Working in leadership learning provides rich veins of opportunity for deep and broad horizon scanning. As a new cohort of cultural sector leaders express their experiences, aspirations and fears, it is an opportunity to connect with the issues at the top of their agenda.
Each discussion opens a window into the world of today. What is happening now. Right now. What these leaders want for the future. Their future. The one they want to build and inhabit.
Each generation raises its game – the desire to improve is innate in human nature. So is the aspiration to build future legacies that speak of our time, our contribution to culture and culture’s contribution to society.
What will be the legacy of this generation from the gaze of the future? Society is experiencing deep disruption. Alongside Covid, we are challenged to face huge shifts in our understanding and experience of political and social division; economic inequalities; unparalleled technological change; creative expression and freedom of speech; and climate change and environmental sustainability.
Culture itself is changing: the ways in which art is made; the blurring of the artist, audience, producer and critic. The year 2020 put a large full stop against many cultural norms. As 2021 unfolds, more fissures appear and show their permanency. No going back. Can we hope to build back better? Do we want to?
For many in the cultural sector, that look “back” is problematic, highlighting the inequalities, glass ceilings and closed doors that barred progress and blocked engagement. So should we take the opportunity of this colossal eruption to conjure up the society we want, with an affirmed place for culture within it?
Can we be brave enough to strike a fresh chord? One that harnesses the “great” from our celebrated cultural successes and stands down that which has not served us well – sexism, racism, ableism, nepotism and exclusion?
It feels uncomfortable that the list is long. But the list is also real, urgent and, increasingly, non-negotiable. That creates a truly challenging context for the leaders of tomorrow. No walls to the institution. No place to hide. Transparency, openness, accessibility, integrity: all up for scrutiny and debate.
In the era of heightened social media, there is no escaping the leadership gaze. It can feel like leading in a fishbowl – when a mistake goes viral and creative innovation, at the heart of cultural growth, gives way to caution and the tried and tested. It dampens courage, reinforcing the status quo.
It is ironic, therefore, that the leaders who have been held back by that same status quo might just be the ones who have gathered the competences to withstand the dynamics of this brave new world.
“Diverse” leaders, those defined by their differences of gender, colour, disability or sexuality, well know the scrutiny of sceptics and doubt. They have answered the unspoken questions that censure enthusiasm. They have brave-faced the unwanted and swallowed the unreasonable. They have found creative ways to stay engaged, build resilience and battle for change.
They understand that leadership moves fluidly between the professional and the personal – particularly in this climate where accountability translates to “heads must roll” for every judgment disapproved.
So tapping into the experiences and perspectives of diverse cultural leaders provides a rich source of learning for future leadership skills. And creating safe spaces for focused dialogue, such as the Clore Leadership Brilliant Routes programme, or discrete contexts for cultural exploration such as the Museum of Colour, devised by Clore fellows Gaylene Gould and Samenua Sesher respectively, do not threaten the status quo. Rather, they acknowledge it. Finally.
Making normal the practice of intercultural or intersectional dialogue is vitally important when one considers the eclecticism of our audiences and workforces. How accessible are their voices? Are they contributing at every level? Are we creating a world for or with the next generation?
Leadership moves. The pandemic has taught us that almost everything is dynamic; “norms” are transient; and the boundaries are narrower than they seem. So future cultural leaders will need an unbounded appetite for learning. How else can we stay curious and informed as all that we know is questioned?
Successful cultural leaders of the future will require many of the same attributes, competences and skills as do our leaders of today. They will need to inspire, connect and navigate, as well as show courage, passion, energy, an aptitude for collaboration and a conviction that diversity is no more a problem, but a strength.
We need cultural leaders to ready themselves, their organisations and sectors to stay relevant to their communities in five, 10 or 30 years. They will have to see themselves as change-makers – resourceful and optimistic, collaborative and resilient.
Future leaders will need to engage within, but also beyond, the cultural sector in unexpected and unusual environments, and to remain exposed to real-world contexts, simultaneously embracing the civic and creative interplay of culture and place.
The key skills and competencies could be summed up across three priority areas (these are not the top three or the only three – the list is endless – but they provide a valuable framing to meet the future leadership challenge):
- Values-based leadership: to know your values and understand why and what makes your difference.
- Adaptive leadership: flexibility, agility and connectedness to the people, organisations and dynamism of contemporary culture.
- Inclusive leadership: a fundamental, grounded and principled approach that embeds equity, diversity and accessibility as primary considerations.
As a creative workforce, we must continue to push for a society where culture plays its critical role in enriching and enhancing lives. We need our leaders to dream big and create intelligent strategies for making the impossible possible and shaping dynamic new narratives for the world around us.
For that is what culture does – it leads, it investigates, it stirs, it challenges and it innovates. Placing diversity and inclusion at the centre can only strengthen our capacity and capability to fully engage in our world as it is, and as future generations want it to be. Let culture and cultural leadership represent and lead our society. For good.