So, what makes good arts leadership? This is the question at the forefront of a panel discussion featuring Alan Lane, Nickie Miles-Wildin, Katie Posner, and Tarek Iskander – all arts leaders in their own right: but from very different organisations and with differing values. Leadership is an integral part of the arts, it guides everything from the plays put on down to the drinks available at the theatre bar. Without strong leadership, the arts industry could not function. From this enlightening discussion emerged one key theme: leadership and management are two separate entities. But in crisis, the two can become merged and leadership can fall into the trap of dictatorship. Please do not fall into this trap.
This panel discussion was one of my festival highlights. It was highly engaging to see these arts professionals discuss and agree that the arts industry in general needs to be doing more. We need to diversify the people we see in leadership positions and arts leaders need to make better-informed choices. However, I am careful to avoid placing this panel of arts leaders into the same bracket. After all, no one can be perfect.
From Graeae and Slung Low, to Paines Plough and Battersea Arts Centre: these arts leaders work for different places, and both their positions of leadership and leadership style differ. But this group of people has been included in the panel for a reason. Their organisations are doing incredible work. Slung Low run a non-means-tested self-referral foodbank and Graeae champion and cultivate the work of D/deaf and disabled artists. Despite the questions posed by Nickie Miles-Wildin generally fostering consensus among the panel: no two people lead in quite the same way.
So, what makes good arts leadership?
Here are my 10 characteristics, plucked from the lips of these industry professionals and taken directly from my brain, that make good leadership:
- A good leader empowers those around them to be the best that they can be
- Clarity, competence, and control
- Getting things done, not talking about and skirting around what you say you’re going to do
- Taking your ego out of the equation and thinking instead about what other people want and need
- Putting down the ramp and helping other people up
- Taking moral and ethical responsibility
- Assessing where you are at and what could be better
- Encouraging others to explore different avenues, they might discover something amazing about themselves along the way
- Staying calm in moments of crisis because people look to you to lead them
- Being willing to step down and hold people to account to make further change
This list is not exhaustive, but it is a good start. It is of massive importance that arts leaders already in the industry adopt these characteristics. We have seen too many job losses, too many accusations of institutional racism, and too many failures from the people we trust to ‘lead’ us. But our artistic leaders of the future are taking stock of these failures. Their energy will be a ray of light in the ensue of this industry. They will bring diversity, they will bring kindness, and most importantly, they will bring hope.