What a Seder Can Teach Us about Arts Leadership
Who went to a Seder last week?
I went to one in San Francisco and, perhaps because I was thinking about what I wanted to blog about in this emerging leader’s discussion, I was struck by the protagonist at the center of the story. (I was also impressed with my sister’s matzah lasagna but that’s for another blog).
If the Seder were a cabaret the big number is the Ma Nish Tanah, and that solo belongs to the youngest person in the room. And, what does this person do with the spotlight? They start asking questions.
I may be stretching here, but I think there is an analogy that may apply to the discussion of inter-generational dynamics within an arts organization. Because so many arts organizations operate on incredibly thin margins and strive to provide quality programming that their constituencies (audiences, students, community members, etc.) depend on, they are, necessarily, very focused on the tasks at hand: getting the show ready to open this weekend, preparing for a Board meeting tonight, or turning in the grant application in by 5pm. Those in leadership positions especially carry the burden of executing the plan of record which, as many E.D.s will attest, means putting out the fire that’s blazing now or shifting the pots on the stove around so that none boils over today.
So, who is responsible for periodically stepping in and asking the elemental but critical questions?
Perhaps it should be those on top of the organizational structure – whether administratively or in governance positions at the board level – but frequently those are the people who must answer the questions.
In the Seder it’s the kids who sing out to the elders: why are we doing things the way we’re doing things?
And it is for everyone around the table to respond, and hopefully, to reflect for a moment on the history that informs that response, to consider the present circumstances and how times have changed, and maybe even to look ahead and determine what we can do going forward so that we don’t spend another year going through rote motions and taking important things (like freedom in the case of Passover, or making art that has meaning for those of us in this field) for granted.
In the non-profit world these kinds of conversations – if they happen – typically occur at a retreat. But how many organizations invite their youngest staff members to their retreats? Or, to echo a great comment that Josh made in his post, how many younger voices are heard on the Board?
Don’t misunderstand me. The role of youth is not limited to asking questions. Conversations are always richer when multiple voices are heard and sincerely engaged in a back and forth. I’m just observing that the script-writers of the Seder ceremony were on to something when they cast the young’uns as the ones best placed to get the night’s most important conversation rolling.