Robert F. Bruner

The Brush Strokes of Business

Monday, December 24, 2007

Recently I saw the Edward Hopper exhibition at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. You must see it. Hopper was one of the leading American realist painters of the 20th century. He captured moments of city life seen in cafes, diners and through apartment windows. If you look for growth in technique across his career, you will be disappointed: His human figures remain imperfect. But what his brush strokes lack in detail, his paintings make up in mood. Hopper's special gift was to portray certain emotions of life in a big city, such as loneliness, detachment and introspection. His scope was not life triumphant, but rather, everyday life, the kind you have to work at. I like his work very much. But for me, the special impact of the exhibition came from a comment by a guide, halfway through the show: "If Hopper had been a better painter, he wouldn't have been as good an artist." Think about that.

Business life is filled with lots of painters and fewer artists. The "painters" are the technicians, such as actuaries, time-and-motion efficiency experts, accountants who get the books to balance down to the last penny, logistics honchos who slim down your inventory, and derivatives analysts. Most entry-level jobs for MBA graduates are to be painters, or assistant painters, or just people who hold the paint pots. The world needs lots of "painters," the technicians who will deliver the functionality needed by customers, firms and markets. For many operations, we want information and decisions that are exactly right -- for instance, any decision having to do with human health and safety should not be just "sorta" right.

However, the technical mind-set is too often focused on reporting data rather than creating knowledge (or, better yet, wisdom). And it is too often given to "silo" thinking rather than reflecting on consequences for other individuals, the firm and society. "Artists" are the antidote to a superabundance of "painters." Artists in business are visionaries, inventors, entrepreneurs and general managers, people who create something larger out of the assembly of resources. They are quick learners, they recognize problems and opportunities ahead of the crowd, they shape visions and enlist others in support, they communicate well and are socially aware (in the "macro" sense of understanding big issues in the world and in the "micro" sense of reading a room full of people to understand their issues), They serve with integrity, and, as leaders, they have a bias for action. Bill Marriott, chief executive of Marriott International, and Warren Thompson, of Thompson Hospitality, personify audacity and vision. Bill Crutchfield, founder of Crutchfield Electronics in Charlottesville, exemplifies social awareness when he argues that the most successful firms have a special "soul." Connie Hallquist, chief executive of Gold Violin in Charlottesville, and Patrick Sweeney, chief executive of Dulles-based Odin Technologies, personify superior communication. And so on.

Maybe these executives could be better "painters" or technicians in some respect. But, like Edward Hopper, the "artists" in business create something more sustainable and impactful by deploying their strengths in service of a larger vision. Can business schools create such artists? The capacity of capitalism to deliver the kind of sustainable growth that will lift the standard of living worldwide simply depends on our ability to generate more of them. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the leading economists of the 20th century, emphasized that economic advancement is led by such people. Given the vast size of the field of management education, it is hard to know today how effective it is in creating the leaders of tomorrow. But speaking for one school, I can say that Darden is focused on serving the business world with people who are both high-potential artists and masterful painters. In all we do, we emphasize integration of functional competencies. And through our honor system and our world-recognized business ethics group, we seek to shape students into leaders with integrity.

Toward the end of his life, Hopper said, "The man's the work. Something doesn't come out of nothing." Perhaps reality imitates art, for one could say the same thing about business. Our task, then, as educators and business practitioners, is to focus on developing the depth of character and skill in individuals necessary to deliver on the potential for invention, growth and sustainability that resides in the free-market system.

Robert F. Bruner is dean of the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration, University of Virginia. This article is adapted from his blog (

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