John Killacky on Holding the Reins

KillackyWPony

From the very first time I met John Killacky—in 1997, when I was a program associate for Zeum (now the Children’s Creativity Museum), a neighbor of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts—I’ve been consistently enthralled by his presence. He is a storyteller that doesn’t just entertain, but rather goes beyond to draw connections between life’s experiences that inevitably lead to transformation. Whether in the role of keynote speaker, fellow panelist, or interviewee, John is constantly teaching and learning–artfully and humbly welcoming us into his life as fertile learning territory to explore.

On a recent morning, we caught up on some of his “a-ha!” moments about vision, inclusion, experimentation and focus, and how they impact his role as Executive Director at the Flynn Center. The following is a condensed version of that conversation.

John Killacky is Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. Previously, he was Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation. Prior to that, he was Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for six years and Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Arts Center in Minnesota. A former dancer and marathon runner, Killacky still explores movement through his work with a Shetland pony and continues to write and make art. He has written and directed several award winning short films and is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio.
John Killacky is Executive Director of Flynn Center for the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vermont. Previously, he was Program Officer for Arts and Culture at the San Francisco Foundation. Prior to that, he was Executive Director of Yerba Buena Center for the Arts for six years and Curator of Performing Arts at the Walker Arts Center in Minnesota.
A former dancer and marathon runner, Killacky still explores movement through his work with a Shetland pony and continues to write and make art. He has written and directed several award winning short films and is a regular commentator for Vermont Public Radio.

Elissa Perry: What have you learned from working with your Shetland pony that impacts what you do at the Flynn?

John Killacky: She weighs 400 pounds, and I only control her with the bit in her mouth through the reins. It is a very delicate dance that all signals go through the reins: turn left, turn right, stop. She has blinders on to keep her looking forward, because horses do not see like human beings. They have 350-degree sight, and function with peripheral vision since their eyes are on the sides of their head.

This understanding has informed the conversations I’m having at committees as well as with all of my staff. I’m trying to understand the peripheral vision. For example, I’m trying to figure out how to include introverts in our organization if a group process is not the best place for them to be heard. It’s not the best strategy for me to call on an introvert and ask them what their opinion is in a group of 32 people, as that can be intimidating for them. So, I’ve instead stopped by their offices and said, “Gee, I’m interested in what you thought of the conversation and, if not now, maybe tomorrow we could talk about it, because I want to make sure the organization and I hear from you.” That’s really helped. Just stopping by could catch them off guard, but if I say, “What if we talk tomorrow,” those introverted people will gather their thoughts or write something down and send it to me.

I’ve tried to be in that 350-degree vision of the institution and be aware of the different ways people interact, speak and want to feel heard.  I have to listen to people and not only be empathetic, but imagine myself in their situation to understand what they are saying.

EP: How has your work with your pony changed how you think about partnership?

JK: My dance and movement work with my Shetland pony is really a true partnership. My work with her and with other horses has helped me gain perspective on different and shifting group dynamics. Sometimes, with the pony, we’ll acknowledge, “Okay, we didn’t have a good day today, but we’ve got to keep working on this.” One particular conflict emerged when, about three months ago, she decided she didn’t want to turn left. I had to work on it over a couple of weeks, and some days I made better progress than others.

I was paralyzed 16 years ago and had to learn how to walk again. On the left side of my body, I don’t have proprioception, which is the sense of location, and on the right side I don’t have sensation. I think what happened is that when my pony didn’t want to turn left, my left hand would swing out with the rein unconsciously, which gave her a contradictory message and reinforced what she actually wanted to do, which is not turn left, because I was only keeping tension on the right rein and not the left one.

The whole situation was fun to break down, but it took a while for me to understand what it was that I was doing wrong versus what she was doing wrong. So, we accommodated and I’m holding the reins differently now and I think that seems to have helped address the issue.

EP: It sounds like something you’ve done throughout your career, too: figuring out what you can do differently and holding the reins differently in an organizational context.

JK: I hope so, because then you can adapt when you change course a bit. Constant recalibration is important. You learn that in the rehearsal process, in the editing process, with the horse, and in the workplace. It’s messy, but it’s glorious, and it’s much fuller, because we are the organization! I’m not the organization. I’m only John. But together, we’re the Flynn, so to me, that’s important.

EP: What have you learned from your experience as a runner?

JK: After I stopped dancing, I ran marathons. What I learned from running is that you take the “long view.” At the Flynn, we have taken the “long view” in our planning processes. Ultimately, I am the head of the organization and it’s my job to lead the organization. Likewise, if I am managing a relationship with an equine, I also must be in charge. I have to understand it all—both the long view and the peripheral view—and then move it (the animal, or the organization) forward. I must also look ahead for the institution and not be focused on one person, while continuing to gather information from each individual player, team member, or component.

EP: What about your art-making process informs the way you approach the “long view”?

JK: As someone who has been an artist and continues to make work, I’m used to trying out new material, and if it doesn’t work, I drop it or attempt to make it better. With my past film projects, once I started editing them, I had to create the film that actually existed in the footage regardless of what my original storyboards looked like. Sometimes, you go into a situation with expectations, but have to let some of them go as the situation changes. You might have to give up your most beloved shot because it just doesn’t make sense in the piece.

At the Flynn, we began crafting a vision and mission statement for the organization—which elicits tears, laughter, and a lot of passion. There are many things we care about within the organization, but our original statement had all this beloved gobbledy-goop in it. Instead, we’re trying to make it a little more essential, so that we can then focus on building our goals, strategies, and objectives towards the direction of our broader, passionate vision. In the past, writing these kinds of statements has been a top-down process and I’m trying to do it from the bottom up, so it’s a bit messier and a bit more emotional.

EP: What makes it worth it to have this messier, more emotional process?

JK: I always believe that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. It’s more interesting, and everyone benefits when you have a group iterative process. It’s a little like dance; dancing is also a group collaborative process that, even when you are rehearsing a piece that is built on a solo, all performers need to work together to form a very intricate dance.

Dreaming Awake from John R. Killacky on Vimeo.

Learn more about John:

About
Elissa Perry helps people and groups of people with a social mission get better at what they do. For over 15 years she has worked as a staff member, consultant and coach in the areas of leadership, education and the arts. Elissa also teaches in the MA in Leadership Program at Saint Mary’s College in California and recently helped establish a social justice concentration. Elissa was a Salzburg Fellow in 2006 and the recipient of an Individual Artist Commission from the San Francisco Arts Commission in 2010. She earned a BA in Humanities and holds an MFA in Creative Writing.

  • Aja

    Fabulous

  • Elissa, I just stumbled onto this post and was excited to find so many possible and inspiring perception shifts in one interview. A good reminder that big change can begin with a small shift in approach. I love several of the metaphors in this piece – of striving to have a 350 degree vision of the organization and the ways people interact, of the interaction between leadership and staff as essential infrastructure that makes up an organization, and also of the “long view” or marathon approach to the planning process. I wonder if this willingness to embrace these creative, metaphor-driven approaches has something to do with that JK is a working artist – do you have any sense of this? Thanks for sharing this conversation.