Resources Provocation paper

All People are Leaders

Clore 15 Fellow Sophie Woolley seeks to open the door to potential new leaders. 


This paper seeks to open the door to potential new leaders. It is also a request to leaders to write in a way that does not exclude people. There is a political leadership crisis. People want to change the world. Arts leaders must describe leadership in an easy to understand way. Open the door, now.   

I am writing this in a clear way to make it quick and easy to read. What is my aim?


  • Make you feel that you are or can be a ‘leader’.
  • Share what I have learnt about leadership in an honest, clear way.
  • Encourage leaders to say what they really mean.     

This essay is called a ‘provocation paper’. The aim is to provoke action or a response. Writing a provocation is a risk because people might disagree. What is provocative about my paper? The writing style. I’m writing in an easy to read way and revealing what leaders know about good communication.

And to be frank, using this style scares me, even though I work as a writer. I can’t hide behind fancy words now. How can I impress other leaders, if I don’t use words like step change, innovation and sustainability? Writing in a more direct style makes me feel exposed. Why didn’t I choose an easier thing to provoke you with – easier than the English language!

The main job of leadership is to make others feel like leaders. Groups bond using shared words and jokes that outsiders won’t understand. [1] But often, the language of arts leadership, is not fun. It fails to make people feel that anyone can be a leader if they try. Leadership cannot escape the problems of things like the class system or prejudice, if it uses stuffy language or vague words that put people off. 

Way back in 1946, writer, George Orwell wrote,

“The writer either has a meaning and cannot express it, or he inadvertently says something else, or he is almost indifferent as to whether his words mean anything or not. This mixture of vagueness and sheer incompetence is the most marked characteristic of modern English prose, and especially of any kind of political writing.” [2]

Today, as the UK tries to leave the European Union, British politicians and the media use a tangle of confusing language to discuss Brexit. Michael Heseltine provided a rare and powerful example of using plain English to talk about Brexit in a recent speech.

We’re hungry for truth-to-power talking, and talks from investigative journalist, Carole Cadwalladr (1.4 million views) and environmental campaigner, Greta Thunberg (2 million views) go viral online. Ordinary folk, children, and older people, are turning into ‘pop up’ leaders. They ask leaders to do better. Children and older people are leading on how to communicate clearly. We are all leaders now, because we have to be. Politicians use racism and sexism in public, instead of setting a good example. In the UK the usual services that protect us or make our lives better, have been cut. There have been avoidable catastrophes like the Grenfell fire and the giant fires inside the Arctic Circle due to the climate crisis. We cannot trust political leaders to protect us or the planet on their own.  

Why do we need leaders at all? We need leaders to guide us safely. We need leaders to change the world for the better. We need leaders to make it easy for new leaders to lead. It’s known as ‘leaving the door open’.

Leadership isn’t all about handling a budget or telling people what to do. The hardest part of the job is about having conversations. Leaders use conversations to ask people to come up with solutions. There are courses that teach managers different ways to have conversations. People who reach the top send themselves on courses to learn how to change the way they have conversations. They learn to be less ‘bossy’, and listen more.

I am a Clore Fellow on the Clore Leadership Fellowship Programme, which is a kind of course. It is a course that fellows design on their own, to suit them. Clore Leadership is an organisation that trains managers and artists who want to change culture. Clore Fellows want to make the world better for everyone. The Fellowship helps us feel more confident and know more people. We work on exciting projects and get good jobs. Leaders in the arts industry respect the Clore Fellowship. I’m sharing what I’ve learnt, because although it all seems so obvious now, it wasn’t before I became a Clore Fellow. Before I was a fellow, leadership seemed a big mystery to me.

I will share some of the skills I have learnt now. The skills I have learnt on my Fellowship help us understand each other: Communication, understanding values, building trust. Understanding what a leader is saying, and what they want to achieve and what they want from us, helps make us believe in them. It makes us believe what we are doing matters, that we are part of something good. It makes us believe that we matter. Trust helps people collaborate in organisations. It helps people and groups of people achieve new things and change the world.

How do you make someone trust you? Here are some key tips:

  • Ask someone to meet you face to face if you have not met them before. 
  • Get enough rest and food before the meeting.
  • Organise what clothes to wear. Wear clothes that suit you and the situation.
  • Arrive on time.
  • Have a friendly chat at the start.
  • Face the other person and try hard to understand what they say. 
  • Talk about the reason why you wanted to meet.
  • Ask clear questions.
  • Show that you are understanding them and enjoying what they say. One way to do this is to repeat a small bit of what they said. For example, if the person says, “I love outdoor theatre!”, then you can say, “You love outdoor theatre?” They will probably say more about it.
  • Try to avoid talking about yourself a lot, focus on the other person. You can talk about yourself when the time is right.
  • Tell a down to earth story about yourself. 
  • Tell the person you liked something about what they did or said. Any type of compliment will do. I find this one hard sometimes. It makes me feel embarrassed. That’s okay because many leaders have to practise doing this well.
  • Agree what to do next, and end the meeting on time.

