Management Lessons on Nothingness, Drawn from Art

Some of the world's sharpest minds on management and leadership—Warren Bennis, Ken Blanchard, Charles Handy, Stephen Covey, Frances Hesselbein, and Jim Collins, among them—came to Southern California last week to lecture and help commemorate what would have been Peter Drucker's 100th birthday. The speakers' remarks, in which they linked Drucker's ideas and ideals to their own, were chock-full of insight and inspiration. And yet it was another Drucker Centennial event—the Monday night opening of a Japanese art exhibition—that left the biggest impression on me. The Sanso Collection, as it's known, contains about 200 paintings, roughly half of which are associated with Zen Buddhism. Drucker, who in addition to being a management professor once taught Japanese art, loved these pieces. And he'd often use them as an excuse to pause and ponder and see the world in a different way. Lots of Empty SpaceSimilarly, "he encouraged viewers to look, and look again," says the show's curator, Bruce Coats, a professor of art history and the humanities at Scripps College and a longtime friend of Drucker's. But what Drucker hoped people would zero in on was more than the images, which include 15th-century landscapes and 19th-century sketches of monks and deities. He wanted them to observe, if not revel in, the art's omnipresent nothingness. "The Japanese paintings are dominated by empty space," Drucker wrote in Song of the Brush, a book about the collection. "It is not only that so much of the canvas is empty. The empty space organizes the painting." The same, of course, holds true for ourselves and our enterprises: It's the creation of empty space—moments when we shut off all outside distractions and give ourselves the opportunity to think—that can determine whether we're organized effectively and whether we'll move forward successfully. Nevertheless, we clutter our canvases instead. Punch the term "information overload" into Google (GOOG) and you get more than 1.4 million hits—itself a sign of the problem. In his book The Ten Commandments for Business Failure, former Coca-Cola (KO) President Donald Keough cites one analysis that found the typical corporate employee is besieged by 133 e-mails every day. Omnipresent CacophonyBeyond that, Keough writes, "they deal with multiple communications—a fax here, a text message there—attend a meeting here and teleconference with another meeting there—watch a PowerPoint (MSFT) presentation here, watch a video report there. Phones ringing on the desk and vibrating in the pocket. The average human nervous system is not built to process material at anything approaching this blinding rate of speed and volume." Some systematically fight off this onslaught. For instance, when Patty Stonesifer became CEO of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, she made a point of keeping her Fridays unscheduled so she could study, learn, and refresh herself. Keeping the calendar blank isn't easy, however, even for the most well-intentioned executive. Often, Drucker warned, "within a few days or weeks, the entire discretionary time will…be gone again, nibbled away by new crises, new immediacies, new trivia." That's why the most able time managers, he explained, "keep a continuing log and analyze it periodically," pruning additional activities as necessary. Still, it's not just "inbox shock" and meeting fatigue that one must guard against. Put any project or deal into motion, and "it's difficult to stop," Keough asserts. "There is a tendency toward group wishing in decision making wherein everyone is so eager to make something happen that straight thinking becomes almost impossible." Time to ThinkKeough's advice for any leader: Cease what you're engaged in every now and again and chew on it for a while. "Time to think is not a luxury," he says. "It is a necessity…Unless somebody stops to think…it's easy to make the same mistakes over and over." This isn't simply a matter of focus. As I've noted in this column previously, Drucker was a big advocate of doing one thing at a time, and doing it well. But he also believed in not doing, so as to make time for pure contemplation. "Follow effective action with quiet reflection," Drucker said. "From the quiet reflection will come even more effective action." Tellingly, this is a theme that cropped up several times during last week's Drucker Centennial celebration. In his keynote address, author Jim Collins urged people—especially young people—to "turn off your electronic gadgets," put "white space on your calendar," and take advantage of these "glorious pockets of quietude." And during his introduction of British social philosopher Charles Handy, Kai Ryssdal of public radio's Marketplace mentioned a scheme that Handy once had: to substitute his own "Thoughts for Today" on the BBC with a "Silent Pause for the Day." Handy's notion, Ryssdal recalled, was to give listeners two minutes in which they could sit quietly and ruminate before heading out "into the hurly-burly of everyday life." Handy's producers nixed the idea, recognizing, as Ryssdal pointed out, that "two minutes of complete silence is not great radio." It is, though, great management. Note: "Zen! Japanese Paintings from the Sanso Collection" runs through Dec. 6, 2009, at Scripps College's Ruth Chandler Williamson Gallery in Claremont, Calif.

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