Sailing and Leading

There is probably no more obnoxious class of citizen, taken end for end, than the returning vacationist. ~Robert Benchley

That said, I had a simply marvelous vacation, resplendent with hiking, rafting, and horseback riding in the Tetons, then a week of blissful hard work aboard the 40’ Island Sun, prowling the Abacos in the northeastern Bahamas. Thanks to Alan, my captain, from his highly inept, yet hard working first mate!

While the sailing metaphors are overused to illustrate lessons about leadership—it was surprising to me how potent I found the experience, especially just coming off the Community Arts Education Leadership Institute a few weeks before. CAELI was a five-day immersion into the quandaries and questions of leadership with 25 highly committed individuals from arts education organizations from across the US.

Our purpose with CAELI, and with all we do here at Partners in Performance is to help leaders build adaptive, resilient, mission-driven organizations. It is here that I found the sailing parallels so helpful. To remain afloat and arrive anywhere near the original destination, the sailor must remain attentive to the three forces that are continually acting on her craft, and her course…the current, the wind, and the tide. While the Gulfstream may dominate, the Atlantic has 32 surface currents. While there are prevailing winds—easterlies for the Abacos, gusts appear out of no place, either sporadic or sustained, sometimes appearing as ugly squalls accompanied by a downpour. In leading organizations, we deal with forces just as powerful and just as dynamic…shifting financial realities, changing demographics, fickle funders, etc.

In my work, I find most organizations and their leadership are clear about vision and knows what kind of world they want to create, where they want to take the organization. And they are resilient enough to remain committed to the vision no matter what. This is one of the real under-recognized assets of our field. Highly visionary leaders!

Most of these leaders also know how they would like to get there, and therein lies the problem. We’ve trained leaders to decide the steps required to get there, then to remain committed to what the plan calls for (Plan the work, work the plan.). All in spite of the ever-changing reality, the continuous shape shifting.

The wise sailor never remains committed to a course in spite of the changing winds, currents, or tides; but adjusts the course in line with those changing forces. Tacking is not just a way of coping, but a way of assuring progress is made toward the destination.

We must unlearn our reliance on strategic planning, predicting what will happen and setting the course; and learn, and help our leaders learn that changing the course, continually revising the strategy, perpetually reinventing and always innovating are the essential tools of adaptive leadership.

What if We Compensate Non-profit Boards?

While the details of what actually happened will likely become a ‘he said/she said’ wrangle, the very fact that the California attorney general’s office demanded recently that the board of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles go back to school and receive basic governance training is notable. While the wreckage has been salvaged by the generosity of Founding Chairman, Eli Broad, the charges—and the assigned training highlight again the all too familiar theme of spending down the endowment and misappropriating restricted funds.

This incident (and too many others we read about) begs the question of whether we have traded what we need from our boards for what we want from our boards. And what we need most now is good judgment.

Judgment that’s offered on behalf of the community, that at best challenges and at a minimum contextualizes the major decisions of the enterprise. The kind of judgment that executive and artistic leaders could benefit from, whether at MOCA, the Harlem School for the Arts, or an endless string of other organizations where the board apparently cared too much, and demanded too little, while letting their passion and acquiescence override their objectivity and fiduciary obligation to the public.

While it may be fiscally expedient, selling gala tables, hitting up friends for money, and shilling for our artistry and programs are poor surrogates for what we really need: a true partnership with our boards where they challenge us to innovate and adapt while asking us the hard and helpful questions that assure prudence and accountability.

So, instead of compromising such a role by asking them to ‘give, get, or get off’, what if we compensated them? An annual honorarium for service that says come to the table prepared with your best questions and keenest insights. While annual budgets may shrink a bit, such honest appraisals and straightforward engagement could contribute significantly to our sustainability, and the credibility of our field.

What Good is a Roadmap in All This Whitewater?

From the Greeks on down, strategic planning has often been seen as what’s needed whenever the future is worth contemplating. While the model has changed a bit over time, the iteration we are most familiar with is:

  • Vision (preferred future)
  • Goals (needed to achieve that future)
  • Strategies (the big steps we will take to achieve the goals)
  • Tactics (the little steps that get the big steps accomplished)

Then we plot all these along a three to five year time frame and go to work. And, just as we get started something changes. We get the big grant, or we don’t get the big grant; the artistic director announces they are leaving; or staying; someone invents the internet; the economy crashes; our city starts losing 50,000 people a year. And in the midst of all this we’re stuck with our strategic plan. We can’t just throw it away, we spent so much time on it. We paid consultants to help us, the Board chair is really proud of her efforts to get it done. We’ve already sent it to the foundation with our grant application.

