Tying myself in knots

It’s been a rough couple of PhD weeks.  I’ve felt very stuck and inadequate.  While I have been plugging away at my word count (now about 60,000) I’ve been increasingly concerned that I haven’t yet hit on the conceptual ideas that hold my thesis together.  My ever calm supervisor suggests this will come, usually about 5 weeks from submission. But with 5 months before planned submission I’ve getting increasingly terrified.  I really hit a road block with my third data chapter, which really should hold it all together – be outlining my key theoretical contributions.  And they are just not there.  The feedback from AIMAC 2015 is echoing in my head “You are just writing a consulting report.”

I have these interconnecting themes – leadership theory, identity development, communities of practice and social learning, but I can’t seem to put them all together.

Despite being a bit behind schedule I’ve decided to do two things this week:

a) Take a step back and re-read/take notes on the intersection of leadership/development/identity theory.  This may lead to a few things including, a slight rework of my literature review, some changes to my methodology chapter and a centring of identity in my data chapters.

b) Have four days off. I’m finishing my job on Wednesday, and while I’m having an introductory meeting with my new job on Thursday I have decided to consider these days as holiday.  My husband and I are going away for two nights and I’m going to recalibrate.

Today, however, I’ve sat down and read.  A few lines within Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2010)* stand out. They mention using identity as a theoretical and methodological frame to understand leadership development.  Which is pretty much what I’m doing.  Where they examine “future leaders” participating in leadership development programs, I’m examining “emerging leaders and their communities” within the cultural sector.  Where they consider the influence leadership development programs have on identity construction, I’m considering how participation in communities of practice informs identity development.

So my whole thesis becomes:

  • How do creative practitioners in Australia socially construct their leadership identity?

This research uses social constructionist concepts of identity as a theoretical and methodological lens to frame and understand leadership development within Australian Cultural Sector. The research demonstrates how communities of practices play a vital role in facilitating identity work for emerging cultural leaders. 

I’m not sure where this is going, but I’ll follow it and see.


Carroll, B., & Levy, L. (2010). Leadership development as identity construction. Management Communication Quarterly, 24(2), 211-231.

Weekly rant

Thanks to what has become known as Black Friday there are suddenly a lot of think pieces about the arts and arts funding circulating.  This is a good thing. I wish I could get online on any given day and read constructive articles about creative culture and government policy.  I wish it didn’t take the wholesale slaughter of our industry for it to happen. (By the way I’m organising an event that with feature a speech on the future of craft writing in the age of free content in July, so it’s on my mind.)

After 6 years of working, lecturing and researching in this space I have some opinions about these issues. Though sometimes I’m not confident enough to put them out there.  It’s generally only when I feel so authoritative on a subject that I know I can answer any critique that I’ll push a button and send.  I’m wary of opening up myself to criticism. (This is why I am never going to be an academic.)

But two nuggets of information that popped up in my social media feeds recently got me thinking/raised my hackles a little. And I guess I’m taking the chicken approach of not responding on the articles or posts instead I’m just expressing my thoughts here (which is not really public as no one reads it.)

The first was a comment about the Australia Council’s new suite of leadership programs being launched at a time 62 organisations were defunded. (Technically the leadership programs were launched about a month ago, but that’s not the point.)  Now I’m willing to say I have some self-interest in this area.  Not only is leadership my bag, but I have shared my research with the team at OzCo in the past. But I still also think it is worth looking at the perceived idea that it is somehow shameful that the federal body that has a significantly reduced grants budget is wasting resources by launching a (partly) user pays leadership development specifically for the sector.

Could money spent on this be spent in different ways? Absolutely.  Should all government funding that goes into the arts go directly to organisations and artists? In my opinion no.  I believe that part of the remit of organisations like the Australia Council is capacity building and that means helping skill those in the sector. We see that through their marketing forums and conferences on learning. What I see in my research is that there is some serious gaps in organisational leadership.  If participants in leadership programs become better managers, reduce role turnover, develop more productive staff by reducing stress, making the work environment better how beneficial will this be for organisations that has faced with tighter and tighter income streams?  I want to make the creative industries a better place to be employed and deliver more for the community, and I want that not just through adequate government funding but also through skilled leaders managing the companies in which we work.

