Distinct Snowflake or Functioning Cog?

When I first started this course of study I held the belief that it would give me the tools and the confidence to become a leader, to lead magnificently from the front, to be ‘a boss’ and influence others from the top dog position, something I’ve never been comfortable with and have even actively avoided. I don’t particularly like being singled out, not even for praise. I thought that perhaps through this study I could learn how to overcome this perceived lack of ambition or lack of self-confidence, learn the tools to push myself out into the front.

What in fact I think I am learning is the opposite. Not the confidence to lead from the front, but the confidence to say that that is not what I want and furthermore, to say that I don’t think that model of leadership is something to emulate, or even something that I think will be as important in the future. Looking at leadership and organisations has made me assess what my beliefs are around what leadership actually is. I had been led to believe the myth of the dynamic commander, that that was the only way to be a successful leader, that I was lacking in some qualities to become that figure, that only by gaining those could I stand alone, dynamic, artistic, confident and capable. I am now coming to believe that I should build on my own strengths. Why not strengthen what I am rather than push to be something I am not. What I am is someone who would rather be part of a team. It’s not a deficiency or a weakness to lack the qualities necessary to be a commanding dynamic leader, it’s a difference, and perhaps it needs a nonhierarchical structure to foster it. That doesn’t make it ‘less than’, it gives it a point of difference. A difference that may encourage creativity rather than shutting it down. This view is similar to Mary Parker Follett’s opinion that the leadership qualities often associated with leadership like aggression, power and dominance may ultimately extinguish creativity (Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 122).

As with my previous response to the chapter ‘The corporation and the production of culture’ from Herbert I. Schiller’s 1989 book Culture, Inc. The corporate takeover of public expression, my mind kept coming back to the lyrics of a song. I find that often lyrics have the power to sum up in a phrase or two what it takes me a page, a week or an age to articulate:

I was raised up believing I was somehow unique like a snowflake, distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you’d conceive. And now after some thinking I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me. (Fleet Foxes, 2011, track 6)

So what are my snowflake qualities, the assets, background and experiences that make me “distinct among snowflakes” (Fleet Foxes, 2011, track 6)?

For the last ten years I have been at Whitecliffe, of those ten this is my seventh year of study. What it has given me is a thirst for knowledge and the tools to seek it out; when I don’t understand something, I am prepared to actively look for answers and if something is not working I will look for other ways, other methods to move forward. However, this is not the most useful thing I have learned in my decade inside these walls; it is the separation of self from work for critique. As an artist (and indeed as a musician) there needs to be a certain amount of distance created between the maker and the made. The process of critique enables analysis, allowing observation of a thing to find its merits, its surprises and to measure if it is carrying your intentions, missing the mark, or indeed, creating new marks you hadn’t anticipated. The thing can then be developed, discarded, framed reframed or multiplied. It is a process of checking intention and outcome, open to other ideas and new readings. Critique is a group activity, a discussion process, ongoing and open.

This is very much akin to Follett’s “‘plus matter’; where people are continually learning from each other and adding knowledge together for the sake of the overall enterprise, ‘the common purpose’ “(Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 123). The common purpose in a critique is the development of the work; analytical problem solving. In a way that is what I believe artists do, they create an ongoing stream of problems and try to solve them. The artifacts made, in a way, are almost symptoms or side effects thrown up by that search for solution. I am learning to apply this process to other areas of working besides my art and music practices.

I have two other positions at Whitecliffe besides my student role that have some relevance; one of faculty and one of administrator. Being faculty charges me with classroom and student management, facilitating a diverse group of young creatives to learn a set of particular skills, and develop them on a week by week basis. Face to face dealings with artists who are grappling with work and deadlines often for the first time outside of a high school environment. What I have learnt from this and am still learning is that teaching makes me a better person, students make me a better person, other people make me a better person. It is rewarding to see someone pick up an idea and truly run with it in a direction you couldn’t have anticipated.

