Posts Tagged ‘leadership’

Some things that I’ve learned and the people I’ve learned them from

October 19, 2013

I owed a favour to a production manager. As all producers do to all production managers almost all the time.

The production manager called the favour in. Or rather, she asked if her Dad could call it in instead. And so I find myself wondering what theatre producing nuggets of interest I might share with the local rotary club as their guest speaker this month – the production manager’s Dad being their newly elected president.

My train of thought has ended up dwelling on some of the most valuable things I’ve learned and the remarkable people I’ve learned them from. The things I try and put into action, the tenets I try and work by. The things which have resonated so deeply with me that I’ve clung on tight to them and never let them go. The things which I hope make me better at what I do.

Some of them are lessons I’ve learned of old; some of them are inspired by people I’ve only come to know recently. Some of them contradict each other. In the main they’re things I’ve learned through working with or alongside these good, good people at the coalface. Some for a short time only, others for longer. Or through experiencing them first-hand in some way. They’re not theories that have been spouted to me or things these people are maybe even aware that they’ve taught me. They are not quotations. They’re mostly things I’ve inferred from seeing a little of the way they forge their way through the world.

I’m going to take the plunge and credit all my unwitting gurus by name in the hope that they won’t mind their wisdom being shared that little bit more widely. Any errors of interpretation are of course entirely mine. If anyone feels misrepresented, I hope they’ll let me know.

Michelle Dickson, Director of Oxford Playhouse:

–          It’s all about audiences. As a theatre, as a presenter, and as a producer, that’s where our focus should begin and end. Which isn’t to say that artists aren’t an absolute priority, just that looking after the two are intrinsically interlinked: looking after artists is never divorced from looking after audiences. Helping an artist grow in the best possible way for them is, ultimately, about serving our audiences.

–          Pragmatism isn’t a dirty word. Knowing when it’s right to let your head rule your heart is an enormous source of strength. When it’s right to toughen up and make the responsible, practical choice. Because protecting your stability in the long-run is what allows you to keep taking risks now. Without the wisdom of the former, the excitement of the latter is impossible. Or redundant. Or reckless.

–          Take a breath. It’s not always best that it’s now.

The guy on the 2010 Common Purpose Meridian Leaders Course in Birmingham from The National Trust:

–          Having an eye on the long-term means having a 100-year plan for your organisation. Not a poxy 3-year plan. 3 years is a blink in a strategic eye. 100 years is where we should all be heading.

Emma Stenning, Executive Director of Bristol Old Vic:

–          Dream big. Be ambitious. Once you’ve chosen an exciting path for all the right reasons, don’t turn your back on it. Compromise the art and you’ll compromise your whole direction. Put the art first; the rest will follow.

–          Commit to and invest in place. If you can, move your life – lock, stock and barrel – to your place of theatre. Know it, enjoy it, love it from the inside. Be proud of it and celebrate it. Don’t wish it was somewhere else. Don’t pretend it’s as good as somewhere else. Know that it’s the best of itself and nowhere else is like it. Make the theatre of that place which speaks to and with that place in a way that theatre from elsewhere can’t. Court the greats of the big wide world in the hope that they’ll come to you, yes. But, more importantly, go and find the greats on your doorstep who are already there and nurture them.

My darling friends Naomi & Lisa:

–          Be full to the brim with ‘mitfreude’: a made-up German-esque word (literally ‘with’ & ‘joy’) which someone at the other end of a Google search has helpfully coined as the opposite to ‘schadenfreude’. Be generous, unconfined, and utterly without ego or credit-taking in your joy in others’ success, achievements and good fortune.

Mannie Manim, formerly Chief Executive of the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town:

–          Know when to walk away.

Vicky Graham of Vicky Graham Productions (with thanks to Nike):

–          Just Do It. Make it happen. Don’t let an idea stay just an idea. Get out there. Just bloody do it.

Ceri Gorton, Culture Manager for Oxford City Council:

–          Make a little do a lot. What’s the furthest you can make a small amount of money go? What’s the most exciting good you can do for the most people with what you’ve got?

–          Make the quick wins win quickly. Impact fuels momentum; it makes the next barrier easier to tear down.

Dame Vivien Duffield, Chair of the Clore Foundation:

–          Cut the strings to your generosity. When you’re in the wonderful position of being able to give, offer, enable, or invest, where you can, when you can, do it freely. Free up the offer, free up the agenda, don’t attach strings. Be generous about the how, not just the how much.

