Arts classes aim to draw out MBA students’ creativity

Cynthia Nguyen, an accountant at La Sierra University and a Master of Business Administration finance graduate studied painting earlier this summer with Laguna Beach artist Alan Nowell. The lesson was part of an MBA class on innovative leadership.

By Darla Martin Tucker

On July 7, 10 La Sierra University graduate business students traveled to Laguna Beach where they spent approximately three hours learning the basics of oil painting.

Set up with canvases and paints in a seaside park, and under direction of local artist Alan Nowell, the innovative leadership class used the surrounding scenery as inspiration and painted whatever came to mind.

It was an activity intended to draw out their creativity and self-awareness, qualities increasingly sought by the corporate community. The course and its arts exercises explores the link between creativity and organizational behavior and strives to develop holistic, critical, imaginative thinking currently desired in today’s complex, fast-paced business world.

“I have not done any painting since probably the 5th grade,” said Cynthia Nguyen, an accountant at the university and a Master of Business Administration finance student who participated in the art exercise. “I learned to pay attention to details around us, to appreciate the beauty of our surroundings, to recognize how colors and patterns enrich our lives, and to think outside the box,” she said.

This was the fourth MBA innovative leadership class taught by management professor and attorney Dulce Peña that has utilized the arts to spur creative thinking and leadership development in business students. Previous classes have included physicians and dentists in MBA programs who have also painted at the beach. Another class participated in a theatrical improv session with one of La Sierra’s drama professors.

Students learn from each other and integrate course concepts through in-depth class discussions and interaction on Blackboard, an online learning program, Peña said. She will next teach the course during La Sierra’s winter quarter which begins in January.

The course curriculum reflects a growing trend indicated by a 2010 IBM survey of more than 1,500 chief executive officers in 60 countries and 33 industries. Survey respondents identified creativity as the most important leadership quality required to cope with growing complexity.

“CEOs now realize that creativity trumps other leadership characteristics,” states a summary of the survey. “Creative leaders are comfortable with ambiguity and experimentation. To connect with and inspire a new generation, they lead and interact in entirely new ways.”

Don Kimes, a physician who operates A Plus Urgent Care, a company comprised of four urgent care centers in the Temecula-Murrieta Valley, enrolled in La Sierra’s MBA program for physicians a year ago. He joined Peña’s innovative leadership class in June and participated in a painting exercise in San Clemente with Nowell.

“I found it to be very awakening,” Kimes said. He described the painting class as an opportunity for participants to uncover their “core drivers. What we learn in a creative environment is how fearless are we?” he said.

The class overall refined him, Kimes said. “It has given me new insight and ideas toward expanding [his business] vertically and horizontally.”

The business world, once built upon a manufacturing base, is now largely service oriented, requiring far greater amounts of creativity and innovation in order to deal effectively with multitudes of individuals and their unique circumstances and needs, Kimes said. “But education is taking a repetitive, algorithmic approach to dealing with problems,” he said, a modus operandi that is inadequate for developing the problem-solving skills needed in today’s environment.

Peña’s innovative leadership class utilizes various books, journal articles, lecture videos, and online discussions on the definition, development and importance of creativity and innovation in the workplace, the value of living with purpose, and the meaning and qualities of effective and creative leadership. Various reading requirements include “Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention” by best-selling author Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and “A Whole New Mind: Moving from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age” by New York Times best-selling author, popular TED Conferences lecturer and former vice presidential speechwriter Daniel H. Pink.

Peña’s inspiration for integrating the arts into a business leadership class derives from her own experience.  She took a class with Nowell about two years ago and was hooked.

While on vacation in Maui she started painting on small canvasses every night, a practice that she continued for over a year.  At some point, she began to notice that the way she approached a blank canvas seemed to track and express the way in which she approached and saw life.  This awareness brought her an appreciation for her own approach to problem solving, personal relationships and even her teaching style.

As for her goals with the arts-infused curriculum, “Awareness is the first step to changing anything. I am simply trying to bring heightened awareness to self and how one faces life, work, projects, relationships, change,” Peña said. “Leadership first and foremost requires self-knowledge and an awareness of how we interact with and influence the people with whom we interact with at work, as well as in our personal relationships. From there, we can choose to either embrace or make changes to how we approach these dimensions of our life. Painting provides a fun, safe and gentle way of helping us look at ourselves.”

In Kimes’ view, Peña has succeeded in that endeavor. “She has really crested the summit in producing a class that has enabled students to thrive,” he said. “She’s opened our eyes, ears, minds and hearts to what creativity is and to what innovation is, and how to express that and apply it to service circumstances.”

  • Last update on  September 03, 2013