Life Beyond The Thunderdome

A few months back, Andrew Taylor at the Arts Management program over at American University linked to an interview with Ed Schein, professor emeritus of MIT’s Sloan School of Management.  Schein basically says that the environment in which corporations operate these days is so complex that CEO’s don’t have the capacity to provide direction by themselves. However, the expectation that they should be able to do it all as an individual keeps them from admitting a different leadership dynamic is required.

Or as Schein says, “Leadership is a group sport, not an individual heroic activity.”

Even though Schein was primary speaking about the corporate environment, you can pretty much see this dynamic will be present in every size company and organization. What initially caught my attention was when Schein said in his eyes, leadership is the pursuit of something new and better but many CEO don’t really know how to accomplish that and don’t do the research and testing to discover what is viable.

Again, the seems to be a factor in non-profit arts organizations. We want to find that new audience or implement something new, but work more on hunches than data.

But Schein says, in the US at least, there is a strong societal expectation that the CEO be all-knowing expert who will move the organization forward with a mix of genius, charisma and sheer force of will.

So many CEOs don’t know how to ask their people what to do. They think they have to own it all. They have to be the big-shot hero, and the world expects them to be.


Because we have these monstrous notions of what leaders are supposed to do, all based on this old model. We need a whole new concept of what a leader does, what leadership is, and get rid of all this command and control.


Well, people being afraid is also the society saying, “You’re supposed to be in charge. And therefore, if you don’t know the answer, you’re not doing your job.” So naturally, the leader is going to feel afraid—he feels, “They’re going to discover that I don’t really know, and then they’ll fire me.” But this notion that the leader ought to know is, I think, a particularly American, individualistic idea.

Schein gives a number of examples of people he felt were humble leaders because they recognized that they needed to depend on the expertise of a group of people if success was to be achieved. This is not to say, they were completely team players who sought consensus in decision making. One of those Schein mentions is Lee Kuan Yew, first Prime Minister of Singapore, who Schein acknowledges was an autocrat as much as he might have been humble enough to recognize he needed a team of experts in the transition from British rule.

If you have seen those lists defining leaders vs managers, you have probably sensed a negative connotation associated with management. However, that is what Schein says there needs to be more emphasis on:

…we may be overemphasizing leadership and underemphasizing managing. Is there no room for anything staying the same? We need a term for that, and the word “managing” is a pretty good one. We want the railroad to run on time, and that requires managers, not leaders. So we need to honor both what managers do to keep things moving and what leaders do who are really obsessed with improvement. What leadership does is make it new and better.

However, his concept of cultivating management is in terms of creating relationships that provide you with the data and experience informed advice and judgment necessary to make it new and better.

One of the problems of the managerial culture is that it is built on a transactional concept of how people should relate to each other. You have your role, I have my role. And we maintain a lot of distance because, if we get too close, I’ll be giving you favors and it’ll be too uncomfortable. Let’s stay in our boxes and in our roles.


To describe the process of getting from that role-based transaction to this more personal relationship we’re coining the word personize—not personalize, but personize. Get to know each other in the work context…My son-in-law doctor takes his nurse or his techs out to lunch. They build a new kind of relationship. So we call that a Level 2 relationship, or, to use another term, “professional intimacy”.

And if the potential leader doesn’t see that, that he or she needs that relationship to get anything done, then nothing will happen. They’ll complain, “Bureaucracy has stymied me once again.” But they reinforce the bureaucracy by maintaining distance.

That last line about distance reinforcing bureaucracy really gave me something to think about. I haven’t come to the conclusion he is right, but I definitely see an element of truth in there that I hadn’t recognized before.

In many respects, I think arts and cultural organizations tend to already have a work culture oriented toward the personized relationships advocated by Schein so perhaps the key is to pay closer attention to that and leverage it to our advantage in getting things accomplished.

I was going to title this post, “We don’t need another hero,” which made me think of the song Tina Turner did for Thunderdome. When I actually looked at the lyrics, I saw the lines:

And I wonder when we are ever gonna change?
Living under the fear, till nothing else remains
We don’t need another hero,
We don’t need to know the way home
All we want is life beyond the Thunderdome

The idea of life beyond Thunderdome being one that has moved beyond fear seemed more apt.

