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

(L)eadership and (l)eadership

I mentioned in a last post I’m thinking about gatekeepers and power. Lots of different thoughts are swirling about and I thought putting them down here might help them coalesce.

One of my interviews raised the idea of gatekeepers and the holders of legitimate power in the creative sector.  Those names we all know, the families that dominate giving and board seats.  But also the people that get into positions of power, in government bodies and arts organisations, and hold on to them for dear life, controlling money and access.

These are traditional leaders. The ones that get studied and written about.  I laughed when someone told me at STPA (post on this to come) that there’s a belief we don’t have enough C-level education for creative leaders.  Come on, when you get to C level you can travel the world, generally with your organisation paying for it, and access all sorts of executive leadership (cultural and not) at world famous universities and institutions. These types are not ‘my people.’  My people are outside these structures (mostly), in some sense they are the next in line (emerging) but in another they are saying ‘fuck it’ (sorry) to closed doors and just getting on with what they do.

They are creating a different type of leadership.

One reason why they are rejecting the role of leader is they are not Leaders (capital L).  They haven’t (yet or ever) been granted access to those positions of power. But they are leaders, small l, doing leadership.

On a Monday not so long ago we had a lecture from Cara Kirkwood in my UNSW class on cultural leadership . Cara is the Indigenous Programs coordinator at the NGA in Canberra and spoke about how she operates in two organisational worlds. The first is the traditional leadership and power structure of the NGA (and organisations.) Hierarchical and linear.  The second is the cultural leadership of her community, that runs parallel but has completely different structure. It’s collective and communal, that involves communication and consensus decision making. It’s networked and goes across departments and organisations.

Her real strength is that she navigates both worlds. She’s clearly highly intelligent and charismatic as all get out, so she does it with skill and panache. (If I didn’t already have way too much data I would have killed to include her in my study. She is textbook.)

It’s this second type of structure that is more akin to the leadership that I’m seeing in my data.  This traditional, indigenous cultural leadership is similar to what occurs in the networked world of the people emerging leaders in the arts. And it’s creeping into the mainstream.

This is the area I really want to explore in my thesis, this new relationship to leadership.  When I say my subjects reject leadership I really mean they reject the traditional notion of power and gatekeepers, but it doesn’t stop them from using leadership to achieve often significant things.

Leadership and creativity

Have I written about this yet? I’m not sure.

I’m a big fan of the work by Chris Bilton.  Bilton writes on management and creativity – or the management of creativity.  I can’t remember how I exactly fell across his ideas, but they resonated with me from the start.

In particular he writes extensively about how creativity is not an individual, but a collective, process.  The idea of inherent creative talent, or genius, is outmoded and creativity should be examined within a systems or ‘art worlds’ process.

I’ve used his work extensively in my Cultural Policy class, to critique the current funding mechanisms and the way they reward individual ‘talent’ over creating environments which help creativity flourish.  But now I’m looking at it from a leadership perspective and there’s a lot of cross over.

Like the examination of creativity, leadership was thought originally to be an inherent trait. There’s still debate even today over the born versus made leadership argument (it surprises me how many people still believe leadership is something you either have or have not.)  Scientists, according my Org Psych class in 2014, are close to locating the ‘leadership gene.’  Even though study of leadership has moved way beyond this born with it idea there has been a strong emphasis on individualism in leadership concepts and development – something I’ve definitely written about before. Bilton says about individuals within the creative process, and I like this: “Placing one’s gifts at the service of the project rather than using the project to showcase your talents.”  The same can easily be said about leadership. Too often we are about showcasing the leader rather than the outcomes.

Bilton’s sociological model of creativity requires diversity of people and interest in the environment or ecology that allows creativity to happen.  Increasing I think leadership is the same.  I’m more and more focussed on ‘new leadership’ one that is about influence and network capability over power and hierarchy, and my communities of practice approach is all about how groups of people come together to learn and develop leadership skills.  What I think (based on limited review of data) is also important is the ecology that Bilton mentions – some stimulate learning, some don’t. Which is why I see different levels of leadership identification depending on the creative sector.

My idea is that creating an environment to allow leadership to flourish is not unlike creating an environment for creativity to flourish (in fact maybe they are one and the same.)  Sometimes I think you could replace the word ‘creativity’ with ‘leadership’ in Bilton’s books and it would read equally as well. As an aside, one company that features heavily in discussions about both is Pixar.

I’m not sure where this is going yet.  I know I’m positioning my thesis as an extension of Jo Caust’s 2006 PhD on Leadership and Creativity in Adelaide, so it will beed to come in here somewhere, but I am wary of trying to introduce too many ‘big themes.’  I’m itching to get set up in my new place, which will have a whole study for me, and to get stuck into data analysis and post it not mapping ideas all over the walls.

Where leadership resides in my thesis

My research question is “How do practitioners in the Australian creative industries develop their leadership skills? And what is their relationship to leadership?”  Clearly leadership is central to the whole shebang, but where it actually resides is becoming less clear to me.