What I’d love to see is this leadership development being offered free. Because I don’t know many arts organisations that have $600 or $900 to spend on leadership development, even though it is a) significantly better value than what you’d get in other sectors and b) badly needed. Importantly, I also want to ensure (and I hope I can play a part) that the leadership information that is provided in these sessions is relevant to the sector, particularly in the sense that it should come from within.  No wholesale importation of leadership theory as it applies to finance and the assumption that what works there works in the arts.

But I don’t criticise the Australia Council for offering the product in the first place.

OK, my second rant involves this piece on ArtsHub.  As a start I do not support the corporatisation of the arts.  I think creative product needs to be valued for more than economic value.  But at the same time I acknowledge that the creative industries (and I do not see this as a dirty word) is adding significant value to the economy and does employ more people than mining and agriculture.  Those in the sector have a tendency to latch on to these labour market and economic statistics to prove the sector’s value to the economy (legitimately) but then can’t cry foul when it is judged as an economic sector. Pledger says:

The ‘creative industries ideology’ talks to the arts as an object for monetisation. 

I don’t agree.  If you read Creative State, Victoria’s new creative industries policy, then you will see in the very first introductory paragraph:

The creative industries are significant to Victoria’s culture, economy and society and central to its future. Creative sectors and occupations account for $23 billion in gross value added, and make up about eight per cent of the Victorian economy. They influence our quality of life and the strength of our communities, and provide a source of inspiration and entertainment. They have wide-ranging impacts that resonate across our culture, society and economy. 

This clearly states that the industry add value to culture, economy and society.  The document goes on to recognise the linkages between creative work and social justice, quality of life, health, tourism along with economics.

To me it is not an either or discussion.   Attempting to isolate the arts as a ‘special’ case in society that deserves funding for its own sake is a) not going to fly in the modern world and b) not doing justice to the true value the arts provides.   This shouldn’t be an either/or argument. Government support in the arts should be both an investment and a grant.

We in the sector do need to get angry and fight for more funding. But we also need to critique the fact that funding seems to exist in a void of no policy at a national level.  There is no cultural/creative or arts industry policy in place and with no framework there is no strategy. In addition the methodology of funding delivery between the Australia Council for the Arts and Catalyst is a complete mess. No transparency, no consistency and no just process.  I highly recommend this article also on ArtsHub posted on these issues.

I’ve put out the call for arts leaders to step up in the past, and in particular we need some arts leadership at a national, policy level.  Think about this as you vote on July 2.

Rant over.



Organisational leadership in cultural institutions

Last week I had a really bad day at work.  I came home after running an event until 8pm and told (yelled at) my husband about it (he’s used to it.)  Then, as is not unusual for me, I awoke at 3am with an awful migraine.  After taking some tablets I lay awake in pain for an hour with two words going through my head: organisational leadership.

I’ll start personally.  I’ve worked in four arts organisations over the past 6 years, sometimes short-term contracts and one permanent job.  They are often amazing places to work.  But there’s generally one weakness that sometimes can undercut the good they do – organisational leadership.

Arts organisations are great at the vision thing.  They get crafting a narrative, storytelling, inspiring audiences and marketing and communication.  They are very good at communicating outward.

But a large part of running a successful organisation is internal operations.  I’m not questioning financial and operational capability here, but more organisational culture and internal HR processes.  While this could be seen as a criticism, it is driven by lack of understanding, capability and awareness of the importance of these functions. What arts organisation has a HR person? (Unless you’re a government body.)

My pet hate is the “This is the way we do things” culture that dominates many older arts organisations.  Given what I do I’m often tasked by the CEO to come in a explore new ideas.  But I’ve often found a level of almost belligerence from the staff around exploring new internal processes.  “It’s just not how we do things” is a statement I hear a LOT.