Tom Morris, Artistic Director, Bristol Old Vic:

–          Artists see round corners. They’re special and they’re brave. They let the light in. They help us see things about the world we wouldn’t otherwise see.

Brian Underwood, Violin Teacher at the Royal Academy of Music:

–          Don’t be afraid for something to get worse in order for it to get better.

Anonymous:

–          Just sometimes, good enough is good enough. If good enough gets something done when holding out for perfect would have left you without anything at all, good enough can be the better achievement.

Anna Glynn & Robin Colyer, Flintlock Theatre:

–          Always be at the start of something. If you’re not, find something to start. Be at the most exciting stage of a new journey, at the inhalation of the deepest, bravest breath, at the coiling of the spring. Look for your next giant leap. That is where you’ll find your energy and how you’ll be most likely to live up to your promise.

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Leadership: Continuous Personal Development

January 23, 2010

One of the things I’ve been increasingly thinking about recently, in part as a specific focus of some of my Clore Fellowship training, is the personal nature of leadership. When I was asked to talk about my leadership perspective for a presentation a little while back, my first instinct was to look for examples or instances from my professional life which had influenced my understanding of leadership. But I quickly realised that it was much more personal than that – my perspective on leadership had begun to be formed much earlier on in my life through more personal encounters. So I felt a consideration of this topic would be dishonest of me if I didn’t direct my reflections to much more personal influences, foremost of which had to be my Mum.

My Mum and Dad - taken about 5 years ago

Mum has worked for about 30 years for an officially sexually discriminative organisation, an organisation whose male leaders have always forbidden female employees from rising to leadership roles. Even today, this discrimination is still enforced at the highest levels of the organisation.

As a child, I saw Mum challenge that situation every day through her work, and watched her play a very active part in the long fight against this discrimination. Eventually this culminated in a landmark court case in 1994 that, despite vociferous resistance from many colleagues, enabled her and other women finally to assume positions of leadership in the middle ranks of her organisation.

So I suppose I have to admit that something of the feminist was awoken in me from an early age, having become accustomed to seeing women struggle to assert their suitability for roles of leadership against the dominant male powers that be.

[I also now have a rather complicated and dysfunctional relationship with the church as a result, but that’s neither here nor there…]

Observing Mum’s working life at close quarters gave me a bird’s eye view on a very particular, unusual kind of leadership, and that is the leadership of voluntary communities. The kind of leadership role I saw her adopt was, I imagine, a very different one to had she been the boss of a profit-making corporation. There was nothing powerful or overtly impressive about it. In fact, as a slightly stroppy teenager it seemed to me that leadership was basically a total hassle: it seemed to involve dealing with eccentric, egomaniac nutters on a daily basis, being stuck at social gatherings for hours on end because everyone wanted to witter on at you about something or other, and you always always ended up really upsetting someone.

Leadership as I saw it through Mum’s experiences was tricky – it was something that had to be constantly negotiated with the community you were leading. There was something very politically complicated I learned from her about how to assert leadership from a position of being the only professional amongst a community of willing – sometimes overly willing – volunteers. It was, in effect, an example of what Julia Middleton has famously called ‘leadership beyond authority’ – leading from a position that doesn’t comprise hiring and firing authority over those persuaded to follow you.

Violin masterclass with Hugh Bean

As a child, the most important element of my education came in the form of one-on-one instrumental tuition: I played the violin a lot growing up and so my violin teachers were pretty significant people in my life. In a way, they were my leaders.

But, because of the nature of that sort of tuition, because of the intimacy and more familial relationship you develop with a teacher of that sort, their leadership was primarily facilitative. Of course I had my fair share of those who were dogmatic and dictatorial and frankly pretty terrifying about scale practice (or the lack of it), but in the main, my experience of their role was as leaders whose job it was to bring out the best in their pupils, so it was first and foremost a role of encouragement and support.

Incidentally, the wisest thing one of them ever said to me, and which I’ve never forgotten, was: “Don’t be afraid to get worse in order to get better.”

So if the point I’m making is that leadership is personal, that, although clear boundaries between the personal and the professional are useful, the two spheres are inextricably linked, then why have I allowed my thoughts to turn to a very public figure with whom I have no personal connection who holds the most conventionally powerful leadership role in the Western world? This man I think represents so many astonishing things about contemporary leadership because he manages to conflate the personal and the professional so apparently effortlessly.  Until he came along, I didn’t think it was possible in this day and age to revere political leaders. There’s too much spin, and therefore too much cynicism. There’s too much media exposure and interrogation, revealing all the disappointing flaws and human hypocrisies that in a former age might have remained hidden. I’ve always thought of my elders who idolised President Kennedy or Winston Churchill as somewhat naive – I thought that sort of reverence and respect for political leaders was a thing of the less sophisticated past, before citizens considered themselves journalists, publishers and opinion formers. I have become accustomed, ironically, never to finding admirable leadership qualities in those who occupy the most stereotypical positions of leadership.

