We are the leaders now!
How leadership should look now and in the future
…in this day and age all the leaders we see are these people who are above the people that they lead, and lead their, um, followers… for so long I’ve striven… strove?… striv- striv… sorry I don’t know! Ummmm… AIMED for that model of leadership to be a boss or above everyone…
Me, Sour Lemons Residential Video Diary, 11th January 2020
Leader: the person who leads or commands a group, organisation, or country.
Lead: be in charge or command of.
These definitions pretty much sum up what I grew up believing a leader to be. What sort of images does that conjure in your mind? I see army generals in historic battles, dictators of states and ancient politicians. Think Alexander the Great of Ancient Greece, or, a classic, the joyous Winston Churchill. In these images that spring to mind, a leader is loud, powerful and commanding, making decisions that others follow blindly. A leader does not look or sound like me.
Growing up in London, most of the leaders I saw almost always mirrored that crusty old image of power and authority. From teachers at school, through to leaders on summer camp, and even my directors at youth theatre. They were uninhibitedly confident, almost always manifesting as arrogance. They seemed to know everything, “commanding”, never offering room for debate. Command, definition: ‘give an authoritative or peremptory order’, or ‘dominate from a superior height’. Nice, right? And, let’s not sugarcoat it, they were usually middle- or upper-class white men, and if not male, white women. Recently, I realised that until joining Sour Lemons, I had never been taught or led by a black person. I’ve had around 5 people of colour lead me in school or either of my University degrees combined. None of them were black. None, regardless of race, were working class.
What does that do for a young person’s image of authority? Who do they expect to follow? When faced with someone who doesn’t fit that model, both physically and practically, do they give them the respect they deserve?
And going off that, there is a difference between confidence and arrogance. But that is something that I have to unlearn because of all the leaders I’ve grown up with seeing lead with arrogance, and privilege, and things that seemed they were like born into that.
January Video Diary
In this model, leaders were born into leadership through familial blood ties, or societal hierarchies. Serious Divine Right of Kings vibes. In fact, I regret to inform you this set-up hasn’t completely changed. Think of the Bullingdon Club, the infamous private all-male dining club at Oxford University. Their traditions of vandalisation and arrest has not stopped former members Boris Johnson, David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt and George Osborne reaching some of the highest offices in the country.
In the words of Branwen Jeffreys;
We should all care who goes to our top universities because they end up running the country.
Less than 1% of the adult population graduated from Oxford or Cambridge, but the two universities have produced most of our prime ministers, the majority of our senior judges and civil servants, and many people in the media.
And when you find out that 48% of Oxbridge offers go to only the wealthy home counties and London, you can imagine the demographic we’re talking about. Thus, those who don’t fit our expectations of leadership often face discrimination, lack of support or lack of respect.
Growing up, the leaders I came across pretty much fit this model. If they weren’t like this naturally, I noticed them perform to achieve the leadership desired by others. Teachers straight out of Oxbridge with their “well-educated” and commanding voices and suits, or smaller female directors standing on chairs and stamping their feet to make their voice heard in the room. I’m not like that. I can’t be like that. I looked in the mirror and at the way I acted and assumed leadership was not for me. Perhaps I was better off following.
I look back at this time last year the way I used to lead rooms for example was, like, so apologetic. Like “oh sorry you have to listen to me. Sorry I’m here in charge. Sorry I’m taking up space.”
Sour Lemons Mid-Point Video Diary, 10th July 2020
I remember my hesitance in signing up to a director’s scheme during my Undergrad. I just could not see myself, a young, brown, very petite woman, leading a room. Especially not a room in a University which is on average over 70% White-British, and, in reality, much higher in the arts scene. In my three Undergrad years I did over 40 productions, meeting over 100 castmates, directors, creative teams etc. I came across no more than ten people of colour in that entire time. No more than five from working-class backgrounds. Less than five were disabled. What. The Actual. Heck.
It is remarkable what space to grow and investment in your leadership journey can do. Not only that, but discovering lived experience leadership. The Lived Experience Movement define a lived experience leader as those:
…who have activated their lived expertise to inform, shape and lead their social purpose work (often in combination with learned and practical experience) to directly benefit the communities they share those experiences with.
I kid you not, this blew my mind. I did not have to have gone to Eton, can’t anyway I’m a woman, or Oxbridge, didn’t get past the interview stage, or be posh-sounding and loud to be a leader. My lived experiences can be just as effective in forming the basis for my own, personal style of leadership.
My time with Sour Lemons has shown me that anyone has the potential to lead, especially those with lived experiences. Observing the leadership of those in the Sour Lemons team, alumni and the incredible guests that have been brought in has quite literally turned my world upside down. From black and brown women to working-class white artists, from people who speak loudly and clearly, to those more soft-spoken and gentle, they are all leaders.
Arts Council NPOs in Diversity Report 2018-2019
White Managers: 76% BME Managers: 9%
White Chief Executives: 84%
White Artistic Directors: 75%
White Board Members: 72%
It’s not enough to tackle this with diversity quotas, putting a token person in charge of a venue and expecting it to work. When our expectations of leadership don’t match the realities fresh and diverse talent brings, these leaders struggle. Either they must change to adapt the expectations of leadership, or they continue in their style and face continued discrimination, or worse, just being ignored.
I dunno, I think I just had this image of leadership as something you kind of “lone wolfed”, like if you’re a leader you’re up there by yourself. But… to really access my leadership, I need people around me who build me up and who I can build up, coz I really thrive off building other people up as well.
July Video Diary
Now is the perfect opportunity. At the round-table discussion I co-facilitated with Cain and Adrian, I opened by asking the leaders present; ‘When the Covid-crisis hit, who was sitting at your decision-making table? Who was not?’
We as a sector have no choice but to rebuild due to the COVID crisis, and it’s up to us to put lived experience leaders that not only look different, but lead differently, in positions of authority. This won’t be simple. In order to give power to new leaders, certain people in power will have to give things up, in acts of radical generosity. As these sectors are rebuilding now regardless, should we not look to rebuild in a way that truly represents the communities in which we work? Rebuild like this not just for box-ticking, but because we see the value and joy in collaborating with those different from ourselves?
During the past 7 months with Sour Lemons, I’ve had time to reflect on what leaders look like. Not just what they look like physically, but what their leadership looks like. I’ve revolutionised the way I conceptualise leadership, and conceptualise a place for myself in the leadership of the Arts, Cultural and Social Justice sectors.
‘How are you going to create the change you want to see in the world?’
I will know my own truths. And I think that needs to be my core and my strong foundation, you know, even if it means you lose people along the way. You know who you are and what you’re standing for. And if other people don’t have the appreciation or tolerance for that, well, then… see ya!’
The tweets are linked as follows [https://twitter.com/dawnbutlerbrent/status/1224746703812775937?lang=en], [https://twitter.com/FastnetQueen/status/1017876320892616705].
Arts Council, ‘Equality, Diversity and the Creative Case: A Data Report, 2018-19’ (17/02/2020) [https://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication/equality-diversity-and-creative-case-data-report-2018-19].
H. Richardson and B. Jeffrys, ‘Oxbridge Uncovered: More elitist than we thought’ (20/10/2017) [https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-41664459].
Richardson and Jeffrys, ‘Oxbridge Uncovered’.