The late director Mike Nichols took a significant risk when he cast a then-unknown Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate” and chose to feature music by Simon & Garfunkel. His risks paid off: “The Graduate” went on to become one of the top-grossing films of all time. Nichols was comfortable in his own skin and not afraid to take risks – two traits common to the arts that business leaders need to champion more.

From my experience in for-profit, not-for-profit and armed forces arenas, I have learned that skills necessary for success don’t come from an M.B.A., an executive retreat or Wall Street. If you really want to thrive, take a lesson from the arts. Creativity, innovation and collaboration are all key leadership traits developed in the arts.

In the 2012 IBM Global Study (the largest and most recent available) on barriers to growth, CEOs placed less emphasis on market and economic issues and instead focused on human capital and technology – in other words, creativity and innovation.

Arts and cultural organizations are entrepreneurial businesses. They have to be. They understand that their audiences have a choice and that their survival depends on ensuring that their audience chooses them. Everyone involved understands their role and why that role is so critical. Even management visionary Peter Drucker, whom I met while working in Claremont, understood the importance of the arts. He used the orchestra, where individual members play the same score, as the ultimate example of collaboration and teamwork.


While senior-level business leaders might look at art installations or the symphony as superfluous when compared to running a global organization, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, if you really want to motivate your employees – and excel as a leader – look at your local arts community and study what they are doing. Artists are risk-takers, passionate about what they are doing, have a laser focus on their goals and don’t need to be told to collaborate.

How many times have you heard “The show must go on”? If Bernadette Peters can’t perform, she has an understudy who can step in. Does your organization have an understudy program, a leadership development program? If you think only you can do what you do, you’re wrong. No one is irreplaceable and everyone needs a backup. Everyone.

Artists understand they might fail or be ridiculed. But to them, rewards are worth more than the risk. If an artist fails, they move on or adapt. Business leaders too often get stuck and surround themselves with people who tell them what they want to hear, potentially missing a great opportunity because you didn’t want to look at something differently. Like the artist, business leaders shouldn’t fear failing or being different.  

The word “team” has become an overused cliché. Just because you have a staff in place doesn’t mean the members are collaborative, unselfish and functioning like a true team. If Angelenos look at upcoming theater productions – whether it’s “Wicked” at the Pantages Theatre, “Figaro” at the L.A. Opera or the Kingsmen Shakespeare Festival in Thousand Oaks – you’ll see a true team in action. Everyone has a critical role to play – behind the scenes or in front of the audience. If a stagehand forgets to place a prop correctly, the actors improvise – they don’t stop a performance simply because a vase isn’t in the right place.  

Pay attention the next time you see a live performance and you’ll see what I mean. There’s a reason the entire cast takes a bow at the end of the show.

Ritch K. Eich is principal at Eich Associated, a marketing and public affairs firm in Thousand Oaks.

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