Communicating in a clear way is the secret to leadership.  This list is a rough guide. People don’t have to follow it exactly. The other bit of leadership advice we get is don’t try too hard to fit in. Not fitting in can be a useful skill for a leader. If you can keep your own ‘voice’ then you can bring your own language to the leadership dictionary.

A leader has strong values. A value is a belief that the leader thinks is important. An example of a value is “be honest”. Everything a successful leader does is based on their strongest values. I believe in clear communication. That is one of my values. I believe in it, but in everyday life, I don’t always succeed.  When we are not clear with people, things go wrong. When we are clear, good things happen. When someone else doesn’t communicate clearly we feel confused and unsafe.

We have to know ourselves well. We have to be honest when we don’t know something. We have to know what we want to happen, but also know what things we have not done well in the past. Leaders must find and promote other people to do the things they can’t do well, according to a recent Arts Council report.

 “The ability to know yourself as a leader rests on confidence, which includes the ability to admit mistakes, to take difficult decisions where an obvious answer isn’t clear and to reach down and pull people up the leadership ladder, particularly those under-represented in the cultural sector.’ [3]

There is some useful information about modern leadership in this sentence. When someone says being confident means you must also admit mistakes, I feel worried. Beginner leaders (like me last year) worry that we have to know everything before we can call ourselves a leader.  It is important to show you can do the job. But how do you show people you can do the job, if you have to tell them that you made mistakes? How can you make people believe in you if you tell them you can’t do everything?

How do you show you can lead? The Arts Council report says leaders must be confident and ask people to join in. The best way to become confident or improve the way you communicate in public is to practice. You practice doing something in advance. And then do it in real life. Another way is to try and do something new that scares you. Sophie Scott, neuroscientist, said her life changed in the middle of her career, after she started to do stand up comedy.

“Doing stand up comedy was transformative for me in terms of confidence. I felt ill before I went on. But it gave me a whole different perspective on laughter, how to control it. It was transformative for me, just in terms of confidence. It pushed it up a gear for me when I gave science lectures, and made me think in terms of what I want people to go away with” [4]

Doing scary things doesn’t sound nice. Sometimes you will feel great afterwards. Doing something new takes time and energy. You can plan for this. You can ask other people for advice. Make sure you get enough sleep. Treat it as an adventure. Breathe calmly before the scary event. Try not to rush.

The more you practice doing new things, the more confident you will feel.  Reflect on what went well, and what you can do differently. If something went wrong, decide how to do it well next time.

I did not know much about leadership skills at the start of my Clore studies. When I did the first course with the other fellows, I asked a lot of questions. I have been deaf for 20 years, so I am not afraid of asking people to explain things clearly. I can follow speech well with my cochlear implant but I am bold about stopping speakers to get them to clarify. When I ask questions to clarify something, sometimes other people laugh. They laugh to let me know that they understand my confusion. Everyone feels confused a lot of the time, but we often try to hide it.

The Fellows in my group used laughter to create a stronger bond between us. As leaders we need to stick together, and remember that language can put up barriers. Laughter can overcome barriers.

Why do people want to become leaders? I have no idea. Everyone has a personal reason.

I wanted to work on bigger projects, and know more people in the arts. Other people seemed to get more jobs than me. What was their secret? I did not understand how they got there. Was it is because I wasn’t very good at my job? Or was it the communication barriers I faced?

Worrying that you’re doing things wrong or not good at your job is a common fear amongst leaders. Struggling due to the barriers in society is common too.

Leaders try to do their job well. They advise each other to see their past obstacles as a strength. The past is something we can’t control. But we can change what is happening now.

On my Clore Fellowship, I’ve tried to work out what people mean when they say ‘build trust’ or ‘effective communication’. I had to think what it meant to me personally. People mean a lot of things when they talk about trust. The first person a leader has to learn to believe in and trust in is themselves. Often the key words of leadership don’t make much sense until you are in a real life situation.

