Both in the arts and elsewhere, “leadership” sits atop a growing pile of buzzwords aimed at capturing the essence of what makes a successful organization, well, successful. But what makes for a great leader?
As a PhD candidate interested in this topic, I reached out to Scott DeRue, a professor at the University of Michigan and one of today’s leading experts on leadership. According to DeRue, CEOs and executive directors do not have to be authoritarians to ensure success. He instead argues that leadership can be considered “a series of acts that are distributed throughout a group or organization,” serving to coordinate individual goals and tackle the diverse challenges facing all complex institutions.
Recent research suggests that adaptive leaders, not heroic ones, are the most prosperous. One of the most powerful forms of adaptive leadership involves sharing executive responsibility with other employees and stakeholders (think, for instance, of a basketball team). Such distributive techniques should resonate especially well in the arts, where overlapping artistic and administrative structures can inhibit effective leadership. Navigating these different structures and leveraging internal dissension to enact change takes an incredible amount of trust and hard work, but the potential payoff is well worth it.
To better understand how this new style of leadership works “on the ground,” I reached out to two music groups that have harnessed its power to foster cultures of innovation. Considered one of the Most Democratic Workplaces in the world (WorldBlue, Inc.), the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra has utilized a shared leadership model for nearly forty years, but its implementation has continued to evolve. The group’s thirty-four musicians include a dynamic ‘core’ of principal players who rotate artistic leadership responsibilities for particular repertoire. Executive Director Ayden Adler thinks of the group “not as leaderless, but leader-full. Everyone feels an extraordinary sense of responsibility, both for the artistic product and the institution as a whole.”
An ethos of collaboration suffuses the organization’s strategy, percolating up through the ensemble and challenging traditional conceptions of artistic performance and administration. For Adler, the key to Orpheus’ success is a culture of common values:
“We’re very explicit about the values that make us special. Collaboration, respect for people, innovation through continual learning, and a commitment to shared leadership. Because those values are explicit, we can build internal formal structures that support them.”
Since 2003, they have shared their collaborative philosophy with students through the Orpheus Institute, serving as a model for peer organizations and proving that distributed leadership can empower individuals to find common ground and make great music.
Like Orpheus, A Far Cry leverages shared leadership tactics to meet and overcome familiar industry challenges. Founded in 2007 by seventeen young musicians, the Boston-based ensemble represents a new strain of organization, a kind of “do-it-yourself” experiment that defies traditional expectations. Co-founder and violinist Jesse Irons remembers the group’s first season, which saw members pitch in with administrative tasks out of necessity In his own words,
“we took advantage of our musicians’ non-musical skills, electing a violist with prior banking experience as treasurer and bookkeeper, a violinist with a particularly sunny personality as fundraiser, and a cellist with deeply-held charitable ideals as a coordinator of partnerships with other worthy causes.”
The group’s ideology of shared leadership goes deeper than mundane administrative tasks, however, permeating the organization’s value system and artistic philosophy. The Criers are a registered 501(c)3 but they invoke a flatter, more democratic structure than most arts organizations. Moreover, Irons believes that “the musical opinions held by A Far Cry’s musicians are our most valuable assets. It is the frequent exercising of musical opinions that make the job of a chamber musician so rewarding, and it is in that spirit that A Far Cry distributes musical leadership among all its musicians…. We’ve always striven for ‘active’ following, embodying your section leader so completely that it’s as if you’re leading them from behind.”
By leveraging shared leadership structures and techniques, both of these ensembles have thrived in an otherwise difficult economic environment. In 2010-11 Orpheus posted a $400,000 surplus, and A Far Cry tripled its revenue. These organizations embody the kind of collective virtuosity that drives organizational innovation and change, mediating multiple (and sometimes conflicting) perspectives to achieve their goals. Great leadership is a reflection of symbiosis between leader and team; it can be cultivated through the adoption of certain organizational structures and practices.
I believe that the ideas presented above could benefit many different types of arts organizations, especially those that struggle with entrenched and ineffective leadership. Distributing such responsibility and power can be an uncomfortable, and even unnerving, process. But shared leadership can also improve efficiency and incite extraordinary art making. Isn’t that the point?
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Michael is a Blogging Fellow.