What could help? Understanding of the need for change management processes and establishing an agile internal culture.  Coupled with this is there is the lack of any formal, or informal,  feedback or performance management process so you are left with a sense of frustration and no way to communicate it.  I’ve watched staff pack and leave because they just can’t deal with the way things operate. And I’ve left myself.

This got me thinking about my research.

I have a mix of employment types in my data pool; employees, contractors, consultants and sole traders.  About 50% work in organisations and 25% of the total interview pool are managers. I’ve noted in my first chapter on reluctant leadership how there was a lack of focus on staff/peer/collaborator development from the leaders I interviewed.  I’ve written how they shied away from transformational leadership toward charismatic or great man theories.  There narratives constructed on leadership were all externally focussed – contributing ideas, inspiring the community, crafting narrative.  But nothing about creating sustainable, well run organisations nurturing future arts talent.

What I got thinking about last night was the lack of emphasis on managing organisational culture and staff.  I can easily name two interviews where this came up. Out of over 40.  This is a gap in our creative industries’ knowledge that should be addressed.  Sure this is an issue you can most likely attribute to many small businesses but the hiring, retention and development of arts staff is one that we’ve tended to neglect as a sector – why, because there’s always someone out there willing to take on a $40k job in the arts.

Imaging how good our, already amazing, cultural organisations could be if they got this bit right? As for my research this is something I’m going to explore more closely as I continue writing the data chapters.




Playing with visual formats

Still working on my reluctant leadership chapter. Almost drafted, but I’m playing around with models for displaying information.  My supervisory rightly advised me not to slip into caricature so I’m thinking of ways to be simple but show complexity.



Constructions of leadership
Compares themselves to
Shares attributes with
The Collector
Collects jobs, brands, salary and experiences. Always looking forward. Lack reflection.
Functionalist, hierarchical, great man links?
The Underdog
The Learner
Compares leadership ability to an ideal – expansion of knowledge expands view of self.
Expands with learning
The Collector
The Outsider
Consciously puts themselves outside the creative leadership paradigm. Just does it.
No one
The Community Builder
The Underdog
Concerned with reputation. Influenced by Tall poppy syndrome.
Charismatic, transformational
The Community Builder
The Community Builder
Develops leadership understanding through legitimate peripheral participation.
Collective, distributed, relational
The Learner

Leadership identity categories

There’s something going on this fortnight  Personally it’s been huge (we bought a house) and usually this would be a one way ticket to PhD avoidance, but for some strange reason I have also been super productive in this space too. While going to yoga, work, dance class AND submitting my first tender for long term facilitation contracts. It’s been nuts.

After yoga yesterday I rushed home to write yesterday’s post so as not to lose the thoughts.  After finally having a shower and breakfast I sat down with Riessman’s Narrative Methods for the Human Sciences and spent the afternoon reading.  This book helped more than any other with my thoughts on methodology.  And I knew then I had to revisit what I’d written last week and look at the broader narratives in my primary interviews from a thematic narrative analysis perspective.

Today I sat down and reread all nine primary interviews and constructed their narratives around leadership, bigger than just the answer to the question “Do you consider yourself a leader?”  I found patterns, categories which I am now shaping for my reluctant leadership chapter. I also fleshed out my case study introductions, adding more than just demographic information. In the end my Chapter 5, which I am supposed to have 5,500 words by now, I cut to 2,900 but I have added to two other chapters.  Win some, lose some.

