Vulnerability is the New Confidence

Posted by Lara Smith, Apr 29, 2016 0 comments

Arts leaders must be comfortable with risk and uncertainty to be successful. Actually, I think this is true for leaders in every industry, but especially in the arts. Embracing vulnerability can be challenging for any leader, but especially a young one. Brene Brown, a preeminent researcher on vulnerability defines it as “uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.” She has this to say: “Vulnerability is the absolute heartbeat of innovation and creativity”; “There can be zero innovation without vulnerability”; and “Invulnerability in leadership breeds disengagement in culture.”

Because uncertainty and risk is a given for any leader of an arts organization, being vulnerable is synonymous with being authentic to me. The interesting thing about vulnerability is that in others it looks like courage but to practice it feels like weakness. As an emerging leader, you’re often the youngest person in the room. And you feel the pressure to appear smart, capable, and deserving of the role you have. This sometimes leads people to over-promise, speak as experts in areas where they hold little knowledge, or generally feel the need to be right above all else. The problem with this practice is it leads to under-delivering, wrong answers, and arguments.

I got my first job as a Managing Director when I was only 24, and the majority of the board were men and over 40. I really struggled with finding my voice and taking charge of the room in a genuine way. I felt the need to prove myself, to know the right answer, and to make sure they knew they’d made the right choice by taking a risk on hiring me. I did an executive exchange and got a piece of advice from the now-Managing Director of Seattle Rep. He told me that if I felt weird about my age, so would the people around me. It made me realize that I needed to embrace every single part of me. Age, gender, emotions, goofiness and all. It helped me find my voice and become more confident in my abilities in the process.

Our Artistic Director is fond of saying “A leader doesn’t have to have the best idea in the room, they just have to hear it.” Success only comes after risk, which means failing. We have to not only embrace failure but create a culture with permission to fail that champions brainstorming. Dad’s Garage is based in improv and we try to practice the core tenant of “Yes and…” in everything we do. This means never shutting down ideas, but rather building on them and exploring where they can take us. In this way, we can create bridges and room for diverse opinions, backgrounds, and ideas.

Being a leader is challenging, especially in a landscape that is constantly evolving or in some cases changing incredibly fast. It’s important to figure out the best way to take care of yourself and do so in a way that allows you to be better at your job. I always say: there are many people looking out for what is best for the organization but only one person who is looking out for what is best for me. I know that exercising makes me better at my job so I set an appointment with myself to do so at least three times a week. Staff knows they have permission (and in fact, I’ll bother them about it) to take care of themselves in similar ways.

Some call this work-life balance. But let’s be real: we all got into the arts because we wanted it to be our lives. So let’s just call it life-balance. Be honest with your expectations of others and yourself and communicate those expectations and needs early and often. I promise you that will make you and those around you much, much happier and more effective. And that, my friend, is a very vulnerable thing to do.

This blog is part of the 2016 Emerging Arts Leader Blog Salon. We asked over a dozen emerging leaders to reflect and respond to this year’s Arts Leadership Preconference theme: “Impact Without Burnout: Resilient Arts Leadership from the Inside Out

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