Monday, September 28, 2009

Leadership and Your Personal Compass

DOES THIS SOUND LIKE YOU OR SOMEONE YOU KNOW? Director is hired to revitalize a long-in-the-tooth cultural organization with an aging audience/support base. New momentum must be created for stability today and growth tomorrow. How to move forward and bring most everybody along? That’s just one of the thousands of questions to be asked and answered on the long journey of breathing new life into an organization that has hit a very wide plateau or peaked too soon.

Almost every cultural organization struggles every day to find its path to the future. Yet, as directors, we may be only aware of it when the struggle becomes a crisis. What’s the skill set for keeping a finger on the pulse of an organization, anticipating its needs, and creating its future?

A New York Times article about Metropolitan Opera General Manager Peter Gelb’s approach to leading a major cultural institution into the 21st century offers up some really useful insights. Yes, this is the GM whose recent production of Tosca was booed, but that comes with the territory of leading change. So, here’s the short list I gleaned about leadership from the article:

  • Set your personal cultural compass on what you believe to be important. You’ve got to have a conviction deep in your gut that art, history, music, dance – or whatever – is the most important thing.
  • Demonstrate that this most important thing is not locked in the past. Its relevance to audiences over time lies in the fact that it can be reinterpreted and juxtaposed...again and again.
  • Facilitate new perspectives from new artists and audiences. Recruit new voices. Collaborate with unexpected partners.
  • Bring programming to new venues. Move it out when you can; find ways to engage far-flung audiences in it when you can’t. (Take a look at the image above -- there's a big screen outside the Metropolitan Opera.)
  • Get out from behind your desk. Anywhere in the museum, theater, or concert hall is your office.
  • Know that the more you plan, the more flexible your organization will be.
  • Keep the faith.
Photo: opera al fresco from • Eliane •