Monday, 19 March 2012

Leaders are needed

“It's too easy to blame the organization and the system and the bottom line for decisions that a person would never be willing to take responsibility for. Whenever you can, work with people who take it personally.” Seth Godin in his blog

Wangari Maathai (Photo taken from The Green Belt Movement website)

It was with great curiosity that I started reading the other day the article Good bosses are the same today as they were in 1992, because I often think about what makes a good leader (regardless of scale). The author, Robert Sutton, states that many things may be changing, may need to be reinvented, but not the definition of a great leader (or boss or manager or director). And I am quoting: “(…) we humans still yearn to follow others who are competent enough to bring in resources, teach us new skills, and generate attention and prestige from key outsiders (...) We also want fair leaders who protect us, and who make us feel cared for and respected, who inject humanity. (...) As over fifty years of research shows, treating employees with respect, encouraging them to participate and to make suggestions, and listening to them are as important as ever. The same is true about setting a clear direction, making decisions, and taking charge.”

In these words I find many of the issues I think about when reading the biographies of those I consider great leaders, when thinking of people who have been my bosses, when evaluating myself as a team leader or when analysing, more recently, the cases of organizations which have been through great trouble and the attitudes and options taken by the people who lead them. A leader has got qualities that allow him/her to trace a path and follow it, and at the same time to inspire, gather and lead many other people, who are essential for materializing his/her vision and accomplishing the mission. And I often think that, along this route – which may be difficult, complicated, disheartening, exhausting and even solitary – one of the things that distinguish a leader is that fact that he/she knows how to say "no", when it would be much easier and comfortable to say "yes".

And this brings me to the case of the Penumbra Theatre, which recently a friend brought to my attention. Open since 1975 in the town of St. Paul (Minnesota, USA), its mission is to promote respect and tolerance by creating dialogue around issues of race and racism. The theatre is known for taking risks, stretching boundaries and introducing new voices to american theatre. Nevertheless, the Penumbra Theatre went through a particularly difficult moment in the early 2000s. A state capital bond, which allowed them to invest in the construction of a new theatre, was after all vetoed, leaving them with a considerable debt. The consequences were those one would expect: demotivated and frustrated administrative staff, board members who didn´t believe in the theatre´s mission anymore, donors who started questioning the theatre´s capacity for financial management and the possibility of closure almost becoming a reality. A restructuring committee was created and, with the aim to start by restructuring donors´ trust, it hired an experienced and tenacious manager, Chris Widdess, who identified three key areas: recommitting to the mission; building long-term relationships both internally and externally; and creating a long-term plan. It´s worth reading here everything about this case-study, but what particularly drew my attention was Widdess´s statement that saying "no" was fundamental in the restructuring process. I do believe it was fundamental and that it actually happened because both Widdess and Lou Bellamy, the Penumbra Theatre´s founder and artistic director, have a clear idea regarding the theatre´s mission and the future they wish to trace for it. It was this mission, this vision, they aimed to share both with donors and the audience. And they did whatever was necessary to defend it, including saying "no". By 2007 the Penumbra Theatre was back on track.

I also thought about the ‘knowing-how-to-say-no’ issue when I saw a programme on portuguese state TV regarding cultural funding, with António Gomes de Pinho (former President of the Serralves Foundation board) and Pedro Gadanho (recently appointed curator at the MOMA). The programme had prepared a special report on the american funding model and the journalist responsible stated that every year the Metropolitan Opera presents the same popular works to keep its donors happy (had this statement been based on information coming from credible sources?). In the same programme, public funding for the arts was referred more than once as an essential guarantee for preserving one´s autonomy when programming. Pedro Gadanho was quick to explain that he doesn´t feel any kind of pressure on behalf of donors when carrying out his duties and that he acts with absolute autonomy. Nevertheless, I would say that this is not an issue mainly related to the dilemma “public or private funding?”. Both a politician and a donor might feel they have a right to dictate options in exchange for their support. And some do. But then, from that point onwards, everything depends on the the person on the other side: on his/her sense of mission and responsibility; on his/her determination to defend them and act accordingly; on his/her exemption; on his/her capacity to say "no". Everything depends on whether there is a leader on the other side or not.

Vision, sense of mission, perseverence, sense of responsibility; an attitude that inspires and motivates others, turning them into allies and companions; a life dedicated to a cause; making a difference. When what we see around us is mainly those ‘yes people’ - those who are more than willing to forget everything about mission and responsibility, who easily blame the system and the status quo, in order to justify their only wish, which is to keep their posts and preserve their small or big power -, I think again of a lady whose autobiography I read last August. Wangari Maathai was the founder of The Green Belt Movement in Kenya. She fought for the environment and she fought for democracy in her country. She knew how to say "no". And she also knew how to say "I´ll do the best I can". She died in Semptember 2011.

Still on this blog
Building trust

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