And so, given the aggressive, non-stop media exposure of our current era, it is astonishing to me that this man has succeeded in making so many people fall in love with him, like teenage fans smitten with a rock star.

So how does that feed into my perspective on leadership in general? I think it has taught me that leadership can be different to what you have become accustomed to expect.

And that the most important thing about it is that it is utterly devoid of pretence. Or at least that it comes across as being so.

Leadership is as much about the person as the job title, meaning that professional development is impossible without personal development.

Risky Business

November 29, 2009

My thinking about my Clore research paper has been developing over the last few weeks and I’m delighted that the wonderfully imaginative and clear-thinking John Holden has agreed to supervise my research.

Having settled on a draft wording for a stimulus question, I thought I would share my somewhat chaotic thoughts on the topic so far.

What is the leadership role in optimising risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector?

I would like to investigate some of the complexities bubbling beneath the received narrative surrounding risk taking in the UK’s subsidised performing arts sector, as I’m not convinced we often talk about them entirely honestly. I’m interested in the complexity of the relationship between artistic risk taking and financial obligation. I’m interested in how the many areas of the sector that have an impact on this issue are intricately interconnected, how practice and process at an individual, organisational and strategic level influence our approach to risk. I’m interested in what scope there is in the sector for failure: it strikes me that if we’re really taking risks, some of the time they’ll fail, they won’t come off, and I’m interested in how much scope there really is for that failure to be seen as fuel to the creative process at large. I think we need failure, I think it feeds us artistically, so I think our attitude to risk taking is wrapped up in our attitude to failure too. I’m interested in the role of leadership in all of this – in where we need the leadership and what the role of the sector at large can or should be in enabling, encouraging and optimising risk taking.

My own experience of the touring theatre sector would suggest that it is becoming increasingly risk-averse as opposed to risk-taking and my interest in exploring the complexities at the heart of this topic stem from a concern that the iteration of a risk-averse approach may lead to a more stagnant sector in the future.

Some of the questions I am keen to explore include:

What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? What is the leadership role in this? At what level? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who decides which risks to take and which ones not to take, about being the one who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one that only replicates former ‘success’, does the true and vitalising success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?

How does the subsidised sector negotiate the dichotomous relationship of artistic risk and financial responsibility? How does it remain accountable to its taxpayer-provided income whilst continuing to push the boundaries, to play and experiment freely and with most potential for creativity? Does its sense of public accountability overwhelm its greater responsibility to take risks because of – not in spite of – its receipt of subsidy? Does it self-censor under the perceived weight of financial obligation?

What is the role of development in stimulating and encouraging artistic risk? What do we mean by artistic risk? Can we define it at all adequately? Is risk taking about the heart and risk management about the head? Can any risk assessment process be more than a procedural formality? Is risk taking about individuals, not about organisations or sector-wide approaches? Is it about brave and passionate champions of art, not about sector-wide facilitation? Is it easier or more difficult for long established, well regarded organisations?

How does the approach typical of, necessitated by or aspired to within the subsidised arts sector compare with the approach of the commercial arts sector? And, by extension, how does the approach of the arts sector at large compare to the approach of other sectors, for example the commercial and corporate sectors? Is there anything to learn from the financial sector’s attitude to risk? To its empire-building based upon risk? To successful companies built out of the ashes of failed companies? To insolvency practices and investment strategies based on concepts of varying and assessed risk?

I should add that for me there is also an individual interest at the heart of this research: as someone who has found themselves cast more often than they would wish in the risk averse role as the ‘nay-sayer’ who reigns in, controls, anticipates and problem solves, I want to take a sideways look through the process of this research at my own attitude to risk.

So, having arrived at this punishing and somewhat daunting series of questions, I am beginning at this point by simply reading, thinking, talking, and interviewing, so all contributions and thoughts are most welcome.

Clore Fellowship research: from many acorns

July 31, 2009

A couple of days ago I arrived home from one of those wearisome days at work to be cheered by the post awaiting me on my doormat: for once there was no nuisance junk mail, no pesky bills even, just two delightful packages. One, a cd of the wonderful veteran Cuban guitarist / singer Eliades Ochoa – a present from my husband currently 8000 miles away on work – and the other, my contract for the Clore fellowship I’m about to embark on.

