Gradually Finding The Leader Within

Long time readers know I am a fan of Peter Drucker’s short piece, Managing Oneself.  It has been awhile since I have sung its praises so it is timely that a TEDx Talk by Lars Sudmann about self-leadership came across my social media feeds recently.

Actually, it was a written summary of the talk on the TED website that initially came to my attention.

One of the first things I appreciated about Sudmann’s talk was that he acknowledged that good leadership is a lot easier in theory than in practice. As a subordinate, we always have ideas running through our heads about how we would do a better job than our bosses if we were in charge. Then when we are actually put in charge, we get bogged down with all the details and demands for our time.

Sudmann talks about walking in to his first staff meeting, resolved to be an inspiring, dynamic and awesome leader only to have the conversation bogged down by a discussion of email signature files.

Where I really agree with Sudmann is his suggestion that self-reflection and introspection is one of the most important traits of a good leader. It isn’t enough to simply make a list of your strengths and weaknesses and acknowledge them, you have to be in the practice of evaluating your daily decisions and activities.

Drucker covers this in his piece too. He urges people to become aware of their strengths and what they need to become better and encourages people to share how they work best with co-workers as a way of enlisting their in providing materials and opportunities in a manner that aids your improvement.

Sudmann cites Marcus Aurelius, the philosopher recognized as one of the better Roman Emperors, who focused much of his time practicing self-leadership versus trying to lead others.

Sudmann suggests that a little self-examination can result in a realization that we share many of the traits we dislike about those we consider bad leaders. You can do the same thing with the traits you admire in others:

Every day, take 5- 10 minutes to think about the challenges you’ve recently handled and the ones you’ll soon face. While Marcus Aurelius was fond of reflecting in the evening, Sudmann likes doing this over morning coffee. Questions to pose include: “How did my leadership go yesterday? How would the leader I’d like to be have faced the challenges I faced? What about my challenges today? What could I do differently?” Write down your thoughts so you can refer back to them and learn from them.

Prioritizing issues is also an important part of leadership. If you hadn’t guessed it already, a discussion about email signatures shouldn’t occupy important staff meetings.

You should engage with 9s and 10s right away, but you’ll find that many things which shatter your calm will be of lesser importance. With anything that’s a 6 or lower, either excuse yourself physically (“I need to take a quick break; be right back”) or figuratively (“Let me take a minute to go over what you’ve said”). Then, give yourself a moment to think: “How would the leader I aspire to be handle this situation?” The answer will come to you.

There are pretty much direct parallels between strategic plans and developing leadership skills. Just as you shouldn’t put a strategic plan on a shelf after investing time in examining the state of your organization and creating a plan to guide the organization into the future, you don’t want to scrutinize your strengths and weaknesses and do nothing to address them until the next crisis or next scheduled board/supervisor evaluation.

I also see parallels between the approach Sudmann  espouses and Arts Midwest’s Creating Connection initiative.  (You knew I was going to tie something back to that sooner or later!)  Just as building public will for arts and culture is a long term plan focused on continuous improvement and consistent messaging, so too is the process of becoming a better leader.


Let Me Tell You What You Can Do With That Phone

Hat tip to Howard Sherman for calling attention to a New York Times article about cell phone use at live performances that the paper has set up as an study guide/student discussion resource.

The article opens with a video of Joshua Henry taking a phone from an audience member and tossing it under the seating riser (without missing a note in his song), noting that Henry had already been indicating his disapproval with being recorded for three songs.

It also mentions the recent incident in Cincinnati when violinist Anne-Sophie Mutter stopped in the middle of a Beethoven concerto to call out a woman recording her performance.

The New York Times article poses a number of questions for students to consider and discuss.  While I feel the questions are a little leading toward certain answers, they, or questions like them, could prove useful as a starting point for arts & cultural organizations as part of a conversation with younger audiences (or potential audiences) about their expectations.

I will say, of the student responses made in the article comments section, there were more inclined against the use of phones than I had expected. Many of the commenters were from the same school so perhaps they were generated by like-minded friends.

There is also an opportunity to have those participating in a discussion you host do a little more research on whatever scenario is being discussed.

For example, when I first learned about Annie-Sophie Mutter stopping the performance, my impression was that the person in the audience had only just started recording a short snippet. In later interviews, Mutter said the woman recorded the whole first movement and then pulled out another phone and an external power source and started recording the second movement. This adds a little more context for a discussion.

Making audiences of all ages feel welcome at performances and other cultural events will inevitably require addressing the issue of recording. I suspect that other than luck and perceptive ability, the more constructive policies will result from having conversations with audiences rather than by straight fiat or debating about it in the comments section of websites.

Reflections On Experiencing And Expressing Insight

This weekend we hosted a performance by the dance company Diavolo.  You may be familiar with them as a finalist on America’s Got Talent, but they have been around since 1993 and have been on my radar since the early 2000s. They have been on my wishlist of groups to present for nearly two decades so I was happy to have the opportunity to do so this weekend.

They bill themselves as “Diavolo: Architecture in Motion” because they utilize some pretty significantly sized objects as part of their performance. I have included their sizzle reel below so you can get a sense of what that means.

I wouldn’t consider myself a dance person really at all. When I was watching the performance, I started thinking that they, moreso than any other dance or cirque type company I had seen, really honored the size, mass and shape of the objects with which they were working.

Instead of deciding what they wanted to do and then building an apparatus to make it happen, I felt like they started with the object as a partner and then created their work, acknowledged the fact the item blocked our sight at different times to hide and reveal things. I had the sense they were following the existing weight and motion of the objects rather than making the objects serve their purpose.

