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The Risk of Shared Leadership

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This week on HowlRound, ten rising leaders from Theatre Communication Group's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. Find the full series here.

Does not every genuine drama present our relations to each other and to the world in which we find ourselves in such wise as may fortify us to the end of the journey? —Jane Addams , co-founder Hull-House

Recently I spent some time finally reading the entirety of Todd London’s excellent compilation of essays from the founders of the American theatre, An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. It is filled with vision and aspiration for a relevant theatre that can indeed fortify us, our communities, and our country “to the end of our journey.” The book is a study in what it means to inspire. And it’s not surprising that inspiration is always rooted in community; that true leadership and vision is never about simply hoping to make a good production, or put forth a fine performance, but rather leadership, as London demonstrates in his editing of founding visions, is all about connection to others, about theatre as the bridge to personal and social transformation. As Frederick H. Koch says in laying out his founding of the Carolina Playmakers in 1918, “Important as the individual is in theatre, it is well for us to remind ourselves constantly that the dramatic is essentially a social art.” The book is a reflection of twentieth century interventions that sought to change the circumstances of artists and communities for the betterment of life in America.

What will be the founding visions for the twenty-first century? Will the movements afoot, aimed at achieving equity, access, and inclusion in our theatres, thrive or languish?

It got me thinking a lot about what will be the founding visions for the twenty-first century? What will we do with the resources under our stewardship and how will our actions shape the practice of the next generation? Will we successfully respond to the problems that plague us in this moment? Will the movements afoot, aimed at achieving equity, access, and inclusion in our theatres, thrive or languish? What interventions will the next Todd London chronicle as our contribution to transforming our communities for the better?

We’re taking a stab at some of these questions as we hear this week on HowlRound from the young leaders coming out of this year’s SPARK program, a component of TCG’s Diversity and Inclusion Initiative “supporting the professional development of exceptional rising leaders of color who aim to take on executive leadership positions at US not-for-profit theatres.” I’m honored members of the SPARK program asked me to kick off the week with my own reflections on leadership and vision. I am grappling personally, with the necessity for shared vision, for leadership that comes from the minds of the many rather than from the inspiration of the one. What follows is a reflection on why rethinking how we define leadership is critical right now, in this moment, as we imagine the founding visions for our time.

Shared Leadership
With a few exceptions in An Ideal Theater, leadership is primarily expressed as visions of exceptional individuals. This is no surprise since this is how we conceive of leadership and visions—they flow out from individuals and into communities. (This is not a criticism of the book but simply a fact of the origins of organizational leadership; one person has a big idea, and others follow.) The singular leader or the singular founder of an organization dominates our history. Though we do have a history in the theatre of some versions of shared leadership—including the ensemble model of art-making, and the artistic director/managing director duo—we usually credit one individual with the vision (especially inside of institutions, perhaps less so with our ensembles). Because the vision in theatre stems from the art and the art comes from the artistic director, visions usually come from this direction. There are obvious reasons that this has been our path. The idea of the artistic director is central to how our theatres have been built. Someone has to define the aesthetic world that we ask our audiences to enter. Excellence is a hotly contested category and agreeing upon what goes on our stages requires, traditionally, a final vote, a guiding vision for what constitutes the best theatre one can imagine. And one person must be held responsible for failures and credited for successes.

I’m part of a team at the Office of the Arts at Emerson College in Boston that houses both ArtsEmerson and HowlRound that is testing a new way to think of the origins of vision, one that is trying to create a shared leadership model despite organizational hierarchies and structural demands that leadership flies solo. In our setup we have a managing director, an artistic director, and a creative director but these titles don’t aptly represent the process we’re in. There’s not a money guy and an art guy; there’s a team of three of us talking about money, art, community, audience, marketing, fundraising, management, dramaturgy, citizenship, values, and vision. We do this together putting forth a shared vision from multiple voices and experiences where we are all on equal footing.

This innovation, as we call it, comes out of a series of questions that my co-conspirators and I believe are worth exploring:

1. Does identity and representation matter at the top?
Any good leader will tell you that they aren’t only representing themselves but that they are keenly aware of their audience and stakeholders in their decision-making. In fact, in making programmatic decisions, they will inevitably argue that they know what their audiences like and will contend that they often defer their own tastes for the sake of giving pleasure to others. Good leaders listen to those around them and then trust themselves to act upon some combination of what they hear and their own gut instincts.