Yes, we have our roadmap, but this doesn’t feel like the interstate any more.

It’s more like a rafting trip on the Colorado, wild, unpredictable, invigorating. With no rest stops, just rapids, boulders, spray, and a lot of screams—some of sheer terror, and occasionally of sheer glee! Stress is high, control non-existent. The last thing we need is a roadmap. So, what is required on such a wild and compelling ride?

1.  A unifying belief the journey is worthwhile

  • What do we, as an organization, care about and why does it matter to each of us?

2.  Trust: When someone points starboard and says, “There’s a boulder!” There probably is one.

  • How can we learn to listen and hear the views of all those who are committed to our vision?

3.  An acceptance of the power of external forces, and our lack of control over them

  • What is happening in the world around us and how should we respond?

4.  A collective determination to meet those forces and maneuver through them

  • What commitments are we making to each other in order to see this through?

5.  A willingness to take stock, to learn quickly from each maneuver

  • What lessons are we learning and how rapidly are we changing in response to those lessons?

A few hours, maybe a couple of days wrestling with these questions can prove more beneficial that six months of trying to predict the future through classic strategic planning. Gather together, ask hard questions, then jump back in the whitewater. Enjoy the ride!

Two forces are rapidly converging and cannot be ignored

  • 34% of Americans studied have ‘not too much’ or ‘no confidence’ at all in nonprofits. Only 16% expressed a ‘great deal’ of confidence.
  • The percentage of people who feel charities do a ‘very good’ job in helping others has fallen from 34% in 2003 to 25% in 2008.
  • 70% say charities waste a ‘great deal’ of money. Only 11% feel they spend money ‘wisely’.

While this news is alarming, the fact that when asked the same questions about the nonprofits in their own town or community, the responses, while a bit better, are not statistically so, and would fall within the margin of error (3%).

These critical and depressing findings can be found in the April 2009 Brookings Institution report: “How Americans View Charities, A Report on Charitable Confidence“, by senior fellow Paul Light.

Couple this with the following from Strategy and Business, published this month by Booz, Allen Hamilton.

The shifts in global output are striking. The International Monetary Fund projects the world economy will have shrunk by 1.1 % in 2009, with mature economies, including the United States, Germany, and Japan, contracting by 3.4% and emerging economies growing by 1.7%. In 2010, overall global growth is expected to hit 3.1%, but China is forecast to grow by 9% and India by 6.4%. Meanwhile growth in the United States is projected to be 1.5%…

So, if China and the U.S. started even at the end of 2008, the result by the end of 2010 is China’s economy has grown by 10.7% and the U.S. economy has shrunk by 1.9%, a differential of 12.6%. Nonprofits are not immune to cascading effects of this global reality.

The article goes on to say that US companies, if they are going to remain competitive must commit to three things: innovation, strategic approaches and operating models aligned with new realities, and cost containment. The consequences for American business of not responding are self evident.

So, when I couple the negative view of nonprofits in general with the downward pressures on America’s wealth building engine, it’s no surprise that for the first time, I am hearing business people (who are in a fight just to survive), local civic and political leaders (with less and less to work with), and heretofore generous individual donors (whose wealth has shrunk markedly) expressing little patience with nonprofits who do little to innovate, maintain their historic business model, and run up ever-increasing deficits instead of containing costs.

Our field must respond. Why? Because if diminished confidence and a shortage of available resources weren’t enough, shifting consumer economics are driving new behaviors (saving vs. spending, deciding what’s necessary vs. what would be nice to have, becoming more price conscious); demographic shifts are influencing preferences (preferring experiences to presentations, wanting to engage instead of simply attend). While all this is happening outside our organizations, inside our organizations, long periods of denial and excess optimism have conspired to create high levels of stress, and in some cases, outright paralysis across the institution. This stress and paralysis is stifling artistic vitality. Time and energy—human capital—gets spent putting out fires, fighting over limited resources, and deciding who to blame.

Well, the good, and the bad news is that no one is to blame, and that we are all to blame, in assuming for far too long that everything could remain the same, while the world shape shifted on us.

