Clore 14 Arts Council Open Fellow Jen McDerra is writing regular reflections on her Fellowship journey as part of our Diary of a Clore Fellow series.
Agreeing to start this blog is a moment for me. I’ve got silicone earplugs in to help me focus. It’s a rainy Saturday afternoon, it’s already February, and I’m back home in Norwich after a study visit to India for the Jaipur Literature Festival. The feeling of needing to process and capture what I’ve learnt so far on my Fellowship journey has been following me round, heavy as my backpack.
To face this, I’ve offered to be the one who writes the blog for our cohort. Part of my personal stretch is to commit to my position without getting tangled in other people’s perspectives and experiences. To act and be more certain in the knowledge that having considered multiple points of view it is necessary to come to a conclusion in order to do or say anything.
Leading Is Lonely
Leading is lonely. Many people who apply for a Clore Fellowship talk about this at the interview. I’ve felt that loneliness myself as I own the responsibility of making decisions which impact others.
My experience of being in charge so far has meant being at the front. Behind and alongside you are those who’ve agreed to come with you. Sometimes they have no choice. You’re the one with the most information, equipped with the power to make decisions based on privileged access.
The loneliness I’ve experienced in leadership is often caused by the amount of information I hold. I can’t always share the knowledge that directs my behaviour. I’ve learned that leaders have to be very sure of why they’ve done something, because few people will have access to all the reasons that explain their actions.
I imagine leadership now like an actual place that stretches a metre forward from your own physical space. In order to enjoy leading more I have to learn to occupy this space more comfortably. Whilst recognising that what I do is influenced by the experiences of others, I must allow myself to act as I see fit based on the conclusions I come to.
Speaking from Where We Are
Soon after I started my year-long Fellowship, I joined the other Fellows on a fortnight-long residential retreat in Oxfordshire. One of the facilitators, Fearghus O’Conchuir, did something that’s stayed with me. He’d spent two weeks shepherding twenty five people’s ambitions, fears, hopes, and raw feelings. On the final Friday he stood up to tell us about his own artistic practice. Before he began, he made a sweeping gesture with his hands down the sides of his body.
‘I just need to cleanse myself for a moment,” he said, “of all the different perspectives I know are in this room so that I can speak from where I am for a while.’
Thank you, Fearghus. Sorry for the horrible paraphrasing.
Speaking from where I am this is such useful and generous advice. It’s something I know I need to do in order to lead better. What I do as a leader must of course be informed by the experiences of others –but there’s a time for doubt, for listening to the shadow whispers, and then there’s a time for action.
I had a full-on reminder of what this “leadership lag” can mean in my first meeting with my mentor. I chose Jude Kelly: a woman who’s become comfortable with power but not forgotten how to connect with those who haven't got it.
I was delighted when Jude agreed to mentor me and looked forward to our first meeting. Then, on the day itself, I had an email from her Executive Assistant asking if I could shift the time forward slightly. I couldn’t. My train was of the immovable pre-booked variety, I was on it, and there was no hurrying the service on its creaking creep into Liverpool Street Station.
As I made my way towards the Southbank Centre, I began reassuring myself. I wasn’t late. I didn’t need to rush. I hadn’t chosen someone who might be too powerful and busy for the mentoring relationship I had hoped for.
I was waiting for Jude when her meeting finished. She welcomed me calmly, then explained that she had an urgent meeting with her Chair. We only had about 15 minutes for our first conversation, but carried on talking in the taxi to her meeting. She went on asking me thoughtful questions, and other than the moment when I likened my leadership style to Winston Churchill’s, the journey was pleasant. I asked some questions, and then we’d arrived at Jude’s destination.
While she met with the Chair, I waited under the watchful eye of a receptionist. I used the half hour to clarify thoughts and questions for Jude, who promptly returned to me with some suggestions of her own regarding my career aims. We agreed to meet again soon, exchanged mobile numbers, and then we went our separate ways.
After the meeting, I went to a nearby café to reflect. My feelings were mixed. I imagined myself telling the other Clore Fellows about the meeting. It was prime fodder for a dramatic story. I knew too that people would be interested to hear inside stories about my mentor, given that she’s a central figure on our cultural stage. When I did get together with the Clore Fellows later, I wanted to say the meeting had gone well, but had it? What happened exactly? The meeting had been shorter and in more locations than expected, but it was interesting and connected. I had a sense that I didn’t have all the information and didn’t expect that I would ever get it. That felt unfinished. I hadn’t been made to feel inconsequential, she’d posed really good questions, but I still wasn’t quite sure.
Two days later, I heard the news.
Jude Kelly had to meet with her Chair that morning because she’d just resigned from her twelve-year tenure as Artistic Director of the Southbank Centre. This was the one thing she couldn’t share with me. Only then did it settle into place: the sense I had that I didn’t have all the information and that something was unfinished.
With all the information in hand, I was able to occupy my own uncertain space more generously. I knew then what I’d already sensed: that I could trust my mentor because of the way she’d made me feel, regardless of the circumstances around our meeting.
‘Big week for you’ I was able to say to Jude when we spoke on the phone on Sunday evening. She laughed, and we spoke for a while about my plans. She listened carefully and offered suggestions for my upcoming visit to Jaipur.
"Confirm it with yourself"
Not long afterwards, I was standing in the market in Jaipur trying to decide whether or not to buy a beautiful wallet. The vendor encouraged me to take a moment to think about why I wanted it and how much I’d be happy to pay.
“Confirm it with yourself,” was how he put it.
It was good advice for any leader. There are many moments when you’re doing something that’s right for the circumstances, but that nobody else can quite understand. You have to handle yourself and others with care so they can follow you safely even when they don’t know all the information.
I learned as much from the circumstances of my first meeting with my mentor as I did from her questions and suggestions. It was a memorable lesson. She showed me that you can have power yet remain properly connected to those who have less. I aspire to do the same. First and foremost I’ll “confirm it with myself” – get on with it, trusting in the trust of those who are following.
Read Jenn's other Diary of a Clore Fellow article here: