In the mid 1990’s, the war torn, drug ridden and corrupt city of Bogotá, Columbia, was described by its own citizens as a living hell: an anarchy of drive-by shootings, road rage, suicidal pedestrians, pollution, a corrupt police force and a youth destined to criminality. It was ranked as one of the highest risk cities in the world. Tourists were advised not to travel there. Traffic deaths alone, caused by carjackings coupled with a universal disregard for traffic lights abetted by the blind eye of corrupt cops, topped 1,500 a year. 

What could possibly have compelled Antanas Mockus, a midlife mathematician, philosopher and university dean to seek its mayoralty? Exasperated with citizen apathy, chaos and the decline in civil society, this scholar-cum-politician donned a “Super Citizen” comic strip hero costume and campaigned on the slogan “Arm yourself with love”. And he won. The first thing he did upon entering office was to “bring in the clowns”. He closed down the corrupt 2,000 plus transit police force and replaced it with….mimes.

Sporting grey pinstripe slacks, white shirts, black suspenders and oversized gold lamé bowties, these newly minted “officers” assumed their authority governing both pedestrian and vehicular traffic.  Encouraged by the antics of the chalk faced mimics, passer-bys booed when a motorist ran a red light and cheered when a “Correcto” banner was flashed, acknowledging  good conduct. "It was a pacifist counterweight," Mockus said. "With neither words nor weapons, the mimes were doubly unarmed. My goal was to show the importance of cultural regulations." 

He painted shooting stars on the pavement at every spot where someone had been killed – making people think twice before jumping into a busy intersection. And he distributed hundreds of thousands of flash cards with a white thumbs up on one side and a red thumbs down on the other. Citizens could signal their approval or disapproval of each others’ behaviors, in effect “self-regulating”, again in a non-violent way. Policy makers, take note. In the first year, traffic deaths dropped by fifty per cent.

Mockus’ leadership approach is to tackle corruption by igniting the community’s anima to counteract apathy, to create and foster what he calls a cultura ciudadana – a “citizenship culture”. And his design principle is based on interventions that marry legal, moral, and cultural norms. He believes that given the option, most people will do the right thing. What was unusual was to introduce art into an equation that conventionally includes only legal sanctions and economic investment. And here, we define “art” as John Dewey would by asking not only “What is art?” but “When is art?” This expands the notion of art to encompass a product and a work, a creation and the experiencing of that creation. Art thus demands intentionality on the part of the creator, or the maker, which in turn produces an appreciation in the one who experiences it.  A central dynamic in this aesthetic experience is reciprocity.

Is Mockus an artist? He would say no. He prefers to see himself as a pedagogue and his city as a large classroom. He would simply acknowledge that he had very little time to accomplish a specific objective, to address a societal problem that had reached crisis proportions. Yet like an artist, a la Dewey, through the subtlety of metaphor and the element of surprise, he provided a space into which the citizen was invited to enter, to participate. He understood the transformational power of the aesthetic experience that is achieved through an intervention or activity that is “artistic” in nature and how art “enlarges the repertoire of conceivable actions”.

A Fresh Approach to Leadership

What this example offers is a fresh perspective on leadership, which has historically been as difficult to define as art.  Leadership has been summarized by Harvard’s Center for Public Leadership’s Dean Williams as an adaptive process or activity of mobilizing people to confront and address problematic realities, engage in learning, and create what is needed in order to improve the human condition or make things better. The first criterion for successful leadership lies in properly diagnosing the problem; the second in the design of the intervention. What if….an aesthetic experience were added, methodically, by design, to the leader’s development and policy toolkit, to help her see the problem in new ways and from different perspectives? What if…. leaders understood better how artistic interventions affect personal and elective engagements with the world? What if…the arts were added to politics and economics as a necessary field for promoting positive social change?

These are the questions being investigated by the emerging field of arts and leadership. The theory, simply put, is that connecting the arts and aesthetic experience to the practice and process of leadership creates more effective and efficient policy solutions and broadens the range of potential outcomes. To see just how artistic interventions can effect societal development and personal empowerment, let’s consider the mechanics of the aesthetic experience, using Bogotá as the test case. Pedestrians who were used to rushing through the streets, averting eye-contact, clutching their handbags, furtively dodging traffic in fear for their lives arrived at an intersection to encounter not a heavily armed, imposing policeman, but a clown. And one that appeared to have the situation under control. The clown evoked an emotional reaction that was quite unexpected, that was not one of fear, tension or anxiety, but one of curiosity, amusement, perhaps even wonder. The experience led to a different appreciation of their world: here the citizen awakened to the experience of being in a public space that engaged the spirit in a cooperative pursuit.  Plato understood that philosophy begins in wonder.