Here are some top tips about trust and communicating:

  • Believe in yourself.
  • Try not to think about yourself all the time (even though you have to try to feel confident). I find this one difficult.
  • Be yourself. You don’t have to fit in or pretend. This is called authentic leadership. It doesn’t mean you can act however you want. Leaders say we have to be the best version of ourselves. Not the worst version.
  • Listen to other people and don’t interrupt. Unless you are deaf or blind or people are not being clear.
  • When people stop talking, you can ask them to say more about it, or repeat a bit of what they said. This encourages the person and makes them give you more information. In fact, it makes them trust you.
  • When asking questions, make them as open as possible.
  • You have to communicate very clearly.
  • In order to communicate clearly, you need to spend time thinking about your audience.
  • Don’t tell people everything that is in your head. You have to learn to pick which bits that will make people understand you. You decide what you mean, not them. 
  • To communicate clearly, you think about who your audience is.

Trust is important to leaders and all organisations big and small. Being kind to each other helps you believe in each other. If you never talk with each other much, if you don’t understand each other, trust might not grow. Communication is important in order to learn. Learning is important to help leaders make changes. Change is important because if nothing changes, the project or company will fail. If things change without warning, people feel surprised and sometimes angry. If you communicate why something is changing, people will understand why and they will trust you.

At the start of writing this paper, I felt afraid. This is a natural feeling for a leader. Experienced leaders are used to feeling afraid. They still get afraid but they tell themselves it will end.

I was afraid of writing something that would not impress top leaders. Then I realised that is not my job. My job as a leader is to write clearly and tell the truth in a way people will enjoy. I want to reach and persuade a wide audience. I don’t want to build a wall of hard language.  

Jamie Beddard, Co Director of Diverse City says, “Like many of the theories of leadership, the language of leadership often obscures and complicates in order to maintain rarified and privileged hierarchies. Looking the same, thinking the same, and sounding the same, ensures the status quo. Plain speaking threatens this by empowering those from less traditional routes and backgrounds to make their thoughts heard.”[5] 

When Tarek Iskander started as Artistic Director at Battersea Arts Centre, he tweeted an honest message that told a story. It was also a clear statement in favour of easy to understand communication. 

“So thrilled to be here for my first day in the new role @battersea_arts. Such a dream come true for me. My top job for week 1: get to know the ‘people’ around as people – not as employees or stakeholders.”

Iskander is honest about his excitement about the job. He makes a direct comment on the way business language such as ‘employees’ or ‘stakeholders’ makes people sound less human.

When we want to include people who don’t have the same knowledge, what language do we choose? We can be formal, distant, elite, or we can talk to people with genuine respect and trust. We can believe in people.

The Changing Cultures report suggests “…a shift towards more dual directional mentoring and shared learning.”[6]

This means that top leaders and older people can be taught by younger people, or people who are not leaders yet. Older and younger people can become learning partners if they work in the same organisations.

When I lost my hearing, I began to use interpreters. Since 2013, I have used a cochlear implant which lets me follow speech without interpreters. My experience means I’m confident about asking for people to explain themselves again. I’m used to checking things back.

I’m less confident about asking for bigger things.  Apparently I’m not alone. Not being clear about what we really want, is part of the way British people use English, according Nick Duffell:

“Psychotherapists recognise that asking for something makes you vulnerable, in a sense, because you might not get it. So asking for something in a hidden way, using conditional tenses that the English language does so well, can be a way of avoiding vulnerability. Such use of the language is exclusive to Brits”.[7]

Duffell writes about public school educated leaders. He says that their education taught them emotions are messy and must be hidden. Social rules on avoiding emotions and getting on with this, affected all of British culture. Duffel gives the film Brief Encounter as an example of a film, which is about how we see emotions as risky and bad.  

 “If we are too uncomfortable with feelings it is hard to develop a proper balance between receiving and giving out, which may explain why the British middle classes tend to find expressing wants so difficult.”[8]

The harder we try to write clearly, the easier it will be to decide what we mean, and to ask for what we want. But we can’t ask for important things without talking about everyday things.

I’ve learnt how small talk is crucial in leadership. It builds trust. If you are a freelancer, building trust with leaders in your industry takes longer. You meet people for coffees or meet people at conferences by the table with coffee and cakes.