If you’ve read my themes, posted through August, there was little talk about leadership within it. It was more about environment and how this influenced communities of practice and learning.  The current paper I’m writing on is a bit the same.  Leadership has been lost a little through the cracks. I’m wondering if this is a mistake on my behalf, as the idea of defining a creative industries based concept of leadership has always been in the back of my head (aligned to the idea of a book post PhD.)

I’m currently transcribing an interview conducted in Melbourne in August.  And it specifically brings up a leadership idea that I haven’t touched on: the idea of the organisational/taste gatekeeper. The positions of power in the arts scene that control most of the power, often most of the money. My interview subject talks about how power lists published in the press always show the same people, often related, often married, who all come from the same schools. There’s a perception that if you “didn’t go to Scotch and play the cello” you want get the key fellowships (and by extension jobs and positions of power.

While I don’t want to swell on gatekeepers as subjects, and I don’t think I have many in my subjects (maybe one or two) I am talking to a lot of those who are bouncing up against them.

The same interviewee says that those who are emerging are doing something exciting, they are playing in the spaces between organisations and power. The operate in the margins, and they demonstrate the power of networks and distributed leadership.  This is something I have seen, even in organisational practice (like theatre.)

My comparison between visual arts and theatre, the subject of my current conference paper, may not only demonstrate the power of environment to shape leadership identity (I argue theatre practitioners lean toward a distributed concept of leadership given their collaborative approach while visual arts people tend to have a more hierarchical old school view) but also show how networked leadership evolves amongst some (theatre) but maybe not so much in visual arts  – where the gatekeepers are strong and prominent.  Or, and I’m ‘typing out loud’ here, the networked leaders in visual arts are not yet seeing the power of what they do, or calling it leadership, in the shadow of the gatekeepers?

Either way I need to ensure that the definition of leadership doesn’t get lost in the learning concepts.

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.

Leadership and the researcher identity

I’m in the midst of preparing for my Stage 1 assessment, with the presentation next week and the paper due a month after.  It’s been an interesting process that has followed a pattern that is becoming awfully familiar to me.  It goes something like this:

1. I mentally put together a draft, overly confident that I know everything that is needed.

2. I write that draft ridiculously early, clap my hands together and pat myself on the back for a job well done.

3. I continue to read and maybe see what others in my cohort are doing.

4. Doubt begins to creep in.

5. All I can see are the gaps and weaknesses.

6. Full blown panic.

7. Frantic attempt to throw together new concepts (with varying degrees of success.)

This pattern reached a new apex yesterday when I had my first meltdown in front of my poor unsuspecting supervisor after I crashed her office without an appointment.  Yesterday was the first time I really contemplated chucking the process in, not because I didn’t want to do it, but because I’m not sure I am intellectually capable of doing it.  Self pity yes, but also factoring in that I am not from an academic background, I’m from a professional background and the leaps of learning that are needed at this late stage of the game (mentally) are considerable.

Of course if I did stop what then? There would go my teaching (which is likely to be cut anyhow due to budget restraints leading to a cessation of use of sessional lecturers) and a need for a whole rethink of my long term plans. And quite frankly that is too scary to contemplate.

Why am I all writing this? Because there’s actually a link between all this angst and what I am researching.

In the past month, as I’ve begun my first round of interviews, I’ve come to realise that investigating ‘leadership’ and ‘development’ as concepts on their own is not going to be sufficient.  I came to the PhD with very limited understanding of what real research was, and that was based on a functionalist idea of objective, quantitative research.  Over time I concluded that the role of the researcher in this study was going to be prominent, but mainly because of the influence of my background, or pre-understanding, and my networks in the industry.

Over the year I’ve shed initial plans, like undertaking a quantitative survey, while broadening my understanding of leadership and development considerably. I’ve been fortunate enough to be teaching in this space to help embed the ideas.  The area of identity has come to the forefront, how emerging leaders accept or reject the role of leader, how development activity influences that relationship to leadership.


This had me consider my own rejection of the role of the leader. First after a challenging experience in my first professional job, but also once I changed careers in my late 30s.  I too, like the subject of me research, have been unwilling to embrace the term.  But it actually goes further than that.

Critical theorists say that development can be an affront to identity, we have preconceived ideas of our self, and the process of learning new skills and knowledge can attack those ideas, creating a sense of unease.

In spending three years exploring leadership, development and identity and learning the research process (rapidly and haphazardly) I too am going through a significant development process, impacting my own sense of self and my understanding of leadership from a personal perspective.

And to say that is causing a sense of unease is an understatement.

I’m not sure how, or if, this will be factored in to my final thesis.  I admire greatly academics such as Amanda Sinclair (who I wrote about here) who includes her personal stories in her work.  But I feel the right to do this may need to be earned, and to include this in my first (and maybe only) piece of research may not be appropriate.

