Applying Artistry in Business

In his 50 years as a professor at Booth, Harry L. Davis has advocated facilitating the creative process in business, a notion he continues to champion in lectures often dominated by the school’s quantitatively-minded students.

During a breakout session, “Creativity in Business,” at this year’s Management Conference, Davis said three personas are essential to an effective business leader—the analyst, the pragmatist, and the artist.

“The artist enables us to think more broadly and to think more contextually, and I suggest that this is a voice we need to hear more of in business organizations,” Davis said before a crowded lecture hall at Gleacher Center on May 16.

Davis, Roger L. and Rachel M. Goetz Distinguished Service Professor of Creative Management, expanded on the relationship between artistic performance and leadership, noting that “much like in theater, we’re all in different plays every day.”

“We go to one meeting, where we try to reduce cost by 30 percent, another meeting where we’re trying to generate new ideas, and I don’t want to bring exactly the same Harry Davis to each meeting because it’s not gong to work,” Davis said.

These roles feed into what Davis describes as the theater metaphor, in which business leaders at different times assume the role of a playwright (scripting what will happen), director (setting the stage), actor (making it happen), and audience (watching the action).

“What we suggest is that leaders need to have access to interrelated sub-roles that are really critical,” Davis said.

He added: “I can decide as an actor, given this audience, given these issues, which qualities I need to bring on stage to really connect. There are choices that we make.”

Davis, who is known for integrating music, theater, and literature into his lectures, shared with the audience lessons that the arts teach, ranging from developing qualitative relationships to celebrating multiple perspectives and understanding that problems have more than one solution.

Part of the theatrics of business involves physicality and embodied cognition—the way in which leaders use their bodies to assert power, said John Michael Schert, a professional dancer and visiting artist and social entrepreneur for Booth and UChicago Arts, who joined Davis for the discussion.

“We’re always thinking about our mental processes, and many of you are thinking about legal processes and financial processes, and how you’re evaluating the world to make determinations and judgments,” he said. “But how are we physically moving through space?”

Schert presented the theory of adopting a beginner’s mind, the idea of approaching each task with a fresh perspective while letting go of preconceived notions and experiences that prevent vulnerability. 

Davis concluded that the breakout session had demonstrated an element of artistry. “I love opening nights, and we had an opening afternoon.”—Bethany Biron