Owning the L word...

Date: January 2018 | Posted by: Mary

Extend cultural leadership programme evaluator Mary Schwarz shares some reflections on why people working in education and learning roles make such great leaders…and how leadership can be practised in all sorts of ways and by all sorts of people – not just ‘the boss’. 

 

Back in 2006, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer the Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP invested £12 million in the Cultural Leadership Programme ‘to promote excellence in management and leadership within the cultural sector’. CLP prompted and promoted a raft of exciting and innovative professional development and publication initiatives, secured further funding beyond its original phase and left a legacy that continues many years after it closed in 2011.

 

Part of that legacy is the Extend cultural leadership programme for education and learning practitioners. First running in 2009/10, Extend represented a response to an identified leadership need and opportunity:

 

  • to raise the profile and value of education and learning as core to the mission of cultural organisations, including by increasing the number of leaders with experience and expertise in this area

 

  • to explore whether the attributes of education and learning specialists – and their approach to practice –  were transferable to, and could influence, leadership more widely in the cultural sector

 

As the application to the Cultural Leadership Programme stated:

 

The Extend pilot programme will test out how the egalitarian methodologies used by learning teams in cultural organisations can contribute to the management and leadership styles employed within cultural organisations.  

 

A group of five partners – Arnolfini, Engage (the National Association for Gallery Education), English National Ballet, Creative Partnerships Sussex and Surrey and the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, University of East Anglia – coalesced around these two imperatives, working together to devise the pilot.

 

Following its successful delivery, every year from 2011/12 onwards, Engage (which joined ArtWorks Alliance as a founding partner) has continued to run – and develop – the programme. It attracts people in all sorts of education, learning and participatory roles, from across the arts and cultural sector and from across the UK.

 

Extend’s imperatives remain current and with nearly 100 alumni, many of whom are now in significant positions of influence (formally by post or informally by practice) as follow-up contact with them shows, there are signs of change across organisations and workplaces.

 

The 2017/18 cohort is now reflecting on learning from their second residential, completing their group enquiry projects and planning next steps with the support of their mentor. It’s a great time to share a sense of what happens when people who often first enter the room seeing leadership and leaders as a ‘top of a hierarchy, someone else, not me’ situation begin to own the L word… And with applications for the 2018/19 programme opening, beware what follows comes with a spoiler alert warning!

 

As a bespoke leadership development programme, Extend embraces and delivers on the values and practices of the work in which its participants are involved – just as the original Paul Hamlyn Foundation ArtWorks initiative which showed that the processes for participatory artists’ training and development needed to be congruent with participatory arts principles and practices (see ArtWorks: Learning from the research Working Paper 1 by Sue Kay). In other words, an isomorphic perspective is required.

 

This means in Extend there’s plenty of discussion and discovery with peers, consultation about and co-production of sessions. There’s also listening to the learning journeys of others and hearing about budgetless leadership, quiet leadership and accidental leadership. These probably don’t arise in even the most forward thinking of other leadership programmes, where at least the concepts of distributed leadership, leadership beyond or without authority and leadership from behind or the middle might be explored. If collaboration is the 21st  Century currency, then we know standing at the top of a hill and yelling ‘Charge!’ just won’t do anymore, and that authentic leadership supports the development of confidence, as a key ‘take away’ from the programme.

 

So what about this authenticity, this being yourself, in the context of being an education, learning or participatory practitioner, whether artist or manager? What does this mean about being a leader and what does this mean about leadership?

 

Participants on Extend have the supported opportunity to ‘lean in’ to themselves and  each other and take time to work these things through…and this is the sort of thing they find out:

 

‘Sometimes it feels like working in education and learning should be considered as a masterclass in leadership and being a good leader requires that really practical ability to talk and connect with people. In my experience, leadership fails when this connection is missing.’

 

‘Education and learning people lead all the time: they work with ideas and vision; they network; they engage in partnership working; they create learning communities; they develop people, taking them on transformational journeys.’

 

These are pretty persuasive statements and reflect what so many Extend participants say, in terms ‘a host of skills and experiences which come from working in a learning context which nurture the ability to be a good leader.’

 

At the last ArtWorks Alliance Forum, partners held a discussion about leadership – the need to be agile, responsive to the sector, making and taking the case for participatory arts where it needed to go, influencing and effecting change. Partners also set up a Leadership Group to ensure ‘the business of the business’ of the Alliance gets done. It’s a group that doesn’t make decisions.

 

Decision-less leadership…? You may well wonder about that one. But working in a collaborative context, where authority comes from a collective permission to be authoritative and do something – that is, participating in leadership – that’s not just owning the L word, it’s also sharing the L word…

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