How can the arts give business leaders a creative edge? |

How can the arts give business leaders a creative edge?

By Laura L

Updated September 29, 2022 Updated September 29, 2022

Beyond the strategic frameworks, logic and critical thinking needed to run a successful business, the world’s most innovative and disruptive leaders also have creative vision, empathy and agility to think outside of the box and unlock new potential.  

How can business schools teach these vital soft skills to tomorrow’s leaders, beyond the theoretical case studies and leadership methods embedded within the MBA curriculum? The answer may lie in the creative arts.  

Several high-profile business schools take learning from the creative arts and apply it to business education. MIT Sloan offers an elective module in improvisational theatre for its MBA students. Harvard Business School professors Joseph L Badaracco and Sandra J Sucher ask students to trade in case studies for literature. Berkeley Haas School of Business provides a class in storytelling for leadership, shaping students’ ability to tell their personal stories to build trust and connection.  

According to Ralf Wetzel, associate professor of organisation and applied arts at Vlerick Business School, creativity and artistic vision can be helpful tools when faced with unexpected change or crisis.   

It’s not all clowning around 

Ralf teaches various art forms on the MBA at Vlerick including improvisation, theatre play, movement and dance, surreal painting and clowning – methods you might not expect on an advanced business programme.  

Ralf said: “The brain is the least reliable partner in a panic moment. A non-cognitive, intuitive and embodied response is the key element to effective decision-making." Working with techniques from the creative arts enables students to “explore and rehearse how to capitalise on the unknown, rather than run away from it.”   

In the classroom, Ralf introduces the subject. It could be change, effective teamwork, impactful communication or agile leadership. Without talking about frameworks up front, Ralf lets the students experience disruption through rational, cognitive leadership and non-cognitive, embodied leadership, while drawing from artistic exercises.   

“I don’t explain the models for the students to understand,” he said. “They dive into physical exercises which produce an experience and a feeling, which is way more impactful than sole cognitive understanding.” 

Increased curiosity, courage and empathy  

But how do students respond to a more liberal approach to traditional business education? “Well, they’re surprised at first. It’s very physical work because I teach without tables. There is movement with and without music. 

“Secondly, there is a clear change in how the students approach challenging conditions. This work generates curiosity and courage to openly embrace disruptive contexts. Plus, they leave the classroom with a greater sense of empathetic, emotional care for each other which in turn creates more curiosity, courage, thrill and joy.”  

Jason Jacobs is an executive MBA graduate from Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, where his background as a dancer, choreographer and rehearsal director in theatre was unique among his cohort.  

With experience in both the creative arts and business education, Jason now understands the power of creativity in effective leadership and that empathy is an important aspect. He said: “In contemporary dance and performance, artists have developed a type of expertise in empathetic listening in order to take cues, make decisions, act and react. The skill of listening with empathy is valuable in a business context. 

Embodied decision-making  

The concept of artistic expression in business education, as Ralf illustrates, is to unlock the non-cognitive decision-making process, where the rational mind lets go of control to allow feeling in the body to take precedent. It’s a practice called embodiment, which gives us a deeper understanding and trust in how we feel in any given moment, in turn enabling better, clearer decisions. 

Embodiment is something that Jason feels the business world could benefit more from. He said: “Once businesses understand the importance of thinking, feeling, assessing, interacting and decision-making through how these processes affect the body, they will benefit more from best practises across both the arts and business. 

“Once the aesthetic and physical experience of a situation is valued equally to the economic implications of that situation, businesses will simultaneously generate lasting shareholder value and solve critical problems for society.”       

A relatively untapped method  

For Mary Bou Akl, a marketing and communications graduate from GBSB Global Business School, and pianist, “art transforms you as a student and gives you a safe space to explore and understand yourself more.”  

Mary is a creative post-producer in Dubai and is listed in Campaign’s Creative Faces to Watch 2022. She said: “Creativity is essential in standard business. It challenges employees to look at new ideas and dare to explore them. It’s also a great problem-solving tool, opening people up to new perspectives.” 

Though, according to Ralf this method of bringing arts into the business classroom is a relatively untapped one.  

“Leading and decision-making under circumstances of discontinuity, disruption and surprise is the basic nightmare of leaders and managers,” Ralf said, “because it’s unpredictable and therefore difficult to control, leading to fear and anxiety. 

“The performing arts teach a powerful lesson that these conditions can be a source of growth and development. Business practice, research and education still struggle with a positive approach to surprise, discontinuity and emergence. The old cognitive ‘plan and control’ approach is still very much mainstream, though not as effective.”  

Actor Suhani Gandhi studied strategic marketing at Imperial College Business School. Some of the modules, like machine learning applications in marketing, were data heavy which led Suhani and her cohort to become engrossed in the logical and technical aspects of the topic.  

She said: “With my creative background in acting, it was instinctive for me to bring a narrative-building angle to the work. Especially in an age of overconsumption of content, where narrative and storytelling has become crucial to connecting with audiences and consumers.” 

An important time for creativity and business to align?  

With the rise of the creator economy and the popularity of NFTs, Suhani has seen a shift towards the democratisation of content and art, allowing creative individuals to build their own platforms and monetise their talents.  

“There are increasing opportunities for creatives to leverage their business skills and connect with their audiences. The link between business and creativity has never been more important,” she said.  

This article was originally published in September 2022 .

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Written by

As Senior Content Editor for and, Laura publishes articles for our student audience around the world, working with ambassadors and alumni to provide helpful content to those looking for study options. Laura has six years' experience in Higher Education marketing and writing for a student audience. 

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