Getting started requires courage. First we must stop the hemorrhaging—confront the brutal truths— and decide what’s most important—what’s mission critical; because without cash and without clarity of purpose, there is no future. Once this hard step is taken, innovation is required—challenging openly and honestly the assumptions that got us here, and finding fresh ways to achieve something worthwhile.

Finally, in achieving these two outcomes, we must build an effective and collaborative culture around the unique value that each stakeholder—artist, trustee, manager—brings to the table. By embracing these three responsibilities—priority setting, innovation, and engagement—we can reclaim our vitality—organization by organization, and in so doing, remain a force in assuring our nation’s rightful place as a major contributor to a better world.

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The Changing Practice of Leadership

“It’s no longer the time of the heroic leader – the leader who walks in and takes up all the space in the room. The job of today’s leader is to create space for other people –a space in which people can generate new and different ideas; a space where seemingly disparate departments and people in the organization come together and have a meaningful conversation; a space in which people can be more effective, more agile, and more prepared to respond to complex challenges.”

The Changing Nature of Leadership, a CCL White Paper

In 2007, the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL) conducted a survey of mid and upper level managers across numerous industries, both for profit and nonprofit. 84% of respondents stated that the definition of effective leadership has changed in the past five years. 60% of respondents (that’s three in five!) stated that leaders now face challenges that go beyond their individual capabilities to solve. These findings are hugely important in that leaders can no longer simply ramp up, get stronger, or improve on their own strengths in order to face down the challenges that confront their arts organization. Often, it’s beyond their ability to simply define the challenge—as in itself, it’s no longer simple, but quite complex.

In this same research we learn—once again that, “…prolonged organizational success…tends to breed resistance to change.”

So, let’s get this straight. Highly committed and highly capable leaders are responsible for the extraordinary success in building our national arts ecology, anchored by hundreds of recognizable organizations that have grown continually over the past decades. Yet those same organizations now face challenges that a single leader can no longer figure out and solve. That’s quite a dilemma, and one that demands shifts in our assumptions about  organizations and what they require of their leaders.

According to CCL, in 2002, the three highest rated leadership skills were (in descending order): being individually resourceful, being composed, and being decisive.  In 2007, the same survey indicates that those competencies had fallen closer to the bottom of the list (of eight choices) and were replaced by (again, in descending order): building and mending relationships, change management, and participation management—meaning the  integrating of others into the decision making and strategy development process.

With this data in hand, it’s time to change radically our view of what leaders do and to work collaboratively with them in developing the new competencies required for their  success. We owe them nothing less.

What Brain Science is Rapidly Teaching Us about Leadership

I am incredibly taken by what brain science is discovering about how and why people behave the way they do at their workplace—and the implications this has for how leaders need to profoundly alter their own behavior in response to the findings.

David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz first stirred my thinking in late 2006 with their article, The Neuroscience of Leadership published in May by Strategy and Business. While they shared some intriguing findings, the take-aways for me are:

  • Change is pain. Organizational change is unexpectedly difficult because it provokes sensations of physiological discomfort.
  • Behaviorism doesn’t work. Change efforts based on incentive and threat (the carrot and the stick) rarely succeed in the long run.
  • Humanism is overrated. In practice, the conventional empathic approach of connection and persuasion doesn’t sufficiently engage people.

My thinking up to this point was that if you adequately incentivize the change effort, you pay close attention to the needs of the individual—show empathy, and were effective in your communications skills—good at persuading, and then you could successfully move things forward. Yet these findings based on solid research and rendered in terms that the non-scientist can understand and should not be ignored. Rock is a coach, researcher, author, and developer of the coaching curriculum at NYU; and Schwartz is a UCLA-based psychiatrist and author

Last week on my way to lead a session on Internal Stakeholder Engagement at the National Guild for Community Schools of the Arts, I was reading Rocks’ most recent piece, Managing with the Brain in Mind. In this article,  he moves beyond the brain science findings and offers up a five-component strategy for addressing what people need most when asked to commit to the organization’s future and to the change it demands. He has adopted the acronym SCARF to identify the five fundamental individual needs when such commitment is required:

Status: Understanding the role of status as a core concern can help leaders avoid organizational practices that stir counterproductive threat responses among employees. For example, performance reviews often provoke a threat response; people being reviewed feel that the exercise itself encroaches on their status. This makes 360-degree reviews, unless extremely participative and well-designed, ineffective at generating positive behavioral change. Another common status threat is the custom of offering feedback, a standard practice for both managers and coaches. The mere phrase “Can I give you some advice?” puts people on the defensive because they perceive the person offering advice as claiming superiority. It is the cortisol equivalent of hearing footsteps in the dark.

