Leadership in Context: Considering the Impact of Environmental Factors on Cultural Leaders and their Ability to Lead
Janet Hancock, National Archive Institutions Consortium Fellow 2013-14 writes about specific challenges that face cultural leaders working in Northern Ireland.
Over the course of the Clore programme, we have heard from many inspirational, accomplished and diverse leaders. Coming from Northern Ireland, I often found myself trying to equate their examples to similar individuals/organisations within my own frame of reference. I tried to think of leaders I could identify who had tried and failed… and lived (in career terms) to tell the tale.
Examples were worryingly sparse. I couldn’t help wondering if the situations our speakers described would have had the same outcome in Northern Ireland? Thoughts prefixed by “that would never happen here….” popped into my head with sufficient regularity to prompt me to consider context in more depth for this paper. During Clore, we have looked hard at the role of the individual leader –their credibility, values and vision; and how successfully they can communicate their message and bring people along on their journey. We have looked less at the impact of external factors. To what extent does the context – particularly the nuances and specificities of a locality such as religion, ethnicity, community, values, politics, history, tradition etc. – impact on the leader and their ability to lead? Can good leaders always achieve and grow whilst maintaining their integrity and wellbeing; or is there a point at which external factors compromise personal resilience?
Growing up and working in Northern Ireland, I have witnessed the landscape change dramatically over the last few decades. In my lifetime, we have moved from cities of conflict to Derry/Londonderry being named inaugural UK City of Culture in 2013. We have progressed through a peace process where a paramilitary ceasefire was brokered and the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 paved the way for devolved government. In 1999, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure was established and, since then, there has been significant capital investment in our cultural infrastructure from the building of international visitor attraction Titanic Belfast, to the new Metropolitan Arts Centre, re-building of the Lyric Theatre and a new Public Record Office.
Only a short while ago tourists were unheard of and city centres more like ghost-towns. In the last few years, NI has successfully hosted numerous high-profile international festivals and events, from the MTV Europe Music Awards in 2011, to the World Police and Fire Games in 2013; to the Foyle International Maritime Festival (welcoming the Clipper fleet) in 2013 and again in 2014. For the first time in its 23-year history the Turner prize was held outside London, and Northern Ireland was its host.
Without a doubt, achievements have been remarkable thanks to some tenacious and courageous cultural leaders; however, I am also aware that this has been no easy task. My starting premise has been to pose an open question to a variety of senior cultural leaders, asking “is being a leader in Northern Ireland different; and if so, why?” Following informative conversations with a variety of local senior leaders, the consensus was a resounding “yes”. I have tried to distil some of these contextual factors below.
- Cultural identity in a post-conflict society
Northern Ireland is by no means the only area of the UK which has peculiarities around cultural identity. Wales and Scotland are fiercely protective of their nationality and heritage; and immigration has encouraged ethnic diversity in many of the UK’s largest cities. However, NI continues to grapple with highly contested spaces and history. Despite significant progress, polarisation of communities along political and religious grounds remains a huge issue. Shona McCarthy cited a number of City of Culture examples which simply would not happen elsewhere in the UK – from the bombing of Council Offices by dissident republicans vehemently opposed to any association with a ‘UK’ initiative, to pitched battles around the very name of the city, to spending an afternoon counting the number of times ‘UK’ was used as a prefix to City of Culture (versus number of times it wasn’t) in a document. In reality, one could argue Northern Ireland has more in common with international post-conflict/radically changing societies such as Jordan and Hong Kong than it does with other areas of the UK.
Elements of culture are often politicised and used to affirm identity and tradition. Communities are staunchly protective of their heritage and suspicious of outside influences trying to impose change. However, as Roisin McDonough pointed out, the sector has a unique opportunity to contribute to peace building as it is actually the role of arts and culture to challenge prejudice and traditional interpretations and provide neutral spaces for exploration.
Whilst our public and work spaces are now very much neutral, lack of integration remains evident in key areas including housing, and particularly education where the majority of pupils still attend schools defined along religious lines. As Hass recently concluded “two conflicting realities co-exist in Northern Ireland, and run alongside each other in ways that can be difficult to understand… twenty years on from the paramilitary ceasefires, Northern Ireland remains a very deeply divided society… however… in some ways huge progress has been made. Levels of violence are at their lowest for forty years… throughout 2013 Derry-Londonderry presented a vision of what a post-conflict society might look like. Its year as City Of Culture provided a glimpse of the life-affirmative spirit that allowed culture to unite, rather than divide.”
