Thursday, 28 March 2013

On Leadership

There's is something incredibly empowering about having a label conferred upon you that you'd never dared take for yourself. In my day job at Writers' Centre Norwich we run a programme called Escalator that provides mentoring and development for talented emerging writers. While the chance to work with professional writers is of huge benefit, the feedback we receive is that often the most important part of the programme is the moment when they are selected and we start to call them 'writers'. Just that simple moniker makes a huge psychological difference to how they see themselves, and how they see the work they produce. Just that word makes them a better writer.

I've had a similar experience this last week, having been selected for and attended a Clore Leadership residential course. Over six days and along with 17 other impressive, talented, and generous people who work across the cultural sector, I've started to think of myself as someone who can lead, and who already does lead. Although the days were crammed with practical sessions, learning practical skills, and inspiring life stories from cultural leaders, the further I get from those heady few days, the more I start to think that actually it is this shift in thinking about myself that will have the most lasting effect.

I can't express enough how magnificent the course was. Clore Leadership is an organisation set up to provide training for cultural leaders. Over the past decade they've helped an amazing array of people reach their potential and do truly brilliant work. It is an organisation that helps people do things they didn't know they could do. The environment that was created for this course, and the people selected to be part of it, made for fertile ground where I was challenged, tested, and supported in understanding my natural aptitudes and weaknesses. I was pushed when I needed pushing, with opportunities for reflective learning and supporting that of others.

I have returned to work this week with a sense of belief in myself. I no longer feel embarrassed to think of myself as a cultural leader, and I know that I already possess a range of skills that can be utilised in being as effective as I can be. I've thought a lot about the leadership in Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card, about the relationship between bringing out the best in people, bringing out the best in yourself, and pushing boundaries that haven't been pushed before. I've thought about the leader I am and the leader I want to be. On top of that, I have a slightly fuller toolkit of approaches I can use to make the most of situations. All of this I'm still processing. I'm not sure what will come next. But I feel confident it can be brilliant.

While that processing is going on, I wanted to share five of the things that stood out from the week: things that inspired me or helped me think anew about that which is so familiar.

1 - The power of listening
'The greatest need of a human being is psychological survival - to be understood, to be affirmed, to be validated, to be appreciated. Listening provides this...for it provides psychological air.'
Stephen Covey

The greatest function of the course was in placing me in the midst of a group of amazing people and asking us to be responsible for each others' learning and development. It was amazingly empowering to leave the practicalities of my life and work at the door and to have other people concentrating only on who I am and what I can be. I was blown away by the generosity and incisiveness of my colleagues on the course, their willingness to listen intently to what I was saying, and to make me feel as though I was worth listening to.

In a session on Coaching, I came to understand that I am not always a particularly good listener. I have a tendency to need to find solutions to problems rather than listening to what the person actually needs. I had been told this many times, but not really taken it on board before. Yet I now realise that this sort of behavior has the effect of trivialising the problem, and belittling the person talking.

Being properly listened to during the course did give me psychological air. Of all the skills I learned over the week, it is active listening, and helping others find their own route through situations, that I intend to make most use of in my personal and professional life.

2 - Technology might be antithetical to art
'Technology is the prosthetic both human nature and society needs to be its best'
Patrick Hussey

I've long struggled with a practical understanding of the relationship between technology and art. Massive amounts of money are being invested in exploring the digital frontiers of art. Some are successful, some less so. As a platform for providing access to art, digital technologies have done some amazing things, but as a means of creating art and literature, I have yet to be enthused by anything I've seen.

One of the most thought-provoking talks of the week came from Patrick Hussey, a technology commentator, on the scope of ambition that some technology companies have, and their belief that they can cure many of the worlds ills through effective use of data. This envisioned 'techtopia', or 'technohumanism', means that Google believes it can use data and algorithms to cure diseases and prevent recession. There's no doubt about it, computers are getting bigger, better, and artificial intelligence is not far from a reality. If, indeed, it isn't here already.

But sitting there listening to the talk - which inspired part awe in the vision people have, part fear for what it could become - I couldn't help thinking that data - the power behind technology; the input that Johny 5 so craved - with its general focus and homogonising effect, might be antithetical to art. Great art is, for me, about the personal. It is about stepping out of my body and engaging directly with the mind and experiences and foibles and perspectives of someone else. It is about the exceptional rather than the expected, individual rather than the census. A great book teaches me about myself and my world by giving me insight into someone else, and their world.

Does that then mean that art is the exception and should step away from technology and concentrate on what it does best? I don't know. I don't think art should ignore technology. But I do wonder whether art needs to take some time to actively consider whether technology is of benefit to great art, before rushing in with a sense that digital is a panacea for everything.

I remain skeptical about the digital. But now I have a better framework to understand my skepticism. It no longer feels arbitrary.

3 - Understanding who you are and where you've come from
Sir John Tusa - former Director of The Barbican and BBC World Service - and now Chair of Clore Leadership, talked about the many different aspects of his background that have gone into making him who he is. I liked the way he did this. It expanded him into a range of characteristics, some contradictory, that he has utilised in his career. So borrowing shamelessly from him, this is me...

By education I am an historian
By profession I am an arts administrator
By experience I am a deliverer of projects
By inclination I am a consumer of stories
By outlook I am an idealist

4 - It can be empowering to be specific and to the point
Another of the weaknesses that became apparent during the week, was that am not very good at being specific and to the point. I don't know whether this is because I am inspired by theories and objectives rather than practicalities, or I don't know my messages in advance of speaking, or because I wrap specifics up in generalities in order to sound more friendly. Or none of the above. But as this long article shows, I am not very good at being direct.

Like the active listening discovery, I was confronted for the first time with someone telling me how frustrating this can be. I shrivelled inside for a moment. But this was no time for avoiding difficult truths. And the more I think about it, the more I realise that if I want to bring all sorts of people along with me, I need to understand that different people need different things. To be an effectively leader, I need to know when to talk in ideas, and when to talk in specifics, and to identify the most productive approach for each.

We talked a lot of courageous conversations during the week, of being brave and explicit about what we need and what we can do. Over the coming weeks, I aim to have courageous conversations in which I am specific and to the point with at least two people. It'll be a real test of how the course has inspired me.

5 - Ambition inspires
'Surprise people with the scale of your ambition and the speed with which you deliver'
Sonita Alleyne

Of all the advice given throughout the week, it is this that has stuck with me so far. I keep seeing its truth all around me. The people who have excelled are those who thought bigger than anyone else. It is true with tech companies such as Google and it is true with arts organisations and festivals. I've realised that ambition always felt like something I had to tone down in order to be realistic. But I'm no longer sure that's the case.

Watch this space, people...

With thanks to all who contributed to making the week so special. Including Sara Robinson and Bev Morton who led the week so capably, and to the Cloreclaw who made it what it was - I love you all.

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