What an Artist Can Teach You About Team Building

Every team is built with a group of people whose purpose is to achieve a common goal.  However, not every team lives up to its full potential.  Teams may find themselves faced with a number of challenges.  These range anywhere from the lack of creativity, loss of clear focus or purpose, and conflicts between the team members to the fear of rejection and sabotaging behaviors which stops team members from sharing their ideas; which results in one or two of the dominant team members making all the calls.  Nonetheless, as leaders we must meet these challenges directly and confidently if we are going to work successfully with our teams.  Did you know that the skills you need to do this, at least in part, can be gleaned from an artist?  By specifically looking at the way an artist creates a color chart, you can learn how to work more successfully with your team.  There are a lot of commonalities between teams and color charts.  Please let me explain.

Today I am getting ready to start a new painting.  It is always an exciting time because each painting is a brand-new experience and everything is fresh.  In preparation for this particular landscape scene, I decided to create a new color chart.  Artists do this periodically.  Basically, you take the array of paint colors with which you plan to work, and you mix two of the colors together at a time in various combinations to see how they react to each other.  You want to see what new colors emerge.  For example, at a basic level, by taking yellow and mixing it with blue, you get a new color called green.  But as an artist, I want to know what tint and shade of green I can create using particular tints and shades of yellow and blue.  I want to know the chroma or the intensity of the color.  After I mix the two colors, I then add a little white paint to get a pale tint of the new color to see what it looks like when it is lighter in value. 

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Here is a sample of my color chart.

Here is a sample of my color chart.

Here I am mixing a yellow with a blue to make a new color of green.

Here I am mixing a yellow with a blue to make a new color of green.

As I was looking at the twelve colors that I was preparing to use in my new painting, my mind went back to my business background and I realized that people on a team are just like the colors I had set before me.  You may ask, “How can the people in my department be like those twelve colors.  How can that be?”  Each person on your team, like each color, has a unique personality.  Each one has a strengths and weaknesses (in art terms, we call these differences by descriptors such as chroma, which is how intense a color is; hue, which is the actual color such as blue, yellow, red, etc.; and value, which is the lightness or darkness of the color.  This is also a tint or a shade of the color).  In similar ways to color, the people on your team all differ in their intensity.  Some are loud and boisterous, while others are quiet and contemplative.  Certain people on your team have a more developed set of giftings than others. 

In my particular landscape painting, I have selected twelve colors on my palette.  This limits me is some ways because what those particular colors “have to offer” is limited.   You may ask, “Why don’t you just add a few more colors to give yourself a broader spectrum with which to work?”  The answer is similar to a team of people.  You want just enough people but not too many.  There is a fine balance that exists within the dynamics of the team.  Colors to an artist are the same way.  I want harmony within the colors.  To many and I actually create disharmony because I end up with to many colors from which to choose.  So, when I selected the twelve colors, I limited myself.  It is similar to a leader who selects a certain number of people to be on a team.  Obviously, this can be both good and bad.  It could be bad because you are limited; me with my colors and you with your team members, but it can also be good because; as with my colors, you only need to get a specific number of people working together in harmony in order to achieve your goal. 

People on a team are like colors on a palette.

People on a team are like colors on a palette.

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For me the goal is to create a great painting.  My palette colors are like your team members.  They are going to interact with each other.  Sometimes it is a beautiful thing, while other times, they may seem to clash, (I get what we call “mud” when my colors don’t work together).  Here is the great thing about all of this.  If I know the properties of the colors on my palette and understand the color wheel, it helps me know how two or more colors will react together.  If you know the giftings on you team, their history and how each got to be who they are, etc., then you can better lead them and help them work together.  As an artist, I am orchestrating a vision with colors.  As a leader, you are orchestrating a team toward a vision.

It is interesting that some of my palette colors tend to get used more than others.  They are my “go-to” colors.  Likewise, you probably have people on your team upon whom you can depend.  They are your “go-to” people.  You can count on them.

 You can’t lead what you don’t know. As a leader, you must fully understand, embrace, and cast the vision, but you also have to spend the time that is necessary to really understand your team, individually and as a whole.  If you find that your team is not getting along and you have “mud on your hands,” maybe it’s because you aren’t leading as you should.  As an artist, I get “mud” colors when I don’t understand the properties of the colors well enough.  The same is true with your team.

John C. Maxwell said, “Everything rising and falls on leadership.”  (Maxwell) That truth demands that we take responsibility, own up to our shortcomings, and fix our leadership deficiencies in order to become better leaders.  Just as an artist, I need to understand my colors better, as leaders; we need to understand our teams better.   If our team members are not following our directives, we need to ask ourselves if we have failed to provide adequate direction.  You and I may think we have given clear directions, but if they aren’t following, then we have basically failed to provide the directions the team members need in a manner they can receive.  When creating a great painting, if I find myself producing “mud” and my palette color “team” is not responding to what I want or need, I must go back to square one, look at my color wheel and figure out why I ended up with the undesired results that are driving me crazy. 

Likewise, you need to go back to square one and analyze what you as the leader need to do to provide the clarity, oversight, and direction your team needs.   But you might say, “I have provided clear vision and I have done all that I can do but they still aren’t producing the necessary results.”  This is hard to admit, but if this is the case, we as leaders, are the ones who are missing it.  We can’t see the forest for the trees.  From our limited perspective, we can’t see our own faults.  The only solution for this dilemma is to get outside help.  This can be a life coach, a mentor, or someone else close to us that can speak into our lives and point out the places where we are missing it.  If I can’t seem to make the colors in my color chart work together, no matter how hard I try, the only solution is to get outside help from someone who will see the painting clearly and speak honestly to me about what they see.   I need someone to help me who is not as close to the problem as I am so that they can help me see a solution.  If we fail to get the help we need, we will keep making the same mistakes and getting the same unproductive results.  Nobody wants that.

Let’s recap these steps:

1.       Have a clear vision and clear purpose for your teams to follow.  Know why they are together and communicate that to the team.

2.       Know the strengths and weaknesses of each team member as well as their unique gifts. Don’t assume that you already know their gifts.  People change and their gifts change.  Most people would say that their bosses don’t know all their giftings or what they are fully capable of doing for the company.   

3.       You can’t lead what you don’t know. 

4.       Accept the limitations of the team that you have.  If you can’t change it, then you have to learn to work with them and lead them to accomplish the goals.

5.       Look to yourself and fix your leadership deficiencies that lead to failed results.    

6.       Get outside help from a life-coach, mentor, etc. to help you see your own leadership weaknesses.

Here is the good news in all of this.  As a painter, if it isn’t working for me and my colors aren’t producing what I desire,   I can simply learn from my mistakes, wipe the palette clean, reload and start over.  You can do the same thing.  Learn from your mistakes, wipe off the past, reload and start over with re-invigorated vision.  Get the team you have going in the right direction and work together to see the desired results.  I will end up creating great paintings.  You will accomplish massive goals that can move your company forward.

As leaders, if we work with our teams like artists deal with their palette colors, we can experience new creativity and success with our teams and in our businesses.  Enjoy!

Another great read on this is Jim Bouchard’s article “You can’t lead people you don’t know.” Or simply go to his website at thatblackbeltguy.com to read more from Jim.