Certainty: Leaders and managers must thus work to create a perception of certainty to build confident and dedicated teams. Sharing business plans, rationales for change, and accurate maps of an organization’s structure promotes this perception. Giving specifics about organizational restructuring helps people feel more confident about a plan, and articulating how decisions are made increases trust. Transparent practices are the foundation on which the perception of certainty rests.

Autonomy: Leaders who want to support their people’s need for autonomy must give them latitude to make choices, especially when they are part of a team or working with a supervisor. Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes a much less stressed response than forcing them to follow rigid instructions and schedules. In 1977, a well-known study of nursing homes by Judith Rodin and Ellen Langer found that residents who were given more control over decision making lived longer and healthier lives than residents in a control group who had everything selected for them. The choices themselves were insignificant; it was the perception of autonomy that mattered.

Relatedness: Leaders who understand this phenomenon (the need to feel connected—a part of) will find many ways to apply it in business. For example, teams of diverse people cannot be thrown together. They must be deliberately put together in a way that minimizes the potential for threat responses. Trust cannot be assumed or mandated, nor can empathy or even goodwill be compelled. These qualities develop only when people’s brains start to recognize former strangers as friends. This requires time and repeated social interaction.

Fairness: In organizations, the perception of unfairness creates an environment in which trust and collaboration cannot flourish. Leaders who play favorites or who appear to reserve privileges for people who are like them arouse a threat response in employees who are outside their circle. The old boys’ network provides an egregious example; those who are not a part of it always perceive their organizations as fundamentally unfair, no matter how many mentoring programs are put in place.

Much about SCARF may seem quite obvious. Yet I urge to read these two articles—in their entirety. Then share your comments. There is now some scientific validation for what we have assumed was helpful (fairness, autonomy, etc.) yet there is so much more that challenges our notions and deeply held working assumptions—especially about the importance of the social nature of our organizations, and how responsive those of us in leadership positions must be

Leaders and Legacy

The New York Times Sunday magazine article, Can Modern Dance Be Preserved, by Arthur Lubow poses fascinating questions about the reasons for, approaches to, and integrity of preserving the choreography of modern dance pioneers such as Merce Cunningham, Pina Bausch and others. Both Cunningham and Bausch passed away in 2009.

I am interested in this, as for the second time, we are engaged with the Dance Heritage Coalition in developing a vision and strategy for preserving and accessing America’s dance legacy. Thanks to DHC, significant steps in documentation, preservation, education, and access have been taken over the past decade in response to the findings of the National Dance Heritage Leadership Forum that we facilitated in 1998-2000. Technology, funding, and the economy are all dynamic environments. Therefore dancers, choreographers and their companies, funders, and policy folks must all remain engaged in developing frameworks, tools, and agreements that assure issues of legacy are addressed intentionally and with great care. DHC is to be commended in this regard.

Yet, legacy goes well beyond artistic output. What lessons are learned over these fascinating careers that span decades, even centuries?  What did these pioneers learn about organizing in ways that support artistic impulse and intuition? For example Merce founded his company at Black Mountain College, a short-lived, yet furiously lively paragon of artistic creativity—where Buckminster Fuller built his first geodesic dome and William Burroughs published the first chapter of Naked Lunch. How might this inform how we develop supportive environments for artists? What lessons did they take from confronting the major challenges of their career? How did they manage the moments of no money, the vagaries of fickle philanthropy, and the misguided advice of well meaning managers?

And it’s not just choreographers from whom we should be learning. In the last 12 or so months we have lost some really important individuals in the field. What lessons about organizational effectiveness and impact did Paul Baker take with him as founder and long time leader of the Dallas Theatre Center; or Peter Donnelly from his forty-plus years at the helm of the Seattle Rep? Through his journey from Columbia University, to jail and torture in Brazil, to exile in Argentina, what helpful warnings about protecting free expression did Augusto Boal have to tell us? The indefatigable Gerald Arpino led the Joffrey from New York to Chicago and from financial ruin to prominence. What did he have to say to aspiring leaders about stamina, conflict, conviction, and grace?

It’s one thing to read their obituaries and then later, their biographies. It’s yet another to have their voices, their lessons, their insights and wisdom to draw on—forever. We need to capture and put to better use what our best and brightest have learned from their phenomenal leadership adventures, as it will certainly assist us on our own solitary expeditions.