The reluctant creative leader

This week I’m on editing duty.  I have a literature review that is over 13,500 words that really needs to be done under 11,000.  Kill your darlings time.

But mentally I’m already moving forward onto my first data chapters.  I’m thinking out loud her on whether I take an issues based approach or a data analysis approach.  The latter is more a case of

  1. Presentation of data
  2. Compare and contrast case studies
  3. Discussion of results.

And while this feels well structured it also feels like a quantitative approach.

Given my research is about the social construction of leadership identity and how that is reflected in the narratives of my subjects it makes more sense to me to take an issues based approach, where I use my data to tell a story.

I’m planning on discussing with with my supervisor Friday and as of next Monday we start writing.  This is the big month.  Once I get this first data chapter locked down I feel that a) I’m be ready to present stage two and b) I’ll be really on my way toward the finish line.  Of course the fact I need three issues to discuss, not one, is weighing on me.  I don’t really feel as strongly about the other emerging themes as I do about the reluctant leader.

So what is the reluctant creative leader?

In this first issue chapter I want to explore the answers my 9 emerging leaders gave to the question “Are you a leader?”  Those who’ve read this blog for a while know that almost none of the nine answered the question straight out, only one said an unequivocal yes. The rest said versions of “yes, but…” or “not yet” or “no”.

My exploration of this issue then will relate these narratives back to four questions:

  1. How are they demonstrating reluctance?
  2. What leadership theories are they alluding to in their narratives? i.e. what does their answer tell me about what they think leadership is.
  3. How does their answer relate to development they’ve undertaken? Is there a relationship between participation in leadership development, either through interventions or communities of practice and a willingness to be seen as a leader?
  4. How do their answers relate to identity theories? Is this just a ‘stage’ they are going through in line with leader identity theory? Are they critically rejecting constructed notions of leadership? Is this a case of comparison to exemplars or others?

I think there’s enough in there to create a fairly weighty chapter.  What I think I need to be considering though are the claims and conclusions in line with Martin Hammersley’s framework discussed here.

Without giving the game away, and having not yet written anything, I’m thinking about the the reluctant creative leader is one that rejects the notion of leadership based on the socially constructed definition they see reflected in their organisational experience and media representations. But reluctance extends to only the wearing of the label, not the doing of leadership, and in doing so they are constructing their own versions of what a leader is.

I’m excited about this though, I’ve been building up the data chapters in my head as some sort of insurmountable task, the moment I really prove that I’m not up to this.  But by using a systematic approach I think I can argue something worthwhile.

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Thoughts on Disruption

I’m writing during the lunch break of Disrupt Sydney, a one day conference run by University of Sydney on digital disruption. I was invited to attend by a recent person I met via Twitter, and as I like to shake my brain up every once and awhile it seemed like a good idea.

Like all conferences it is a mix of entertainment, networking and the occasional snippet of useful information.  With 8 weeks left before I leave Sydney the networking aspect is low on my agenda, hence hiding out writing when I could be collecting Linkedin profiles. I think two years of PhD work has made me a little too orientated toward being alone with my thoughts, which is going to be interesting when I have to go back into the workforce. (I also ignored the standard conference food for Mary’s, but that is just the fact that I’m not often in the city and because MARY’S…. Here’s a tip disruption conference organisers: disrupt the standard food and we’ll love you more.)

Disruption.  It’s big.  Thanks to our new PM it will be bigger.  It’s all about agility and innovation now isn’t it.  I do a lecture on cultural leadership and disruption (badly) in my course so I’m not immune to the trend.

While it has been touched on, very, very, very briefly, there is little critical analysis of the concept of disruption going on, here or more generally. And I can’t help asking to myself as I hear each speaker “is this really disruptive or the natural evolution of technology use?” Skip Rizzo gave a fantastic talk on the use of virtual reality technologies in the clinical environment including treatment of PTSD but is this really a radical departure? It’s still clinician driven, only the mechanisms have changed.

In my mind I keep thinking about Bespoke, Marcus Westbury’s recent ABC series.  This showed some great examples of a return to traditional making, along with examples of using technology for distribution and production, that to me is more disruptive than encouraging girls to study STEM.  I’m not critiquing the speakers, who have mostly been very engaging, but predilection for attaching the word ‘disruptive’ to a whole mess of stuff that has always happened.