About Joe Patti

I have been writing Butts in the Seats (BitS) on topics of arts and cultural administration since 2004 (yikes!). Given the ever evolving concerns facing the sector, I have yet to exhaust the available subject matter. In addition to BitS, I am a founding contributor to the ArtsHacker ( website where I focus on topics related to boards, law, governance, policy and practice.

I am also an evangelist for the effort to Build Public Will For Arts and Culture being helmed by Arts Midwest and the Metropolitan Group. (

I am currently the Director of the Grand Opera House in Macon, GA.

Among the things I am most proud are having produced an opera in the Hawaiian language and a dance drama about Hawaii's snow goddess Poli'ahu while working as a Theater Manager in Hawaii. Though there are many more highlights than there is space here to list.


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2 thoughts on “Life Beyond The Thunderdome”

  1. Schein says,

    “To describe the process of getting from that role-based transaction to this more personal relationship we’re coining the word personize—not personalize, but personize. Get to know each other in the work context…My son-in-law doctor takes his nurse or his techs out to lunch. They build a new kind of relationship. So we call that a Level 2 relationship, or, to use another term, “professional intimacy”. And if the potential leader doesn’t see that, that he or she needs that relationship to get anything done, then nothing will happen.”

    This is an important acknowledgement. There is a difference between a “role-based transaction” view of things and a “person” oriented perspective. When we say “person” we are saying something specific. We treat someone as a person when we treat them as an end rather than as a means. We give them credit for their own value in themselves. They are not simply there to do some job. They are not merely useful.

    What Schein is describing without using the words is the difference between treating people as intrinsically valuable and treating them instrumentally. Friends (as an example) can be useful but we don’t have friends just because they are useful. There is something radically different going on. They are not our friends because they serve some use. They are friends because we value them for their own sake. We credit them with having interests and goals that are their own. We see who they are and we find them worth including in our lives.

    The culture Schein is describing where people are appreciated for their role-based transactional value is a world where even people are reduced to instruments. If that can happen to people, if we struggle in certain contexts to see that people are more than what they are good for, then no wonder we are having a tough time getting folks to understand that the arts have value in and of themselves……

    I think you are right that the arts do a better job of treating people non-instrumentally. But I also think that the bureaucratic mindset frames many of its concerns by instrumentality. What is it good for? How can it be more efficient? The instrumental point of view wants the world to behave itself, to stay on task, to run like clockwork, and having autonomous selves with their own values and pursuits running around just makes it harder. It is easier to reduce people and other intrinsic values to something instrumental, something transactional, something merely role-based.

    To be role-based means being confined to that and NOT being self-determined. Everyone pointing in the same direction. An institution with a specific mission doesn’t necessarily want your dissenting uniqueness. Perhaps the arts fare better because they not only understand the diversity of points of view but they actively promote them? The arts at ground level are simply sensitive to things in themselves.

    The difficulty Schein describes is treating people as ends AND having them also buy into the project of an institution. This is not something surprising but comes with any endeavor that asks people to work together. We need to respect each other as individuals but also accommodate the reason we are all gathered together to do this thing. The mistake Schein points to is simply forgetting that the people involved have value in themselves. There is a balance between project and person, and it is always a question how we navigate that. There are no easy solutions because human life is too complex. The Bureaucratic solution Schein is fighting against is where we believe there IS a simple solution, and that the job comes at the expense of treating people as ends in themselves.

    We shouldn’t struggle to have to see that things rightly have value in themselves. People especially. They are persons because they properly are understood as ends in themselves. Much of our world belongs in that category, and it is a tragedy that the pervasive instrumental reducing of the world to means has made that harder to see.

    • So wait, you are saying that not only do the arts have intrinsic value, but people do too? Amazing!

      Once you start plugging in people in the place of arts in statements like: The value of people/arts can’t be measured in terms of economic benefit and improving test scores you may have to recognize that the value of the CEO isn’t solely in their ability to cause the company to do new things.


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