The argument goes that one’s personal identity shouldn’t matter in this instance, but is that realistic in a polarized culture where identity is, for better or worse, a defining reality of our time? The political, economic, and emotional divides between our disparate identities create seemingly insurmountable tensions when lives are literally on the line. Can any one person aptly represent the voices and the stories consistently underrepresented and now insisting to be heard and seen? And is the answer simply more singular leaders of different identities?

In our experiment at Emerson College, it’s intentional that we’re leading with a black man, a transgender person, and a white man. All three of us have wildly different experiences of living in the world. We have different sensitivities, different communities we inhabit, and different visions as a result of our differences! 

 2. Is it possible in an America with rapidly shifting demographics, where minority and majority populations are turning upside down, for one person to lead the charge to meet the aesthetic needs of an entire community?
The expectations placed on our organizations are evolving dramatically. In an old world where artistic directors led and audiences followed, thrilled at the thought of seeing someone else’s vision on stage, this might have made sense. But it’s no longer sufficient to think that one person can define the aesthetic for the incredibly diverse communities inside of which we program. I don’t think anyone would argue, given the rapidly changing make up of our American cities, that an individual sensibility could be consistently relevant to the cultural fluency that our current reality demands. And our organizations are no longer being asked to simply put on plays and sell tickets, but we’re being asked—by foundations, by city government, by civic organizations, and by our neighbors—to matter to audiences that may have never felt invited to our theatres before, who have never participated in or seen themselves a part of our organizational visions  Our cozy exclusivity is being unmoored by demands that equity and inclusivity become intrinsic to our work.

This means we are all knee-deep in exploring the terms “engagement,” “participation,” and “identity.” We are all being held accountable to be citizens of our cities, and engage civically as well as creatively. And yet the primary demographic leading all of this work? Well, it still looks a lot like the demographic that was leading fifty years ago. How could the very scope of what is demanded of us be encompassed in the mind’s eye of one person leading from a single body when it is a multiplicity of bodies in so many diverse contexts that we must account for?

3. Can the cultural desire for singularity be overcome?
The other day the three of us were sitting in an external workshop for not-for-profits on succession planning. Our organization was asked to bring our executive director and the board chair. So we all three went with a board member from the college. At every step of the conversation the framework had to be altered to include our multiplicity, our very presence upended the model to talk about leadership transitions and succession.

We only began this work together in April and already we are coming up against how much people like to know there’s one person in charge. Or in the instances of the managing director/artistic director duos, people expect that one person leads on the money and one the art. Hierarchies let us know where the buck stops, and the idea that it could stop with any one of three people is harder to grasp than we could have imagined. Everyone wants to know, “but who really decides?” This effort is counter-cultural, and that means while we’re sorting out internally what we mean by shared leadership, we must also help shape new habits for the outside world to deal with multiple voices and visions with equal authority to lead.

4. Are we simply waiting around for retirements and leadership transitions for things to change?
I think of the leaders being developed in the SPARK program. When will they get their chance? And when there is turnover, if our search firms and our board members are all from a singular demographic and singular view of leadership, will new leaders look and think any differently? Can a shared leadership model make a dent in this problem of lack of representation in our institutions right now? What if instead of waiting for turnover we just added leaders to the mix and changed up the conversation at the top?

A group of people standing outside
Participants in the pilot round of Theatre Communications Group’s SPARK Leadership Program 2014-2015.
Photo by Theater Communications Group. 

In writing this essay I asked the SPARK leaders to send me their ideas about the origins of their personal sense of vision. Here are some of the things they wrote to me:

In order for the vision to come to fruition a person typically must labor with the idea, develop strategic steps and a network of people to help the vision come to fruition.

Leadership and vision are the bravery to hold myself to the standards to which I hold others.

A singular vision in our field does nothing to illuminate the whole and finding common ground is essential for vision building and communicating your vision.

From an organizational perspective, our narratives must embrace a wide range of people and experiences that are indicative of the world in which we live.

I form an artistic vision from values. Then I ask: what if this organization lived those values? What kind of work would we be doing? What impact would that have on the world?

When I think about the visions that I've wanted to get behind, they're aligned with my own firmly held values—values centered around celebrating difference, letting generosity guide the work, and being a theatremaker of yes!