Of course we’re in a business school, and mainstream organisational thought is where it’s at.  I signed up to a ‘workforce of the future’ workshop led by a Macquarie executive prior to attendance and I knew by lunch I was probably going to hate it.*  There’s a lot of language about creating community and bringing organic farming into the workplace (CHICKENS!) but not enough reflection on the fact that all this is designed to make people work harder/longer/smarter for the benefit of owners and shareholders.  Antony Funnell from Radio National reminded everyone in his keynote that the digital world is not a meritocracy and a tech genius with a laptop does not have everything necessary to build a world changing app- power structures still play a part. I just wished that level of critique was leveled at some of the other concepts.

True disruption is not just about finding new uses for technology to make more/save more money, it’s radical thought that changes the world. Most of the speakers today have talked about work that helps people, great, but disruptive? Not to me.

*I didn’t hate it, but I also didn’t get any useful information from it.

Update: This was in The Guardian today and I agree wholeheartedly.

The role of the organisation

It’s the last day of my five-day thematic writing exercise and it’s achieved a number of things. Firstly, it has got me writing again. I’ve had a break from writing since I finished my paper in late June.  Next week, as I go into the context chapter, it won’t feel so foreign to me. Though the style, and the references, will be very different. And I’m be back in Scrivener not here.

Additionally it has me thinking more about the structure of my thesis, and planning out the ideas in a more cohesive way.  So I’d highly recommend the activity.

The last theme I am thinking of exploring is that of the role of the organisation.  I have two distinct groups of participants in my study, and it will likely be an almost 50/50 split when I’m done (couldn’t have planned it better.)  The first have the more ‘traditional’ experience of working within an organisational structure.  And most of these have moved from organisation to organisation in their career.  They have bosses and colleagues, team days and training. Most are from the cultural sector, but I have one or two from outside who are influencers.  It’s the cultural sector ones I’m focussing on. The second are the freelancers, entrepreneurs and volunteers. These are those that run their own businesses, cobble together multiple jobs to stay afloat or are not yet employed in the sector they want to be (only one or two fall into this space.)  Of the freelancers they are either moving from job to job as their environment dictates, or building their own business models.

This latter group are the ones a lot of creative industries literature talks about.  Those with a (potentially) precarious nature of employment. While this is not my focus you can’t escape the comments from participants about the challenge of survival without a regular income.  For those in digital media there was sometimes a conscious choice to freelance (with contracts that were between one and three months in length) to build a ‘brand’ and get big names on the resume, but once they had established themselves, got a bit older, and needed to settle down because of family responsibilities, then the lure of an organisation become stronger.

For those outside the organisational dynamic there was little expectation of career or leadership development, when you were entering into an organisation for a one-month stint there is little time for an orientation. Here is where the cooperation model (from Tuesdays‘s post) kicks in, when everyone knows their roles there is no need to team development.

For those inside organisations, however, I am interested in what role they play in facilitating staff leadership development. And it is a bit of a mixed bag.  There are two or three sectors where the organisation plays an active role, theatre being the most obvious, but I’d also say design.  In some other cases, such as music, there was money being spent on staff development or at least time being given away from the workplace, but it was more to attend externally run courses, not an in house development approach.  Here is where there is a difference between leader and leadership development – sending a manager off to attend an external leadership course probably benefits them, and the flow on may benefit the organisation through better management, achievement of goals and staff retention.  But putting that money toward staff development in house, that focuses on leadership (not leaders) would benefit the whole organisation, and the flow on would be greater long term (IMHO.)  Interestingly I’ve heard that a lot of those who go through leadership programs end up leaving their organisation – which is the same in other sectors, so it can also become a disincentive to send high potential individuals out.  Maybe an organisation approach would have the reverse effect retention wise?  So maybe I am calling for more organisationally focussed training?

The second issue with regard to the organisation is an attitudinal one by the individuals within it.  While there are those who see development as essential for the sector, there are also those that see their leadership roles are having a staff development aspect to them.  But, unfortunately, not all.  I come from corporate companies where managers were sometimes assessed and rewarded by how well they did in developing staff, this is definitely not the case in the creative sector.  I think there are a few factors involved:

  • Lack of knowledge.  Those managing staff in small arts/cultural organisation have little experience or understanding of the importance of staff development.
  • Lack of care. In an industry where interns are junior staff are lining up for jobs there is the assumption that there will always be someone to take their place. And the idea of retaining staff and organisational knowledge is not really on the radar. I was told in the interview for my last job that my next step with out outside the organisation as they had no development or progression. And they were right, I lasted less time than I’d hoped to as their lack of care in this area made it an unpleasant place to be.
  • Lack of time/resources.  This is a week excuse, as it doesn’t necessarily take a lot of time to meet with staff, develop a coaching plan, set goals and the rewards are great.

