In the first two posts within this leadership series, we considered how leadership is a flexible concept that has changed over time, and explored reasons why creative practitioners may be reluctant leaders. This third post discusses how we can learn to be leaders when working in or running creative organisations.
When many of us consider “learning,” we immediately think of courses and programs facilitated by experts in the field. In recent years, there has been an explosion of leadership courses and books, both academic and professional, many of them aimed at those working in the creative sector.
But developmental programs, workshops, and tertiary education can be expensive and, for many in the arts and creative industries, out of reach. While there are professional development grants available from government funders such as the Australian Council for the Arts, they are few and far between, not to mention highly competitive.
How to learn leadership (on the cheap)
What alternatives, then, are there to formal development? Management research shows that on-the-job experience—such as jobs, work-based hardships, and special projects—is the most useful for leadership development. This correlates with my research, which shows that creative workers learn leadership primarily through practice. Importantly, however, it is our collaboration with others that builds the most effective leadership capacity and understanding. When we engage professionally with peers, we participate in a process known as “social learning.” Traditionally, learning was represented as the transfer of knowledge from experienced practitioner to novice learner. Social learning, however, explores how learning relates to the social environment. This approach sees learning as a collective activity, where knowledge is not acquired or passed on from one individual to another, but developed through participation in shared activity. Through collaboration we learn what it is to be a leader within our specific community.
Learning leadership through practice
Even if the most effective way to learn leadership is through social engagement, work, and practice, you can’t just sit back and let leadership "happen." To maximise your capacity to build leadership knowledge, understanding, and skills, you need to be aware of what social learning is and how it can benefit you. Here are a few strategies that might help:
Participate in social learning through professional work or individual creative practice.
The number one way to learn creative leadership is to collaborate with other practitioners. For some, this comes with the job, working in teams to achieve mutually defined goals. (Yes, all that group work at Uni was for a reason!) If you are a solo practitioner, you can still get involved in collaborative projects in the creative community. Think about joining a co-working space, or getting involved in local groups that provide opportunities to learn from (and share with) your peers. Forums like Creative Women’s Circle are perfect for meeting like-minded people; be proactive and put out the call. Other examples include knitting groups and writing groups that share feedback or evening art sessions. Once in these environments, test out your leadership skills by sharing ideas, exploring group dynamics, and teaching others. You might not recognise it at first, but these environments will give you confidence to lead in more formal settings.
Explore different kinds of leadership and then embrace the style that supports your practice.
A key factor in the development of creative leadership is the ability to lead in a way that aligns with your creative practice. To do this, you must learn about leadership. Observe the leaders around you: the good and the not-so-good. Read books and, if you have a chance to participate in a program, go for it! But observe with a critical eye. Beneficial development expands the idea of leadership and adjusts for personal approaches rather than projecting an idealised set of behaviours.
Create space for personal reflection.
Leadership reflection is the ability to relate theory back to personal experience. Consideration of past experiences may offer new perspectives when coupled with an expanded idea of what leadership looks like. Take the time to consider your role as leader and how it relates to your work and creative practice. Think about key experiences—both positive and negative—and what you learned from them. Consider those around you who are role models and what makes them good at what they do. But refrain from personal judgement, understanding that there is no perfect leader.
Share your leadership stories and learn from others.
Through the sharing and co-construction of stories, and exposure to role models, emerging leaders are exposed to new leadership ideas that take creative leadership from the theoretical to the personal. This means we need to hear a diversity of voices speaking about creative leadership. Moreover, it is important for emerging cultural leaders to be exposed to more than just stories of success from established leaders. Hearing about struggles and failures paints a more realistic picture of what it is like to lead in the creative world. If you can tell your story, do so with gusto.
If you’re an organisational leader, understand your role in developing others.
Lastly, a tip for those who run their own creative organisations or manage others: just because you may not have the resources to send staff on training programs doesn’t mean you cannot contribute to their leadership development. Organisations have the power to create learning through job structure and a focus on learning through experience. In addition, organisational leaders can encourage social learning by creating space for dialogue in meetings, encouraging collaborative work through projects, and through physical workplace design. Developmentally oriented organisations focus on how learning helps achieve organisational goals without having to pay consultants for expensive training programs.
There’s so much more to learning leadership than understanding a set of requisite behaviours that will turn you into the perfect leader. For creative workers, learning leadership involves the melding of creative practice and leadership opportunity in a way that provides a safe, enjoyable space for learning.
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).