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Artist Bob Ross & Leadership

As a youngster, I thoroughly enjoyed PBS and watching the artist Bob Ross on his program, The Joy of Painting. (By the way, remember when there were only handful of channels? 2, 4, 5, 7, 9, 11, & 13? 13 was my PBS channel. I know, I'm dating myself). I marveled at how Mr. Ross turned his white canvas into a beautiful work of art with only a small of amount of colors, and a small set of brushes and a knife-like tool. What I enjoyed the most about Mr. Ross is that he had soothing effect on me. When I finished watching an episode, I felt calm, refreshed, and inspired. I recently started watching The Joy of Painting on Hulu. As a result, I found an even deeper respect and admiration for Mr. Ross. As I watched him guide his viewers through a creative process, it dawned on me that we could learn much about leadership from his approach.

Here are three aspects I appreciate about his approach and their connection to leadership.

Calm Demeanor
He used a soft, low voice. Some people might equate this type of voice as weak, but I see it as a sign of strength. He didn’t need to be a loud to be effective. He got his point across with a soft, inviting tone.
Leadership connection: I’ve learned not to underestimate “introverts.” (You know, the soft-tone/quiet types). I’ve had my share of people believe that the loudest person in the room was the “leader.” I’ve found that in many cases the most thoughtful and productive person in the room was the one who listened the most and spoke the least. When this low-key person spoke, it was typically carefully thought out and added meaning to the conversation. Not to take away from larger-than-life and enthusiastic people who can light up a room, but the quiet ones can be just as effective.

Creativity Supporter
He led us through a step-by-step process to accomplish a monumental task (e.g., creating mountains with trees, rivers, etc., and with a colorful skyline), but along the way he encouraged us to use our own creativity and imagination. He gave us the tools and suggestions to complete a complicated task but he challenged us to take risks and do what we felt was right.
Leadership connection: How often have we been challenged with a monumental task only to have a manager micro-manage the living day lights out of it? Such an approach often sucks the creativity out of most team members. Ironically, micro-managers are so concerned with completing a task with minimal risk that the quality of the work ultimately suffers because creativity, initiative, and passion are squashed. I tend to agree with the saying that managers nag and leaders inspire.

Nuts-and-Bolts Enthusiast 
He focused on the basics. He didn’t use a multitude of colors and fancy brushes. He taught us how to make the most from a handful of tools to produce a beautiful outcome.
Leadership connection: Peter Drucker said that culture eats strategy for lunch. Contributing to this problem is when leaders create a culture that focuses on “innovative” fads and/or a multitude of initiatives at the expense of doing the basics (i.e., nuts-and-bolts) well. Besides, “innovative” fads are rarely sustainable. They often fizzle out when a charismatic leader leaves, people can become frustrated with fad fatigue, an organization may lack the capacity to take on a new fad, and so on. Ironically, leaders who promote a culture of doing the ordinary extraordinarily well with existing resources helps them understand whether taking on a new initiative is a prudent idea. For example, comprehensive grants. I recommend to my fellow educators not to chase money; chase strategy. Don’t pursue a grant because it sounds innovative and has a ton of money attached to it. Rather, develop a deep understanding of existing initiatives and whether they are currently producing positive results before adding a self-inflicting grant initiative that compromises organizational coherence and produces initiative fatigue.

As I mentioned, Mr. Ross had soothing effect on me as a child. This made me think of the times leaders gave me a similar feeling as an adult. I can only think of handful of people who knew how to provide the right amount of “soothing doses.”

Perhaps we should once in a while ask ourselves:
- Do my team members find my approach soothing?
- Do my students find my approach soothing?
- Do my friends and colleagues find my approach soothing?

I encourage you to visit or revisit Bob Ross.

Has an artist influenced you?

(A. Solano)

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