The first two here are what I think the sector needs to change. How much of this is this creeping neo-liberalism though? Organisations do not see themselves as responsible fro provision of development as we live in an individualised economy where career success was all on you. The course I participated in, and later taught, at COFA was all about making better managers/leaders in the arts space and I hope that all the students who went through it at least had more knowledge and realised that it is an important area.  I am still staggered by the comment I got in one interview that a new staff member’s arrival was a chance for him to ‘sink or swim’, rather than a chance for the organisation to develop his capabilities to mutual benefit.

In this case there needs to be more sectoral support in a) basic management of staff, but also b) the understanding that participating in leadership development is not all about you. It’s about how you learn to develop others. Because without the ‘others’ you ain’t got nothing.

Geography and space

Day four of my thematic free writing and I’ve been so pleased with the way it’s been going. Now if I can just extend these 900 words posts to 5,000 word posts then the thesis will write itself!

Before I get started on today’s theme, how many big idea do I need? Is it really one big idea (communities of practice as leadership development tool) with a number of little ideas under it? At the moment I have the big idea (CoP) and five potential sub-ideas (collaboration v cooperation, individual v collective, failure & confidence, geography & space, luck & humility in career entrepreneurism) and maybe I can’t escape acknowledging gender. I’m sure this will change. After writing these five I am returning to write my context chapter (really) and a conference paper before I start real data analysis at later in the semester.  I’ve locked in another 5 interviews, which will bring me to about 43.  This is more than enough, but I really want to include film animation, because I have a very opinionated friend in the sector, but he’s currently living overseas and not sure when he will return.  May have to make a judgement call on this.  But I’m confident I’ll go into 2016 with a whole year with nothing to do but write. (Oh god.) Draft complete by end of the year, with submission early 2017. That’s the plan.

Back to geography and space.

I’m sort of combining two themes, that I haven’t completely thought out yet, into one section.  The first is the impact of geography.  My participants come from Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart with the odd individual in rural NSW, Gold Coast and soon two international contributions (Australians based internationally.) The vast majority are in Sydney, which should be about 55% by the end of the study.

So my first question is how has geography impacted development of communities of practice and leadership capability? It probably isn’t surprising to suggest that the smaller cities, Adelaide and Hobart, were more open about being collectively developmental and supportive of their sector.  They saw their role as helping their industry to flourish and build audiences when the market was not as big.  This flowed on to the more prominent idea of a community of practice for my emerging leaders, which then lead to a willingness to be seen as a leader.  And potentially in both cases the primary subjects recognised that they were, or were becoming, a relatively ‘big fish in a little pond’. (In no way is this said in a derogatory or ego driven fashion.)

Compare this to Sydney and the common theme was one of movement, competition and, honestly, a bit of a ‘sink or swim’ attitude.  I’m probably reading my own experience a little into this, as I’ve always found Sydney workplaces to be more aggressive and less supportive than Melbourne ones.  There was a more obvious ambition and conscious career climbing demonstrated in Sydney, and less of a community of practice feeling.  Thinking back to some of my very early interviews there is a stronger sense of individualism and individual career responsibility.  But this is something I need to explore in more depth. What’s interesting is there was a lesser tendency to embrace leadership amongst my Sydney participants, and I wonder if that is based on the idea of seeming unworthy in a competitive market? More ability to compare yourself to lots of other self promoters?

The role of geography can lead back, theoretically, to the role of cultural geography and the idea of creative clusters. Creative industries economists, and cultural geographers like the often ridiculed Richard Florida, explore the sustainability of creative sectors and how they draw people to them. There appears to be a level required to be sustainable, and maybe only Sydney and Melbourne really achieve this on a large scale.

The second part of this theme is that of space.  And this is a very new idea I’m considering and I may only explore it if I can throw in a new interview specifically looking at this area.   If communities of practice cannot form due to shared participation driven through undertaking work projects together, can it develop in other ways, such as a shared use of space?

Take visual artists. The group of participants I have from visual arts seemed to be the most individualistic and least developmental of all my participants.  Even though some shared organisations.  But, I had an off-hand conversation with a different, very successful, visual artist at the Surry Hills market one morning, as you do, who told me he’d recently moved into a shared studio space, with a group of (also very successful and well-known) visual artists and how it had changed his practice and outlook. All of these were individual practitioners, but he said that it was a much better working experience sharing space with others.  I’ve literally just reached out to him this morning with the idea of conducting a short interview exploring this.  That and I want to buy one of his paintings before I leave Sydney 🙂

There’s a lot of consulting work going on in the social learning space that looks at the role of online in facilitating peer learning. This is not an area I want to go into, though my meeting with the Australia Council last week we did explore the under utilised online space which is not enthusiastically embraced by the arts community. Maybe next project.  But I think there may be opportunity to link leadership – learning  – space – urban creative clusters from cultural policy perspective. (Or maybe this is too big and is a secondary research idea too.)

