Over the course of this series on creative leadership we have focussed the discussion largely on individual leaders, while acknowledging that you can’t have a leader without a follower. For this last post, it’s worth taking a look at leadership within creative organisations, the traits that make them distinct and the best strategies to effectively lead them to success.
Most research into leadership and management in organisations is conducted in large corporate workplaces. This happens for a variety of reasons: big profit-driven organisations have the money to do research and the motivation to determine how leaders impact performance measures like shareholder value, and are large enough to undertake research of significant size and anonymity.
A significant portion of creative workers, however, do not conduct their business in large-scale companies. Research into the Australian creative industries from the census and other industry sources show that around 13 percent of those in the cultural sector are sole traders, compared to 6 percent in the broader economy. There are approximately 123,000 creative businesses in Australia; 98 percent of these employ less than twenty staff and have a turnover of less than $200,000 annually.
If creative businesses are largely small-scale and tight on resources, how does this impact the role of creative organisational leaders?
We typically associate leadership with positions of authority, what is known as headship. Those who are managers, owners, founders and directors are generally recognised as leaders by those around them. Research has shown, however, that leadership does not necessarily equate to managerial position and, importantly, those who do not have a role function that includes leading people can still display the characteristics, and exert the influence, of leaders. Creative leadership, despite our preconceptions of it as a hierarchical construct, is often more distributed in nature.
In the reality of creative occupations, leadership is more likely to be associated with influence than organisational power. To get things done as a small business operator or sole trader, a leader needs to clearly articulate her creative vision, build relationships, communicate needs and outcomes, and effectively and encourage others to support her goals.
This distributed—or relational—idea of leadership actually aligns with the current understanding of creativity. Whereas historically, creativity was associated with individual talent, something only a lucky few were born with, it is now recognised as existing in the spaces between people. It is a process that is fostered and enhanced in the sharing of collaborative ideas. Thinking about leadership has travelled along a similar path. We no longer ascribe to the “Great Man” theories of the past, in which leaders are born with inherent traits that lead to their positions in society. Leadership is rather a collective process enacted by many.
Research shows that creative leaders are comfortable with the visionary aspects of leadership. Perhaps unsurprisingly, creative leaders are good at crafting narratives and communicating their stories to others. What they are less comfortable with, however, is the ‘people side’ of leadership, the area where it overlaps with management. Many creative leaders struggle with the idea of working through others, delegating instead of being a one-man band. This reluctance or inability to share responsibility means that creative organisations may fail to grow, and those who work with such leaders may fail to develop their own skills.
What can be done to develop operational management in creative organisations?
I hate to put my ex-HR hat on here, but a bit of structure wouldn’t go astray. One creative leader told me that in her job description (she had one!), point number 16 was “Manage team and HR.” This shows how far down building and developing a successful team lay in her company’s list of priorities.
The solution to these problems doesn’t have to be overly burdensome. If you are a leader of staff (or volunteers), you need to give their management and development some thought. To start with, ensure all staff understand the strategic aims of the business and, crucially, what roles they play in the achievement of those aims. Second, all staff need accurate, up-to-date job descriptions that include not only their required tasks and priorities, but the skills required to do them. Third, using job descriptions as a basis, have a discussion about staff performance and development. Does your team have all the skills necessary to do the job? If not, what can you do together to develop those skills (projects, research, on-the-job experience in addition to learning options)? If they are performing well in the job, what’s next? How can you provide stretch in their roles?
The common theme in the above activities is conversation. Take the time, regularly, to talk to your team about their role and development, not just the work of the day. Step away from the activity at hand to discuss their performance, find out how they are doing and ask if they need support. Staff perform best with a clear understanding of what is required of them and how it fits into the bigger organisational picture, regular feedback, and leadership that recognises their input and development.
By focussing more on staff, or followers, your organisation will not only flourish, but you will become a better leader. A true win/win situation.
Kim Goodwin is an academic researcher and arts manager with a background in leadership, human resources, and career development. Since leaving her corporate career, Kim has focused on building understanding in how creative leaders are developed while working in a variety of arts organisations and academic environments. She can be found on LinkedIn, or follow her on Twitter (@KimAroundTown).