A non-Phd request

Here’s the thing. Politics is all over social media, and there are a lot of people who just wish it would all go away. But, if you ever thought “how could they do that?” when reading about the Holocaust, well take a look at where we are today, right now, right here.
In fact, do me a favour, DO NOT LIKE THIS POST. Clicking like or writing some “you go girl”, “isn’t this awful” message on social media is not going to change a single thing. If you think, unlike our sad excuse for a government, that people should be treated with dignity and respect and you, like me, are terrified as to the events unfolding around us, then I ask of you this:
1. Subscribe to a newspaper or some form of journalism. Understanding what is happening in our world, despite the barrage of noise around us, has never been more important. (I’m not here to tell you which one, but if you think the Herald Sun meets this criteria then maybe this post isn’t for you.)
2. Call or write your political representatives and remind them, in the most forceful tones, that locking people up, refusing refugees a safe haven, calling people ‘illegals’ IS NOT ACCEPTABLE. Our spineless PM, Treasurer and Foreign Minister today became the first world leaders to publicly support (or at least not disavow) America’s #muslimban because we are the gold standard in racist, inhuman immigration policy. Our representatives must know that we won’t tolerate the rise of populist politics.
3. Make yourself visible. The days of slacktervism need to be over. March, protest, speak up. When those around you are quiet, fill the room with your disapproval.
4. Support those who are fighting for you. Whether it be the ACLU (who would have thought that we would love the lawyers so much) the ASRC or another group that fights the good fight, stop buying the odd coffee and GIVE THEM SOME MONEY OR TIME.
5. Use your consumer power. Boycott those who support the extreme right and support those making the world a better place. Do your research, follow the money. Know that your money makes a difference.
Be on the right side of history.

*head desk*

My inability to formulate a comprehensive research question is clearly indicative of my capacity to complete this PhD. Here’s my current thinking. Note, there is no one question.

The reluctant leaders: Constructing leadership identity in the Australian arts and cultural sector

My topic: The construction of leadership identity in the Australian arts and cultural sector.

My research problem:   As the arts and cultural sector has become a more visible contributor to the Australian economy there has been a renewed discussion about the importance of leadership within it.  While the organisational approaches to, and the relative effectiveness of, arts and cultural leadership have been debated both theoretically and within the media, we know little about how arts and cultural leaders construct their identity. Arts management approaches to leadership are built on functionalist assumptions of a positive relationship between individuals and leadership, but evidence suggests that this is not always the case.  Emerging leaders within the arts and cultural sector often have a complex, sometimes reluctant, relationship with their own leader identity and the concept of leadership.

My purpose: This research uses critical approaches to identity construction to examine nine disciplinary based communities of practice located within the Australian arts and cultural sector, analysing emerging leader identity development, identifying influences that contribute to identity work, exploring the issue of leadership reluctance and identifying the strategies that have emerged from within the communities that mitigate it.

My research questions:

  • What factors contribute to identity work of arts and cultural emerging leaders?
  • Are arts and cultural practitioners “reluctant leaders”, and if so why?
  • How do communities of practice contribute to positive construction of leadership identity?

Pushing on

It’s two weeks before Christmas and I’m struggling to get my PhD mindset in the place it needs to be. In November I finally limped over the line for my first draft.  I can’t really describe what a terrible place I was in mentally and physically at that stage.  I knew that the PhD was going to take it’s toll, and I’d been very fortunate to make it through 3 years with minimal pain.  But the last few months have been a different story.

It’s not just the mental, and physical, challenge that undertaking this exercise has brought, but also the emotional and psychological toll on me and my surroundings.  Combined with this, 2016 has just been such an incredibly sad  year, culturally, politically, socially.  Speaking to a few friends, we all agreed it was hard to bring yourself out of the well of despair.

