Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

Is Leadership an Art or a Science?

Over the last few weeks, I read with much interest a discussion among members of a particular LinkedIn group where they attempted to define the single most important attribute to leadership. For some participants, the most important trait was integrity; others felt that awareness was the key to effective leadership. As I perused through the various answers – and there were many good ones – it was clear that a consensus was unlikely to be reached over what characteristic is the most critical to the role of leading others.

Naturally, this wasn’t the only time where there’s been some challenge and debate surrounding the quantification of leadership. One only needs to look at when discussions are started over how to define leadership to notice how blurry the boundaries are in delineating this particular role. It doesn’t take long for such exercises to cause more confusion and debate over how we should view leadership than they do to help clarify the concept of being a leader.

The difficulty that seems to persist in defining or quantifying this particular function got me thinking about whether we should be looking at leadership as more of an art than a science. In other words, that we should view leadership as something that is understood more through the eye of the beholder, and how it’s perceived being very much dependent on the environment in which it’s presented.

Indeed, unlike science, art allows for a more subjective interpretation of ideas or concepts; that there’s no need for a singular, fixed answer or definition in order to understand it. As many artists say about their work, it’s not so much what they wanted you to see as it is what you choose to perceive within their construct.

From this vantage point, it would seem leadership is very much like an art form more than it is a science. And yet, I don’t think we can’t discount the role of science in leadership just yet.

After all, there are many scientific disciplines that have helped us to gain insights into what makes one individual a more effective leader than others. Thanks to discoveries in the fields of organizational psychology and neuroscience, as well such diverse disciplines as ecology and ornithology (see my pieces “Changing Our Behaviours – A Lesson From the Birds” and “Migrating Geese – A Lesson in Leadership and Collaboration”), we can gain a better understanding of what human traits or behaviours are best suited for leadership, and why they are of benefit to the organizations and teams these individuals lead. While science might not provide us with a clear definition of what leadership is, it has proved to be vital to not only improving how we perceive this function, but also how those who lead serve others through these roles.

So what then can we say about leadership, is it a science or does it reflect more a form of art? Maybe like most human functions, leadership is not something we can put into a nice little box and place on a shelf for easy reference and review. Instead, it would seem we’d be better off recognizing that like most human interactions, leadership is defined both by its complexities, as well as its simplicities, in how one guides others toward a common goal.

Now it’s your turn – is leadership something requiring more the precision and accuracy of science? Or is it more about the intangibles that art tends to focus on?  What’s your experience – either as a leader or being lead by others – revealed to you about the nature of leadership?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.

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29 Comments
  1. On October 25th, 2010 at 11:45 AM Kelly Ketelboeter said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    I like to view leadership as an art rather than a science. Like you pointed out there is not a perfect formula for leadership and the true results are in the eye of beholder. If leadership was a science I believe it would be easier to teach, model and implement. Leadership is a mind set that requires thinking, acting in the moment and comes from who you are. Leadership is a fluid process and the form it takes is ever changing. That is more reminiscent of art than science.

    Sure there are characteristics of effective leaders, theories and process oriented steps but that doesn't mean those things apply to all leaders and their followers. Leadership is a state of being and doing that come together to create results.

    I look forward to hearing how others view leadership.

    Kelly

  2. On October 25th, 2010 at 2:05 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Kelly,

    I agree with you that there's no standard formula or approach to being an effective leader. This is why there are so many books and niche areas on the subject of leadership as there really isn't a one-size-fits-all model for leadership.

    Part of the allure of science, though, is the certainty it offers; that through conducting experiments and research, we can create not only definable results, but more importantly, results that can be replicated. And I think that's where for businesses there's that appeal for trying to make leadership more of a science; that if we can understand what works best and why, we can replicate not only across our various departments, but in other markets or disciplines.

    That's why I found this discussion fascinating because it highlighted both our innate desire to have all the answers, while at the same time showcasing how important our individual perceptions and experiences colour how we understand the role of leadership within an organization.

    Thanks again, Kelly, for sharing your thoughts on this. Like you, I'm looking forward to seeing what others have to say about this topic.

