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A photo of an elementary-school girl painting in art class.

In my art classes, I have the privilege of working with students who have become fired up and eager to take on urgent issues in their artwork. Whether it's the literacy rates in this country or their classmates cleaning up after themselves on campus, the students believe that art is a great way to communicate their concerns about the world and their community.

My hope is that my school and schools elsewhere recognize this contribution and also how it demonstrates leadership potential. A question to consider is this: As educators, do we look to the arts as a way of developing student leadership?

Preparing Students for Life and Leadership

I believe that students working in the arts are given a rigorous education for developing a wide range of leadership skills. In addition to skills such as organizing and public speaking, the arts teach other skills that encourage students to take risks and help prepare them for becoming courageous leaders.

Leadership is most needed when facing a complex problem or a new experience that can't be easily quantified. Students are not exempted from the challenges faced by adults, and in their education, they learn about intractable problems such as economic inequality or global climate change. Young people also have problems that are particular to youth and their generation such as peer pressure and developing new relationships, and those challenges should be on the table as well.

We need people who have the skills and abilities to work well with others, and to step forward and lead with new ideas and initiatives. No matter the subject we teach, it's important that we support students in developing to be those necessary heroes.

Arts Education: Developing Leaders

What are the opportunities for students to become leaders? Beyond the conventional roles such as student government and team captains, leadership emerges when we encourage our students to take on big issues that have an impact on the world outside the classroom. This type of experiential education is crucial for developing leadership in our students, and it also energizes the classroom and motivates learning.

Once we encourage our students to take on big issues, we need to provide them with the skills to address those issues in a meaningful way.

The arts are a great way to teach students these leadership skills. While science and mathematics seek to quantify the world, and history and language give us the tools to understand the world from a human perspective, these disciplines are all based on rational discourses about the world as it is. We turn to the arts to help us understand and gain perspective on what remains: our emotions, our unanswerable questions, and the general mysteries of being alive.

Here are seven ways that working in the arts can give students the skills to become great leaders:

1. Creativity

While this might appear to be the most obvious skill, we should remind ourselves that creativity is not just about expression and aesthetics, but also about problem solving. While other disciplines encourage creative solutions to solving problems, the arts seek to find solutions beyond our consensual understanding of the problem, pushing against the margins of what might be provable. Artists are pioneers of inventing and testing out new ideas and sensibilities. This quality makes for ideal leadership.

2. Risk Taking

If we expect our students to be truly creative and seek out those new ideas and sensibilities, we must encourage and reward taking risks. One of the most rewarding outcomes of teaching students in the arts is that it gives them the ability and the confidence to do things that are new and unorthodox. Peer pressure doesn't go away when one becomes an adult. Great leaders, when necessary, will go against the mainstream in terms of thinking, and take the chances of having their ideas and actions ridiculed or criticized.

The arts attract students who are often marginalized because they have already experienced the challenge of being rejected or shunned. They have gone through the storm and have less fear about being different and embracing new ideas.

3. Learning to Be Yourself

One of the great challenges of being a leader is, as the saying goes, "It's lonely at the top." Students who are nurtured through the arts must ultimately turn inward and know themselves, face their demons, and ultimately discover their own potential. While we celebrate collaboration and group effort, those approaches are more successful if each person in the collaboration has gone through the solitary process of self-reflection and gaining self-knowledge.

It is easier to make a decision that might not be popular if leaders are willing to take risks and stand on their own -- and this is often the very definition of an artist (painter Vincent Van Gogh and dancer Martha Graham come to mind).

4. Understanding the Power of Myth and Symbols

In art classes, we encourage students to work with icons, shapes, and archetypes, giving them the ability to understand how these images affect human culture. Great leaders have an understanding of how myths and symbols shape our understanding of a complex idea or sensibility that is hard to otherwise express.

This ability to tap into myth and symbology is always powerful -- and often poetic and beautiful as Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us. (It can be dangerous, too, as Hitler demonstrated.) Artists, poets, and musicians have a strong sense of what moves and shapes us, and being able to tap into this can be powerful for student leaders to learn and master.

5. Observational Skills

Great leaders have the ability to be aware of moods, attitudes, and the world around them. In arts education, we encourage our students to be keen observers. Also, it's often the case that students who are drawn to the arts are introverted yet also skilled observers. It is imperative for teachers to nurture this gift of observation and further develop it in students when necessary. We must also be able to identify, develop, and productively channel the role of the quiet influencer that our most observant students often play.