Now I’m going to look at space and geography from a new perspective – trying to find rental properties in Melbourne.

Individual versus collective

I mentioned in yesterday’s thematic post that the idea of the individual versus the collective may be a big, politically charged theme that I don’t want to get into.

I’m not sure how I can avoid it though.

When I started this research I came at it from a positivist approach, as that was pretty much my default way of thinking when I hadn’t been exposed to research methodologies, epistemologies or any other ‘ologies.  My focus was on the individual emerging leader and what they did, learnt or experienced that helped them build leadership capability.

This started to change (surprise!) when I spent more time reading.  The first change was understanding that leadership related to more than just the leader – it includes the followers. A basic and fairly obvious thing to realise, but one that is an early on ‘aha’ moment, which I wrote about here. I watch my students go through this shift in thinking now as I teach.

The second, and more important to me, change is the one between leader and leadership. Which I’ve written about previously, but I can’t find the post.  Rost (1993) wrote about how most leadership development was actually leader development, focussing on the individual when it should be leadership development focussing on the all parties involved. This probably helped me progress to the methodological approach to include people around my emerging leader, not just talk to the leader themselves, but also pushed the notion of the collective.

Then,of course, I have the emergence of communities of practice as a central component of my research. By definition this is a collective or social learning process, which again shifts thinking away from the individual.

Linked to all this, however, is not only leadership development being individually focussed (which is actually less important for these participants are most have not attended leadership development programs) but career development and educational messages also being individually driven.

When delving into the worlds of career models, when thinking about my journal article that became something else, I read a lot about protean and boundaryless careers and how they are linked to the cultural and creative industries, particularly through writers such as Ruth Bridgstock.  The rhetoric here is one of the individual being in control of their own career, and decisions being made based on values as much as economic or status. Internal motivation as much as external.  I can see my own contribution to this dialogue in my teaching and discussions with creative industries students – you will likely be an entrepreneur, you will change jobs, you need to learn requisite skills, you likely wont be trained by your employers.

So there is this individual push toward learning, self-awareness, self-control of career, that contradicts with the notion that we still learn collectively outside the educational environment and a focus on individual learning responsibility may mean we miss the potential opportunity to facilitate social learning and communities of practice that are so valuable.

While leads to the inescapable notion of neo-liberalism and its pervasive influence in the educational and economic systems.   To paraphrase Angela McRobbie (2002), a scholar I’m very fond of:

Creative work increasingly follows a neo-liberal model, governed by the values of entrepreneurism, individualisation and reliance on commercial sponsorship. One consequence for the relatively youthful workforce is the decline of workplace democracy and its replacement by network sociality.

She claims that the notion of the auteur, traditionally associated with film, writing and fashion, has been extended across the creative sector in what is now a highly individuated workforce, and that is not just about the individual per se, but less permanent social relations that are characterised by a perception of freedom and choice. Universities and educational institutions, and teachers like me, support this through the promotion of entrepreneurial skills in courses.

From here I can’t help but leap back to some of the statics around the creative industries, in particular the precarious nature of employment.  One one had there are those like Hesmondhalgh who critique the creative world’s structure of short-term contracts, lack of unions and individual employment focus, while many from the creative industries camp, like those at QUT, say precarity is less of a problem and that as a sector the creative industries earns higher than average and has better psychological conditions.

It’s hard not to see the latter’s approach as one that supports this neo-liberal approach which places all career success, or failure, on the individual who has none of the traditional workplace support that may have existed in other sectors.

Which makes my communities of practice idea even more important. Many have spoken of how their community provides psychosocial support (echoed by Higgins 2010) in dealing with the tempestuous employment conditions they face.  Particularly women, who tend to, early in their career, internalise rejection as being their fault, not a result of the institutional arrangements they face. (Hey, sounds familiar!)

So by taking an individual learning approach we are neglecting the benefits of the collective in not only development of capability but in filling the void in workplace support that used to come from organisations, professional association and unions. That said, McRobbie and scholars of her ilk argue that networking, or network sociality, has become required for career success and that this may be a challenge for many.  The way I’m thinking, however, is there is still a distinction between legitimate peripheral participation in communities of practice and networking for employment purposes, in the same way collaboration and cooperation are different, networking and social learning are different.

