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Heavy lifting in the ambiguity space

03 Dec 2020

Heavy lifting in the ambiguity space

One positive thing that I have taken from 2020 is the opportunity to learn, and more so the opportunity to be engaged in learning that I might not have thought about accessing if we weren’t living in a world of zoom meetings and virtual conferences.

These have included the Clore Leadership Conference, a number of Fundraising Everywhere summits, Young Arts Fundraisers events and a virtual trustee meeting with the Fundraising Everywhere Foundation. 

As well as being able to access this learning from new and exciting places, we have been able to bring to you voices that, in a Covid-free landscape, we might not have been able to, or we might not have thought about before.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be reflecting on a few of the nuggets of knowledge that I’ve taken from these events in 2020 and think about how we can use them going forward into (hopefully) a much brighter 2021.

Moira Sinclair, CEO of Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Chair of Clore Leadership, joined us earlier in the year for the first of our May Leadership Series.

Moira opened up about being a leader in uncertain and rapidly-changing times—making hard decisions, communicating these with her staff—all while striving to continue making an impact. With so much in flux, it has fallen on leaders to navigate through this unknown; to try to prepare for the short-term, medium-term, and long-term simultaneously with unsure levels of support, while continuing to do everything else that they do.

And to be clear, I’m not just talking about Chairs, CEOs and Artistic Directors. I’m talking about the one part-time member of staff in an arts organisation keeping everything going. I’m talking about freelance stage managers and producers for whom jobs are few and far between. I’m talking about young arts professionals filled with ideas and aspirations. If 2020’s unexpected heroes (looking at you, Captain Tom) have done nothing else, they have consolidated what we already knew: that leadership is not defined by status, paycheck or a position of power, but by a set of skills and qualities that enable us to set an example, to support, to inspire, to influence, to make change. And by virtue of that, anyone can be a leader.

With that in mind, I thought it would be helpful to revisit leadership in a changing landscape, to think about how we can continue to do the heavy lifting in the ambiguity space, and to remember some things that are certain (or probably just less uncertain).

Things won’t go back to the way they were

By this point, it’s clear that the cultural sector will not go back to exactly the way it was before. There is an acknowledgement of the scale of the pandemic that forces us to work toward a New New Normal, or whatever we want to call it, but it’s this acknowledgement that allows and requires us to act quickly, make decisions and explore how we make and monitor impact moving forward. The economic and social impact of Covid will affect the way that we work, the needs of the community and their demands on us, and therefore the priorities of government and funders.

We always need a focus on purpose

With everything we do, crisis or not, we need to ensure that our values and purpose are at the heart. It’s so important to make time to check in with your vision, as this will remind you of the relevance of your work, why the work matters, how you should address new and changing needs, and what activities do not bring you to your purpose that you might need to stop as a result. The growth mindset even in difficult times allows us to adapt, to mobilise our fundraising efforts, and to focus on the things that really connect with purpose for our organisations and our audiences. As we move into the new year, with a continued reliance on digital content, it’s still worth thinking about how this means of delivery can help us be more inclusive and diverse, how it can inform the partners that we work with, and how we assess what our audiences truly value.

Keeping connected is key

This year has seen many groups come together to represent the needs of our sector and fight for what we do—venues, freelancers, We Make Events, the Arts Collaboration Network—and this is something we should strive to continue and improve. Networks are an extremely useful tool in times of crisis, and when you are making the tough decision to close to protect staff and audiences, trying to minimise the financial impact, rethinking your projects or adapting your business model, having peers to support, advise and reassure you can be a vital resource.

It’s also important to keep connected to your audience, whether you are running activity online or not. If you aren’t, even get in touch to check how they are. Some people who thrive on the sense of community at your events might be feeling lonely and miss you more than ever. If you are putting content online, remember that one size doesn’t fit all and what you are doing might not be accessible for everyone (and that’s ok!), but the personal touch with audiences that can’t engage will protect the relationships that you have built with them.

Not every decision will be perfect—and that’s ok

No one is an expert on this new way of working, and the trial and error of adapting requires confidence and assuredness of your purpose, the core of your organisation and your customer values. Be clear about what you know, about what you don’t know, and this will build trust with your colleagues and audience. Build in pause points to think about your decisions, think critically about who needs to be involved in each of these decisions, and remember that not every decision needs to be a group one. If you are clear on your purpose and priorities, emerging leaders within your organisation can stand out. Not every decision will be perfect, but if we accept that and take the time to reflect, we can learn from them.

It’s not always about the heroics—use your tools to cope

I want to finish off with a reminder about bouncebackability. Use the tools that you have to build your resilience knowingly and purposefully, whether that be going for a run, meditating, connecting with friends or family, spending time outdoors, making more lockdown banana bread. And remind your colleagues to do the same. This downtime is essential to remain an agile and creative leader as we move towards building on change, new models, and working on a shared mandate for change with arts & culture at the centre.


Adam Bradley, Arts Programme Co-ordinator

You can view 'Leadership in a Changing Landscape' on our Arts Members Area and access more learning through Clore's Leading from a Distance series. This is the first blog in a series of three, reflecting on the knowledge we have gained from bringing voices from outside of NI to our 2020 programme of events.

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Arts & Business NI is generously supported by The Arts Council of Northern Ireland.