Emergent Leadership Practices

Posted by Marian A. Godfrey, Mar 14, 2016 0 comments

What do we expect of the next generations of arts leaders? Do we want them to “fix” the ailing nonprofit operating model, or do we want them to blow it up and invent new modes of creating and delivering arts experiences? The answer is yes. 

The existing nonprofit arts system, with all its limitations and inequities, is capable of creating transcendent aesthetic experiences. Visionary leaders in some organizations have been applying diligence and innovation to expand the reach and public value of their programs. At the same time, as has always been the case, artists and arts entrepreneurs entering the field are pulling inspiration from the wider environment and making up new versions of arts experiences and organizational structures.

Institutional philanthropies have long experimented with ways to identify outstanding leaders in the nonprofit world and supporting them to pursue these change-making activities. Starting in 2009, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation introduced a specific focus on young and emerging arts leaders in California. Hewlett is just out with a report on its learning from past efforts and plans for the future. The foundation will broaden its approach to focus not just on emergent leaders, but also on emergent leadership practices, notably distributed leadership.

The report brought to mind a story my sister told me recently about wolves: how when a wolf pack is traveling, the frailest elders are positioned at the head of the pack, the mothers and children in the middle, and the alpha male is at the back, the rear guard, leading from behind. I looked online and indeed, wolves, though organized in a strict hierarchy of dominance, practice a form of distributed leadership in which dominant wolves practice “nonfrontal” leadership, and non-dominant animals take the lead in some activities. 

Hewlett defines distributed leadership as “maximizing all of the human resources in an organization and empowering individuals to take leadership positions in their areas of expertise.” I am latching onto it because it has the potential to facilitate two types of diversity—generational leadership diversity, and greater inclusion of racial, ethnic and cultural diversity in leadership—that underpin Hewlett’s key goals for its initiative. As a semi-retired member of Hewlett’s “late career leaders” category, I have explored my own interest, and that of many colleagues, in getting a better understanding about how we might continue to support knowledge and leadership development among early- and mid-career leaders, at the end of our institutional careers and in retirement. See Barry Hessenius’ and my investigation of this question, built around conversations with a small but choice group of visionary colleagues, at http://blog.westaf.org/2016/01/legacy-project-report.html . And as an observer of the arts through board and committee service, I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of equitable inclusion of people of color in both the programs and the leadership of “mainstream” cultural organizations, and the feelings of either indifference or puzzlement many of these organizations express when, Cassandra-like, I keep bringing up the issue.

Distributed leadership has been around for several decades as a theory-based practice primarily in the education world; the term is more common in the UK than in the US. It is an emergent practice in the arts world only insofar as it is applied as a theory-based approach to organizational development. Artists, particularly in the performing arts, have practiced distributed leadership (or shared leadership, as is the more common phrase here) organically since music-making, dance-making and theater-making began.  Imagine a string quartet playing without it. 

The idea of distributed leadership has an intuitive appeal, with its suggestions of collaboration, equity and democracy as bases for organizational progress. But we can’t forget to keep asking the so-what question: how will different leadership make for more vibrant arts experiences for more, and more diverse participants, on behalf of greater individual and communal well-being? A quick dip into the literature available on Google cautions that there has been little research or analysis about the actual effectiveness of distributed leadership in improving organizational outcomes, so Hewlett’s initiative should be viewed as a social experiment inviting further documentation and assessment. 

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s report, Moving Arts Leadership Forward, describes a changing arts leadership and workforce. Americans for the Arts, in partnership with the Hewlett Foundation, has asked a diverse group of arts leaders to respond to the report’s findings and the recommendations it makes for the field.

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