So a conclusion may be that we need to increase understanding of social learning and communities of practice within the educational curriculum of creative practitioners to help facilitate post-University learning.

Collaboration versus cooperation

Theme two in my exploration of the big ideas underpinning my research is probably the mother of them all….maybe. I’m toying with the idea of the individual versus the collective, which I’ll write about tomorrow, but this leads me into all sort of political areas that I know I’m interested in, but I’m not knowledgable enough on.

Collaboration became one of my most though about ideas after I visited Adelaide in March. I was so energised and excited about the interviews I conducted there.  Here was a group that were under-resourced, yet banded together to produce great work (I can only assume as I didn’t get time to see it) and, most importantly, valued the role of learning in their community.

From interview one I was intrigued by the idea that working collectively (and I use the different word on purpose) could be a critical factor in the development of leadership capability, and importantly for me, the willingness to embrace leadership identity.  Participants seemed to consciously draw together to achieve shared goals, which is obviously necessary to produce an art form that takes many people, but also recognised the learning they received from each other.

Institutionally, organisationally and academically this learning also seemed to be recognised and mechanisms were put in place to facilitate networks and shared practice. Coming after the final interviews in the visual arts arena, which were highly individualistic in nature, this was a massive difference.

This propelled me down the communities of practice path, an area of learning I had never come across before. To the point that I’m now writing a conference paper on it and in the recent FASS 3MT competition I proposed that this is a primary finding.

But then, in May, I went to Hobart to talk the film community there.  They have many similarities with Adelaide, in that they are a smaller city that requires a supportive community to survive (the role of geography and space is another theme I’m considering too. More on that later.)

The film work experience came up slightly in my Adelaide research, with participants suggesting it was very different and their experiences in the different sector were not positive.  I wanted to test this theory, both disciplines are collective in nature are they not? Surely the same learning would apply?

No.

My primary participant in film told a fascinating story about their university experience, which contrasted incredibly with that of theatre.  (In a strange twist I actually knew this group at the Melbourne University they studied at way back in the 90s as I was a volunteer on some of their projects.)  There was no evidence, early on in this subject’s history, of the shared learning and confidence that developed through communities of practice and participation.  In fact almost the opposite occurred, early career development was stifled by a negative experience of collective learning.

A memory floated into my consciousness. Late last year I met a very successful cinematographer at a party (as you do, though it was probably the only party I went to last year.)  We got talking and he told me that film sets were an exercise in role understanding. Everyone knows their job and they can walk in on day one and produce because of the clear demarcation lines.

One Hobart subject (who predominantly works in film) explained to me took a role in a theatre production where they spent two weeks in a room brainstorming ideas and visiting the Botanic Gardens.  He thought “I’m getting paid for this?” The perceived ‘luxury’ of spending time together jointly producing the work was not something he experienced in his other jobs.

So we see that even though both of these art forms are collective, they are not necessarily collaborative.  Film is a sector I would describe as cooperative, not collaborative.  In the ‘award winning’ paper delivered at AIMAC 2015 Jyrämä and  Äyväri write:

“In order to create joint practice, or activity, for the intersection of communities of practice, it is noteworthy to make a distinction between cooperation and collaboration. Cooperation refers to tasks divided separately with defined responsibilities. Cooperation might occur at the intersection of communities of practice without any changes in respective values and norms. On the other hand collaboration refers to joint problem solving, building interaction, and understanding the others’ values and norms, in other words, creation of a sub- community, team or new joint practice. (Nissen et al., 2014.)”

This explains to me why I saw evidence of leadership capability building and learning early on in the career of my theatre practitioners, but it was less evident at the same stage in film.  However, later on in the film subject’s career she actively created her own community, and credited it as being critical in her development.  It just wasn’t facilitated necessarily through University, institutional or organisational networks as it was in Adelaide and it was driven through activity on a film set, or even film production, it was a writing group.

So here I can use my interviews to illustrate that communities of practice can work in the creative sector to enhance learning, but only when they are collaborative in nature, not cooperative.  While there are authors who say such communities must develop organically, and cannot be facilitated by organisations, it is still beneficial to understand how they are more likely to emerge.

In my idealised career path I really wanted to explore the difference between film ways of working and theatre, as I think it could make a great project.  In the real world of my thesis, however, I can see this forming a key claim.