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The start of a new year is always a time of reflection and optimism. But this year Hilary Carty finds she’s rather hesitant and feeling somewhat more vulnerable than in previous times. 

Three woman sat on a table at a work event. There are items scattered on the table including four bottles of water, mugs, a notebook, a pencil case and a small plate. Two white women are looking at an Asian woman holding a microphone (presumably speaking through it). The background is blurred, but there are other tables and guests.

Harry Elleston

Cultural leaders want to operate from a place of confidence. I can set goals, resolutions and ambitions for what may lie ahead. But who can be confident when culture, like society seems overflowing with a plethora of unknown Unknowns? We are witnessing an unprecedented maelstrom of shifts that demand new responses across a whole range issues.

Politics: three Culture Secretaries in three years each seeking to create an impact leaves the UK cultural infrastructure under permanent scrutiny.

The economy: the triple whammy of Brexit, Covid and intermittent fiscal policies dismantles key frames of reference for financial planning.

The climate emergency brings fear and concern: with insufficient unity of purpose demonstrated internationally, what substantive actions might an individual or organisation prioritise to make a positive difference?

The cost-of-living crisis: creating the perfect storm as energy bills, food prices, rent and mortgage interest rates shoot to extraordinary and, for many, unmanageable levels. The turmoil is compounded by unprecedented levels of industrial action, touching the core of UK infrastructure and societal values.

The depletion of reserves: those who had reserves channelled them for survival while awaiting governmental support in 2020 – 2022. How now to weather the storms of high inflation and lower income generation as venues struggle to achieve pre-Covid audiences?

The clamour for new funding: trusts and foundations are busier than ever, as the sector turns their way to seek to balance the shortfalls of the post-pandemic existence, or resource the new avenues for creativity that mark the ingenuity of a sector meeting crisis with imagination.

The world of work: there has been a tangible shift in attitudes to work since the pandemic. Covid made us bring our working lives home and renegotiate the home space. Now some systemic and logistical changes appear irreversible. For whom is the once standard five-day office-based working now an option of choice?

Our relationship to work: the experiences formed during the periods of lockdown tipped the scales in favour of the life element of work-life-balance. Mental health, emotional well-being and compassion are higher on the professional agenda than ever before. Care, diligence and empathy now line up in tension with rules, policies and the former work ethic.

The loneliness of leadership: good networks, access to advice, and supportive relationships have always been key to resilient leadership. But it can be a lonely space as you carry the accountability for outcomes you cannot wholly determine. Burnout, the big resignation and the quiet walk away are all evident. 

Is the cost of leading culture simply too high

How much change is too much, and who decides? How might we best support current and future leaders through dynamic leadership learning, which is our core work at Clore Leadership?

Our challenge is to keep listening and keep adapting. In the last year alone we piloted two new programmes that respond directly to contemporary challenges of leading with compassion and leading change.

Our national conference, Governance Now, tackles the theme of Championing Communities; while our climate assembly navigates the terrain of cultural sustainability, to strengthen our currency and deepen the breadth of content for future courses and programmes.

We are supporting leaders to be nimble and agile. To be as ready as they can be for the opportunities and challenges ahead.

Feet firmly on the ground

I learnt through my early career in dance that a good stance of readiness means feet firmly on the ground, weight slightly forward, knees slightly bent. From this position you can sway, lean back, walk, or jump forward as necessary. And as I entered 2023, I found my were knees bending in readiness, for I know not what lies ahead.

My feet are on the ground: we have as much stability as we can muster, with good people; dispersed leadership; smart systems and now established procedures in place.

My weight is slightly forward: with a detailed one-year plan charting first steps of our ambitions and aspirations for the period ahead. The three-year plan is in outline, for we need sight of a future destination, a place to which we will journey, to spark motivation and encourage engagement.

But for the bent knees: I hold that plan as a framework and guide rather than a rigid script. For if we have learnt one thing from the experience of the last few years, it is that we do not control all the variables that impact our circumstances. That VUCA (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex & Ambitious) world is real and present. And an agile response to change is even more critical for sustainability than a pristine and perfect plan. 

The sway accomodates wider listening and gathering of fresh perspectives. How are others faring? What opportunities are now available that might not have presented before? Can I tap into the new networks and resources that Covid brought forward? And am I making the best use of the collaborative working embraced across our sector, which overrides the competitive market, despite the common challenge of limited resources?

I lean back for the support of trusted networks (colleagues, peers, the Clore Leadership board); and to test previous assumptions. Do they provide the infrastructure needed for stability in today’s environment? Or must they be disregarded, despite past utility, in favour of the new approaches becoming evident through the sway?

Walking forward keeps momentum and stirs those alongside you to move with the flow.

But it’s the jump that brings real engagement – the energy of a large impulsion towards those goals. The spark of innovation, the warmth of repetition, the reward of a job well done. 

Interpret the changing context; honing and deploying strong emotional intelligence; and achieving a state of readiness, are priority skills for leading culture in our time.  

Hilary Carty is the Executive Director at Clore Leadership and a Governor of the Royal Ballet.  

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Thank you for this article; beautifully describing the shifting sands we are currently working on, and for such an amazing metaphor to help us to consider how we might approach negotiating them.

Thank you for the deep understanding and forward looking piece which I will use throughout the year. I am already standing with feet firmly on the ground, weight slightly forward forward with knees bent in readiness for what is ahead.

Really helpful words that resonate with my experiences thank you Hilary. Knees are bent ready to sway in any direction but a great reminder we still need to be brave and jump and maybe that's the one thing that will keep us hopeful and doing the work we love.