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The arts need leaders who can convey a clear vision and empower their staff. Well, parents practice these skills every day and it’s time we started valuing their experience, says Justine Themen.

Photo of two women
A scene from ‘Close to Home’ directed by Justine Themen

Robert Day

For the last 12 years, I have balanced motherhood with holding a senior management position in theatre. 25 years on from an education that unequivocally advocated equal opportunities for women, I have found myself trail-blazing flexible working and championing my right to be both a parent and a leader – while increasingly lacking the conviction that it was possible to be both. My workplace rose to my challenge, but I felt as if I was always falling short of the norm, rather than being valued for the experience a parent might bring.

When my daughter was ten, I was awarded a Clore Fellowship, and it was through listening to the stories of other inspirational mothers/leaders that I relearnt that it was possible to be both. I also learnt to articulate the commonalities between parenthood and leadership, which suggest that the former might actually benefit the latter, rather than work in opposition to it.

This does not imply that parents are better leaders, but rather makes a case for valuing the skills that parents can bring

On a daily basis, parents have to balance guidance for their children with allowing them to work things out for themselves. Too much ‘telling’ and the child may become resentful or too dependent on the parent. Too much freedom and the child might fall under the influence of alternative and negative guidance or become too used to having their own way. Similarly, leaders need to create a strong vision so that employees are clear about their goals. They need to have clear values, policies and processes to ensure clarity on operational boundaries. However, employees should also be empowered to work to their strengths, manage their own time and tasks, and offer solutions to the challenges they encounter. Being too directive can breed resentment, allowing employees to renounce responsibility – resulting in the leader overworking, under-performing and relating poorly with their team. Being too laissez-faire can result in team members delivering to their own agendas rather than those of the organisation, creating resentment when they are asked to consider alternatives. The leader may struggle to influence staff, and consequently suffer a reduced capacity to deliver.

Educational innovator, Dorothy Heathcote, believed children to be complex beings that have the potential to provide many of their own answers, but need to be given the opportunity to investigate possibilities for themselves. If they are able to do this, they start to develop physical memory, which is more likely to be recalled the next time they encounter a problem. A coaching style of leadership encourages staff to come up with their own solutions to challenges. This gives them ownership over the solution, develops their physical memory and builds the ability to draw on the experience the next time a problem is encountered.

If my daughter had no guidance from me, she would listen to R&B music, watch Disney or Pixar animations and read books with cute animals on the front – this is what the mainstream throws in her path. I believe she should be introduced to a range of cultural experiences because it broadens her mind and introduces her to the complexity of the world around her. She is often resistant to something new and I make decisions that may be unpopular, but she usually ends up having a great time. Being able to make difficult decisions – managing the responses of those who don’t like the decision, listening to their point of view while remaining clear about what needs to be achieved, knowing how to explain why, being a lone voice, disappointing people you like – is an invaluable skill in leadership.

Organisations can also learn by listening to parents about their need to make clear cut-offs from work in order to spend time with their family. Challenging the culture of long hours, often perceived as a sign of real commitment, would benefit everybody, for in reality long hours can cause stress, ill health and dysfunctional care environments for our children. In an age where new technologies are challenging the old boundaries of work and life, how might we all re-conceive our working practices to better service both personal needs and organisational objectives? And if we all share the responsibility of guardianship for all children, how might we exercise this responsibility to better support those who care for our children on a day-to-day basis?

In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell talks of the importance of experience in leadership: “. . . being able to act intelligently and instinctively in the moment is possible only after a long and rigorous course of education and experience.” I venture that the constant practising of similar skills in a home environment can build leadership experience that is transferable to a work context (and vice versa). This does not imply that parents are better leaders, but rather makes a case for valuing the skills that parents can bring, in the same way that any experience of an individual (such as hobbies or previous employment) may be seen to increase an employee’s ability to do a job.

There is a profound need for our society to value parenting more, to understand and engage with children and young people more fully, and to find a better way of integrating personal and work lives. This is particularly important in cultural organisations, which do not just reflect the culture that they exist within, but also seek to challenge it.

Justine Themen is Associate Director at Belgrade Theatre.

This article was written as part of the author’s Fellowship on the Clore Leadership Programme in 2012/13.

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Image of Justine Themen