  3. On September 16th, 2012 at 6:48 AM faisal said:

    Kelly I agree with you that leadership is an art rather than science. You have discussed very nice above.

  4. On October 25th, 2010 at 3:30 PM Elllen Weber said:

    Great post and terrific question, Tanveer. Leadership is both art and science to me:-) In an era where digital, biological life forms and aesthetic formations are melting into each other for instance – we're compelled to find the intersections and integrated parts of each:-)

    Terrific discussion, here and I agree with your premises:-) Thanks Tanveer!

  5. On October 25th, 2010 at 5:02 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Ellen! It's interesting, like you note, how the increase in access to information from diverse sources is not leading to the reinforcement of information silos, but an awareness of how each one improves the understanding of the bigger picture.

    In some ways, addressing this growing resource of information and insights in how one approaches leadership should be done much like a scientist would – by testing out these ideas in your own setting, measuring the level of success achieved, as well as assessing why some aspects didn't turn out so well. Such an approach would also reinforce the idea that leadership is a journey that is never finished, but instead something that should be regarded as an evolving work-in-progress.

    Thanks again, Ellen, for adding your thoughts to the discussion. Delighted to have another scientist joining in the discussion.

  6. On October 26th, 2010 at 12:25 AM Gwyn Teatro said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    Like Ellen, I believe that leadership involves both science and art. The Science part for me, comes from processes and systems developed from the examination of how we think, psychological study. This kind of study has produced processes like systems thinking, appreciative enquiry, and emotional intelligence as well as tools like MBTI etc. All of these tools are very useful for leaders in the quest for understanding what motivates people to act. Admittedly, not everyone who is a leader is familiar with scientific studies on leadership but I suspect that the really good ones do seek to understand the theory behind the action. The art part kicks in when leaders place their own interpretation on what they learn.
    As well, while there are tools that come from scientific research, the role of the leader, as you know, is one of dancing with the winds of change. This is where the art part is often the only thing that matters. Those with the ability to read the environment and navigate through ambiguous situations successfully are indeed artists to be admired.

  7. On October 26th, 2010 at 10:14 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I think you summed it up perfectly, Gwyn. And I also think this is why it's such a challenge to get consensus over how to define leadership or what's the single most important element to this function. While the research and processes that science has provided us with can help us understand what's behind the behaviours/thought processes involved in leading a group of individuals, at the end of the day, it comes down to our own interpretation of situations, events, and even the people around us that determines how we choose to use this information for the benefit of those under our care.

    This is why I've been such a passionate advocate about the reality that we can't remove humanity from business because it's that very function of our beings that determines how we choose to manage our businesses or teams. It might not be obvious, but it's unquestionably there.

    Thanks again, Gwyn, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  8. On October 26th, 2010 at 3:11 AM Jim Matorin said:

    Interesting question, some great comments. I too believe that leadership is both a science and an art. Good leaders evolve over time thanks to learning the tools of leadership which have been documented. Then they experiment & learn, fine tune, experiment some more & learn, fine tune…. Eventually, as Gwyn states leaders dance with the wind, what I call improvise which is what great artists are known to do, especially with the materials at hand: paint, clay, glass, etc. Their final results are then measured by the eye of the beholder. Then the question becomes what constitutes good art or bad art? I have seen both in my lifetime and the same holds true of leadership.

  9. On October 26th, 2010 at 10:39 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jim. I think we don't give perception enough consideration as it really does play a critical role to whether one's leadership is defined as being successful or not. After all, it's easy to read books on some of the great examples of effective business leaders and then go and apply those same measures in your own organization with the hope that you'll have the same results. However, what this approach fails to take into account is how your employees will respond to/view such measures.

    This is where leaders can learn a great lesson from art – what's important about the piece is not what the artist sees in it, but what the viewer takes from it. The same rule of thumb applies to the relationship between a leader and their employees.

    Thanks Jim for adding your thoughts to this wonderful discussion.