For me, immersed in this solo activity that makes you doubt yourself every day, I lost all perspective as to why I was unhappy.  Was it the PhD? Was it my marriage? My health?  My choice to move back to Melbourne? World events? I questioned every part of my life (and found most of it lacking) despite being in an incredibly privileged position.

A few weeks respite, a trip to the beach for WARMTH, and some feedback on draft one and I was in a much better place.  I’m still not sure I can do the PhD thing, every day seems harder than the last, but I keep putting one foot in front of the other.  But I also have thrown myself into Christmas planning (I love Christmas), have forced family to visit me, gone out to see friends and have achieved a few physical milestones (I swam 1km in a 50m pool today for the first time in my life) that have made life seem just a bit better than in was 2 months ago.

I’m two weeks in to the second draft of the PhD. It’s not going great.  Structurally my supervisor had some brilliant ideas (as always is the case) and I can see how changing things will make it better.  Thankfully there was no feedback that the whole argument fails to stand up, which I was pretty concerned over. But, as always, I’m struggling with writing which I know is just not up to scratch.  I need to keep pushing through though, get a second draft in by mid-January, one that is structurally and language wise very much an improvement on the first.

This post is an attempt to get my head in the writing game.  I’m a day or two behind in my schedule and I know that next week will be lost to pre-Christmas delirium.  I’m also looking forward toward 2017, knowing I’ll have a little bit of work (my research assistant job is ticking over) but that I can reasonably expect the PhD to dominate things for another 7 months or so.  It feels like a long time.



Learning from my work – how not to manage change

I’ve been working in my current job for just over 6 months.  I agonised about taking it, I’m not really supposed to work when doing a PhD and the money (hello the arts) isn’t a great incentive.  But I pitched myself forward and really warmed to those who interviewed me.  I got excited. When I got the job I had a few tell me that the organisation was a bit difficult and, given my previous experience, this set of some alarm bells. But my gut feel was positive so I dived in.

Like any job there’s some adjustment.  The team, small yet very flexible and agile (really, not cliché), was close-knit and there’s a lot of ‘this is the way we do things’.  But the way they do things is steeped in history and love for the community in which they work.  It took time, as it always does, for me to find a place where I fit in this group.  How I could contribute without stepping on toes. After a few months I felt a shift.  We found our rhythm. I loved going to the office. Not just to avoid writing, but because these crazy-funny, passionate people were doing great things under stressful professional (and sometimes personal) circumstances.

In my research I’m not really interested in the hierarchical leadership or governance that comes from a board.  Professionally most boards I’ve dealt with have been abstract concepts. A bit scary to present to, but relatively benign.  Not so here.

From early on I saw how the board was combative, difficult, interventionist. It caused the loss of one great staff member and was clearly a thorn in the side of the AD/CEO.

But this was just the start.

A few weeks the board decided to push a massive organisational change. Restructuring the CEO/AD’s role and suggestive a large organisational strategy shift.  I say suggesting as there really has been no evidence of strategy formation or documentation.  The CEO/AD did the only thing she could in choosing to resign on her own terms.

Now the chaos.

Taking a step back, I’m not unfamiliar with organisational change, restructures and the like. 10 years as an HR person, including a heavy period during the GFC, gave me experience in the management of change projects and downsizing.  I understand how these things personally impact individuals, and have been made redundant myself.

Within the arts world it is even harder.  While I was never personally passionate about credit cards, I and my colleagues are very emotionally connected to what we do.  Most people I work with are artists, craftspeople, writers, curators and makers.  We work in this sector for love.  This organisation, more than any I’ve worked for, has given me entry into a true community. It’s been a great insight for how communities of practice evolve and sustain learning, feeding into both my thesis and my plans for a post PhD career.