What I’m left with are five archetypes in terms of my participants relationship to leadership.  They are:

  • The collectors: the collectors are about building a career through targeting experiences, companies or brands they want to work with. Each new item added to their career portfolio is checked off a list.  Public recognition of their work, through awards, job offers, promotion or salary increases are representative of their leadership status.  But they are unwilling to recognise themselves as leaders, regardless of job title or position, as they  are always comparing themselves to the ‘next thing’ (the exemplar). They never see themselves as a leader for what they are doing now. There is always something lacking.
  • The learners: these individuals see learning as crucial to leadership, participating in leadership courses is the way they seek external validation for being a leader.  “I’m in this room therefore I deserve to be here. ”  For some they learn enough to then embrace leadership identity, particularly when their definition of what constitutes leadership is expanded from the more narrow media constructions they had before , for others there is always something more to learn before they can ‘live’ leadership.
  • The community builders: These participants are the ones that surround themselves with a community of practice, unconsciously or consciously, who focus on collaborative practice and achieving goals with others. They can be multi-disciplinary or focussed on a single creative practice, but the learning and psychosocial support they receive from a close network means they are the most likely to embrace leadership identity, particularly relational or distributed leadership.
  • The outsiders: the individuals who see themselves are as working outside the traditional arts/creative paradigm. Whether it be because of gender/class/race/education they do not fear disenfranchisement for from the establishment for being loud, outspoken or opinionated because they are already outside looking in.  The see others are being afraid to speak out and step up and be leaders (unlike themselves.)
  • The Aussies: (I don’t like this term but I’m struggling to find one that fits.) Those who can see their influence and inspirational potential to others, but work alone, are self motivated and are terrified of being seen as egomaniacal or ‘up themselves.’

Clearly these are a work in progress, but I can see where it’s heading.

One thing I have been worried about is the way I was going to link my primary participant interviews (on reluctant leadership) to my secondary case studies.  But I think I am starting to see a path: we start with the narrow focus on reluctant leadership, comparing across cases to explore the how/what/why.  The second chapter positions the emerging leader (primary participant) back within their case to examine how situated learning and communities of practice influence the formation of leadership identity and reluctance, with the third data chapter drawing recommendations and implications from this.

After 36 hours of intense reading/writing (I’ve written more in 24 hours than I had all last week) I am about to crash and go make white chocolate cookies.  I know I need a day away from the PhD – I haven’t had a day off this past fortnight, but I’m a little scared I’ll lose momentum.


What does reluctancy look like


I’ve started examining my answers to the question “Do you consider yourself a leader?” I’m trying to create a visual representation of the key themes expressed by my central participants, as shown above.  I have a long way to go clearly.

What is interesting, however, is the logic behind some of these statements, there’s almost a spectrum of reasons behind the reluctancy. I’ve tried to demonstrate the breadth of issues by examining key statements in the table below.

Discipline Key statement Reasoning
Media and Events “Yes, absolutely” Only unequivocal answer
Theatre “I consider myself a collaborative leader” Not a ‘boss’


Music “I feel kind of sheepish saying I’m a leader, god no man would say that.”

“It’s an outward expression of ambition that makes me uncomfortable.”



Advertising “I’m a reluctant leader”

“Winning stuff means you back yourself”

“I think I’m already doing it, I just don’t recognise it.”



Digital Design “I consider myself a leader…in my formative years”

“Within my discipline I am, not a business leader”

“I still feel like a kid in the room”


Impostor syndrome

Disciplinary boundaries



“I’m working on it”

“I have the capacity”

“I’ve done the learning, but I’m not leading.”



Visual arts “In some ways I do, I advocate, champion, comment”

“But I’m not senior enough”

“I don’t feel paternal”





Film “Yeah I think I do now”

“Not on set as I don’t make films that often”

“I feel I have a voice out of proportion with what I’m actually doing”

Unearned reputation





“I don’t want to be up myself”

“I’m gaining traction, I see my influence and inspiration and I think maybe I am”

“I want to remain humble and not be a maniac”

Tall poppy syndrome


There’s no gender correlation to willingness to embrace leadership identity, but one female participant did acknowledge that a man would less likely to demonstrate reluctance.  Those outside Melbourne and Sydney were more willing to be seen as leaders, and I wonder if the sometimes supportive nature of smaller arts communities influences this, but I suspect it actually has to do with the strong communities of practice these subjects work within.

Lots to play with here.