Leaders of theaters, galleries and museums have faced unprecedented challenges in the past year. Michael Day asked them what qualities they needed to help them through.
Leaders of cultural organizations have faced extraordinary difficulties in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. As well as an existential threat, they have had to contend with re-framing strategy, managing personal insecurities and trying to communicate effectively without always knowing the answers. In a series of interviews, I asked them what were the most important qualities needed to enable organizational survival. To ensure confidentiality, all the quotes are anonymized.
Leaders make choices continuously (although by no means always self-consciously) about what they do every day and how they do it. The sum of these usually small choices creates an impression for their people of the kind of leader they are, and in turn determines whether or not they will be respected and followed. The pandemic brought an abnormal and acute set of pressures; in response, leaders have found certain behaviors or traits to be of greater importance in maintaining effectiveness. What are they? Six common and to some extent interlinked themes emerge.
Resilience with stamina and courage are mentioned by more than a third of all respondents. Resilience is a key leadership trait, especially in times of crisis, and has been defined thus by experts George Kohlrieser and Anouk Lavoie Orlick:
“Resilient leaders have the ability to sustain their energy level under pressure, to cope with disruptive changes and adapt. They bounce back from setbacks. They also overcome major difficulties without engaging in dysfunctional behavior or harming others.” (Resilient leadership: navigating the pressures of modern working life)
My respondents talked about both being resilient and demonstrating it. One theater director said: “Resilience … no question. We’re on version eight of the Government’s Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme, version seven of our 2021-22 schedule, version 10 of our annual budget. Just leaning into the mental energy required to move alongside the changing pandemic landscape and try and get ahead of it requires bottomless resilience.”
This crisis has exacted a personal toll on leaders. One said: “It has taken, and still does take, a huge amount of stamina to keep going when you are without the usual rewards of sharing your work with audiences”, while another observed: “There is a Groundhog Day element to this and to pull yourself out of bed, make sense of what has happened and to lead the response with calm assurance day after day involves stamina.”
A third spoke of “resilience, as in being able to adapt and respond to an uncertain, ever-changing context while maintaining clarity of direction and values. Bending, not breaking”. Resilience also proved to be an attribute admired in others. Speaking of his CEO, one senior director said he had “hugely admired both her kindness and utter steely determination to more than just endure this – she has played a constantly attacking game, even when this is exhausting.”
Decisiveness with focus and speed are discussed by several respondents, all observing that across a choice of styles, the threats of the situation seemed to require this. One heritage leader noted that in normal times, he preferred to lead as much as possible through consensus and collaboration. “But, to be honest, this was not going well. Early in the crisis, I signalled that I would consciously be shifting to a more directive style and that I expected a far greater degree of compliance. This came from my reflection that a) in a crisis the decisive leader naturally emerges in any case (focused, assertive, analytical, problem solver), and b) at the same time people are willing to surrender some of their agency in favor of speed and clear direction.”
A museum director drew on a cinematic metaphor to describe the state of her organization, talking about: “Learning how to cut through the noise – there’s a go, go, go” [US Marine film voice] mood to this last year which is often not real. So I’ve worked on putting focused effort on the most important things, blocking out the rest (despite all the anxiety and clamoring around me) and having the confidence to know when to make a decision: quickly and decisively, or until the last possible moment available, or even not at all. I honestly think I learnt these skills as a child, playing hundreds of hours of board games with my siblings.”
A third simply said: “Strip out all the unnecessary stuff, create a rigid boundary and make clear decisions: Is it safe? Can we afford it? This will not be forever.”
Integrity, clarity, transparency, honesty come together as a third set of traits, important in leadership at any time but especially now. One respondent said: “For me, integrity – using a personal compass to guide decisions large and small as well as to frame my behaviors. I can look myself in the mirror despite the mistakes I made, and that matters enormously.”
These qualities were mentioned especially when people spoke of observed examples being set by others: “I admire those who have walked the walk – directors who came back on site when we first reopened to role-model even though they could work from home; those who ensured staff had time off as promised and were clear about the boundaries of decisions which were consulted on, so I really knew what options there were and what options were absolute non-starters.” Another said: ‘I most admire those who have been honest and explained that they’ve had to make a fast decision and their time was too limited to consult.”