After the initial shock of the resignation, we had a flurry of board members coming in to ‘talk us through’ what was happening.  But that was all they did.  Talk. Implying all the while that they were struggling with the shock of the resignation, as it was completely surprising to them.  Let’s not forget they engineered the whole process.  Here’s a few other things that did and did not happen:

  1. An interim CEO was appointed within 10 days with no advertisement or call out.
  2. There has been no written communication to staff about what it occurring, why the CEO/AD role was split in two or what the organisational strategy is moving forward.  Instead in meetings we hear words like “synergy” and “innovation” without any real content.  Apparently retail and exhibition space will double and resources be greater, but there is no plan on how this will occur.
  3. All this happened in the month following the confirmation of state and federal government funding, which is contingent on agreed business plans.  Yet suddenly the business plans have changed.
  4. It’s also the biggest month of the year for the organisation, as we run a month-long festival and two large-scale events. Timing is everything.
  5. No communications plan or FAQs have been created or given to either the comms manager or staff.  Despite the fact we are getting bombarded with questions from the community, consequently the narrative of this change is a mess.
  6. Five staff have chosen to resign or not renew their contracts (me included) because of the actions of the board over the past three months.  This is within a core team of under 15.
  7. The board have made it clear that there should be more full-time employees, fundamentally misunderstanding how flexibility of work is the number one selling point for arts workers and the fact that it brings incredible value to the organisation.
  8. Staff who remain have no idea who they will be working for, how their roles will be impacted and are left with a feeling that what they have achieved in the past three years (which is amazing) has not been recognized by the board.
  9. The board say there is a ‘lack of membership engagement’.  Yet in my 7 months I have a) never met a board member or b) never had one come to one of my events.  On Monday we held the largest event of our year, a conference with over 200 people involved.  Not one board member attended or even sent a message of luck to the team.

This last point has me particularly mad, as this is an incredibly engaged community. More so than any arts organisation I’ve been part of.

So what now?  For me I have four more days of work and a heavy heart.  For my friends and colleagues the future is uncertain. And for the community there could be the potential loss of a great institution, with nearly 50 years of history and a passionate voice. This is a lesson for us all.



Interviews and analysis

In my previous post I attempted to position my research within the social constructionist framework and map out my thinking. Recently I have been digging down to a deeper methodological area, exploring the importance of interviews and analysis.

In some ways this is work I should have done prior to conducting my data collection. And I can’t say I didn’t try, but my thinking was just not yet that advanced.  I mentioned to my supervisor last (physical) meeting that I can now see things (like understanding what theoretical or conceptual models inform articles) that I just could see a year ago.  While I probably did read up on interviews an analysis before I didn’t really absorb the ideas, because I had no frame of reference to put them in. Now,having undertaken 40 interviews and got a bit smarter in the last 12 months things are starting to make sense.

Yesterday I tried to explain to my supervisor how my methodological approach captures narrative of of, and contributes to the formation of, leadership identity. (For the record I think my new research question relates to the formation of leadership identity, I just haven’t nutted the words out yet.)  I mocked up a little diagram that shows how the interaction between myself, the primary and secondary subjects works.  In each shaded area narrative about leadership are created and leadership identity is formed through them. (And I’m attempting to overlay this diagram on the Kempster model to show how I’m exploring theory through my methodology.)


The social constructionist view I’m taking means I’m interested in how the primary subject creates leadership meaning, how they do so in interaction with secondary subjects and how they do so with me. What is clear in this is that my role is crucial. I cannot avoid considering my own view of leadership, and the formation of my own leadership identity.

This flows on to my view of what interviews are.  They are not a collection of facts, but a process that involves the interviewer (me) as much as the respondent (Kohler-Reissman).  Consequently I must incorporate questions into the analysis process (Rapley). The interviews are a personal narrative as politcal praxis (Langellier) – that is they demonstrate the way the world is seen, by me and by the respondent. I need to address the potential for fragmentation and connect interviews to sociocultural meanings, and in some way the secondary respondents are triangulating this notion of meaning.

I’ve been thinking about the differences between my visual arts and theatre groups.  I realise now I framed my conference paper (to be given next week) incorrectly. I should have shown how the narratives within each interview demonstrate a different contextual view for the participants, that shape their leadership identity formation.  They uniquely see their context  – one as aggressive an competitive, one as collaborative and nurturing –  even though they are likely facing the same economic challenges (for example.)