And the latter, of course, re-ignited my thinking about the Clore fellowship experience awaiting me just round the corner now. In a couple of weeks’ time, I have a meeting with the Clore staff to discuss ideas and plans for the year, and the combination of this appointment with a renewed awareness that the start of this journey is now very imminent has prompted me to turn my attention to articulating some of the rather vague thoughts that have been circling in my head for the last few months.

One of the elements of the fellowship I am particularly looking forward to is the research: fellows are asked to produce a 20,000 word paper on an aspect of cultural leadership that interests them in the course of their year, a process that is supervised by a university-based academic. I gather that mine might be a rather odd attraction to this part of the fellowship – I think it can be a daunting part of the programme, or for some people it can seem far too akin to ‘homework’ to be met with a groan. I, though, have to confess to missing the academic rigour and intellectual stimulant of that sort of process: I certainly feel my brain hasn’t worked in that way since university, and although my working life has most definitely not been short on challenges, they’ve been of a very different kind and haven’t stretched the old grey matter in anything like the same cerebral way. I am well aware that my brain doesn’t currently feel capable of the sorts of academic gymnastics it enjoyed in my precocious student years, so I am looking forward to once again grappling with thoughts, ideas, concepts, principles, abstracts and hypotheticals. Although, this time, with hopefully less precociousness and more professional experience to rough the neat abstract theories up a little, and bring a bit of realistic grit and profanity to the holiness of thinking.

I don’t feel anything like ready to settle on a particular topic to research as yet, but I have got as far as collating some half-articulated thoughts on various areas I’m interested in. My hope is that one or other of these little acorns might sprout some shoots which hold enough promise for developing into a full paper in due course. My embryonic subjects in need of much further thought are as follows:

1. Presenting international theatre
What is the role of the cultural leader in creating a context for international work? Whose story is it to tell? What foundations need to be laid – and how? – in order for it to communicate with an audience / reach its widest audience? What are the effects of globalisation on the creation and development of cultural voices? Does the international reach of these voices mean they are being diluted or strengthened? Does the internationalisation of theatre benefit audiences and what role needs playing in order to best serve audiences with this globalised cultural offer?

2. The non-creative creative
What is the role of a ‘non-creative’ cultural leader (i.e. someone not defined by that term ‘creative’, usually referring to directors, designers, choreographers, etc.)? How can a ‘non-creative’ leader be creative? Is there a place for ‘non-creative’ creativity in the cultural sector? How can they grow a creative space / organisation? What is the relationship between ‘creatives’ and ‘non-creatives’? Is there a creativity in the silent space between them, in the tension?

[And, by way of a sub-question: how can I be a ‘non-creative’ when my best thinking is done at 1am?]

3. Autocracy versus democracy in the arts sector
Leadership versus collaboration; hierarchy versus non-hierarchy; leadership versus democracy? Are these things in conflict with each other within arts organisations? Are they mutually exclusive, complementary, co-existential or symbiotic? Is there room for strength of artistic vision and principles of collaboration to co-exist? Is there a benefit to this? Where do autocratic and democratic models of cultural leadership serve the arts best?

4. Leadership and risk
What potential is there for risk and failure within cultural leadership in the current climate? How can leadership allow for, encourage, and embrace failure brought about by risk? How much is leadership actually about being the one who takes the risk, who leads the failure? Can failing be leading? In fact, if an arts scene without failure is a stultified and stagnant one, does the success of our arts sector depend upon its failures? Failure breeds success; it defines excellence through being a foil, through being a motivation to do better, to tell the truth more truthfully, to speak more powerfully, more honestly. Failure is our drinking water – what if there weren’t any?
[Some of these thoughts came to me during a Metapod Connect session this afternoon in which Pete Ashton mentioned the Failcamp scheduled to take place in Birmingham in October – a glorious celebration and sharing of spectacular failures and the lessons resulting from these experiences.]

5. Only Connect: touring companies and their audiences
How do non-building-based touring companies grow and maintain a relationship with a nationally disparate audience? Can a touring company lay claim to an audience as their own rather than borrowing them from a receiving house? What chance is there for cultural leadership to create the conditions for growing that audience from afar?

I think at the moment the ones that seem like the choicest pick of the bunch are the thoughts about presenting international work and about risk and failure. Two topics that perhaps are related, and perhaps they seem the most interesting because they raise the most – or the most difficult – questions.

