Finger Painting as a Leadership Practice

Posted 07.10.2009

One of the many fun things I get to do in my work is serving as a faculty member of the Leadership Coaching Certificate Program at Georgetown University. Last month, I had the pleasure of reading through some great papers by the current group of students offering their best ideas for developing the practice of leadership.  I was particularly intrigued by a practice shared by Susan Palmer, an attorney and educator from Vermont whose next act will be centered on  leadership coaching. It’s what she calls finger painting meditations.  With her gracious consent, I want to share with you what that’s all about and a couple of her own creations that really grabbed me.

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a devotee of the work of Ron Heifetz and his idea that leaders regularly need to get off the dance floor and onto the balcony to observe the bigger picture. This idea is very similar to one that Susan cited in her paper. In their book, Leadership Agility,  Bill Joseph and Steve Joiner contend that the essence of being an adaptive leader is reflective action which they describe as “a process of stepping back from your current focus in a way that allows you to make wiser decisions and then fully engage in what needs to be done next.”

Sometimes stepping back really does mean stepping back and that’s where Susan’s finger painting meditations come into the picture.  Her suggestion for leaders who want to build their capacity around reflective action is to spend ten dollars on some finger paints and paper and take some time once a week to unplug and create. Specifically, Susan suggests that you set up your materials on a table, stand up,  use both hands and start painting.  When you’re done, give your picture a title and then step back and notice how you feel about it. 

So, let me acknowledge here that I haven’t tried this yet but I promise I’m going to.  In the meantime, here are a couple of my favorite works by Susan that she shared with me as examples of her own finger painting meditations.  As I said to her earlier this week, just looking at her work was meditative for me. I found myself getting lost in the colors and the patterns. So, I’ve already benefitted from the practice without even getting my fingers messy!

Here’s a request and a question for you. Request: If you’ve enjoyed Susan’s work, let her know by leaving a comment. Question: What practice or routine do you follow to step back from your current focus?