What this thinking has lead me to is the  realisation that not defining leadership in the interviews allowed for respondents to shape their own version through their dialogue with me. How they engage shows what their perception is. A bit of a lucky break there as it was defined by gut feel.

I still have a lot of questions, some of which will unfold in data analysis stage.  My supervisor raised the question of what I will learn from secondary participants and how that differs from what I’m learning from primary, and importantly, how am I viewing them differently. A good question, I hadn’t thought of.

Today I starting putting chunks of writing together to start shaping my methodological chapter.  Far from starting with a black piece of paper I actually have about 10,000 from my stage one, blog post and a draft context chapter.  That’s without even getting into the interview and analysis information here and my proposed plan of work.  It’s daunting, but not in the way I expected, it will test my ability to ‘kill my darlings’ as much as write new content.

But I’m very happy where my thinking is right now, and with my new, light, highly organised study space in Melbourne. It’s good to be home.


Life after PhD

I’m filled with words I want to write at the moment. Clearly not thesis words, don’t be ridiculous.

I am actually drafting my first real chapter.  I’ve got all my materials, testing out new reading/summary techniques using coggle.it, and have planned out my chapter headings.  Actual writing starts in the next week, really it will.

I also have themes emerging as possible chapter headings or content within chapters.  I’m going to take some time next week to begin writing about what I mean on these issues.  It makes me happy to see it unfolding like this, though it’s the interweaving of my outcomes with theory that makes me nervous. 

Yesterday I conducted my first interview in 3 months.  Time flies.  And I’d forgotten how much I enjoy the process.  This was my first foray into real creative industries territory, speaking to someone in digital design.  It definitely added to my perspective and I will be interested to see if the themes that were raised continue as I meet more in this pod of people and are reflected in my advertising group who I meet in Melbourne in a few weeks.

This week also saw me meet with the Australia Council for the Arts, we cautiously sounded each other out about research and found that their’s and mine are producing some similar themes. This is comforting as it makes me think my perspectives are not unusual, but also opens up (hopefully) potential for collaboration in the future.  I’ve decided to skip my faculty HDR conference in November to attend the Australia Council’s Art and Education conference as long term this is more likely to offer me career prospects.

I have also been accepted into the Social Theory, Politics and the Arts Conference in Adelaide in December, which is good, but I think they might be struggling to get speakers, hence deadlines keep being bumped.  Still it’s an opportunity to present a paper in a real conference, as opposed to the doctoral symposium, and catch up with a few people I met in France.

Last night I competed in my faculty 3-minute thesis competition, and it has pre-empted some more consideration about my future.  I had had such a good day, meeting with OzCo, interviewing a practitioner, I was loving #phdlife.  Then I faced off in front of a panel of academics and it all comes crashing down to reality.  It was a 3 minute version of AIMAC, I’m just not ‘academic’ enough.

It’s not impostor syndrome, because imposter syndrome suggests you are ‘doing’ the task but don’t feel worthy.  When it comes to academia I’m not doing, I can’t get traction when speaking academically, and I’m not getting anywhere with publication.  It’s not through lack of trying, I promise. It is like I’m in a country with a different language, and despite 18 months of classes I cannot communicate with the locals. At best you get rejection, at worst (and most often) you get nothing at all.  It’s like throwing confetti to the wind.

The thesis whisperer is conducting a MOOC on resilience and the PhD and I’ve decided to do it, along with over 2600 others apparently.  Because I don’t think I’m resilient enough for academia, but I need to be resilient enough for the rest of the PhD. 

This has me thinking about life after PhD. I can’t help it, I have to plan that far ahead, I can’t stop myself. I have to acknowledge academic life isn’t going to happen, which is hard as that’s what I had hoped for many years.  But I also have to stop looking at it from the perspective of this being ‘the’ goal, all else being lesser.  The reality is I don’t think it s suits my personality, and my aptitudes.  This isn’t a bad thing, it just is.

