Monday 4 July 2011

On leadership - First week at the Kennedy Center

Bololô, by brazilian artist Henrique Oliveira at the National Museum of African Art.
In theory, we learn that an institution reaches its objectives, efficiently and effectively, when the whole team knows, embraces and works towards fulfilling the mission. This mission, says the theory, must be written; it must explain who, what and where; it must be clear and concise. Because the mission is the base for strategic planning. It seems obvious. It makes sense. But the truth is that, so far, I had never seen the theory put into practice, even in smaller institutions.

Until I arrived at the Kennedy Center. Last week we had seminars with the President, three Vice-Presidents (marketing, development, education), two Directors (development) and three Managers (marketing). And all of them, without exception, speak the same language; they all the Kennedy Center´s mission; they are all aware of their objectives, their role, of what is expected of them. And it becomes obvious that this allows them to plan better, to be more focused on what they are doing, to take decisions fast and without great hesitations, to be coordinated. As a result, a huge institution, that could be chaotic, seems to function like a clock. I couldn´t help asking Michael Kaiser, President of the Kennedy Center, how this can be possible. If he himself explains the mission and objectives to each employee (which seemed rather improbable to me) or if he talks to the Vice-Presidents, they with the Directors, these with the Managers, etc, until reaching the base of the pyramid (running the risk of loosing the message during the process). How is it possible for all these people to be speaking exactly the same language? “We talk a lot”, he answered me, “at all levels”.

Seminar with Michael Kaiser (Photo: Consuelo Hidalgo)
Michael Kaiser´s answers are usually simple. They seem to be stating the obvious. Nevertheless, what he didn´t say, but seems equally obvious to me, is that leadership makes all the difference. When the person at the top knows what he/she wants, is focused and determined, puts the theory into practice, does not deviate, brings around him/her people with experience and capacity (actually, looks for the best), promotes dialogue and thinking and is not afraid of making decisions (even the tough ones) and assume responsibility, then yes, adding a lot of conversation to these attributes, at all levels, we have a team that knows what it´s doing, how and why. And we can see and feel the results of their work. Michael Kaiser is a leader, without a doubt. It has been a privilege watching this team working and in the nest few weeks we´ll have the opportunity to follow them closer.

The Summer International Fellowship Program brings together this year 36 professionals from 32 countries. The day at the Kennedy Center begins and ends with the presentation of projects in which the fellows are involved. This is one of the best parts of the day. Each person makes a short presentation of the mission and objectives of the institution or project, talks about the challenges he/she is actually facing and we then discuss them in the group. Last week we had the chance to get to know a bit better the following projects:

Esplanade (Singapore)
Dejvické Theatre (Czech Republic)

Last week we also had the chance to attend a National Symphony Orchestra concert presenting the 2011-2012 season. The NSO is the Kennedy Center resident orchestra and this free entry, approximately one hour long concert aims to present the orchestra and some of the next season´s highlights in order to encourage the purchase of subscriptions. The excerpts of the works presented had been very carefully chosen and were briefly introduced – with a lot of enthusiasm, passion, sensibility and sense of humour – by orchestra conductor Ankush Kumar Bahl. One is left feeling that he/she cannot miss what´s coming ahead. Yesterday the public was able to attend the NSO´s dress rehearsal for the Independence Day commemorative concert that takes place today in the Capitole gardens.

Outside the Kennedy Center, I was finally able to visit the National Museum of the American Indian and to participate in a tour guided by a member of the education depatrment, someone who belonges to the Lakota nation and has the title of cultural interpreter. This cultural experience was concluded at the museum restaurant, the Mitsitam Native Foods Café, that offers a wide range of indian dishes from all over the continent (‘mitsitam’ means ‘let´s eat’ and the recipe book is available at the café and the museum store).

Poster of the exhibition Indivisible at the National Museum of American Indian.

The exhibition Artists in Dialogue at the National Museum of African Art, which brings together south-african artist Sandile Zulu and the brazilian Henrique Oliveira was also highly recommended to me. This is the second of a series of exhibitions where the museum invites two artists to create new works in dialogue with each other. In this museum I also had the opportunity to visit the temporray exhibition African Mosaic: a decade of collecting, which presents objects that were purchased or donated to the museum in the last decade. The majority of the visitors at the time of my visit had gathered in the area where one could watch the video of senegalese artist Ousmane Sow while creating his impressive sculptures.

Today we all celebrate Independence Day in a special party organized at the terrace of the Kennedy Center. It is a privilege to be able to be here and celebrate it with the Americans and with colleagues from all over the world, some of whom dream of this day coming soon for them too.

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