  10. On October 26th, 2010 at 8:20 AM Jennifer V. Miller said:

    Tanveer,

    As always, a very thoughtful post on a complex topic. Your blog wonders if it’s an “either/or” proposition….and you appear to end up at “and”—finding a way to blend both art and science.

    As a fellow learning facilitator, I offer a twist to the conversation—what about those of us charged with developing emerging leaders? That, too, requires the blending of art and science. For example: the “art” of knowing how to appeal to the learners’ motivations and the “science” of creating a well-constructed learning experience. As you point out, we humans like to compartmentalize into nice, tidy packages. That approach rarely works because life simply isn’t nice and tidy.

  11. On October 26th, 2010 at 11:14 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Jennifer, I appreciate that.

    And that's a great point you bring up about how coaching others to become better leaders also requires that balance of incorporating science and art into the process. The more I read everyone's comments, the more I believe we're seeing a need to move away from trying to divide and compartmentalize functions and behaviours and instead drive toward embracing the full spectrum of our human perceptions. As you said, Jennifer, life is rarely neat and falling within the lines. Perhaps incorporating all viewpoints/perspectives will help make it easier to not only accept such realities, but also use them to our benefit.

    Thanks again for the kind words, Jennifer. Appreciate your sharing your thoughts and adding to this delightful conversation.

  12. On October 26th, 2010 at 9:44 AM Gina said:

    Tanveer- I remember this discussion, in fact I think I weighed in on it. I do absolutely believe that it is all subject to interpretation. One person's way of leading might be admirable to some and not to others. It all depends on your view and beliefs on what makes a good leader.

  13. On October 26th, 2010 at 11:41 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    I couldn't agree with you more, Gina. In many ways, what we learn from science is but the beginning of the process; it's how we adapt those findings to our particular environment and those we serve that determines whether we'll create something that resonates with others, in the same way a masterpiece of art does.

  14. On October 26th, 2010 at 11:34 AM @MarcAntoineRoss said:

    Hi Tanveer, how about seeing it as a sport 😉

    Requires a lot of knowledge, training and realtime reactions to influx.

    It's a very interesting question, keep the debate rolling!

  15. On October 26th, 2010 at 12:40 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Hi Marc-Antoine,

    Actually I do see many lessons on leadership from the sports world; I've even written about a few of them in some past posts here on my blog. I think this again demonstrates what Jennifer pointed out in her comment, that this leadership shouldn't be approached from the "either/or" vantage point, but from one that incorporates ideas/lessons from the various disciplines in order to become more effective in this role.

  16. On October 28th, 2010 at 4:15 PM @edjvt said:

    Mr, great post as usual.

    I think leadership can't be put in one of the sides. For me, it's a mix of both as many of the previous comments and yourself said. In fact while I was reading one sentence came to my mind and I said to myself "Well I guess leadership is an art with the complexity of science".

    Leaders have to study its environment and the behaviour of its workgroup in order to achieve personal and organizational goals. That in some way is science. But then how to understand and process that and make the message gets to everyone is the real art.

    Have a great week

  17. On October 28th, 2010 at 4:54 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Well said, Edgard. As Jennifer mentioned in her comment, this is not so much an "either/or" formula, but more an "and" one. I have no doubt that the leaders who prove to be most successful are not only those who understand this reality when it comes to leadership, but who are able to also put it into practice in their everyday management of their team and organization.

    Thanks again, Edgard for your comment.

  18. On October 29th, 2010 at 6:46 AM @bizshrink said:

    Tanveer – Lots of people to learn from here. Thanks. I’m a both/and thinker. The artist knows when and how to use the science.

  19. On October 29th, 2010 at 12:10 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Anne. I think this reinforces the idea that businesses shouldn't focus on their employees simply bringing their technical skills/knowledge, but also the insights that they've attained from their every-day life experiences. This would certainly seem to be the case with how we view leadership; no reason why such thinking wouldn't also benefit everyone else in the organization as well.

    Thanks again, Anne, for your comment.