What it has also taught me is the frustration that occurs when administration is ineffective, or disconnected from the action, and here is where my other role rears its head. My recent addition to my positions here at Whitecliffe is as administrator. Working underneath my Head of Department I am responsible for making things as smooth as possible for the faculty in our department so that they can focus on running with the students and their ideas. What this new position gives me is a dual role; I both help to set, assign or shape the activity and then follow it. Or conversely, I find an issue as or from faculty and take it to myself as administrator to be administrated.  The more I lead (or administrate) the more I find I am following the wishes of the other faculty. In a roundabout way, I am attempting to synthesise leading and following (Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 122). This new role has the potential to be circular in nature, which is how I see it could be the most useful, a conduit in both directions. However, it also has its limitations as there is little autonomy and all must be accomplished within four hours a week.

So what do I want to do with all this? If my experience working in and for Whitecliffe has shaped my thinking, what do I want to do with it? What does this snowflake have to offer?

What I feel I can contribute is a lack of wanting to be constantly in the limelight (this too could be the reason that art not music became the main focus in my career to date, it is the drawings on display most of the time, not my physical person). I have a willingness, not to always step back, for who wants to live constantly in the shadows but to stand as a team member, that “functioning cog” (Fleet Foxes, 2011, track 6). Maybe I will have to build or to find that team, but I have no wish to dictate to it. I would rather step away from that kind of leadership role and become a member; working with peers for peers from within, not from the outside or from the top down.

When I first started this module, I started with the 2000 “Leadership that gets results” article by Daniel Goleman. I found myself questioning whether it was right to change the nature of a person or to manipulate them using behaviour therapy and I am glad to have found myself unwittingly echoing Follett’s critique of “‘applied psychology’ which, under the guise of teaching leaders how to exercise power, turns instead to discovering how to manipulate others’” (Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 122).  I find myself far more closely aligning with her view that “power is an active provocative force that belongs to the integrative dynamic of the group – Hence it is counterproductive for a leader to exercise power over another” (Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 122, emphasis in original). I hope that this is the way forward for organisations, not just arts organisations but all kinds, that instead of current standard hierarchical structures, arts administrators and managers are part of a greater purpose, and do not attempt to channel it all themselves.

I think that the contemporary climate we live in today may not support the organizational structures that rely on top down ideas and constant growth. I wonder if the future of organisations might lie in a looser cluster of roles, constellation organisations made up of shifting roles aligned beliefs and shared information. Much like Follett’s “’law of interpenetration’: where people interact and contribute new ideas to the group, by so doing they renew and transform the group. By interpenetration there is both modification and adjustment, and at the same time cooperation and fulfillment’” (Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 121). I think things will need to be multiple and varied open to renewal without being watered down or inauthentic.

There will be difficult times ahead for arts managers and administrators. They will need to be increasingly creative in order to both understand the personalities of new organisations, personalities that may defy articulation, pinning down, or pigeon holing, and at the same time ensure these organisations survive in a culture entrenched in hierarchical, patriarchal and individualistic ideologies. Aspects of fledgling constellation, community and collaboratively based organisations will need to function in the existing structures without compromising the very thing that makes them unique, their shifting, changing, flux evolutions. Arts managers will need Mary Parker Follett’s advice from 1924 more than ever as they move forward; that there is no ‘final authority” (Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 123), no longer a tried and true method or steadfast way of being, that “decision making is as continuous as the ever changing situation” (Follett as cited in Bathurst & Monin, 2010, p. 123). We need to heed this as we advance into our rapidly changing environment.

 

References

Bathurst, R. J., & Monin, N. (2010). Shaping leadership for today: Mary Parker Follett’s aesthetic. Leadership, 6(2), 115­­–131.

Fleet Foxes. (2011). Helplessness blues. On helplessness blues [Record]. Seattle, WA: Sub Pop

 

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