Invoking the mimes was what Matthew May, the author of In Pursuit of Elegance would describe as an “elegant” intervention. He argues that the best solutions have something missing, that “full power is achieved when maximum impact is achieved with minimum input.” Art, in its economy and efficiency, embodies this notion. Its seductive quality reaches out to us and invites us in a non-confrontational and non-violent way to interpret it, and through it, ourselves, our feelings, our impressions, our judgments.  It invites us to play. It creates an OMG moment. Oh – pay attention, surprise! My - experience, interpretation. God! – transcendence and hope. What is key is that this moment takes us out of our normal way of looking at things; it renders the familiar unfamiliar. For a split second, we see the world differently. We dare to imagine an adjacent possibility – a possibility that we could be safe, that we can take responsibility, that we are interconnected.

Moreover, an elegant solution, like the mimes in Bogotá, acts as acupuncture – it penetrates a precise point and then reverberates throughout the entire system. The combination of the mimes, the stars, and the cards spread virally to do much more than reduce traffic deaths. It gave citizens a sense of pride and admiration for each other. Citizens reclaimed responsibility for their safety and began to self-regulate. While saving thousands to the administration, it cracked the corruption problem. It brought security back to the streets and launched the dawning of the cultura ciudadana. 

The new sense of citizenship was fertile ground for Mockus to then introduce a volunteer disarmament program aimed at reducing the percentage of murders committed by guns. As a result of City Hall’s campaign “That all guns rest in peace for this Christmas”, the homicide rate dropped from 80 to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants in just 10 years. What did they do with the weapons? Melted them, converted them into spoons for disadvantaged children, and inscribed them with “I was a gun”.

As citizens began to take pride in their city and adopt a sense of a “citizenship culture”, Mockus introduced a voluntary tax system, asking citizens to pay 10 per cent extra. 63,000 responded to the call and between 1990 and 2002, Bogotá’s tax revenues more than tripled, increasing from $200 million to $750 million. Granted, Bogotá still struggles with gangs and corruption, but now some fifteen years later, as a result of Mockus invoking “surprise” and enlarging the repertoire of conceivable actions, the capital’s slogan is “The only risk is that you’ll never want to leave.”

Salvation Through Art

Who would think that social change of this magnitude could be sparked by an artistic intervention? At about the same time, across the ocean in post-Soviet Albania, Edi Rama, a larger than life artist politician was elected Mayor of Tirana, then an ugly, neglected patchwork city of grey, uniform, sterile buildings cluttering streets lined with bulbless lampposts hanging uselessly over a people trapped in stagnation gazing lifelessly for a better future on more distant shores. How could he bring life to what he called “a boulevard without a city”? What if…he painted the façades of those structures, the reminders of a regimented, oppressive existence in tangerine, aubergine and aquamarine?

Rama recalls the reaction: "And when we painted the first building - purple, and orange - I received a call: there are hundreds of people on the street, it is a traffic chaos. And everybody started to talk about colors - it was the first time that people debated about something which was there, instead of debating what the quickest way out of the country is."  Emmanuel Kant claimed that art, or beauty, courts agreement. While Tiranians were quibbling and pontificating over the juxtapositions of shades and tones, they were seduced into dialogues on their future, into engagement, into a city worth talking about. Sharing in a common experience, their reactions and responses, which were not at all common, sparked a renewed sense of pride and admiration and a forward-moving discourse.

One of the most cited responses to artistic interventions is that their success is geographically or temporally dependent. The argument is that such an antic might work in Bogotá or Tirana, but it would never work in, say, New York. While that may be true, and Mockus is the first to warn against cut and paste solutions, an intervention that evokes an aesthetic experience will have an effect wherever there are human beings.  Its impact lies in the aesthetic process, which is further defined by educational psychologist Brian Woodward as any activity or artifact that engages the senses as a basis for meaning-making. An aesthetic process describes how meaning emerges from our sensual territories – the embodied, emotional, sensual, symbolic elements of ourselves in our cultural environments. Our species has been engaging in meaning making through art for millennia.

In Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Warren Herzog takes us spelunking on a 3-D peepshow into the sealed off Paleolithic Chauvet Caves in France to osmose the relics of some of the first extant human works of cave art. Contoured by the cavern’s natural relief and outcroppings, the 35,000 year old renderings of prehistoric horses and bison pound, snort, and thunder, pulsing amid the dancing shadows. Upon personally experiencing the magic of these cosmic depictions, connecting to the beings that created them across the eons, an anthropologist asks “What if man had not been called homo sapiens but rather homo spiritualis?” Or consider how Dutch historian and cultural theorist Johan Huizinga envisioned our species – as homo ludens or “man the player”. While being rational creatures, we humans are also both spiritual and creative by nature. We are all “players” and “makers”, at any age.

The Beat of a Different Drum

Music, as a catalyst for societal progress, has proven to be particularly effective with the youth of our species.  One of the best modern day examples where an artistic intervention has had an unprecedented impact on education and social capital is in Venezuela. Thirty years ago, Juan Antonio Abreu, an economist and closet maestro who understood the transformational power of music, had a vision for a cultural project and asked himself: “What if….Venezuela had a national youth orchestra?” What began with twelve students in a garage has since transformed the lives of hundreds of thousands of underprivileged youth.

It’s called El Sistema, “the system”. Its method is described in a nutshell by Abreu Fellow Marie Montilla who was sent from the United States to Caracas to train: “You give a child an instrument and throw them in an orchestra. They sit in a chair all afternoon, no breaks. I thought, this can’t work. I was wrong. I’d never seen so many happy children, not one ever complained.”  Any child, from the age of two, can join an urban center or nucleo.  Unlike conventional music education in the West, which tends to serve the elite, El Sistema works from the lower classes up, builds on passion and not on talent or skill.  Today, it exists in twenty-four states in the form of 126 community-based centers and 326 orchestras and choirs. The annual budget tops US $30 million and the program which has migrated through ten different ministries currently sits in direct report to President Chavez.

Venezuela now boasts four world class touring orchestras, its flagship under the skilful baton of the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s maestro Gustavo Dudamel, a product of the system who remains dedicated to its growth and success. In 2007, the Inter-American Development Bank approved a US$150 million loan to El Sistema based on its own research that linked the program to declines in drop-out rates and juvenile delinquencies. They calculated that the multiplier effect of one dollar invested in the program is 1.68 in social benefit.

El Sistema is being introduced into the public school music system and the aspiration is to increase the current nation-wide 250,000 participants to 500,000 by 2015. Many of the children live under conditions of constant fear and trauma, victims of homelessness, poverty, abandonment, violence, abuse, and drugs. Montilla concludes: “In El Sistema, they can express their emotions through their instruments. This speaks to their spirit. It gives every kid a chance.” One artist businessman’s effort to let the children play is giving hundreds of thousands a hope, a future, and a life with meaning. Brock University’s Michael P. Berman, might describe Abreu as an “artist leader” and call him a Hermanaut - a seeker, a questioner and crafter of meaning.

Bringing Aesthetics into the Mainstream

Here at Harvard, the Faculty of Arts and Science and the Center for Public Leadership are collaborating to reconnect the arts and aesthetic experience to leadership development, practice and process, with a view to discovering in each leader his or her potential to engage aesthetic experience and the arts for positive social movement and change. And we encourage leaders and influencers to tap into the reservoir of artistic talent in their midst. Heed what artists are up to, for their fingers, as well as their words and brushes, are on the pulse of our cultures and our worlds. 

Picasso shocked humanity into revulsion with Guernica. And when his portrait of friend and art collector Gertrude Stein was unveiled and a critic commented that the masterpiece didn’t look at all like its subject, Picasso quipped “Don’t worry, it will.” As society’s augurs and telepathists, artists are arguably more reliable than the media in bringing us the news.

Artists have even been in front of science, as Leonard Schlain argues in Arts and Physics, pointing out how Italian painter and architect Giotto was playing with ellipses and cones long before German mathematician, astronomer and astrologer Johannes Kepler. And Einstein was way behind the impressionists when it came to experimenting with the plasticity of time and space. There is so much to be gained by engaging artists in both the design and diagnosis phases of leadership. In seeking the optimal solution, ask yourself, as Mockus does, “What would an artist do at this time?”

