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Lessons from “Guernica”: What Art Can Teach Us About Leadership

I recently attended a leadership conference at a prestigious military academy with a group of my undergraduate liberal arts students.  The students were majoring in various disciplines, but one in particular was majoring in art and was herself becoming a fine artist.

This confluence seemed to confuse one of the young military students.  “Why would someone study art and leadership?” he questioned.  “What could one possibly have to do with the other?”

Our student replied, “You don’t understand. The way an artist places her paint on a canvas can be an act of leadership.”

She’s right.

How Art and Leadership Mix

I can think of no artist and work to better illustrate this point than Pablo Picasso’s famous anti-war work “Guernica”.

Many people have tried to decipher the symbolism of “Guernica” over the years. They hypothesize about the images of the horse and the bull and their place in Spanish culture. Perhaps the all-seeing eye in the upper center of the painting represents the eye of God looking down upon His hopeless creation.

Still, others find hope for peace in the single flower at the bottom of the painting. Picasso himself remained silent on any symbolism in the painting. But what I find most interesting about the painting is not its artistic merit or its potential symbolic implications; rather it is the artist, Picasso.

Picasso and Politics

Picasso was apolitical for much of his early life.  Unlike the romanticized picture of the starving artists who eludes fame until his death, Picasso was an acclaimed artist even as a child.  He hobnobbed with society’s elite and the Bohemian Avant-guard.  He had a good life.

Why get involved in the polarizing world of politics?

It was not until the small town of Guernica in the Basque region of northern Spain was bombed that Picasso found his political moral footing.  Spain was Picasso’s home country.  In 1937, during the Spanish Civil War, Franco allowed German and Italian forces to bomb Guernica to rid himself of some of his most vocal opponents.

The small town was unprepared for the attack and was completely destroyed. The men of the town were out fighting the war, so most of Guernica’s victims were women, children, and the elderly. The attack was as brutal as it was thorough.

Soon thereafter, Picasso was approached to paint a work for the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris.  The attack on Guernica served as his inspiration.  Since then, Picasso’s “Guernica” has become the most famous anti-war painting of all time.

So what does art have to do with leadership?

Of course, the painting has become a symbol for the horrors of war, and thus a call for peace; but beyond that, Picasso’s art was a testimony to his own leadership, and more importantly, his followership.

The study of followership has blossomed in the past decade. One of the most vocal proponents of this line of thinking has been Harvard Professor Barbara Kellerman. In her book, Followership, she defines leaders and followers in terms of influence. Thus she claims followers have less authority, power, and influence than does a leader in an organization. 

However, she also states that followers can be instrumental in affecting change and holding leaders accountable.  In the instance of Franco’s Spain and Picasso, Franco had more authority, power, and influence in Spain than did Picasso, but Picasso’s painting turned the world’s attention to the Spanish Civil War and held Franco’s regime accountable for its horrors.

In his silence, Picasso was disengaged from the leadership process and thus implicitly supported Franco’s regime.  However, through his painting he became and activist and his voice reached around the world.  A tapestry of his painting still hangs in the United Nations to remind us of the horrors of war.

As we examine this grand painting, I encourage us to challenge ourselves.

Will we look upon the painting and coolly admire its sense of form?

Will we be emotionally moved by its subject matter, but walk away to attend to the business of our own lives?

Or will we embrace it as an act of leadership and answer its call to move from our own complacency and silent consent of the status quo?

It took an act as horrific as the bombing of Guernica to move Picasso.  What will it take to move us?

For more on the relationship between leadership and art, check out Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective.

Photo credit: © Tigger76 | Dreamstime.com

Robert McManus

Robert McManus

Robert M. McManus, Ph.D. is the McCoy Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Communication at the McDonough Center for Leadership and Business at Marietta College. He is the co-author of Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective (Routledge, 2015). His work has appeared in the Journal of Leadership Studies and he recently served as a section editor for the book Leading in Complex Worlds published by Jossey-Bass. McManus has served as the Chair of the Leadership Education Member Interest Group of the International Leadership Association. He has travelled globally speaking and teaching on the subject of leadership. McManus is an award-winning educator, and regularly offers courses on foundations of leadership, organizational leadership, theories and models of leadership, and global leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in communication studies, as well as a Masters of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies.

Claremont Core

Claremont Lincoln University

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Robert McManus

Robert McManus

Robert M. McManus, Ph.D. is the McCoy Associate Professor of Leadership Studies and Communication at the McDonough Center for Leadership and Business at Marietta College. He is the co-author of Understanding Leadership: An Arts and Humanities Perspective (Routledge, 2015). His work has appeared in the Journal of Leadership Studies and he recently served as a section editor for the book Leading in Complex Worlds published by Jossey-Bass. McManus has served as the Chair of the Leadership Education Member Interest Group of the International Leadership Association. He has travelled globally speaking and teaching on the subject of leadership. McManus is an award-winning educator, and regularly offers courses on foundations of leadership, organizational leadership, theories and models of leadership, and global leadership. He holds a Ph.D. in communication studies, as well as a Masters of Business Administration and a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication studies.

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