I do need document this personal process, however, one because writing helps me clarify thoughts and put things in perspective (greatly needed) but also if I do use this in my thesis a record of my personal journey may be useful.  So it’s time to dust of the blog somewhat and reflect, weekly I think, about how this development process is impacting my identity.

Wish me luck.

Really starting to understand critical leadership theory

Writing these posts, which I could do in Scrivener or Word, has really helped my thinking. After 10 days of dithering I actually feel I could write what S2 asked me.  Almost. Still need 3 more articles on critical leadership theory. Today I’m taking it up a notch by looking at a whole book, though I might only write about parts.

Western, S. 2008, Leadership, Sage Publications, London.

To start I’ll mention that this is an engaging and well written book that clearly outlines the theories in a way that makes them understandable. This is the first time I’ve grasped an overall picture of critical leadership theory in a way that I felt I could articulate it, and position the five articles I’ve read within a cohesive argument.

Chapter One

What is critical theory?

Critical theory critiques the contemporary social world, looking for new options and positive implications for social action.  It critiques the historical and social assumptions and conditions while re-imagining conceptual frameworks.  Critical theory reviews, and confronts, other theories to examine their strengths and weaknesses, and importantly, use them to form stronger arguments.

 In terms of leadership critical theory aims to reveal how and why certain ideas become privileged and dominant while others are marginalised.  And while knowledge may be used for progress, it can also be used to maintain status quo.  From a critical leadership theory perspective knowledge has emancipatory aims to release individuals from coercion and constraint.

Western uses four principles in his review of leadership through a critical lens:

  • The Frankfurt School (emancipation): The underlying principle of the post/neo-marxists is to examine how neutral language of science ignored power structures. Neutral is only the predefined power structure.

    Main concern was human freedom and in order to fulfil emancipatory aims they worked to make transparent and challenge concealed power relations and structures, including those hidden in discourse and communication.

  • Depth analysis which draws on psychoanalytic theories of Freud,Lacan, Klein et al.

    “Depth analysis uses psychoanalysis but also other critical theory methods which investigates what happens beneath the surface of organisational life.”  Examines how power, control and influence are supported not just through the over structures and behaviours of organisational life, but internalised through the ‘the way things are done around here.’

  • Looking awry:Žižek’s idea that you gain greater understanding of the object when not looking at it straight on, but ‘looking awry.’  We need to view objects through the subjective lens.

    In the leadership perspective reshaping or reframing training and coaching can open up new options.Taking a historical and contextual perspective allows objects to be viewed in new ways.

  • Systemic praxis: Praxis is the application of, and relation, between theory and practice which is fundamental to critical theory.

    Using systemic praxis as a framework is an attempt to address the complex social, political, economic and environmental challenges present in contemporary multiple stakeholder organisations.

Critical Leadership Theory

Critical leadership theory looks beyond the dominant paradigms within academic and popular leadership writing which is constructed largely through the view of business schools and MBA’s.  By examining leadership from within the modern organisation, using the theories of business schools then consistent themes that support existing power structures will generally emerge.

Western says, when discussing the changes to Fordist views of management “It is only when they were commercially forced to look beyond their own internal world that change occurred.” (19)

Critical theory, applied to leadership, shows how underlying features and assumptions influence organisational life and what role leadership plays within this. It goes as far as showing how organisations have become tools of social coercion and control.

The key issue is one of emancipation. Western writes:

“The emancipatory approach is important as it challenges the fundamental aims of what it means to work towards developing successful leaders.  The fundamental am of normative leadership development and leadership success is to improve one object, a person in a role called leader, in order to improve the efficiency of another object, the organisation.” (20-21)

Critical leadership theory is not about efficiency, but about individual and social wellbeing through improvement of the individual.

Why this is important

There’s a lot in here for my research. Firstly, on a practical level the examination of leadership within the creative industries can differ from the dominant structures that are traditionally examined in mainstream literature. My view of the organisation, or the role of leader, differs from the organisational hierarchical approach.  Maybe this is just an alignment to a distributed leadership approach, but potentially I can remove myself from the dominant theories? Even arts management literature tends to focus on organisational structures – why, in my view, because it is easier.

Also on this point in the fact that leaders in the creative industries are unlikely to be indoctrinated by MBA and business school theories in the same way that corporate leaders are. An assumption I make, but experience suggests while leaders in the creative space are often highly educated (with greater tertiary education rates) they are not exposed to mainstream theory in the – but this may have changed with the growth of arts administration courses (not much though.)

Secondly – Western mentions that the dominant way of thinking only changes when forced to, as per the Fordist quote above.  This book was published in 2008, on the eve of the GFC, and there is a view that leadership may be forced to change as a result of those events (but I doubt it.)

Finally – critical leadership theory has an end goal of improvement of the individual over organisational efficiency.  Can this not align more with the goals of leadership within the creative industries? (Again this is an assumption, as many CI organisations are profit making in focus.) But link more to creative identity.