Lately I’m thinking vision and leadership come from a Molotov cocktail of impatience, courage, and love of one’s community.

I believe you make decisions about what to put onstage by listening closely to your community for signs of death and desire for change. 

For me, artistic vision comes from the collision of the artist-leader, the community, and the gatekeepers.

Vision comes from joy
Because hate and anger are short-winded
But joy is an ultra-athlete of accomplishments

So little singularity and so much we in these visions! How can we make space for these voices to guide us into the future? What risk must we, as current leaders take now to make this possible? What if in addition to cultivating leaders in mentorship programs, we made a big investment in expanding the number of leaders at the table?

Can a shared leadership model make a dent in this problem of lack of representation in our institutions right now? What if instead of waiting for turnover we just added leaders to the mix and changed up the conversation at the top?

I can say from experience that taking this risk will require a personal reckoning from every leader already sitting at the head of the table. The challenge for the three of us at Emerson College lives at the heart of this reckoning. Any one of us could be leading on our own, and we would all agree that there would be some ease and relief in this choice. Shared leadership requires a level of trust and truth telling that can be at times painful and frustrating as we struggle to fully show up as individuals inside of the unknowns of the conversations required to make this model work. And we’re all acutely aware that there are very few examples of successful shared leadership to guide us. Sharing leadership and vision is an enormously challenging proposition, but these are such very challenging times.

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Thoughts from the curators

In this series, ten rising leaders from TCG's SPARK Leadership Program examine leadership, vision, diversity, inclusion, and equity, as well exciting trends and trend makers in our field. 



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Your last sentence is the real truth, Polly. Always am inspiration to read what you're thinking.

As one of 5 co-founders of AlterTheater, I feel that some of our success with diversity is because of our commitment to institutionalizing risk-taking...and that means a shared power structure. I honestly don't know how single artistic directors do it. Having millions of dollars and 25 people's jobs resting on one person's choice of 5 or 7 plays...it's a structure that encourages playing it safe.

AlterTheater is now 10 years old, and we've been through trial and error with our leadership structure. Our goal has always been to find a structure that best supports our mission and core values:

--supporting the creative growth of theater artists (we ask our artists to take risks, to try things they don't already know how to do well, to push themselves forward as artists)
--doing so within a community that is diverse, inclusive and accepting

We do have a single financial leader, but artistic decisions are made by a subset of our ensemble artists (7-11 artists serve for a year on our Litereary Committee, which has most of the decision-making authority of an artistic director). When an ensemble of artists argues passionately for or against projects, when a group of people with very diverse aesthetics and viewpoints get behind an idea, a play, an artist, then it's so much easier to say yes to something challenging, unusual.

I think that as artists (and as artistic leaders), we each individually need to decide: do we want to make art with people who think like us, who share our aesthetic, our experience (because that's powerful, too--when you find your artistic soulmates, it's magic...but it can be insular); or do we want to come together with people who are not like us? I can say from experience that if you choose the latter path, the biggest key is respecting everyone who's sitting around your artistic table, and finding a way to institutionalize listening. Because the latter path requires an every day commitment to being open, to making it work, and no matter how successful you are at it, you will always have moments of epic failure.

When we work in the first way, we can finish each other's thoughts; when we work in the second way, we can really make one another feel disrespected when we assume that we know well enough to finish another's thoughts.

In my experience, a shared leadership model institutionalizes a need for listening, and so gives us a leg up on being successful with diversity.

Thanks so much for this thoughtful reply. I think your point about the difference between having your "soulmates" around the table and having people who really see the world from a different vantage point is key, that is as you say where listening is the most important thing, and it's how we find ourselves really being pushed to reconsider our singular views of the world and the art. You should consider writing about this further in an HowlRound article, would love to hear more about what you've learned over the years!

Shared leadership is an interesting challenge to the current standard. Single leadership hierarchy spans every profession as the only form of leadership. So, in our world of limited jobs, space, and shared funding, it's clear that we need to take risks as a community to establish new voices, identities, and possibilities.

I wonder about young theatre companies who start their journeys in living rooms and salons, who from the beginning will be searching for their own leadership, aesthetic, and voice. How could this help them? How could it challenge them?

Michael Rau and Will Davis talk about a theatre landscape of artistic teams that are hired regionally like independant contractors. This model of hiring artists matches a world of shared leadership. There are connected ideas in both.