Almost immediately, I questioned whether it was really true they were among a few focused on synchronizing with the objects and honoring their physical properties to create dance vs. bending objects to their needs. I suspected they weren’t the only dance company that started from the physicality of the object and created from there. I figured it was likely I had seen it happen a dozen times before and had finally accumulated enough experience that I recognized what was happening.

I want to resist a simplistic explanation of experience and exposure. Research is showing that people are not “aging into” an appreciation of classical music. I don’t want to credit what I was recognizing this weekend as simply aging into an appreciation of dance.

I am okay with a complicated explanation of experience and exposure. I just resist an explanation that implies a sense of inevitability.

A month ago as I was traveling to a conference, I realized I was making little stutter steps getting on and off of escalators and moving sidewalks even though I have a lifetime of experience with these mechanisms. I was thinking about that Saturday night when one of the dancers sat lightly down on the huge rocking semi-circle and traveled upward without disturbing its motion or evincing any difficulty or hesitation dealing with the change of inertia.

The fact drawing a connection between mounting airport escalators and hopping on oversized playground equipment was a necessary element in my enlightenment this weekend indicates that the factors involved in growing an appreciation of a creative discipline are numerous and complex.

I also quickly recognized that “honoring the size, mass and shape of the objects,” was exactly the dense terminology that turns people new an experience off of it. (I swear, I was paying close attention to the performance. I am capable of simultaneously processing epiphanies and sitting in rapt attention.)

The “honoring…” phrase was legitimately the way I encapsulated what I was experience for myself in the moment but it definitely sounds like something someone would say to make themselves sound authoritative and perhaps stifle contrary views.

Basically what I am trying to say is there is nothing wrong with finding that dense, sophisticated terminology is necessary to distill the fullness of your experience for yourself.  Just realize the weight of those words may feel like a bludgeon to those who hear them. Diluting your impressions with broader, simpler context is probably necessary for people to understand your experience.

I think the issue is that many of us in the arts aren’t very practiced in employing the broader, simpler context familiar to our wider community.


We Love Our Shows, And It Shows

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about American Theatre’s reporting in May on a Wallace Foundation supported audience building effort at Opera Theatre St. Louis.  American Theatre just published another piece about a different Wallace Foundation supported effort at Portland Center Stage (PCS).

As I wrote in my earlier post, one of the things I value about these Wallace case studies is that they discuss all the unexpected outcomes, both successes and failures.

Among the insights that caught my attention was PCS’s realization that in order to achieve their goal of diversifying their audience, they should target by age rather than some definition of diversity. .

“But it became clearer and clearer to me that we should target age.” At the time, in 2013, Portland had seen a huge influx of transplants between the ages of 25 and 45, and this population was now the most diverse age group in the city. Targeting them, Fuhrman reasoned, was a way to kill two birds with one stone, “tapping the most diverse population of the city while focusing on the age group.”

Most of the efforts discussed in the article are those focused on connecting with this age group. In surveying 25-45 year old current and lapsed audience members as well as non-attendees whom they identified as being inclined to attend, they collected some good information about where and how to advertise shows.

They also made an effort to provide all sorts of pre- and post-show events in an effort to enhance attendee experience in every possible way. Managing Director Cynthia Fuhrman says, “The theory was that the value add would deepen people’s commitment to return.”

However, they ended up discovering that less is more.

But interestingly, feedback from the focus groups actually led PCS to reduce the number of engagement programs in the grant’s second year. “We thought we had to do something every night,” says Furhman, which proved “exhausting on staff. But when we pulled back on programming, the numbers actually went up. It was deeper engagement. Quality of the program was more important than quantity.”

Another discovery they made that ran counter to their expectations was that people didn’t necessarily want to see stories set in the Northwest or written by playwrights in the region, despite the fact these were the best attended shows.

Interestingly, market research from the Wallace Foundation grant found that audiences in Portland were in fact not inherently more interested in plays set in the Northwest or written by Northwest playwrights, despite the fact they brought in larger audiences. Results like this, that disconfirm expectations, call for critical analysis. PCS hypothesized that perhaps the greater turnout had to do with better marketing, which might reflect their own internal investment in these shows more than audiences’ enthusiasm, but there is as yet no solid conclusion about why they outperformed.

Personally, I would credit internal investment in an event as being a stronger factor in the success of shows than we imagine it is. Which is not to say that shows we really adore won’t be flops. The subject matter may not resonate with the community at large or we may speak of the event in terms that aren’t relevant to people outside our profession.

On the other hand, I am sure we can all identify events that suffered due to our lack of enthusiasm or succeeded despite our worst efforts. Love isn’t the only ingredient in the success of a show, but advocacy sounds a lot more organic when there is authentic enthusiasm behind it.

The fate of PCS’s loyalty program provides something of a lesson about making sure technology will be compatible before investing a lot of time and money into development and implementation.

PCS hired a web developer to create an online loyalty portal which would allow members to earn rewards by attending shows and interacting with PCS online. But, while its launch attracted 3,500 sign-ups, PCS recently put the portal on hiatus, as the program did not integrate with the ticketing platform Tessitura. Because the loyalty app and the database couldn’t talk to each other, it became unwieldy for audience members to use and staff to manage. Fuhrman and the portal developers still hope that integration might be possible in the future.

As I have written before, I really appreciate the fact that the Wallace Foundation provided grantees with the funding and permission to try things out and make mistakes that provide valuable insights to both the grantees and the rest of the arts and culture community.

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