Curvy Lines

Curvy Lines

Written by Dr. Steve Greene on August 10, 2021

One of my favorite reads any weekend is the New York Times Book Review. I keep up with new releases, learn about books others are reading in my field and meet characters real and imagined. Of course, I also like seeing Jonathan Cahn’s latest book on the Times‘ bestseller lists almost every year.

Recently, I read a terrific cover story review by Alan Cumming about the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway show, Sunday in the Park with George. I didn’t see the show and don’t care to. But I enjoy reading behind-the-scenes stories about the production of such art.

Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine partnered in creating the show. The review is likely more satisfying than Lapine’s book about the experience, titled, Putting it Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created “Sunday in the Park With George.”

The following quote from Cumming piqued my interest in the review:

“Being a scientist or an artist … refers to how we look at life, how we maneuver it. Do we crave order and rationality or are we more comfortable with the abstract and laissez-faire? Do we live in straight lines or curvy ones?”

For the record, Sondheim approaches music in a scientific, disciplined manner, while Lapine creates with free-spirited expression. Their workflow clearly blended well in the show’s production.

The quote and the core of the review reminded me of the question, “Is management a science or an art?” Scholars and practitioners seemed to settle that issue many years ago with the answer, “Management is science with art.”

Straight lines exist in management. Examples of the many straight lines of management science include operations research, algorithms and economic order quantities.

Scholars and practitioners also tend to agree that leadership is an art—with a little soft science seasoning added to the recipe.

Curvy lines also exist in leadership. Love leadership replaces management dogma. General Omar Bradley said, “Leadership is intangible. No weapon, no impersonal piece of machinery ever designed can take its place.”

In the formative stage of my training in leadership, this thought from Henry Boettinger in a 1975 Harvard Business Review article summarized my resolve to lead on the curve:

“There are three indispensable aspects of the artistic process—craft, vision, and communication. Just as artists need to master their crafts, business managers need to perfect their skills in dealing with people and in expressing themselves verbally; just as artists need visions and passion to realize them, managers need imagination and audacity to redesign their organizations; and just as great masters communicate their visions, great leaders inspire those who work for them.”

That’s a curvy thought!

The older I get, the more I prefer to lead in curves. I understand management science—and we need it. But my younger direct reports fight hard against lines that bind.

Whether we opt in to leadership with lines or curves, developing our teams is not a Sunday walk in the park.