Multiplying leadership in a time of Release

This is a version of a talk I gave on 20th May as part of Arts & Business Northern Ireland’s series of seminars on Leadership. I’m grateful for the invitation to speak, for the questions posed and to Kieran Gilmore from the Open House Festival in Bangor for talking about them with me. In it I share ideas from some recent thinking about leadership done through the lens of the Creative People & Places programme in England, which I think helps to illustrate broader shifts in leadership practice. I wanted to connect it to the question of the resilience of the sector and ended by thinking about things we can all do to multiply leadership in this scenario. As this talk was being given online I had, for once, written it in fully in advance, so thought it might be useful to share. I’ve not edited it so much as tidied it up for ease of reading, though should you be bored enough to compare the to the recording of the webinar Arts & Business Northern Ireland will be sharing you’ll notice a few minor differences. I’ve also added in some of the diagrams shared.

Firstly: what do I mean by ‘Multiplying Leadership’?

The phrase comes from a paper commissioned by the Creative People and Places Network in England, and published in January this year. (Remember January? It was a decade or so ago.) CPP as it’s often referred to has been a really powerful and influential programme. It was initiated by Arts Council England in 2015 and was originally aimed at addressing statistically low engagement in particular local. There are now 30 places funded, some in their fourth phase, some just starting. It has since developed into being more focussed on building co-creation and community ownership. You can find the full report at https://www.creativepeopleplaces.org.uk which has a brilliant archive of learning and reflection, including a couple of other papers I’ve written for them.

I was asked to look at the CPP approaches to leadership. They felt something different was going on in CPP and they were right, I think. I only have time to touch on the main framework here, but there’s a lot more to say, and I would urge you to read the whole thing. What I found was that a fundamental contribution of CPP in Places has not been to add to infrastructure or arts engagement in so-called cold spots, but to multiply leadership within the community and systems active in those places, that actually are rich with people and ideas. Multiplying leadership means more people become confident leading, but it also means vastly more connections between people, which encourages more collaborative, less patriarchal structures for informed decisions, action, co-creation and learning. It’s both a style of working, open and collaborative, non-hierarchical, and the art and act of connecting potential leaders, clearly and actively. 

CPP and others do this by building trust, being open and positive, and sharing control. The framework for practice I synthesized can be boiled down to three words Connect, Collaborate and Multiply:

  • Connect people and ideas 
  • Collaborate and co-create with people through exploration of shared purpose 
  • Multiply the visibility, range and diversity of people involved, and also the collective learning 
  • What underpins this is to Know yourself, your community, and your situation and to Ask good useful questions. You can break it down a bit further too.

This seems to apply to the most productive leadership during the crisis. The use of data has been quick and impressive, although survey fatigue is perhaps kicking in, and the connections have been strong. (To give one highly practical  and cunning example beyond the emergency conversations ongoing: I have heard of artists networks writing each other into their emergency bids to Arts Council England, as mentors and suppliers, so that whoever got funded in the vastly over-subscribed competition, more people would benefit.) I am pleased to see the CPP network continuing the involvement of unusual suspects at governance level, with independent community members joining consortia discussions virtually, and finding it less intimidating than ‘the board room’. 

In the report  I quote a great phrase from Graham Leicester: ‘We are more likely to act our way into a new way of thinking than think our way into a new way of acting.’ It seems we’ve all been doing this for the last two months, uncomfortable as that might be. Multiplying leadership as I see it is not so much a set of individual skills for delivering results, but a collective practice for working in the unknown and uncertain – which is where, after all, we did some of our best work in the old world. 

How might this help the sector be adaptive and resilient? 

I want to connect this to two ways of thinking about what I call adaptive resilience. 

Taken from Making Adaptive Resilience Real

The first is the adaptive cycle. The cycle can be applied to organisations, artforms and sectors – as well to the social and natural world. It comes from natural ecology. I used the word release in my title to refer to part of the cycle. In Release things that were fixed, tied down, stable, are suddenly not. Usually I’d refer here to a loss of funding, or a hit show, new building, new CEO, but obviously we must now add ‘global pandemics’ to that list. 

Release can be an uncertain, even scary, but exciting place. (Think of the last time you had a boss that left.) It can lead to reorganisation and growth before, usually, some kind of consolidation happens. 

At the moment, it  feels like there is also, paradoxically perhaps, a lot of the Growth phase about. Digital content would be the obvious example but think too of the personal growth as people expand into new work patterns and roles. That’s not to say it’s not stressful and at a high cost, of course. But there is also the potential for future change here – in some ways this is like a gigantic global development exercise. We should take it seriously as such.

Taken from Making Adaptive Resilience Real

Secondly, this situation calls on the characteristics of adaptive and resilient organisations. I sense confirmation that the key thing is purpose, shared across the organisations, its users, partners and funders. Without that, you are lost. Almost as important have perhaps been the networks and assets – the connections and collaborations that people are part of, and how they share their asset base. The cliché to which some reduced resilience of ‘developing diverse income streams’ has been shown to be as limited as I have argued, with project-funded organisations often more able to continue or pivot, whilst those generating great trading income and probably rated higher in ‘resilience’ terms until March suddenly seem highly vulnerable. 

I might even say that the key resilience question for CEOs, boards and sector leaders has been shown to be what I’ve often argued for: are there enough people that love and trust us enough to help us do what we do? (I might still put a word in for reserves, mind.)

How do we lead in this situation     

Taken from Inside Outside Beyond: Artistic Leadership for Contradictory Times

I want to share a final set of circles here as a prompt for how we think about our work in the world, and to lead onto some practical suggestions. In a paper commissioned by The Bluecoat in Liverpool, called Inside Outside Beyond – another three word summary of a whole argument – I argue leaders now have to act inside their organisations, outside in the sector and beyond in society. That’s why it’s such hard work. I think we’re seeing and experiencing that this year more than ever. 

