Creativity in Class

Business schools turn to the fine arts to teach students key concepts about teamwork, communication, and leadership.
Creativity in Class

Most MBA students don’t expect to be playing percussion instruments on a symphony stage or performing improvisational scenes and monologues during the course of their studies. But as business schools look for memorable ways to teach leadership and critical thinking skills, the fine arts have gained a presence in many programs. The idea is that students need to learn how to think creatively every bit as much as they need to learn how to manage the supply chain.

“So much of what we do in an MBA program is directed toward analyzing and solving problems,” says R. Edward Freeman, University Professor and Elis and Signe Olsson Professor of Business Administration at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business in Charlottesville. “For the most part, the MBA curriculum doesn’t help students exercise the right part of their brains. If business schools are to stay relevant in the globalized world of the 21st century, we have to help students create and discover new ideas. The problems that today’s business leaders face require a substantial dose of creative imagination.”

Leadership has always been a critical competency for business executives. But the current financial crisis ha underscored the need for them to sharpen their thinking skills, whether they need to question their assumptions or look at problems from multiple perspectives.

“Sometimes we have this concept that creativity is a softer skill in business,” says Daena Giardella, a lecturer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Sloan School of Management in Cambridge. In addition to being a leadership coach and organizational consultant, Giardella is a professional actress. “However, in an economic downturn that involves global and institutional changes that we’ve never seen before, these so-called softer creative skills—the ability to listen, influence people, and form powerful relationships—are now the hard skills. Creative thinking helps people respond in the moment with authenticity to the needs of their team or organization.”

Economic downturns are major opportunities for growth, she adds. “Business executives need to be able to look at the big picture and say, ‘Things are tight right now, but what’s the five- or ten-year plan, and how am I positioning myself?’ Now is the time when innovation and creative thinking are needed most.”

Here, three schools share the programs they’ve created to help students develop the necessary creativity and confidence to bee leaders in the new business environment.

All the World’s a Stage

At the Darden School, students can channel their inner actors in the class called “Leadership and Theatre: Ethics, Innovations, and Creativity.” Even more important, participants in the 24-member class get a hands-on lesson that effective leadership is as necessary in acting as it is in business.

“We spend a fair amount of time on standard acting exercises to get students in touch with their own emotions,” says Freeman, who co-teaches the class with Randy Strawderman, a professional director in Richmond, Virginia. “They often think that good acting is about loud voices and big emotions. We tell them that really good acting is about being authentic, trying to fin the place where you can display the right emotion, the right behavior, at the right time. I happen to think that’s good leadership, too.”

Students write an original play during the first four weeks of the class, then direct, produce, and perform it during the last three weeks. There is also a condensed, one-week version of the course held during the school’s January term. Students in that course have to create a six-minute play on their first day of class and perform it the next day.

While Freeman admits the experience is intense, he believes its benefits to students are enormous.

“They’ve experienced something about trusting their own emotional intelligence. And they’ve learned what it means to work as a member of a high-performance team and be creative in a way that they’ve never been before. In the end, there’s a kind of euphoria that they’ve pulled it off.”

During the course, students also perform ten-minute plays and participate in a number of improvisational scenes. As they do these exercises, they need to reach inside themselves to find ways to display real emotion and that can be difficult.

“Maybe a student is supposed to get angry in a particular part of the play and can’t figure out how to do that,” Freeman says. “The director will work with the student and ask, ‘Can you think about a time when you were really angry? Can you find something in your experience that you can use to help you display the kind of behavior you want to display?’ If the acting is going to be good, it has to be real. After the exercise, I say to them, ‘Okay, how can you bring this to a real-life business setting?’ We spend the bulk of the class discussing that.”

Students also practice giving feedback in such a way that people will hear it and respond to it in a positive manner. For example, students may have to provide feedback to fellow actors in the class to help others improve their technique. Or, if a student director is working with an actor whose native language is not English, he might have to figure out how to provide constructive feedback about pronunciation and accent so that the audience will be able to understand the performance. This kind of detailed exercise on giving and receiving feedback is one of the most important parts of the class.

By the end of the course, students understand that collaboration and team building are vital to their success. “With our theater company, there’s no room for students to say, ‘I’m going to do my part, and I don’t care if you do your part,’” Freeman says. “They’re all in it together. So there’s a flat-out commitment to making everyone great.”

Under the Influence

When Giardella teaches “Improvisation and Influence: An Experiential Leadership Lab” at MIT Sloan, she moves aside all the furniture in the classroom and gets her students on their feet. She often plays music to help them warm up. Sometimes they dance around the room. Then they form small groups and perform on-the-spot improvisational exercises, scenes, and monologues. In the debriefing afterward, Giardella always draws lessons in leadership and creativity from the performances, and applies them to real-life business and professional settings.

