One of the challenges of teaching undergraduates about leadership is to get them to think about leadership as something that is not external to them, but something that they do for themselves in their life. Leadership, specifically proactive leadership, is about their capacity to move their own agenda forward. For undergraduates, that is their career. The problem, of course, is how to get them to focus on the leadership talents they need to move their career forward. One of the challenges to to make students aware that the world of meritocracy is not the be-all, end-all road to achievement. Skills and talent may get you through the door, but achievement requires personal leadership and the capacity to take charge of your own direction. It requires that one not be passive. How can this point be made dramatically? I do it by taking them to the MoMA.
Yesterday, I took a group of Cornell students who attend my leadership seminar in New York to the MoMa. We started by strolling through the current Van Gogh exhibit and proceeded to the 5th floor to see the Cezannes, the Seurats, compared the Braques and Picassos, marveled at the Chagalls, and tranquilized by Monet’s Lilies. No problem up to now. Meritocracy dominates. Then we stood before Duchamps’ bicycle wheel and snow shovel. I tried to explain to them the notion of “ready-made” and its importance to contemporary art. Some were buying, some were not. Then we sat in front of a Pollack on the 5th floor. Now the conversation was less about art and more about “how did this stuff get on the wall?” The more I talked about the energy and dynamism, the more I talked about rhythm and music and the work of Pollack, the more they continued asking the fundamental question: What is the difference between this and the work of some unknown artist? How did these works get on the walls of the MoMA? Then they understood it–leadership, being proactive, taking charge of your career, not being passive, moving things forward, and creating coalitions. Many of the artists represented at the MoMA knew something about leadership and understood their ideas in the context of their times. They understood resistance. They were tactical about allies and clever about coalitions. Next week we’ll be back in the classroom, but now they understand the intent. Talent and skills get you through the door, but you have to make things happen.