This piece is written by Professors Joerg Reckenrich and Jamie Anderson of the Antwerp Management School. More information and links to the authors can be found below.
Leadership is of central importance in today’s business world. After analyzing, conceptualizing and evaluating, executives have to implement and get the company moving in the right direction. And here leadership comes into play. How can managers affect the thoughts, feelings and behaviors of a significant number of individuals in a way that strategies are flawlessly and passionately executed across an organization? Leadership also extends beyond the organization—it relates to how an individual manager can become recognized as a leader in their chosen field of business.
In this blogpost we will discuss Jeff Koons, a successful and highly controversial contemporary artist, and explore the way in which storytelling linked to his artwork has been a key element of the way he has projected himself as a credible leader in the world of contemporary art. We suggest that Koons’ use of storytelling, and the manner in which he has come to embody the themes and concepts that he seeks to communicate through his artworks, present powerful lessons for managers as to how they can manage their own leadership projection.
Elements of Narrative
According to Howard Gardner, there are three universal story lines used by leaders to excite and gain buy-in from an audience: “Who am I?”, “Who are we?” and “Where are we going?” Among the various elements of a good story it seems critical that it is true to the teller, that it balances the “I” and the “we” and that it not only provides background, but also frames the future. Great storytelling builds on stories that are already known, and allows the audience to synthesize them in new ways.
Who Am I?
Throughout his career Koons has referred to his personal roots, and his passion for art that stemmed from his early childhood. His story of “Who am I?” weaves a narrative from his childhood experiences of selling his artworks door-to-door and the sale of his first painting at the age of eleven, to his early work experience at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the hardships and tribulations of establishing his Soho studio. He has also provided striking and sometimes controversial insights into his own personal values. In his ‘Made in Heaven’ series, Koons provided deep insights into his personal views on guilt and shame: The series was based around the love affair with his partner and former porn-star Ilona Staller “Cicciolina,” with artworks including sculptures of the couple making love, and close-up photographic images of genitalia during intercourse. In the words of Koons: “Sex with love is a higher state. It’s an objective state, in which one lives and enters the eternal, and I believe that’s what I showed people.”
Who Are We?
Koons has positioned his narrative of “Who are we?” for the key consumers of contemporary art—consumers (viewers), collectors and galleries of modern art. In each and every one of his series he has referred to art history, claiming that this provides a strong connection between his work and humanity. He has quoted Piet Mondrian, and set himself in the Readymade tradition of Marcel Duchamp. He has referred to Renaissance artists like Masaccio. Even his porcelain Michael Jackson sculpture that was part of the Banality series represented, for Koons, the “Renaissance type of the Pieta transferred to modernity.” Said Koons: ”I wanted to have spiritual authoritarian figures there, in the Garden of Eden so that people wouldn’t be afraid to just give into the banality. The little animated bird on his shoulder is like the Holy Spirit, and there’s a miniature pony instead of a donkey, but this is like Christ.” His reference to art history has been a consistent and very important element in his story, part of his leadership projection to place himself alongside historically significant art figures from the renaissance onwards.
Where Are We Going?
Koons has also helped his audience to understand how contemporary art is evolving, and has explained the manner in which he has shaped 20th and 21st century art trends—the “Where are we going?” dimension of leadership projection. In his narratives about his different series Koons has identified how his works link to art history, but also how his approach represents something creative—something new. His Inflatables series referred to Pop Art, and clearly built upon the traditions of Andy Warhol. But while Warhol transferred popular items he saw into graphic-abstract artworks, Koons merged pop-art and Duchampian Readymade art. Speaking about historical roots, but also the innoveness of his approach, Koons has said: “To me the major artistic dialogue of the 20th century was between subjective and objective art. Subjective art is about the self and personal experience, when you’re working with physically with your own hands. Objective art is like the art of Duchamp or Warhol that’s more about communal experience.” In this quote Koons clearly positions himself as an equal to Duchamp and Warhol, and an artist who deems himself worthy of recognition by future art historians.
Leaders and Artists
Persuasion is built upon the ability of leaders to establish credibility, and then to communicate key messages that drive commitment, and Jeff Koons has succeeded in persuading a wide international audience that he is a ‘leader’ in the sphere of contemporary art. While art critics are divided on the merits of his approach, his artworks are now exhibited in many of the world’s most respected public galleries of modern art and individual pieces can sell for tens of millions of dollars—demonstrating the degree of buy-in and commitment from key constituencies.
Koons has built credibility through a remarkably consistent embodiment of the stories he has told, linked to the series of works he has produced. He has projected himself as an artist of the highest merit, and has unashamedly linked his own career to those of some of the most widely recognized artists of all time. According to art critic Robert Hughes, “Koons really does think he’s Michelangelo and is not shy to say so. The significant thing is that there are collectors, especially in America, who believe it.”
While Jeff Koons’ three-decade long narrative is far from being perfect, and certainly has its flaws, we believe that aspiring executives can draw insights from his story. As Koons success demonstrates, in an increasingly crowded and competitive environment for talent, the concept of ‘projection’ is at the heart of creative leadership for the 21st century.
Gardner, H. (1995). Leading Minds: An Anatomy of Leadership, Basic Books, New York.
Jamie Anderson is Professor of Strategic Management at Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at INSEAD. A three-time TED speaker, Jamie has also been included on a list of the world’s “top 25 management thinkers” by the journal Business Strategy Review. Website: www.jamieandersononline.com; Twitter: @JamieAndersonBE; TED Talk
Jörg Reckhenrich is Adjunct Professor of Innovation Management at the Antwerp Management School, and Visiting Professor at CEIBS (Zürich Institute of Business Education. Named as a “Management Guru” by the Financial Times, Joerg’s research focuses on creativity, innovation and corporate transformation. Website: www.reckhenrich.com/; Twitter: @reckhenrich; TED Talk
Jeff Koons and the Art of Leadership