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5 Soft Skills the Liberal Arts Teach Business Students

cirque du solieil sloan

Business schools are appreciating liberal arts more and more. Sure, studying the arts makes students more well-rounded and culturally sophisticated – but this isn’t about being able to wow people at those networking socials. Businesspeople are recognizing the value in the arts as a tutor of the soft skills so many employers are seeking in hires.

Recently, MIT Sloan School of Management launched a course, Leadership in Practice: Making and Learning, whereby students experience change through the arts.

The point of the course is to learn to create, solve problems, and adapt to change – but the most striking part about this is that Sloan is bringing in art, jazz, and Cirque de Soleil performers to help people improve their leadership.

According to an email from Wanda Orlikowski, the Alfred P. Sloan Professor of Management and a Professor of Information Technologies and Organization Studies at Sloan, and Aithan Shapira, an internationally acclaimed artist and lecturer at Sloan: “We are in an era that demands creative engagement with change. It's not enough today to be a great problem-solver. Leaders also need to ask if it’s even the right problem to be solving.

“This kind of reflective inquiry as a way of thinking requires the rigor of research and practitioners across domains, and we have drawn on a range of developmental psychologists, organizational theorists, systems researchers, painters, dancers, and musicians to inform the pedagogy of our class.”

This is a trend among other business schools, too. You can learn about other examples of courses at top business schools using the arts to convey messages and teach skills about leadership in How the Liberal Arts are Helping MBAs Expand Their Minds.

By studying the arts, business students can gain:

Improved communication skills

Time and again recruiters bemoan the poor communication skills of MBAs – many are great with numbers of course but lack finesse when it comes to writing and oration. But if you study classic literature or practice creative writing, your communication skills will improve. You will notice the turn of a phrase and techniques, such as incorporating metaphors, and even if you only realize the basic structure of storytelling, it can help you express facts, delegate, and share a vision.

Focus on the team

Business schools and companies have explored improvisational acting to help improve teamwork for a while.

Improv participants rely on each other to create a story to, by playing off the words and actions of your partner to keep the audience entertained and engaged. And it also helps you stay on your toes. To be successful at improv, you have to pick up on details quickly and respond even faster.

You might also work on team skills in other ways when studying the arts. Stories about teamwork could illustrate how to better collaborate, or you might have to produce some sort of art together as a means of practicing team management. Creative outlets provide ample opportunities for team building.

An ability to adapt to change

One of the most important lessons Sloan wants to convey with its new course is the ability to adapt to change.

In today’s world, leaders have no choice but to be ready for anything. Advanced technology and a global economy mean companies could be facing a social media frenzy one minute and a pandemic the next. You will also have to be able to know when to move on and try something new.

“Leadership is an art, and art is a practice of changing. Our goal is to support students in learning about change through taking action — transforming nouns to verbs, frameworks to practices, destinations to direction,” according to an email from Orlikowski and Shapira.

Because of the rapid change, leaders have to be nimble and prepared – there is no opportunity to be complacent. The arts are in constant motion with trends and methods changing frequently. You have to recognize what’s on the horizon and be ready for something completely unexpected.

A boost in creativity

Art produces inspiration. Reading books, looking at paintings, hearing music, or observing acting provides different perspectives and can make you look at the world in a different way. To create art, you have to brainstorm and come up with ideas; businesspeople must do the same.

Recently, business schools have put an emphasis on studying design, with the purpose of helping businesspeople connect with their creativity. It is also meant to help them recognize the importance of aesthetics in selling products and services.

An understanding of being a Jack-of-all-trades

Ultimately, studying the liberal arts is important for those who want to lead in business. After all, they need to wear many hats, including communicator, orator, head teammate, creative genius, and visionary. While they might not be perfect at all of those roles, they can get an idea of what is required of a leader by studying the arts. The bonus? They might actually enjoy it.

Francesca Di Meglio

Francesca Di Meglio has written about higher education for two decades. She covered business schools and all aspects of management education for what became Bloomberg Businessweek from May 2004 to December 2013. Di Meglio was the consultant editor for the book Admitted: An Interactive Workbook for Getting into a Top MBA Program (85 Broads Publishing, 2011), which was written by admissions consultant Betsy Massar. In addition, she is a family travel and parenting blogger at the Italian Mamma website

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