There’s a certain irony about the things I am good at: communicating with others (non-academic), facilitation, helping others achieve goals, career development, leadership development.  It’s why I love teaching, but it’s also what I started doing in 1999 when I got involved in running the ANZ graduate program. The idea that I may go full circle and end up working in that space, maybe in a university careers office, it’s sort of terrifyingly disappointing.

Of course working in professional development within an arts organisation or state body is a dream that has even less chance than academia, thanks George Brandis, thanks.

So I’m going to change my language. When I’m asked “what’s next?” I’m no longer going today I’m aiming for an academic career, I’m going to say I hope to help creative practitioners achieve their career goals and leadership potential.  I just need to believe this doesn’t constitute failure. 

Building on research models

I was asked, back at the AIMAC doctoral workshop, to name three key articles I’m building on.  At the time I was a bit deer in headlights and failed to recall the ‘top three’ influencers.

But it was niggling me for the remainder of the trip, what conceptual model am I working from? 

As someone working in arts management, borrowing tools from humanities, I didn’t feel I had one model I could say was underpinning the research. “I’m cross-disciplinary,” I’d bemoan.  In reality I’m not, but I like to whine.

There was one paper I’d read that kept creeping into my consciousness. And when I had a moment I searched my databases hoping something would jump out at me.  I found no notes and got increasingly worried that my brain had failed me, that there was this all important article that I lost.

Yesterday I blocked out an hour to search for it.  And within 10 minutes I’d found it, and an hour later I’d copied out the magic model.

Only to find that when I went to save it I’d already (in February) copied the model into powerpoint and saved it in its’ own folder, clearly labelled.  

So clearly 90% of the time I’m smarter than I expect, but the remaining 10% (or should that be 11%) I’m even dumber than dirt.

This is all beside the point, as this one article pretty much spells out a conceptual model that I am leveraging for my research.  If only I’d put it into my AIMAC presentation.

Leadership through lived experience: a process of apprenticeship? (Kempster, 2006)

This paper explores leadership learning within a single organisation. In depth interviews are undertaken with six directors and grounded theory is used to develop underlying causal influences, operating within a particular context, impacting ability to lead.  The author uses the metaphor of apprenticeship to capture the essence of leadership experience and argues it has implications regarding the efficacy and effectiveness of leadership development interventions.

So in my case I too am exploring leadership through lived experience.  Where this paper poses the theme of ‘how have directors in a single organisation learnt to lead?” I ask “How have creative practitioners (across organisations) learnt to lead?”

The methodology, interview based, is similar, but the analysis likely to be different. Where Kempster takes a critical realist approach, I am more a social constructivist.

Many of the themes I am exploring around social learning, observational learning and communities of practice and the role of identity in leadership learning are included in this paper. Importantly his finding include (p11):

  1. Low level of influence of formal development through organised interventions;
  2. The dominance of notable people influencing leadership learning;
  3. Realisation by the directors, through the interview process, of influences shaping leadership learning.

This echoes the findings I am seeing in my data, with number two being more around participation in close communities of practice as opposed to notable people (though they often exist within the community).  I am also getting a lot of comments about the ‘therapeutic’ nature of the interview process, that suggests, like Kempster, that the research process is providing space for leadership reflection.

My research differs from the industry perspective, the organisational perspective and I have an additional element which is the question of rejection of leadership, which I doubt is something that Kempster would have encountered in his subjects.

Kempster developed a model that could provide the framework for my research:


In essence my thesis is exploring this model within the creative industries context, and arguing that communities of practice are the environments in which experiences, reflection, knowledge and participation occurs.  Those outside communities do not embrace the ‘becoming’ identity development as readily and are more likely to reject the role of leader.

To paraphrase Kanye West….*drops mic.*