Creative Leadership

The Two Levels It Takes For Success

If there’s one thing I wish I had known early in my career is that success is something that happens on two levels. In other words (perhaps with only a few exceptions) creative people have to think about operating on more than one level:

1) The level of their creative art (writing, composing, painting, filmmaking, etc.)
2) The business, administration, or donor areas to make that dream work.

For instance:  An artist can’t just paint. To be successful they have to sell their work.
A musician needs to sell albums to pay the bills.
A writer wants to sell books.
A filmmaker wants to sell movie tickets.
Even The Salvation Army does remarkable work around the world, and yet their leaders can’t just focus just on doing what they love, they also have to focus on fundraising, donor development, administration, and leadership.
A pastor just can’t focus on preaching. A pastor has to think about church administration, hiring, firing, budgets, and all the other things to make a church work.
It’s the same for a museum director, a college president, a CEO, or the leader of a great cause.

If you think all you have to do to succeed as a creative person, visionary, leader, or dreamer is to follow that dream, then you’re like I was years ago: Dead wrong.

The sooner you start thinking about BOTH levels (and become good at both) the sooner you’ll reach your goals. And just in case you think you’re so creative you don’t have to worry about anything but your “art” consider this:

– Michelangelo never stopped worrying about funding. He argued with the Pope constantly about money while painting the Sistine Chapel – now considered one of the greatest creative works of all time.
– Vincent Van Gogh never found proper funding, and partly as a result, committed suicide. Certainly he had other issues, but part of his struggle was that he was never able to bridge the gap between talent and his audience.
– Orson Welles directed the classic “Citizen Kane,” considered by many the greatest motion picture of all time. But he never went beyond that success. He even left a trail of half finished and poorly edited projects because he could never deal with the not so creative business of making a movie.

Having the greatest talent of all time matters little if you can’t share that talent with an audience. Maybe you do both, or find a brilliant partner. Either way, the next time you launch a project, think about the two levels.

Your talent needs to be heard, read, or seen. Make sure you’ve covered all the bases to make that happen.

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  1. Amen, Phil. So true and one of the biggest issuesI’ve ever dealt with. Andy Warhol is truly great precisely because he proved that being a great businessman was an “art” in it’self. Many Christians focus only on his dysfunction as a gay man surrounded by sycophants however he was deeply Catholic and befriended people like Richard Nixon. Warhol broke the mold of “starving artist” by making tons of money shamelessly and flaunting it. He loved wealth and glamor but also fed many hangers on-drug addicts, prostitutes and poor artists he helped out. I particularly am fond of the story where he was commissioned to do portraits of several wealthy German businessmen in the 70’s. He traveled there, shot a few Polaroids, mailed them back the “the factory” where he had an asst. silkscreen print onto canvas after Andy had chosen the colors. A few min work-he made about $45K per portrait. What are they worth now? Who knows but ALOT more than $45K. Andy taught me (not personally) and many others that making money as equally important as the “art.” (if not more important)

  2. Couldn’t agree more. One of the issues my fellow ‘creatives’ have (besides referring to themselves as ‘creatives’), is that they don’t want to listen to advice that can help them. Having made a film recently, I now find that many starry-eyed ‘creatives’ ask for my help. However when I start talking about screenplay structure they get defensive because somehow they are certain that theirs is already perfect and unique. Moreover, when I start speaking budgets and E&O insurance, the conversation quickly ends.

  3. “If you think all you have to do to succeed as a creative person, visionary, leader, or dreamer is to follow that dream, then you’re like I was years ago: Dead wrong.”

    This is so very true, and something I’ve been learning as an author and blogger. I like your phrase learning to think on, “two levels.” This is something that I’m in the process of discovering how to do. And, as I move forward, this short phrase will stick with me. Thanks for a new way of thinking about what I do 🙂

  4. And if you can’t, or don’t want to, do it all yourself, hire someone who can! The visionary I worked for surrounded herself with people who had talents/gifts/skills in areas that she did not want to deal with (finance, production, logistics) so she could focus on the creative and marketing that she loved.

  5. Interestingly, in higher educ education, when it works well, this is reason there are both administrators and faculty. If the administrators see it as their roll to facilitate the success of their faculty (which some deans, but not all do), then they can come along side the creatives and help them blossom. When the faculty try to do the logistics, they often muck it up for that is not the gift set of most of them. And when the school administration forget that what a school is all about is enabling learning through its faculty, then they become counterproductive as well.
    But at its best, the university consists of both types of inidividuals and the result is that creativity flourishes.

    1. I think that’s one of the greatest aspects of being a professor in a major university. You have the expertise in so many areas, which allows you to focus on the area of your strength. Thanks for bringing that up Rob.

  6. I think that most of us have trouble getting to the second level or building the bridge top our audience or customer. I believe most of us have something inside of us that needs to get out and can be used regardless of you talents and gifts. I feel like that building the bridge to audience becomes difficult for many to do and where so many do not succeed.

  7. Thankfully I’ve made a living as a writer because I’ve had to pay the mortgage, buy groceries or make sure the lights stay turned on from my writing. If every working creative had to write to pay bills, or paint to pay bills, they would discover the work ethic and inherent innovation it takes to do this. I’ve had a lot of people through out the years tell me that they want to be a writer but don’t know how to make a living from it. Just start, I tell them. And maybe write something that people will pay for. This doesn’t sound very glamorous but it works.

  8. There is a problem here, a big problem from what I have seen and experienced. The problem relates to clientele. This is particularly true for non-profits. Take a mission agency, for example, with a passion for reaching the lost. Their clients, one might think, are ‘the lost’. No, their clients are the financial supporters not the lost. Vast effort goes into making the donor base understand and feel good about what the mission agency is doing.

    Over my working life I have seen this dichotomy swing more and more away from those on the receiving end to those on the giving end. It worries me. Even companies I see moving that way: No longer are the consumers paramount, now consumers exist merely to provide income to the investors.

    Jesus said ‘No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.’ Yes, we need money to do our calling, our passion, our art… but the current focus on the money I believe is unhealthy in the extreme. I’m fairly sure it’s actually very close to, if not in actuality, a form of syncretism.

  9. Phil,

    Thanks for writing this. My wife and I recently started a leadership development organization for young leaders in our city. Creating valuable content, events, and networking opportunities is extremely easy for me, but when it comes to charging for it, I freeze up! I’ve slowly been working to overcome the “head trash” that tells me that people won’t pay for what we create. Posts like this help give me the courage to take my next steps! Keep up the great work!


    1. Yes Doug. Charge. There’s a perception that if you do something for free, it’s worth exactly that. Raise the bar, and give them something worth paying for! Thanks for the comment!

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