All Articles Leadership Inspiration Q-and-A with Michael O'Malley and William Baker, authors of "Every Leader Is An Artist"

Q-and-A with Michael O’Malley and William Baker, authors of “Every Leader Is An Artist”

4 min read


Michael O’Malley and William Baker are the co-authors of “Every Leader Is An Artist,” which proposes a template of baseline leadership qualities and  shows just how interconnected they are with the qualities of great art.  I recently asked them about their book, the lessons within it and the state of leadership today.

For all the scandals and failures, many fallen leaders are not held fully to financial and legal account, and the golden parachute has not been eradicated. Are bad leaders — such as Mr. R [Editor’s note: the book’s composite “bad” leader] — winning the fight?

We think that there is a tendency for boards and executives to temporarily overlook a person’s failings as a leader when they have generated short-term results, whether it was through their efforts or good fortune. So, we think there may be a tendency to accept more problematic behaviors than we should. We also think that leadership development should be elevated as a priority in more companies. But, by and large, what we see and hear about in the news are extreme cases. Common sense and good intentions, thankfully, win out in most places.

Is there a person or company in business today who exemplifies the best of these standards? If so, what lessons can they offer the rest of us?

In our last book, “Leading with Kindness,” we interviewed people like Richard Smucker, Jack Bogle, Eileen Fisher, Jim Tisch, Michael Critelli, John Pepper, and Joseph Polisi — people who have built and/or led organizations where people want to work. All of these leaders had an image of what makes a great company and diligently worked to produce it. In our opinion, that’s art.

Have you found that leadership is better defined, promoted and practiced outside of publicly held corporations — including: small business, privately held corporations and government? Or do all these sectors face the same fundamental issues?

We don’t want to make sweeping claims, but large publicly held companies tend to devote much more time and attention to leadership than other types of organizations. That said, the need for quality leadership is equivalent across organizations and you will find great artist-leaders in public and private institutions, big and small, for-profit and not-for-profit. No matter where people work, they all want the same things, and having a great leader as an inspirational guide would top the list.

How can HR and recruiting apply these lessons, especially when hiring entry- and mid-level employees?

Great artists and leaders all start out young and inexperienced, and become something more with time and hard work. It isn’t possible to know for certain who those people might be ahead of time, but you can look for the people who have promise. There are elementary skills to be perfected if one is to have any chance at success at leading others. We would say that it starts with a love of the constituent materials and an appreciation for what they are capable of producing. In leadership, that means people. It is possible to get a batch of bad clay, and people, too, may disappoint. But at heart, if leaders don’t have affection for the people who depend upon them, we do not see how they can ever excel. Great leaders don’t curse the resourceful variability of people. Rather, they embrace the infinite possibilities, the nuances, the personalities, and, at times, the miraculous. A predicate of leadership achievement is a foundational love of people and their individual aspirations. Hire people who care about other people.

Is there a role for education in instilling these values before the college level, much less the MBA level? How can community organizations help?

Any role that gives people an opportunity to work productively with others is an opportunity to grow as a leader. However, it helps to have a master by your side: someone to inspire, teach, push, comfort, and guide. Most typically, before formal post-graduate training, that is what parents are supposed to do.