6. Project Planning

Project planning is the most pragmatic of the skills taught in arts education. Students are encouraged to consider and commit to projects that might not see fruition until weeks or sometimes months later. In addition to utilizing strategies such as backward design, goal setting, and implementing an effective process, project-planning skills develop character and fortitude in our students who know that they are in it for the long haul.

7. Collaboration and Appropriation

While no other discipline prizes originality more than the arts, our discipline knows that referencing and emulating those who have mastered their craft is part of the learning process. Learning from those who came before you also lends itself to learning and working with those around you. The idea of plagiarism or "copying" becomes less an issue, and students learn that what separates "I" from "you" is blurred if not illusory. This ability to see oneself in others, to learn and work with others, is key to understanding leadership and a skill that we should continue to encourage and build upon in our classrooms.

What are your thoughts and ideas on this post? Please share in the comments section below.

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Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT's picture
Laura Bradley, MA, NBCT
Middle school English/Digital Media teacher

What a fascinating post, Stacey! I am a big proponent of arts in education, but I never thought of the many ways the arts can foster leadership. But in my digital media classes, I do see students developing those skills as they trouble-shoot their way through artistic endeavors via online programs -- they use their creativity and problem-solving to design buildings or create animations or sculpt virtual balls of clay. As an English teacher, I love your point about understanding symbols/icons, etc. Art is a great way to help them also understand those same concepts in literature. Thanks for your wisdom!

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Gaetan Pappalardo's picture
Gaetan Pappalardo
Teacher, Author, Guitar––Word.

"We turn to the arts to help us understand and gain perspective on what remains: our emotions, our unanswerable questions, and the general mysteries of being alive."

YEs! yes! Yes! So, when are we going to mandate being human? Being alive? Emotions! Let's mandate that! And I can't agree more about art and creativity being crucial to problem solving skills. My kids do it all of the time trying to figure out where to go next with their stories and how to present a skill or concept in science/SS/math through art. This is all problem solving.

Great Post!!!!

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eastviewlulu's picture

I have been an elementary art educator for 20+ years. For some time now we have been seeing the effects of what a life immersed in technology is having on our children. Children who constantly play with key pads and stare at a screen, and who rarely play outdoors are losing their sense of touch. In an art classroom, this is disastrous. I have many children -all from upper middle-class, even wealthy homes- who cannot cut with scissors, have limited imaginations and no appreciation for nature, and who possess limited or dysfunctional social skills. It gets worse every year. This new generation of children exist in worlds that are extremely flat and impersonal and they have developed addictions to the immediate gratification of video games, texting, tweeting, youtube and the like. I've tried to get on the bandwagon, with web visuals from museums around the world and videos to support my art & art history classes. But all too often we are set up to fail. Recently I taught a unique unit that was going to be highlighted with a vintage video on one of the great artists of our time. Hours before, our county blocked access to the site where the video was located (youtube) after releasing it only the day before. Up until recently I could bypass the system...but not anymore. My classroom technology is a combination of begged and borrowed equipment which is now prohibited from connecting to anything that has the word "image" associated with it. How can I possibly compete? It's all about technology, but then...is it? Sigh. What's a teacher to do? Retire.

eastviewlulu's picture

Another reason we need even MORE arts education (creative drama, music, dance and visual art) is to counteract what's being done to them by today's technology.

Dena Lester's picture

I am an art teacher in Melbourne, very appreciating post is this. We all should have to enlighten these skills towards our students. In fact, many students in my art classes are learning himself from their mistakes.

Spramani Elaun's picture

Very thought provoking article in a time where arts are finally being taken serious in the public and privates schools.

Art Teacher,
Spramani Elaun

Jessica Lacy's picture

Check out the Lead America Program of Mr Chris Salamone, who has formerly served as a faculty member at Loyola University Chicago School of Law and the National Institute of Trial Advocacy, and served as a leadership curriculum adviser at The University of Central Oklahoma. Chris Salamone works to improve the lives of young people around the world through his many philanthropic endeavors. LeadAmerica is one of our nation's most respected youth leadership organizations with an unwavering commitment to quality and excellence in our academic offerings. Mission is to 'inspire and empower our young people to achieve their full potential and instill in them a sense of purpose, integrity, self confidence, and personal responsibility.' This is achieved through engaging students (high school for most programs and middle school for a few) in conferences that combine challenging academics with hands-on experiential learning.
http://bit.ly/1TUe62W

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