Our preoccupation with leadership is problematic, says Simon Harris. He proposes a less corporate, more systems-led approach to facing challenges in the arts.
I’ve always felt leadership to be a problematic concept. I once heard Clare Short MP complain that we had been seduced by it as a fashionable idea that was indicative of an individualistic and greedy society.
With a background as a theatre maker, I have found it hard to envisage how a capacity that is often conceived as operational and organisational can have anything to do with art. Artistic processes are held to be intuitive and spontaneous by nature, often emerging in unpredictable ways. So is the preoccupation with leadership just more evidence of the neo-liberal agenda eating away at opposing values?
During the past 30 years, the arts have been gradually steered by government to accommodate business-like skills of entrepreneurialism and efficiency. The business world has been held up to the arts as a model for maximising public investment and undercutting reliance on subsidy as a source of income.
Without a different view of the value of arts and culture and a different way of doing things, we are left to manage decline or, conversely, find new ways to harness our resources. One of the key features of this development is how organisations established on inflexible, top-down business models compare with fleet-footed models that are networked, hub-based, distributive and adaptive, and inspired by the digital economy.
In the face of this emergent scenario, new networks, institutions and approaches are urgently needed. Not least, it will require a new understanding and practice in cultural leadership.
Far too often, leadership is identified with the visionary in a commanding relationship over others, delivering excellence and direction from above. Systems leaders, on the other hand, have a deep understanding of the quality of their relationship with others. As such, they exhibit a range of skills that set them apart from traditional conceptions of what a leader is.
Why? Because the function of leadership is to produce more leaders, not more followers.
Simon Harris is Director of Lucid Theatre and Co-lead on Culture lab.
Read the whole article in arts professional