A report calls for flatter and more diverse leadership in arts organisations, and encourages the nurturing of individual leadership at all levels.
Low pay, a lack of work-life balance, limited opportunities for career development and the ongoing pressure to do more with less is creating an “increasingly high” risk of burnout among arts leaders, a new report concludes.
“The demands on the cultural workforce – and on its leadership in particular – mean that the sector may be vulnerable to burnout,” says the research, commissioned by Arts Council England (ACE). "If this is true, the consequences will be considerable.”
The report on cultural leadership, authored by independent consultant Sue Hoyle and researchers at Kings College London (KCL), says that burnout is a serious health concern which affects cognitive functions such as creativity, problem solving and memory.
“In periods of continuous change, organisational leaders need to foster an engaged workforce, which is motivated, proactive and involved, and must be properly resourced if it is to deliver effectively,” the authors add.
“In order to weather the pressures that are expected to lie ahead, leaders will need to take care of their own development and mental wellbeing, as well as that of those with whom they work”.
The report, which will inform ACE’s next ten-year strategy, pays particular attention to the ways in which leaders are being developed, how leadership development is evaluated and the required behaviours for leadership, building up a picture of the sector from interviews with 730 people and focus groups.
It argues that successful leaders must be self-aware and ready to delegate authority to people whose skills and attributes complement their own. They need to be “genuinely collaborative”, to create an environment in which mistakes can be made, and to be comfortable with leading across a network, not just within an organisation.
It adds that the challenges facing leaders need include responding to financial uncertainty, being relevant to the changing tastes of contemporary society.
These findings echo another recently-published piece of ACE-commissioned research, which assesses how leadership, workforce development and workforce diversity have changed in the arts since 2010.
The evidence review, by Consilium, concludes that leaders must have strong political awareness and advocacy skills to communicate the benefits of the organisation to partner organisations in a context of falling public funding.
But it also warns that an excessive focus on cuts can lead to “tunnel vision” that damages the sector by ignoring equally pressing concerns, such as a lack of innovation.
“Leadership should not be restricted to executive positions within organisations and board members have an important role to play,” the Consilium report adds. “To do this governance roles should not be restricted to only legal and fiscal responsibilities but should recognise the more generative and creative role that trustees can play.”
Importance of the organisation
One of the biggest challenges identified in the KCL report is the need for organisations to become flatter and more diverse – places in which different sorts of individuals are given opportunities to lead at all levels.
The report suggests that such a culture could be more important than leadership programmes themselves, which are often focused on theory rather than learning gained through professional experience.
It also stresses that other sectors grapple with similar issues to those in the arts, such as an acute sense of external scrutiny, constrained resources, and a demand for ambassadorial roles outside the organisation. It encourages the creation of networks to link emerging and established leaders from different sectors and provide a safe space for problem solving and knowledge exchange.
The report notes that the evidence base for the impact of leadership programmes is weak, and primarily draws on self-reporting and measuring immediate impact, rather than capturing behavioural change or articulating the intended impacts of leadership interventions on organisations and the wider sector.
It accepts that addressing this is a challenging proposition, as the impact of interventions on career progression is “highly individualised, often non-linear or erratic, and likely to resonate long after the end of an intervention”.
“It is still, then, difficult to identify a direct, causal relationship between a programme and its outcomes, as the effects of an intervention play out over time and interact with other factors, such as organisational culture,” say the authors.
The report also argues that those at the top of institutions need to welcome new voices, and to ensure that the workforce and its leadership is more diverse. It warns that without more inclusive organisational cultures, the sector “will not feel the full benefit of initiatives to bring through more diverse leaders, however good the programmes on offer”.