Exploring leadership like a gardener
What is leadership if not a relationship and role we take within a community? We live in complicated times that urge us to embrace new forms of leadership. And since arts and culture can give us deep insights into how we form relationships and how we relate to the world and help us envision leadership styles beyond neoliberal approaches, leadership in this sector should also focus on caring and growing.
My thinking around the following thoughts is shaped through my work in the art world and the sort of leadership I already see emerging and that I am trying to embody myself in the opportunities I get offered.
In a podcast interview I listened to some months ago, Dame Steve Shirley found an image for her leadership practice that I found revolutionary: "I think of myself as a gardener, I can grow people." Ever since I’ve heard about this concept, I’ve been exploring what a form of Cultural Leadership would look like that is invested in being an integral part of a healthy ecosystem. Way too often, we seem to forget that good leaders are not only status-oriented vision developers, but also mentors who see potential and trust their teams to find new ways. The Cultural Leadership I’m interested in understands the interdependence of culture, ethics and life, doesn’t add to oppressive structures and remains rooted in substantial values. I’m interested in the sort of leadership that establishes a healthier workplace. I think we need to redefine our thinking around what success looks like and how to translate that into cultural institutions.
I am very aware that revenue streams have to be treasured in order to keep most cultural institutions alive and that it costs lots of energy to persuade the right people and to stay on top of all the administrational work. That said, I believe that a sustainable, gardener-like leadership practice needs to understand that focusing on the wellbeing of staff will benefit the institution as a whole, ultimately translating into its stability and future.
It is interesting to experience in meetings the emphasis cultural institutions put on evaluating our close relationships to others, to audience interaction and the pleasing of donors as well as on measuring successful leadership against these numbers. It seems that the relationship to and among staff is often secondary and that the wellbeing of an employee is rarely on their agenda or even evaluated. We’ve certainly all been part of performance reviews but these evaluations are, frankly, more about if the employee meets the expectations than about what the person really needs in order to perform at their best version. Although there might be a few suggestions for improving the workplace situation, I never came across a museum or cultural organization which really tried to measure the concrete steps they were taking to improve the current situation of their staff, at least certainly not with the same seriousness as the management was working on keeping donors pleased.
Seasons are human
Understanding leadership in relation to being a gardener resonates very much with my own belief that we go through seasons in our life and in business. There are cycles that every project or institution will go through. We do understand that pretty well from a business perspective and try to measure the growth or stagnation through different metrics (from visitor numbers in museums, to website traffic, to sales etc.). While these might keep us accountable to board members and funders, they don’t necessarily tell anything about the impact, the increase of wellbeing or the sort of community that is forming around the long-term mission.
Sustainable leadership in cultural institutions needs to give up the toxic belief that sacrifice will eventually lead to success and instead aim for a healthier connection between money and creative work. I feel that we often prioritize the management aspect within cultural institutions too much and forget to put the focus on the human scale as well. What do I mean when I talk about the human scale? Projects often get to such a big scale that it is barely possible to meet the expectations with the resources and the size of the team in place. It is expected that teams push through and prioritize projects (work many extra hours, lack sleep and remain in a service mindset), often at the expense of their wellbeing. We all have been there many times and are very aware that this is sometimes the only option to make projects successfully happen in the first place.
To remain in the concept of leadership like a gardener, honoring the human scale at least as much as the management side means to balance the ratio between giving and taking. It translates into fair pay and honoring and appreciating the work of team members, and it means to share successes with additional incentives – because it is nice to hear for staff members that they have done a good job but it is even more enjoyable to get concrete rewards like a financial bonus, a wellness trip or a restaurant voucher.
Another aspect of honoring the seasons and taking into account that they have an impact on humans is that we all go through hard seasons as well, may it be due to (mental) health, obligations to take care of others, mother-/ fatherhood, grief or any other adaptation that needs our attention. Balancing the institutional stability while holding space for the individuals within it costs energy and raises many questions around value work ethics.
Good leadership is usually measured against the accomplishments and success achieved. But that thinking falls short, as institutional success cannot be achieved by one mere individual. It is always dependent on the performance of a whole team and how they were able translate goals into actions. A good leader therefore is able to define guidelines and, next steps but needs to remain flexible: It’s about the balance between intention and adaptation. For more thoughts around Intentional Adaptation read Adrienne Maree Brown: Emerging Strategy, 2017.
Coming back to the image of the garden, there is another lesson we can learn. We wouldn’t say that a garden usually relies merely on the gardener to grow, we would rather understand the role of a gardener as a person who cultivates the garden and protects it from hard weather. There is an element of surprise, of patience until harvest season and of experimenting which plants grow under which circumstances. Such a thinking on seasons and the balance between short-term and long-term thinking can really foster a sustainable leadership practice.
Another important aspect in this is the reflection leaders need to apply on themselves and their leadership practice. There is so much truth when Brown states that there is a real danger that leaders get “too isolated for accountability. If you are in a leadership position, make sure you have a circle of people who can tell you the truth, and to whom you can speak the truth. Bring others into shared leadership with you, and/ or collaborate with other formations so you don’t get too enamoured of your singular vision” (p. 100). The form of accountability is very much connected to how leaders address the ambition of others within an institution. I’ve seen so many institutions wasting emerging professionals because the leaders saw eagerness as a potential threat instead of being open to incorporate new methods or groups. It’s important to consider as a leader who shapes goals and directions within the institution and to make sure that those who have to implement the actions take the needed steps. Institutional stability gets stabilized by the ability of a leader to distribute power. Organic growth relies on connection.
Leadership ultimately means to care
To end these reflections, let me note that I think that leadership can be a dynamic concept. If we understand it as a practice that is open to people stepping into and out of a role it might prevent getting stuck in it. The leadership model I’ve been envisioning is not just focused on one individual but understands the interconnection of roles in arts institutions. It encourages different people to step up into leadership during institutional projects as the tasks demand it.
The most important attribute of a leader is to care. To hold the mission of what an institution wants to be (and that might change with time), to create a space for others who care for the mission as well, to engage in actions and to work towards a sustainable institutional future. A paragraph from Brown’s book referring to engagement for what we care for provides a valuable framing for these thoughts on leadership: “When we are engaged in acts of love, we humans are at our best and most resilient. [..] If love were the central practice of a new generation of organizers and spiritual leaders, it would have a massive impact on what was considered organizing. If the goal was to increase the love, rather than winning or dominating a constant opponent, I think we could actually imagine liberation from constant oppression” (p. 9–10).
* I published an accompanying version to this topic leadership focusing on justice, temperance and wellbeing. You can find these thoughts here: https://www.anabelroro.com/blog/thoughts-on-leadership-justice-wellbeing