You can see in this diagram ideas for the activity of ‘leaders’: framing and reframing purpose, co-creation, being part of change. This sees the leader as convenor, facilitator, more than omniscient decision-maker. The first question in this context should not be ‘How do I do this?’ or ‘What should I decide?’ but ‘How do we do this together, and how must I act to help that happen?’ 

The common challenge to this is that sometimes we just need someone in charge. There’s no time for a committee meeting in a fire, people say. I think you can see that impulse in many of our reactions to the current situation. But unfortunately neither the virus nor the cultural sector within that broader crisis is a fire, where we need a guide through the smoke to the door or a firefighter to throw us over their shoulder. It is, rather, more of a ‘wicked problem’, complex not just complicated, requiring ‘messy’ solutions, relationship-based workings out, not heroes and heroines with all the answers. I will admit I find this line of thought most inconvenient when shouting at the telly or clapping in the street, and it doesn’t mean that government support isn’t needed. But it’s needed so the sector can be part of the clumsy solutions, rather than to make all the problems go away. 

Academic Keith Grint has explored leadership in relation to such wicked problems, and argued that they ‘require the transfer of authority from individual to collective because only collective engagement can hope to address the problem’. This therefore becomes our key task: shifting from individual to collective in addressing the situation.

Some multiplying leadership practices…

There are things we can all do. Essentially these come down to helping ourselves and others connect, collaborate and increase our own agency and our support of others.

In the CPP paper I amplify some great writers on this topic, one of them being Peter Block, who says, ‘We serve best through partnership, rather than patriarchy. Dependency is the antithesis of stewardship and so empowerment becomes essential.’ One of my own practical steps, as a freelancer, is to make sure those I work with are not dependent upon me. I do this by, for example, sharing the tools I use, and by turning analysis into useable tools of my own and making those available. A good side effect of that is that it also makes me feel less dependent on others. I don’t want to monetise every idea I have, I want to share it and see it used by others. Even if they don’t do with it what I would. That’s what culture is for me. (I started off a poet, and like all minor poets my greatest aspiration is to one day be Anonymous.) This has proved more valuable to my earning a living than trademarking every little exercise and framework. 

I’ve been developing new virtual facilitation skills recently – I am very available for virtual SMT/board away days anywhere English speaking right now by the way – and making sure people can use the tools themselves. So practice one is: share, pass on and be transparent, don’t hoard anything. I’ve seen organisations do this even as they furlough staff and try and keep their companies in business. (See responses from ARC and The Albany, two leaders of the Future Arts Centres network for example.)

Another writer I quote is Margaret Wheatley, a brilliant thinker on social and ecological leadership. She talks of a natural desire to want to help, to solve, to fix. That feeling that if we don’t do it, nobody will. But she points out ‘This hero’s path has only one guaranteed destination – we end up feeling lonely, exhausted and unappreciated. It is time for all us heroes to go home because, if we do, we’ll notice that we’re not alone. We’re surrounded by people just like us. They too want to contribute, they too have ideas, they want to be useful to others and solve their own problems.’ This leads directly and briefly to practice two: make space for other people, and don’t dictate the content for that space more than you have to, even during a crisis.

Co-creation is something of a buzzword, and for good, positive reason. Key to survival of creative communities is joining together. A simple practice for the current crisis might be to keep asking ‘How would we tackle this if we were a partnership?’

Doing things with rather than for people is crucial. Part of that, as mentioned, is sharing power including decision-making. Practice involving others in direction setting and decision-making – and how far can those circles extend? 

Lots of organisations have involved staff in new, less to-down ways during the crisis, how could that be built into the future? Funders have pulled together reference groups to help with direction-setting. How might these kinds of approaches adapt governance in future? How might audiences be part of rethinking use of venue space? How might your artists, audiences and funders help redesign your business model? 

On a basic level, a key thing to do is reconfigure meetings. Simply stop using meetings as top down rituals of control – information to be ‘cascaded’, actions to be checked, apologies noted – and design conversations that support collective reflection, options generation and conclusions. Better conversations – which is really what a meeting should be, a coming together to talk – are also important in developing a positive error culture, vital to resilience and community creativity. I really recommend the book Liberating Structures for techniques anyone can use.

More of a general principle perhaps is to talk a little but listen a lot. Make safe spaces for people to talk and ways to show you’ve been actively listening. Refine your understanding together, partly because being listened to well sharpens our own understanding of what we meant. It’s another talk altogether but I’ve been excited in recent years by an evaluation technique called Most Significant Change. What I like about it is the way it builds in collective sense-making of stories, and then feeds back to people so they know their stories have been heard. We know how powerful that feeling is. We need more such loops in future, and during this release, reorganisation and growth part of the adaptive cycle, to come out of the crisis more connected.

None of this applies only to people with fancy job titles. These practices do not always require authority, I have found. In fact sometimes, being able to work in the cracks of creaking systems can be helpful. Stepping away from so-called power to try and exert influence. At times this feels exposed and frustrating, at other times, luxurious, even frivolous. It demands as much clarity as when I was an Executive Director. Maybe more. Promiscuous collaboration and sharing of your ideas, heedless of who takes credit, also helps. It takes a network of trusted critical friends, multi-function bullshit detectors and cheer leaders, too. 

In some ways, on some days, in certain moods, I think I might even describe this as my cultural practice, joining the dots between writing, research, organisational development and facilitation: connecting – collaborating – multiplying.