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Vulnerability and Cultural Leadership: A Research Inquiry

Surveying the news headlines from the start of 2018 gives a mixture of good and bad: racism in the White House; the establishment of the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh for the Rohingya people fleeing genocide in Myanmar; and confirmation that 2017 was again the hottest year on record; balanced against a shattering of the sexual harassment taboo in Hollywood; New York City’s decision to divest from fossil fuels; and the possibility of Olympic participation easing tensions between North and South Korea. Each of these stories has within it a common narrative: one of vulnerability.

On the whole, our perception of vulnerability in Western culture (and indeed in many other cultures worldwide), is one of weakness – of someone or something exposed to the risk or actual experience of oppression, abuse or destruction. But a scan of the good news stories reveals something more – that it is also from within vulnerability that alternative ways of thinking and acting also arise. It is in accepting vulnerability, and having the courage to expose and talk about it in appropriate ways, that we create the space for connection and change.

As the world looks to solutions for political, social, economic and environmental challenges, implicit in conversations and campaigns about change is a need for different kinds of leadership. Leadership that embodies accountability, honesty, trustworthiness, compassion, pragmatism, service over self-interest, collaboration, whole system thinking and ethical courage. So, what is the source of these aspirational leadership qualities? And how could a shift towards this new culture of leadership take shape? Indeed, in what ways is it already being practiced, and is vulnerability part of the process?

To explore these questions, I'm working with Warwick University to explore vulnerability in cultural leadership in particular. Funded by the AHRC and the Clore Leadership programme, our project seeks to unpack the question:

To what extent does vulnerability in leadership create the conditions for resilience and collaboration in the cultural sector, particularly at times of uncertainty and change?

Why cultural leadership? In many ways, the cultural sector is already a space in which artists and organisations invite the public to engage deeply with some of life’s greatest questions, and most transformational experiences. Art, culture and creativity are often a source of reflection, resistance and (re)imagination in the face of the status quo – they have the potential not only to challenge but to re-shape cultural narratives and initiate new social norms.

But systemically, the UK’s cultural sector is facing some big questions about its role and value in society, emphasised by a fragile and uncertain financial, environmental, political and social context, compounded by a rapidly evolving technological landscape. Framed by Brexit, the migrant crisis, climate change and a chronic disparity in equality and representation, the cultural sector finds itself vulnerable to change and under scrutiny to justify its relevance and value to the general public to secure political support and confidence. In an environment characterised by a lack of resources and a squeezed balance sheet – particularly for the subsidised sector – there is a risk of favouring talk over action, and turning to more competitive tactics for survival in what is an increasingly challenging marketplace. “Collaboration” and “partnership” have been cornerstone policies for arts and cultural resilience for some time now, and the emergence of interdisciplinary collaboration, co-creation and audience involvement in the generation of work challenges traditional notions of who "art" is for, and the roles of “artists” and “audience members”. But behind these trends sits a raft of emotional and practical considerations – ownership of IP, credit for ideas and achievements, status and power. The vulnerability of sharing a creative process; admitting to a lack of expertise or experience, and the generosity of sharing your own; and not only asking the tough questions but following through with different actions; requires dexterity to manage expectations, facilitate dialogue and create the conditions for effective (if tough) communication, particularly across different cultures, classes or disciplines.

As such, we are presented with the risk of incubating approaches to leadership borrowed from other industries, many of which embody a culture of scarcity, self-interest, competitive economics, and disconnect from the social and environmental context we work in. In dialogue with the sector, this research will unpack approaches to leading with the same integrity, creative openness and deep engagement with the world that much of the work artists make is born from; and whether vulnerability has a role in unlocking the connection, creativity and courage we need in this period of uncertainty and rapid change.

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Why am I doing this?

I've spent my career working through the arts and culture to initiate social and environmental change, and I've worked alongside many inspirational people trying to bring about significant change in both everyday actions and systemic structures. I've seen the kind of courage, creativity, collaboration and tenacity this process demands, and some of the challenges it presents - personally and pragmatically. This research took shape during a Clore Fellowship in 2017, during which I challenged myself to look deeply into what my own fears, challenges and barriers were to fully embracing my own courage, creativity and collaboration with others. I had the amazing opportunity to hear many cultural leaders talk intimately about their work and leadership challenges, and it struck me that while their journeys were filled with moments of vulnerability, which were often significant turning points, decisions and opportunities for growth, there was little to no public conversation about the relationship between vulnerability and transformational leadership in our sector. This is an experiment to see what such a conversation might yield.

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