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How to think like a leader

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Andrea Simpson

What makes a good leader and how can we steal their ideas? We asked two of the industry’s most innovative arts leaders what makes them tick.
How to think like a leader

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Good leadership ensures that people can work harmoniously together to achieve common goals. It is believed that leaders inspire individuals to stand up to and protest against what is wrong within our society – that real leaders innovate and interrogate. So how can we learn from their examples and successes?

ArtsHub speaks with two arts industry leaders about the qualities they think a good leader requires. 

Start your day happy

Claire Spencer is the CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne. She began in the top job in 2014 and has been at the helm of some extraordinary, and risky programming. In recent years, Asia TOPA, the Arts Wellbeing Collective, the Australian Music Vault, and the reopening of Hamer Hall propelled the Arts Centre as a global cultural epicentre.

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‘I hang out with my kids for a bit before school, especially if I am out at a show in the evening,’ said Spencer, explaining you have to start your day happy. ‘This is very important for me, to feel that each part of my life is caring and nurtured.’

A happy frame of mind allows energy for the day. ‘I try to approach each day like a new day, with the energy, courage and optimism that leading an organisation like the Arts Centre deserves.’

Wesley Enoch is the Festival Director of Sydney Festival. Though he doesn’t consider himself to be a leader, Enoch’s leadership reverberates throughout the community. His successful career has embraced a range of companies and projects, including numerous collaborations and the momentous Anzac memorial project Black Diggers.

Enoch called it ‘small acts of discipline’. He explained that taking care of yourself allows for a more positive energy for the day and for others. ‘You start by looking after yourself – feeding yourself properly and I’ve gotten into making sure I exercise a little bit every day, so I just recently (in the last month) bought a bike and now I ride to work. You give yourself a little bit of an endorphin rush – it means you start the day on a bit of a positive.

‘I also start the day by doing all the birthdays that come through on Facebook – today there were nine birthdays – I do a little personalised birthday message to my friends and family members.’

Image: Wesley Enoch (image via Sydney Festival) and Claire Spencer (supplied).

Subvert your perception of risk

Before you address risk, Enoch first asks you to examine your definition of risk. ‘Risk is one of things that people define very differently. Do I throw myself off the cliff and just hang-glide down? Yes, yes I do. I believe you need to let go rather than try to control it.'

He believes that people who are risk adverse should give it a try. ‘It’s the whole Idea that risk almost sounds like it is a conscious choice – to take a risk – when in fact you have to actually live there and be there the whole time … you have to allow everything to just keep floating around, and it’s hard to live with sometimes,’ said Enoch.

Read: The essential skills of a great arts administrator

Spencer agreed that risk is a must: ‘The Arts Centre and life would be very dull if we didn’t take risks!’ she laughed, before emphasising it’s important to always examine the risk. ‘I ensure that we always understand the risks we are taking and mitigate where we possibly can. We have a saying that good risk management allows the organisation to go faster – and this has proven to be quite true for us at Arts Centre Melbourne.

‘Many of our leaps forward have carried inherent risk, all of the things carried risk but were executed by skilled professionals in a collaborative and thoughtful way. I am also a big fan of a pilot – try something; if it doesn’t work, learn from it and do something else.’

Decisions are collaborative

The best decisions are made by the collective, Enoch believes. ‘It’s really about gathering people around you that both agree with you and disagree with you. So that when you are coming to a decision you receive advice from different ways of thinking, which is the people you work with but could also be the people in your life.

'I mean it’s amazing this conversation going on at the moment around marriage equality – where you go into the conversation going, "You know what, I actually want to engage in a conversation with people who disagree". Because that’s what leadership is, it’s not just about talking to your friends – it’s about convincing the people who disagree with you that there is something else to be done and using logic to do it. Sometimes logic isn’t enough but at least you have a go.'

Read: Career spotlight: General Manager

Spencer said it takes a team to arrive at decisions. ‘While I’m the Chief Executive Officer with ultimate responsibility for our actions, I have a team working with me who each have responsibilities for parts of the business. I empower them to make decisions in their own areas of authority. Where it's something bigger, they are a finely honed group and they come to me with options and recommendations – never just a problem. It's empowering for them to be part of the decision.

'We have a clear plan for our next five years and all of our decisions are made in this context. Often instinct does play a part – sometimes no amount of analysis and discussion can overcome what you feel in your heart or stomach. I have learned over my leadership journey to always trust your instinct and never waiver from your core values,' she said.

Get a yes

How do leaders get so many people to agree? Spencer said it takes more than just asking for people to say yes to you or a project. ‘Be sure you are asking the right person the right question and think deeply about their context and point of view ahead of asking. If saying yes is going to be difficult for them, acknowledge that and be prepared to make some concessions that will be it easier,' she explained.  

'Most importantly, don’t assume anything and be ready to make your case at the appropriate level of detail for that individual. I am a great believer that people are inherently good and trustworthy and want to collaborate. Starting from a position of positivity can make all the difference. 

‘As with anything you need to a have a convincing argument as to why you might be heading in a certain direction, and to be able to discuss with others in a collaborative approach to get buy-in along the way. With discussion, you most probably will have some constructive input from others which can enhance an original idea.

'And again, the Corporate Plan is a good grounding for decision making. If everyone is clear about what the Corporate Plan is, and how projects feed into it, then it becomes easier for forward steps to be taken in a united fashion,’ said Spencer.

Following is leading

Enoch said the most important thing to remember was that ‘Leadership is also about followship ... At what point do you turn and lead a particular charge to following someone who knows something more than you? ... Is a leader always a leader? No I don’t think so.

‘Sometimes it’s about going, this person knows something more than me and I will support them and follow them through – so gather good people around you, encourage strong debate and discussions; that’s more important than any kind of sense of taking people into work,’ he said.

Always be curious

Enoch continued: ‘I’ve never really set myself big ambitious goals, but here I am, the Artist Director of the Sydney Festival. If you had asked me five years ago if I would be here – well, I didn’t plan out to be here – it was again, one of those risks where you go, "oh why don’t I try that?". It’s more driven by curiosity than anything else. If you are curious about the world and curious about opportunity that’s how you go about living your life and you keep sniffing things out all the time.'

Keeping an open mind about events and developments outside of the arts was also important, Enoch said. 'You are constantly looking at different things all around the world that aren’t related to what you do.'

Spencer agreed, saying, ‘Keep a learning mindset and be open to new ideas – be curious and on the look out for new opportunities, never assume you have all the answers.’

Keep it real

A the end of the day we are only human, and we all have doubts. It's okay to question yourself sometimes. As Spencer said, ‘Self-awareness – seek feedback and treat it as a gift. Manage your emotions and be conscious of your own physical and mental wellbeing.’

Enoch said, ‘I believe you have professional doubt and professional confidence … You need to have enough professional sense of yourself that you can go "OK, why not? I’ll have a go, I’m as good as anyone else." This at least means you’re constantly pushing yourself forward, but then there is also the professional doubt which goes, "I’m not good enough, I don’t quite know, I haven’t learnt enough yet," which keeps you hungry – and [gives you] the hunger to keep learning.

‘If you have too much of one over the other you can become incredibly arrogant or a nervous wreck and you can’t do anything. There is a constant interplay between your confidence and your doubt that keeps you humble, number one, but also keeps you hungry for more things to happen,’ he concluded.

About the author

Andrea Simpson is an ArtsHub staff writer.

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