I have asked many leaders what they would have done in Mockus’ shoes as the new mayor of Bogotá. Most squirm and sweat and blurt out impatiently “Just add more cops, I guess!” The situation he faced seemed so dire, so impossible. In this time of global upheaval, we are faced with innumerable challenges that seem impossible. The arts and aesthetic experience can help us move from the depths of the impossible to the heights of the achievable. 

History offers many examples that capture this trajectory. Martin Luther King through his talent for oration led the civil rights movement and changed the course of history for African Americans. The leaderless arts activist phenomenon ACT UP captured the nation’s imagination and shamed the Reagan government into taking action on the AIDS crisis, stemming a deadly epidemic and saving countless lives. Across the globe, the 99% and Occupy-like movements beginning with the demonstrations in the Middle East have used posters, chanting and imagery combined with the turbo power of social media to mobilize millions to their cause. Think of what the Guggenheim Museum has done for Bilbao. And watch as Detroit rebuilds itself through an urban led movement of young artists and “creatives”. 

While Mockus donned a superhero costume for his run for mayoralty, numerous local, state and national electoral campaigns have been waged and won via a leadership model developed by Harvard Kennedy School’s Marshall Ganz. Known as Public Narrative¸ “it functions by motivating others to join you in action on behalf of a shared purpose. Through the technique of story telling, you identify sources of your own calling (story of self) to the purpose in which you will call upon others (story of us) to join you in action (story of now).” Because stories enable us to communicate our values not as abstract principles, but as lived experience, they have the power to move others from apathy to anger, from isolation to solidarity, from fear to hope, from inertia to urgency, from self-doubt to a belief that you can make a difference. In short, from the impossible to the achievable.

Despite all the evidence, the anecdotes, the examples, the multiplier effects that point to the effectiveness and cost-efficiency of arts based interventions, leaders, in general, are reticent to engage the arts as intervention for positive social movement and change. On the one hand, it is understandable given that that politicians and public policy makers are for the most part risk averse, operating on election-driven timelines and counting on sure “wins”. On the other, it is short-sighted, particularly in difficult economic times, given the cost of deploying resources like mimes and painters. Good leadership is about change, is about managing risk.  This is why we stress the importance of proper diagnosis, of knowing and understanding the wants and needs of the community, the context and finding the elegant solution, the acupuncture point. It is hoped that bottom-line arguments and a heightened awareness of arts interventions as an additional tool in the policy toolkit will converge to bring about a new understanding of how to approach today’s complex challenges with original thought.

Susan Quinn, in Furious Improvisations, takes us back to November of 1932, when Franklin D. Roosevelt returned to his home in Hyde Park following his victory over an out of touch Herbert Hoover. As he worked out his plan to rescue the nation from the worse depression in its history, he was reminded by a neighbor that he could go down as the greatest American president if he succeeded and as the worst if he failed. “If I fail”, he replied, “I shall be the last one.” 

Roosevelt went on to spearhead the New Deal, a sweeping array of programs that combined investment in both the arts and infrastructure. The alchemic blend spurned an economic turnaround, put people back to work and renewed the American spirit. One of its many successes was the birth of The Mercury Shakespeare, the theatre that launched the career of legendary film director Orson Welles. We understand better now why and how The New Deal strategy succeeded.

This is a time when we must open ourselves to new possibilities, when we must rediscover the “artist” that lives within each of us. The optimal leader will be the one who will sense through his or her own aesthetic process the emerging future and effectively combine diagnosis with design to get us there. Our systems are failing, and failing us. This is a time of great hope and potential, an opportunity to create an alternative world, a newly imagined, adjacent possible world, one based upon and constructed from our own deeply human and aesthetic experiences. What if….we consciously and conscientiously brought these experiences into the diagnosis of our challenge and the design of our solutions?   

Philosophy begins in wonder.  And, at the end, when philosophic thought has done its best, the wonder remains.  ~Alfred North Whitehead 

Much of this work is the inspiration of Dr. Doris Sommer and her soon to be released book, The Work of Art in the World.

MICHELE STANNERS has an MBA/LLB combined degree and is fluent in French, English, and Spanish. She is an authority on arts, culture, and leadership, and co-founded the Arts and Leadership Initiative, which is a collaboration between the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences Cultural Agents Initiative and Harvard Kennedy School's Center for Public Leadership.