What would you say if someone asked you, “Are you a leader?” Would you stand a bit taller and give an authoritative “Yes!”? Or would you hesitate, not wanting to seem a bit, well, pompous?
For those who work in large organisations, leadership is a hot topic and something staff are expected to aspire toward. The Centre for Workplace Leadership found that sixty percent of the Australian organisations they surveyed offered some form of organisational leadership training. The ability to lead and manage others is not only something employees are prepared for; in many companies, staff are told “we are all leaders” regardless of position or title. Leadership: it’s a vibe.
Is it different, however, for those in the creative sector? Leadership, as outlined in my post published in April, is a fluid concept. We talk about it a lot, but we don’t have a solid idea of what it actually is. With this in mind, do creative practitioners aspire to be leaders?
I’ve spent the past four years talking to creative practitioners about leadership across four states and nine different disciplines, from visual arts to digital design and theatre. The vast majority of those I spoke to were undertaking leadership roles: running organisations, managing staff and volunteers, influencing cultural debate, and representing their communities. However, when I asked them, “Do you consider yourself a leader?” I discovered that their relationships with leadership were complex.
Emerging leaders were often hesitant to embrace the title of “leader.” Some worried that it made them seem “up themselves” (a very Australian concern); others didn’t recognise themselves in the media portrayals of successful leaders.
My research considers how we define ourselves as leaders—not only through our internal thoughts and feelings toward leadership, but also how outside forces shape our leadership identity. Some of them may be familiar to you.
Leaders are often held up as an ideal. “Good” leaders are those who win awards, make a lot of money, inspire praise, and receive attention in the media. Think of the late Steve Jobs, Richard Branson, and even Sophia Amoruso, whose book #Girlboss inspired the new Netflix series of the same name. Emerging leaders have a tendency to compare themselves to these ideals, which are often highly constructed and marketed versions of leadership. We also compare ourselves as leaders with those around us. For those who work in organisations, you may look at your managers and peers and consider your skills, knowledge, and experience in light of theirs. Many creative practioners with whom I spoke saw being a leader as something they were not yet equipped to do. They believed they needed more skills, more experience, more recognition.
But being a leader is also something bestowed upon us by others—for example, by being promoted from team member to team leader, or by having “supervisor” or “manager” added to your job title. Many creative practitioners felt the weight of organisational expectation when it comes to leadership, especially when a new role or organisational progression meant moving away from individual creative practice to the management and organisation of others to achieve creative goals. Creative practitioners often felt comfortable being recognised as a leader in their discipline, but were resistant to the idea of managing other people.
There were also personal identity factors that influenced creative workers’ relationships to leadership. Australians like to see themselves as egalitarian in nature, especially in the arts, and have a tendency to shoot down “tall poppies.” Creative leaders are concerned about remaining humble, wanting to be seen as one of their peers rather than putting their hands up to lead.
Gender is also an inescapable topic when considering leadership. Many of the women I spoke to were uncomfortable calling themselves leaders, while these feelings of inadequacy were less likely to be expressed by their male counterparts. Participants in my study—of both genders—also noted that there is an (incorrect) perception that female leaders in the arts are bitchy, catty, and not supportive of their peers. In a number of sectors, leadership was closely associated with competition. Those in positions of power did not have a sense of generosity toward the development of others; their focus was more often organisational survival and gaining access to scarce resources or opportunities.
The result of all these pressures felt by emerging leaders in the creative sector is that they are less likely to identify personally as leaders. We might ask, “So what?” As long as they keep acting as leaders, as many are, who cares if they don’t proudly wear the “leader” label?
If the next generation of cultural innovators, pioneers, and trailblazers are reticent to call themselves “leaders,” they may also be unwilling to apply for leadership opportunities, development, and positions. Leaders require confidence to reach out and grasp what the future offers.
In addition, Australia needs strong, vocal, creative, and cultural leadership. The economic challenges facing creative industries, cuts to funding and arts education, culture wars—all of these all require leaders in the community to be strong not only for their organisations and individual businesses, but for the sector as a whole.
When a leadership opportunity arises, will you be ready to step up to the challenge? Or are you a reluctant creative leader?
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).