form of actions and experiments
Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers, not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler

Effective leadership requires all three. They need not exist in perfect balance, and they have to reinforce each other. Accordingly, the outer triangle above labels each style in negative terms:

  • narcissistic at the pole of art, namely art for its own sake;
  • tedious at the pole of craft, where the leader may never venture beyond their own experience;
  • calculating at the pole science, with relationships that can become dehumanized.

To use the metaphors listed in the table above.

  • Art, as spiritual, rises into the air but risks getting lost in the clouds;
  • craft, more sensual, floats on the sea but can go adrift;
  • science, rational, sits firmly on the ground, where it can get stuck.

The figure above labels the three triangle lines negatively, too, since each combines two of the dimensions but leaves out the third.

  • Without the systemic scrutiny of science, art and craft can lead to disorganized leadership.
  • Without the creative vision of art, craft and science can lead to dispirited leadership, careful and connected but lacking spark.
  • Art with science, creative and systemic without the experience of craft, can produce rootless, impersonal, disconnected leadership.
  • The triangle also shows a particular example of the latter, labeled heroic, closer to science but with a hint (or illusion) of art.

Effective leading tends to happen within the middle layer of the triangle, where the three approaches coexist, even if there may be a tilt towards one or the other. A third smaller triangle is shown at the center to suggest that too much balance between the three may also be dysfunctional since it lacks any style.

Many functional leadership styles are possible within this middle triangle. The figure shows four in particular.
  1. One near the top, towards the right side, is labeled visionary. It is mainly artistic but rooted in experience and supported by a certain level of analysis (or else it would go out of control). This suggests that the “big picture” does not appear as some apparition but has to be painted, stroke by stroke, out of the tangible experience of craft. The visionary style seems to be especially prevalent among successful entrepreneurs.
  2. A second style, labeled problem-solving, especially combines craft and science. It appears to be common amongst first-line operating managers, such as factory foremen and project managers. This style may be slightly analytic but is firmly rooted in experience and dependent on capability for insight.
  3. A third style, labeled cerebral, takes its majority from science and mixes in a bit of art. The research and development manager or lead scientist will tend to favor the rigorous analysis of science. The cerebral style works best when an artist’s vision is slightly combined with the rigor of data and science to continue leading towards a breakthrough or discovery.
  4. Toward the lower right is shown a people-orientated style, labeled engaging, favored by leaders who do lots of coaching and facilitating. This is mostly craft, but with enough art to make it exciting and enough science to make it viable.

When leading and observing how others lead, take time to reflect on the language, decisions, and strategy to best understand where your leadership practice is working well and may not be working so well.

Reference:

Mintzberg, H. (2004). Managers, not MBAs: A hard look at the soft practice of managing and management development. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.