  20. On October 30th, 2010 at 5:15 PM Ezekiel said:

    Beautiful insight. You know I've had to contend with this dillema as i lead leadership seminars often. There is actually no way around it. We have to keep both perspectives in view all the time. The only time we might have problem is to lean too much on the science of leadership which has to do with the ability to reproduce a particular process and expecting the same results.
    All the leaders I've worked with and those I've studied are flawed in more than one ways; this include myself. My approach to this is to view leaders as deformed individuals who have to go through the process of reformation for all their lives. The deformation is as a result of background, interactions, experiences, and what they learned or refuse to learn.
    Good news is that we have the whole of our lifetime to correct the deformation.

  21. On November 1st, 2010 at 11:59 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Ezekiel. I think the aspect of science that demands reproducible results for a process or idea to be valid is what many leaders find so alluring because this would mean that they could preside over an organization, a team, or a process that is predictable and safe. Of course, as many of us know, and some are now finding out through their company's current dilemmas, such perceptions are more based in wishful thinking than having any basis in reality.

    This is why I believe leaders need to balance the two, that it's a matter of embracing the concrete, definable nature of science along with the more abstract, subjective world of art to truly navigate their organizations forward, regardless of how choppy the economic waters might be.

    Thanks again, Ezekiel, for adding your thoughts to the discussion.

  22. On April 28th, 2011 at 5:56 PM Gordon R Clogston said:

    Your question reminds me of a group discussion I participated in years ago that was attempting to quantify the elements of successful adult training sessions. Was the success primarily a function of the content, or was it the ability of the instructor to create an entertaining, hence interesting learning environment. Ultimately we agreed that it was both.

    I believe that leadership is in many ways an art form that is in fact very challenging for us to define with agreement. That being said, there are elements I believe we would all agree that are necessary for someone to be recognized as a leader we would like to follow. Many of those baseline elements can be defined, taught and learned, but without the appropriate personality traits that are more challenging to define, the learned elements have no context within which to shine.

  23. On April 28th, 2011 at 6:37 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Nicely said, Gordon. I do think it's easy to get a general consensus of what's needed to be effective in a leadership role, and certainly there's plenty of studies that have been done which prove the value of certain attributes/approaches/communication styles to being successful in this role. However, as we all know, leadership is about more than simply ticking off items in a checklist, and that's where it becomes more of an art in how we relate to a given situation or how our own perceptions colour it.

    That's why I find leadership is like baking a soufflé – you can have all the ingredients and follow the recipe to the letter, but still end up with nothing but a flat pancake (that`s what happened the one and only time I dared to make a chocolate soufflé) unless you've developed a keen understanding of how to adapt that recipe to meet conditions that you are currently facing.

    Thanks again, Gordon, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  24. On May 1st, 2011 at 1:48 AM Syed Moiz said:

    Hi Tanveer,

    First of all it was a good post and really the idea of picking up a topic from linkedin discussion is gr8.

    I see leadership as art rather than science, as art is the only form of expression that can provide indefinite interpretations.

  25. On July 7th, 2011 at 4:04 AM James said:

    Hey Tanveer,

    Thanks for the great post. I really like the sites theme also, very nice.

    James

  26. On July 11th, 2011 at 8:00 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks James; glad you enjoyed this piece. Thanks also for the compliment on my blog design. It certainly has been well-received by many readers in addition to receiving a few design award nominations.

  27. On December 13th, 2011 at 6:54 AM Ben Simonton said:

    Tanveer,

    Art or science? If you are referring to leadership in a boss-junior environment, the answer is science and definitely not art.

    Why? Because of how people respond to management's actions and inactions. People have certain needs such as the needs to be heard and be respected. They also have their own motivations and scientific research by the likes of Edward Deci and Richard Ryan proved that people are not motivated unless they simultaneously have competency, autonomy, and relatedness.

    So bosses can lead people to perform poorly or as superstars depending on how the boss treats them.

    To better understand, take a look at two videos on my website; What Is Leadership and How To Create Engaged Employees.

    Best regards, Ben

  28. On December 13th, 2011 at 10:22 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Ben for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  29. On December 13th, 2011 at 3:41 PM Ben Simonton said:

    My pleasure. This subject was a major focus of my 30+ years of managing people.

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