One of the major themes of the class is how individuals can learn to persuade people to support their points of view. Students are asked to examine their habits and default responses and come up with new ways to approach situations. In one scene, a student plays an employee who tries to persuade a type-A, intimidating boss to provide more money for a key project. In another exercise, a student plays a boss who is annoyed with an employee who didn’t respond to emails. Giardella also has students identify and play a bullying or bossy person who is difficult to influence.

“There’s a lot of conversation after these exercises, which consist of putting yourself in another person’s shoes,” says Giardella. “Students begin to understand the choices and motivations of the characters they’re playing and realize that they have some of those qualities. They become desensitized to the behavior of the difficult person. When they go back to an actual work situation, they have more information about that person and are not relating to the bullying, but to the motivation behind it.”

In another improvisational exercise, a student will argue one side of an issue, such as privacy on Facebook, then switch positions and advocate for the opposite point of view. This helps students become spontaneous communicators who can think fast on their feet, hear what someone else is saying, and respond creatively. “If you want to influence people, you have to be able to anticipate their arguments and understand why they believe passionately in their positions,” Giardella says.

In the beginning of the class, students are often skeptical. “They’re enthusiastic but wondering, ‘Wow, can I really do this? I’m not good at this stuff,” says Giardella. “I put a lot of focus on establishing safety and trust in the room. That helps harness their creative enthusiasm and dispel any fear and self-consciousness. I tell them that our first agreement is that they give themselves permission to be silly. That provides them a lot of freedom.”

Whether students go on to be CEOs or entrepreneurs, improvisational skills are important to their future success. “The improvisational approach is a doorway into moment-to-moment creative thinking,” says Giardella. “Whenever we’re presented with human interactions and conflicts, we need to imagine way to circumvent obstacles, find solutions to problems, and invent new options. With the improvisational mindset, you’re ready to meet the moment with a ‘yes’ instead of a ‘no.’ You can cut through a lot of distracting information and get to the heart of what matters.”

Students at Butler University's College of Business learn leadership principles by observing how members of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra perform together.


Facing the Music

MBA students learn how to define and develop their approaches to leading others when they take Jerry Toomer’s “Perspectives on Leadership” course at Butler University’s College of Business in Indianapolis, Indiana. During one of their classes, they spend four hours at the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra exploring the artistic side of leadership through a discussion with the ISO’s leaders.

The class begins with the ISO’s general manager and vice president of learning giving students a general overview of what to expect from the experience. “We want students to understand the business side of the symphony and how that fits with the artistic side of the symphony’s work,” says Toomer, who is an adjunct professor and executive partner in the College of Business. “The ISO leaders talk about the structure of the organization and union rules, and how they’ve come to find leadership styles that are effective for them in this particular setting.”

Then students select a percussion instrument—from triangles to drums to large shakers—and form a circle. Several of the participants are asked to lead the circle and communicate their vision of the kind of music they want to create. The students begin playing their instruments, guided only by nonverbal cues from the leader to play louder, slower, or faster.

Next, the students assemble on the stage where the symphony plays and form a semicircle around a wind ensemble, which does not have a conductor. As the musicians perform different pieces, students observe how they work together. Some students also have the opportunity to conduct the ensemble. After the performance, the French horn player leads a discussion that emphasizes the importance of teamwork. He explains how, in the leaderless wind ensemble, all the musicians are leaders in their own ways, yet they all have to work together.

From this symphony visit, students learn the importance of developing listening skills and understanding nonverbal communication. “Being on stage with musicians brings that to life in a very acute way,” says Toomer. “As a musician, you need to be simultaneously creating great music and listening very carefully to the musicians around you. The analogy with business organizations is that employees also need to be highly tuned in to the people around them.”

At the symphony, students also learn a great deal about teamwork and overcoming work conflicts.“You have this family of 87 musicians who have played together for decades,” Toomer says. “There are real situations in which you may be sitting next to your ex-spouse or dating the person four chairs over. Or you may have had enormous conflict with the person you’re sitting next to in the string section or horn section. But when you’re on stage, everyone is expected to make beautiful music together.”

Above all, the class gives students an opportunity to discover their own authentic leadership styles. “I ask students in the first class, ‘Why do you lead the way you lead?’ They have some random ideas, but they don’t know,” says Toomer. “By the end, I want them to be more definitive and confident in how they answer that question.”

Art and Business

As global business grows increasingly complex, CEOs and other top executives will need to continually improve their leadership, communication, and critical thinking skills. Fine arts programming can teach MBA students to think on their feet, respond quickly to challenges, and find creative solutions to everyday problems—in short, to develop the skills that will be required of all business leaders of the future.

Susan Feinberg is a freelance writer specializing in higher education.