- Culture of dependency, ‘conservatism’ and aversion to risk
It is undeniable that the people of Northern Ireland have suffered greatly through years of conflict. As a result, NI has received support for peace building from a variety of funding streams. We have become proficient at describing our issues (citing victims, violence, poverty etc.) to external benefactors and these definitions can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. We remain much better at identifying problems than agreeing and implementing solutions.
In addition, we are dominated by a huge public sector. The Northern Ireland Civil Service is the region’s largest employer and, until the recent review of public administration, 26 local authorities were also in operation. Aside from direct employees, many private sector organisations are also dependant on funding or income from public contracts. This heavy reliance on the public sector makes us, as a society, overly bureaucratic and risk-averse and is a far cry from an environment which fosters entrepreneurial spirit.
We are often so concerned with our own localised issues that we fail to see ourselves in the context of today’s global environment, particularly as technology and digital access now allows us to transcend geographical boundaries. Poverty of aspiration is a phrase often used to describe marginalised communities; however, it extends far beyond. One could argue NI has traditionally been a deeply religious society and this ‘conservative’ nature still influences behaviour. Celebrating achievements, putting oneself forward/into the spotlight or aiming for things even slightly beyond one’s perceived reach is seldom encouraged and often met with undertones of ‘who do they think they are?’ On the other hand, we are quick to criticise even the smallest of failings. This environment makes individuals as well as organisations risk-averse, as failure is viewed so negatively. For a region filled with some of the warmest, friendliest communities, it is a sad irony that support and encouragement to take risks, ‘think big’ and learn from one’s mistakes is all too often lacking.
- Immature political democracy
Our current devolved administration is, in political terms, relatively young and local and central government lacks experience in autonomous administration. Furthermore, the premise under which the NI Assembly was established demands a coalition and decision making agreed by all parties. By its very nature this makes progress slow at best, impossible at worst. The lack of critical challenge leaves accountability of the NI Executive lacking and provides the electorate with no mechanism to address issues with governance.
One could argue that, politically, we are now in a precarious stage of governmental development. We have moved from direct rule where we lacked meaningful autonomy; through a period of excitement and optimism around the establishment of a devolved government; to a more operational stage where it is now time for politicians to start tackling the difficult social issues deliberately parked at the outset (to allow a power-sharing agreement acceptable to all at the time). One only needs to look at the failure of the recent Haas talks to appreciate the gravity of this situation. Far from moving towards a shared and inclusive future, politicians/parties appear to be becoming increasingly entrenched. One could argue that micro-management of the smaller issues provides a welcome diversion from tackling the contentious big issues (flags, parading, educational reform etc) which will require compromise and strong, progressive political leadership.
- Trust, scrutiny and lack of respect for the skills and talent of cultural professionals
There is a lack of trust amongst political parties and furthermore a mistrust of the public sector which administers on their behalf. Political point-scoring is rife and is certainly a contributory factor to the defensive culture of disproportionate scrutiny which has evolved rapidly over the last few years. Ministers and elected representatives clamour to ensure their backs are covered and they are not ‘caught out’ by rival parties. To say this is a deliberate attempt to derail progress would be unfair, however, the result is an increasingly weighty bureaucracy which has the same effect.
Many of the leaders I spoke to quoted alarming examples of huge budgets allocated to governance, accountants and management consultants, in comparison to meagre provision for cultural programmers/professionals. As is the case throughout the UK, measurement of cultural impact via numbers/statistics is the norm, but fails to recognise the longer term, intangible benefits; however Aideen McGinley noted that NI accountability procedures are generally vastly more burdensome than in Westminster. She cited as an example a bid for the Turner gallery running to 120 pages, contrasted with a 15 page document for an Olympic project of over ten times the monetary value. Whilst everyone agreed that good governance and accountability is essential, what is glaringly obvious is that cultural leaders here are not trusted to provide this. Examples were recounted where multiple layers of Boards and Committees were established to audit cultural activities. The general impression given was that, often, cultural professionals achieve great things in spite of the public administrations responsible, rather than because of them. Others described how partnerships with organisations/individuals outside the confines of the public sector were often essential to actually getting things done! There is a real danger that bureaucracy is increasingly stifling all opportunity for innovative, creative leadership.
