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What do cultural leaders really think about the problems they, and the arts and cultural sector, face? Steven Hadley is the Editor of a new book on the subject. 

Abstract art image of a head


In 2004, at the inception of the Clore Leadership Programme, Robert Hewison published an article titled The Crisis of Cultural Leadership in Britain. The crisis which he (and Clore) sought to address was characterised by low morale produced by government underfunding, low pay, loss of status, ill-defined career paths and over-regulation. Sound familiar?

Over the past two decades cultural leadership has attracted significant public and private investment. It remains a major focus for development programmes, despite significant changes in sectoral needs and an increasingly fast-paced and worrying shift in the broader geo-political context. 

Leadership is a globally important field of enquiry and interest. In the wake of #blacklivesmatter, #MeToo and Covid, questions have arisen as to how cultural leaders are responding to the issues and concerns of both the sector and society at large. 
If, as John Adams had it, there are two types of education – one that should teach us how to make a living, and the other how to live – then cultural leadership occupies a strange middle ground, where leaders working in arts and culture often do both. 

Yet all too often, leadership is taught and discussed in the abstract as a set of theories, behaviours and competences. Now a new book Cultural Leadership in Practice looks behind the curtain and gives privileged access to the minds, experiences and often challenging beliefs of those in positions of power in the global cultural sector.

Why leadership?

Leadership (and management more broadly) is an extensive and developed field with innumerable subsets: leadership types and styles, co-leadership, distributed leadership, team working, behavioural analysis, emotional intelligence, vision-mission-values, change management, coaching, abusive leadership, relational leadership, action-centred leadership, motivation, self-assessment, XY theory, funky business, adaptability, resilience, attitudes to risk, feedback loops, competencies and capabilities, … the conceptual neophilia is endless.

If leadership is anything, it is an industry. There are now so many books about it - Google returns 2,660,000,000 results – that, whether one aspires to be the next Steve Jobs, Winston Churchill, Ernest Shackleton, Alex Ferguson or any other white man with substance abuse and anger management issues, a summary of the field is a huge task. 

The incessant need for yet more books on leadership means that, to be a leader, you must both stand bravely alone and bring your team with you, follow strategy and rules that you simultaneously disregard, consolidate your power while leading beyond authority and be unique while being admired by all. Leadership – like fashion – is now so heterogenous as to be all things to all people.

Bad leadership

Recent work by Nisbett, Walmsley and McDowell on abusive leadership raises an interesting question with particular resonance in the cultural sector: whether leadership and moral leadership are synonymous. 

Capricious leaders are both effective and commonplace. As Barbara Kellerman argues, “leadership is not a moral concept, and it is high time we acknowledged that fact … To assume that all good leaders are good people is to be wilfully blind to the reality of the human condition”. 

Flawed leadership is commonplace, and the superhuman literature on leadership which frequently emanates from the management field does little to ameliorate this. Too frequently, the word ‘leader’ is associated with human qualities above and beyond any recognised norm. 

In this sense, it sets people up for failure. Indeed, the hyperbolic language of leadership – of ‘peak performance’, ‘transformational leadership at the world class level’, ‘visionary leadership’ – suggests leadership cannot be commonplace. We should also be mindful that much of the initial canon on business leadership was written by men with direct experience of war.

Cultural leadership in practice

To address these issues, the book brings global leaders in the cultural field into dialogue with academics and experts to offer profound insight and perspectives on the complex issues the cultural sector faces in a rapidly accelerating and destabilising twenty-first century context.

The book engages directly with leaders in the arts and cultural sector, bridging the gap between academia, policy and practice. Each chapter sheds new light on national cultural policy contexts, offering different perspectives on arts subsidy, audiences, the cultural workforce, heritage, artform development and how cultural leadership functions in a fast-changing local, national and international context. 

The book includes interviews with a range of figures from the cultural sector - from the Royal Opera House, BMW, Bloomberg and Onassis Foundation and from a range of countries including the UK, Germany, Chile, Singapore, Greece, USA, Serbia and Ireland, giving a global overview of leadership from people who are open to question, critique and challenge.

Interviews were conducted by academics and experts with significant knowledge and understanding of the arts management and cultural policy field, who ask critical and probing questions. Each chapter offers a fascinating insight into the mind of a leader in their field, with experience ranging from huge participatory events featuring tens of thousands of people to the visual arts, opera, the Turner Prize and the #blacklivesmatter movement.

While we may now be seeing the convergence of neoliberal austerity and the structural issues specific to the arts reaching a denouement as an exodus of artistic directors hits the sector, there is still much to learn from those cultural leaders navigating this hostile terrain.

Steven Hadley is Irish Research Council Fellow at Trinity College Dublin and Editor of Cultural Leadership in Practice.

Cultural Leadership in Practice is published by Routledge at £29.99. Until the end of June, it can be purchased with a 20% discount using this code: AFLY01.

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Photo of Steven Hadley