What We're Into: Photographers as Leadership Catalysts

Photo by Flickr user Alan Levine

One of the founding ideas of Connect the Grey is that people who engage in the arts use their brains in ways that are valuable for organizational leadership and innovation. Artists, in fact, can become what we call Catalysts, guiding business teams to make positive changes and create impact. Connect the Grey founder Janie Hanson first recognized this potential when she realized that her training as a ceramics artist and photographer gave her an advantage in a business school exercise on innovation.

That's why we were so excited to read this recent piece published by the Harvard Business Review: "What Great Leaders Can Learn From Great Photographers." The piece's author is Hal Gregersen, executive director of the MIT Leadership Center and the co-creator of an educational course that blends leadership training with photography. His partner in that course is Sam Abell, who has been taking acclaimed photos for National Geographic for more than 30 years.

For Abell, creating a great photograph isn't a matter of being in the right place in the right time or following something shiny and exciting with his camera. Instead, he starts with the setting first, the back layers of the photo. He composes the photograph as a whole, then waits for the dynamic element to enter the frame. This ensures that the photo as a whole, every layer, is eye-catching and interesting.

Gregersen compares this with the ability of successful leaders to set the stage for innovation and creativity, not simply follow trends or seize impulsively on new ideas. Such leaders, he says, "are framing the background conditions that will allow creative thinking to flourish and be heard ... Then they attend to the next layer, encouraging questions from themselves and others that will break down outdated assumptions and open up new realms of problem-solving."

Because they've created the proper conditions and asked thoughtful questions to dig deeper, these leaders are able to recognize valuable ideas when they do pop up. (One of the leaders Gregersen cites is Ed Catmull of Pixar, whose book Creativity, Inc. we wrote about here.)

Gregersen's piece validates two key principles of Connect the Grey: one, that artistic disciplines like photography carry valuable lessons for business; and two, that innovation is not just a matter of having good ideas, but fostering the right environment to recognize and effectively develop those ideas.

You can learn more about CtG founder Janie Hanson's practice as a photographer, and how she captured a photo that ultimately became part of a thematic series, in her blog post here!