Here is a rough guide to having a conversation where you ask for something at the end:

  • Get a cup of tea or coffeee.
  • Ask “How was your weekend?” or “How are you finding it?” (if you’re at a conference).
  • If they don’t say much, talk about the weather.
  • If they say something and smile, you can smile and laugh with them if you feel like it.  Maintain eye contact (if one or both of you are deaf there will be more eye contact anyway).
  • If you know them, ask about something to show you remember stuff that is important to them. But only if the first two parts went well.
  • Talk about work and be serious about it. Get to the point and be clear.
  • Don’t talk for a long time.
  • If you aren’t sure how long to talk about work, say three things and then stop talking. Three things is enough unless you are doing a presentation.
  • Once you have got the work bit out of the way, you can talk about fun things again.  If the person mentions a personal detail, you can ask them more about it and get to know them. If you are interested in what they say, they will trust you.
  • After some time, you can ask for what you want. You can ask your big question.
  • If they are not sure about it, give an alternative option. 
  • Agree a plan and end the meeting by saying thank you. 

That is the way a lot of people communicate in the UK.

You may find that the person might not understand what you are asking. This can happen if they didn’t listen properly because they were thinking about themselves. We do think about ourselves a lot and it makes us forget to listen. It makes us ask for things in the wrong way.

The other problem is that the person might ignore the question. The person might have their own plan, and they don’t want to change it. That means that they want to ignore your question. They might say no.

You might feel scared that the person will say no. It hurts when people say no. When one person says no to something we feel is a human right, it makes the world seem like it is against you. You might decide to stop asking for things. You might decide to not risk asking big leaders for big things too. You might decide not to waste time fighting people who say no.

Or you might decide to become a big leader yourself instead. This will take time but it will be worth it. People will ask you a question and you can ask them what they think the answer is. The other person will suggest a solution and feel like it was their idea, which it was. They will feel like a leader, and so will you. 

I feel bravest when I don’t worry about things. When I am relaxed and enjoying myself, when I feel confident about asking questions, I make people laugh without thinking about it. This is my favourite way to lead – by making people laugh. I communicate well with people when we are having fun and laughing together. One of the ways we can laugh together as leaders, is to laugh when faced with difficult conversations. This builds trust and helps us work together better. How do we focus more on fun and less on fear? We can laugh at the language we use and find a way to say what we really mean.

Despite it being a useful leadership tool, Sophie Scott says that making people laugh is not given as much attention as fear. “People don’t study laughter. It’s a bit silly, it’s not serious… If I look on the science database and put in the search term ‘emotion expression of fear’, I get back 4000 results. If you put in emotion, laughter, expression, you get less results.”

Why is it important to write and speak plainly and clearly and to make people laugh? Because whoever controls plain speaking, and laughter, whoever masters this, will lead what happens next. We need to be large in number. We need more people to feel more confident about communicating what they want and mean, rather than waiting for someone else to take the lead.

We have to ask ourselves, as cultural leaders, why are we afraid of looking like we aren’t clever? Why do we say vague, confusing things that could mean anything, and that we don’t explain? Why do we use buzz words to make ourselves look like we solved a complicated issue, even though we didn’t?

I wrote a stage play called Augmented, which goes on tour in 2020.[9] Produced by my new company, Augmented is about power and becoming a ‘cyborg’, which is what I call myself since I got a cochlear implant in 2013. It is easy to understand apart from one scene where the language becomes more ‘cyborg’. It is my private way of describing the way I experience sound. In that moment I show that people can have a lot of complex language and thoughts inside them about very ordinary things.

We all have personal inner language, or in-jokes with friends and close colleagues, and that’s a good thing.  And we all have the capacity to make things easier to understand too. It’s up to us to decide when to use what language, and who we want to understand us and why.

You can use formal words if you want to impose distance or limit your audience. If we think harder about what we mean, it makes us clearer, more direct. Being clear brings us closer to wider audiences. People will pay attention and understand. And more people will find out that they can be leaders too.


[1] Scott, Sophie. (26 April 2019). Personal interview.

[2] Politics and the English Language, (1946) George Orwell, Horizon, volume 13, issue 76, pages 252–265.

[3] Sue Hoyle and Culture of Policy Institute, Kings College, London  (2018) Changing cultures, Transforming leadership in the arts, museums and libraries.

[4] Scott, Sophie. (26 April 2019). Personal interview.

[5] Beddard, Jamie, (1 May 2019) Email interview.

[6] Sue Hoyle and Culture of Policy Institute, Kings College, London  (2018) Changing cultures, Transforming leadership in the arts, museums and libraries.

[7] Duffell, Nick (2014) Wounded Leaders: British Elitism and the Entitlement Illusion, a Psychohistory. Lone Arrow Press.  

[8] Ibid

[9] Augmented is supported using public funding by Arts Council England. Supported in its development by Unlimited, with funding from Arts Council England. Orginally developed with Ovalhouse. Supported by New Wolsey Theatre.

Themes Alumni Journeys Inclusive Leadership Practice Qualities of Leadership