Excited for the series!

Thanks for your comment and your questions..you raise a good point about the limited nature of jobs and funding, the shared leadership model requires a commitment to finding the resources, and also to thinking about resource distribution. I hope you enjoy the rest of the series!

As one-third of a shared leadership structure at People's Light, I greatly appreciate this on a number of fronts. It's very important we deconstruct the myth of the singular vision as being the dominant engine for progress, invention, and transformation. That's all part of America's attraction/addiction to a concept of individualism that is historically false and psychologically/socially unhealthy. Ask The Beatles, U2, or The Fugees if their best work was the result of one voice and aspiration. I think even Bruce Springsteen would say his "Boss" moniker is not about the creative endeavor, and his front man persona would be of little use were in not for the vision and leadership of his "blood brothers".

The question I have.... In some cases the impulse towards institution in the American Theatre -- which begets so many models of convention -- is about domestic stability: the desire to provide a specific group of storytellers and creative communicators a consistent place to work as part of an ongoing conversation with a specific community. Zelda has referred to the origins of The Artistic Director/Managing Director concept as being a default to the two-parent "Mom and Dad" paradigm-- and I suspect that an investigation of our traditional leadership structures often will reveal a prejudice towards the dominant family constructs of the 1950s. For the Theatre, this is an inherently exclusive dynamic, an impulse that privileges certain artists (or children -- let's be honest, there are many cases where leaders treat artists like children) over others to provide those artists with a collaborative home, consistent income, and more in-depth dialogue. In practice, this has frequently reinforced the centering of white men in our culture. So I think a challenge and opportunity this next generation of leaders has is whether the engine of multiple perspectives -- of centering a diversity of voices and experiences -- still seeks a domestic stability for its participants. And therefore what kind of partnerships and coalitions, what kind of careful coordination across an ecosystem of theaters, is necessary to provide that. That's tough work, but with great leaders - shared and other structures yet to be imagined (we now have so many different family paradigms to refer to) -- I think it's possible.

Zak, I really appreciate your comments here. I think it's interesting to consider how shared leadership also opens up the possibility to reconsider how we operate across institutions, how do we make enough room to expand our notion of family to be wildly more inclusive.?I have been most impressed by the way the commons model works in this regard, particularly I have been wowed by the work of the Latino Theatre Commons to create a coalition of leadership across institutions and individual artists to leverage all kinds of resources to expand considerably who gets to be at the family dinner table. I know Lisa Portes will be writing about this later in the series this week. I think we have a lot to learn as a field from that movement about both shared leadership and bigger dinner tables.

Thanks, Polly. I read and loved Lisa's articulation of LTC's multiverse commons-based approach -- especially in terms of the coalition building across institutions that you highlight here and how in her Chicago example it galvanized such tremendous community-deepening, civic resonance, and art making. In the context of my initial question about domestic stability, I wonder how much volunteership plays a role in the ability to pursue horizontally-constructed engines. How, if at all, do you think the dynamics shift when there are multiple lightning rods and facilitators who are paid living wages (of equal amounts or not), start/care for families based on those wages (with similar family set ups or wildly different ones), and those personal priorities enter the picture?

Hey, Polly--Exciting and inspiring as always. A small correction on the Spark program: while I'm sure we're all flattered to be thought of as young, the TCG Spark Leadership program is for established leaders of color who seek to take the next step into Executive Leadership. The members of the cohort, all currently in positions of leadership (General Managers, Producers, Associate Producers, Artistic Directors, Associate Artistic Directors and a few freelance directors), have been gifted a year of professional development to expand skills and strategize for exactly the challenging and exciting future you lay out above. Warmly, Lisa

Massively helpful! I'm connected with some folks who are looking at leaders and leadership in the midst of conflict situations; I believe, Polly, that your perspectives here will be helpful for framing the way we understand leadership in a "high context" community that appears to be either imploding or evolving rapidly and unpredictably ... once more, theatre experience, training, and thinking contribute mightily to one's work in the "corporate" world.

Excellent essay, Polly! You are a ROCK STAR!! The questions you've raised here are very important because they frame the ongoing discussions taking place in the American Theatre regarding potential leadership models that may better serve specific communities. It's exciting to see a real lab at Emerson tackle the much needed re-invention of how not-for-profit theatres view and express leadership.