I genuinely want to challenge myself to research questions I don’t already think I know how to approach, or about which I’ve already made up my mind. I want to scare myself. I want to open up a void and dive in to its surprises.

play_risk

Leadership vs Leaderlessness

June 9, 2009

‘Blind leading the blind’, ‘herding cats’, ‘led up the garden path’, ‘you can lead a horse to water’, ‘led by the nose’… the idioms on leadership go on. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of my acceptance on the Clore leadership programme, my thoughts have recently turned to the issue of leadership, both in the general and in the specific. In the general: what makes good arts leadership? is essentially the question at the heart of the matter. In the specific: what sort of arts sector leader do I want to be, or do I have the most potential to be, and how do I go about getting there?
Given that this is very early days in my Clore process – so early that I haven’t technically started my fellowship yet, although I can’t help thinking about it most waking moments and some sleeping ones as well – all I can do here is set down some of the many questions that are flooding my mind and hope that, over the course of the next year, some answers fall into place. Perhaps not definitive answers, perhaps only assurances that they are the right questions to be asking. I’m not expecting my Clore experience to provide me necessarily with magic answers; just an understanding of the best way to investigate the questions, a deeper understanding of the context within which these questions should be explored, and a more sophisticated understanding of the impact of that context on the questions themselves.
What I find particularly interesting is that, while I’m scouring Amazon for second-hand copies of the most enticing-sounding books on my Clore fellowship reading list, all of which are provoking a flood of questions about arts leadership, I am also currently engrossed by an equal but opposite flood of questions around the concept of leaderlessness. On account of my participation in Fierce Earth’s Metapod Connect course on social media, I’m simultaneously being encouraged to think about the benefits, potential and impact of leaderless organisations, or of unconventionally-powered organisations; organisations that embrace the power of the massed community and empower it.
The serendipitous coinciding of the two courses – Clore and Metapod – has encouraged a particularly inquisitive attitude in me: the combination of both sets of questions feels like a nicely comprehensive interrogation of some big abstract principles, and I feel that the one set sheds some light on the other.
The social media course has so far introduced me to the case study of the troubled gold-mining company who dispensed with the secrecy around its corporate intellectual copyright, published hitherto closely-guarded geological data and received accurate suggestions of future mining sites from the general public. The memorable idea here is of a relinquishing of traditional control, of sharing control for mutual benefit (the proponents of correct suggestions were rewarded with a half a million dollar prize), of allowing a mass to identify and drive an organisation’s activity, rather than an individual. Similarly, the ‘many-heads-is-better-than-one’ school of thought – the social leadership school – is introducing me to concepts of the spider or starfish organisations, a metaphor for top-down, traditionally-led organisations (that die when they lose their head, as would a spider) versus decentralised organisations (that grow a new leg when one is lost, which might in itself grow into a whole new entity, just like a starfish that loses a limb). The implication here, of course, is: starfish good, spider bad, or, to paraphrase George Orwell most cruelly: 5 self-renewing legs good, 8 head-dependent legs bad.
As a counter-balance, the Clore leadership programme, which will I think encourage the examination of many forms of leadership, no doubt among them the facilitative, implied, or collective leadership cited above, is also encouraging me to assess the role, place, need for and real value of pro-active, buck-stopping, decision-bearing leadership. Cultural leadership isn’t just something that kicks in when creative consensus breaks down, but is an active, ongoing and driving force behind many organisations whose success – in its broadest sense – is contingent upon good leadership. A bite-sized chunk of food for thought on this subject comes from Barbara Kellerman, author of Bad Leadership: What it is, how it happens, why it matters (2004), with her contention that ‘good’ leaders and ‘bad’ leaders share the same fundamental character traits: intelligence, energy, drive for power and achievement, decisiveness, and determination. The common denominator in cases of bad leadership, Kellerman contests, is that the followers are as important as the leaders, i.e. there is no bad leadership without bad followership.
So, whether the ‘spider’ model of leadership so mistrusted by the fans of social, leaderless organisations has simply been confused with poorly-led – and, by Kellerman’s contention, poorly-followed – organisations for me remains to be seen. It may, of course, not be a straight-forward choice between subscribing to the concept of leadership or leaderlessness, of one leader or of many co-leaders, like declaring forever whether you be Catholic or Protestant, but rather a question of learning to discriminate between models to find the most appropriate for a certain organisation, project, moment, group of people, or context. Much to explore, chew over and think on as I continue this very open process of questioning, re-questioning and counter-questioning.