All were quick to point out that not everyone in the public sector was at fault and there were often vital allies who played a crucial role in the success of projects. However, the general story was that senior figures (particularly in local authorities) were ignorant of the value and complexity of the work carried out by cultural professionals. A number of examples were given whereby local authorities failed to retain any cultural sector staff post-project, electing to deliver ‘in-house’ in future. Citing the early winding up of Culture Company post-City of Culture, Shona McCarthy concluded that, had this been a sporting event or other sector project, a formal knowledge and skills transfer process would have taken place, which did not and rarely happens in relation to any cultural activities. The perception that anyone can simply pick up and replicate a cultural programme clearly denotes a disregard for cultural leadership and programming as a unique and highly valuable skill.
- Size matters
Northern Ireland is a small place, with fewer job opportunities than individuals available to fill them. As a result, rotation of staff is limited. Many leaders stay in post for much longer than is conducive to organisational dynamism. By proxy, development opportunities are limited for aspiring younger leaders. Positions are sought after and individuals can be fiercely possessive of cherished roles, particularly ‘founders’ of organisations. There is a distinct reticence around succession planning and a lack of opportunities/ investment in leadership development.
The personal toll of leading and shouldering huge workloads in such adverse and unsupportive conditions was also clearly articulated, exacerbated by a lack of appreciation for achievements and reluctance to value and retain cultural staff. Comments ranged from ‘never again’ to individuals feeling they had to step out of the public arena in order to preserve their own wellbeing. Another observation was that talent which is undervalued here is quickly snapped elsewhere in the UK. In essence, our environment encourages quality cultural leaders to leave/lead elsewhere, rather than nurturing and appreciating their skills.
So what is the solution?
Stronger leadership at a very senior level in the cultural sector and in government is certainly vital. More people need to call out unacceptable practice, challenge the culture of disproportionate accountability requirements and advocate for change. In addition, more collegiate leadership is required to support and encourage individuals/organisations to speak up. Where once a vocal and challenging arts and community sector existed, sectors feel compromised in their ability to question authority or ‘bite the hand that feeds them’. Raising issues via a united, sectoral voice would surely strengthen this position and highlight the value of a professional, talented and skilled workforce delivering quality arts and cultural activities. There are examples of cultural leaders uniting for change in other areas of the UK, from What Next? to initiatives like Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium and Manchester Cultural Partnership. Perhaps we need an equivalent, vocal network for change in NI?
Shona McCarthy expressed the need for greater entrepreneurship here in Northern Ireland. We are geographically separated from the mainland and opportunities at a senior level are limited. Shona pointed out that a number of her previous positions were self-created (like Cinemagic and Imagine Belfast) and even now, post- City of Culture, she has recently set up another company. We as a society, cultural professionals included, needu6 to reduce our dependence on the public sector/large organisations and become less risk averse and more entrepreneurial.
We need to work harder to embed the value of culture (and cultural professionals) in other sectors like health and education. We also need to highlight the great and progressive achievements of cultural professionals and cultural practice here. City of Culture programmers took a unique approach to working with large national organisations like Tate and London Symphony Orchestra by insisting local talent was recruited and engagement was not only ‘cross-community’ in NI, but cross-community with the rest of the UK. For example, following a stringent recruitment, a number of talented local curators had the opportunity to work on the Turner prize; and 100 members of the National Youth Orchestra worked with young people from Derry to deliver ‘mini-concerts’ in people’s homes. What transpired was that many of the participating national organisations reflected that this process would fundamentally influence their working practice in the future.
Finally, we need to foster a culture of continuous professional development for the next generation of cultural leaders and actively create opportunities for secondments, mentoring and coaching. Whilst this happens in some areas, recognition of the importance of leadership development is sadly undervalued, exemplified by the lack of awareness of/access to opportunities such as Clore.
Thanks to the following individuals, who kindly made time to provide insight on the issues discussed above:
Artistic Director, Big House Productions; Director, Big House Festival; Artistic Director, Bram Stoker Festival 2014; Clore Fellow.
Director, Nerve Centre Derry.
Formerly Senior Cultural Programmer for Culture Company 2013.
Director, Shona McCarthy Consulting; Eisenhower Fellow 2014.
Formerly Director of Culture Company 2013 (delivering UK City of Culture programme for Derry/Londonderry) and Director of British Council Northern Ireland.
Chief Executive, Arts Council Northern Ireland.
Aideen McGinley OBE
Trustee for Northern Ireland, BBC.
Formerly Chief Executive of Fermanagh District Council; Permanent Secretary, Department for Employment and Learning and Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure in Northern Ireland; Chief Executive, Ilex urban regeneration company for Derry-Londonderry (during which time she worked on the city’s successful bid for UK City of Culture 2013)