Key Lessons with Key Leaders: Nathan Powell

Trainee Artistic Director Nathan Powell talks about how his journey through the Artistic Director Leadership Programme has brought him closer to the concept of leadership which he once rejected at school.

I’ve had a complicated relationship with leadership for a while. As a child and through my teenage years, it’s fair to say that I had a bit of an authority problem. In school, I struggled to see eye-to-eye with many of my teachers. It was difficult for me to be told what to do with no explanation or discussion, I didn’t believe in the instructions so I couldn’t follow them… well I didn’t want to follow them. It wasn’t because I always thought I knew best - I usually didn’t – but because this type of leadership didn’t make me believe that they knew any better.

When I’ve thought of leadership in the past, it’s always had negative connotations like being bossy, egotistic, self-centred, fragile and not positive connotations like being driven, intelligent or hard-working. As a director, you are a leader – there’s no escaping that.You are responsible for leading your creative team - designers, technicians stage manager, actors – so how can I do this job effectively whilst also rejecting leadership? I’m trying to figure that out.

I suppose some of my rejection of the word comes from my imposter syndrome. I know this is something that many other directors battle with too. I’m winging it and trying to figure out how to be the best I can be at this job as I go along. This often leaves me trying to figure out the right thing to say or do in situations that I feel immensely out of depth in. I’m currently working as the Trainee Artistic Director at 20 Stories High – this involves attending planning meetings, board meetings, artistic meetings and so on. I look around at a room full of highly experienced, competent and talented artists and executives, and then there’s me. It’s as daunting as it is exciting and fruitful.

A few months ago, I had a meeting with an Artistic Director that I wanted to impress. I had an answer to every question and an explanation for every thought; I thought the meeting was going great. She stopped midway through our conversation to make an observation about me. “I don’t feel like you’re listening to me or taking in what I’m saying, it’s fine to say you don’t know”. This blunt honesty was brilliant – I often feel the need to prove myself and demonstrate knowledge beyond my experience, it’s a symptom of imposter syndrome I call ‘bullshititus’. I’ve often been that guy in a room full of theatre makers talking about practitioners, shows and people that I don’t know or haven’t heard of and it’s always made me uncomfortable. I have, at times, been guilty of just pretending. I’m now becoming more comfortable accepting what I don’t know and trying to learn what I need to know. This thirst for knowledge and curiosity I’m learning is, for me, a key characteristic of what makes a good leader.

As part of the Leaders of Tomorrow programme, we as a group have the opportunity to develop as a network of collaborators and colleagues. The group is made up of talented artists and creators of various disciplines. We all have different voices, opinions and ideas, but a commonality in the urge to create change and lead that change. At a recent meeting for the programme the group discussed how we make the most out of our Key Leader sessions (opportunities for us to meet leaders in the sector and discuss how they lead their organisations). We came up with a set of wants and needs for our future meetings that centred on us being respected as colleagues and people. The conversation was energetic, exciting and respectful, I loved it. What I witnessed in that room was a group of individuals with very different backgrounds, beliefs and interests, come together to create a coherent and useful set of ideas and actions. It was not lead by any one person but everyone in that room was a leader. The group demonstrated those key leader skills that were often talked about during my school days but rarely seen: patience, problem solving, listening, and initiative.

Sometimes during this programme, we will be walking into spaces and having uncomfortable conversations that put us in vulnerable positions in an industry so reliant on relationships. As someone that wants a long career in theatre, it is a scary thing to do but it is necessary and I feel secure in the fact that I have a network of peers to do it with. I feel that it is our obligation – as future leaders – to be having these conversations with current decision-makers and to be honest and open about the challenges we face as people of colour in an industry built on an exclusive system.

In one of our first Key Leader sessions, we had a very open conversation with the Artistic Director of the Young Vic, David Lan. We put in place some of the tools that we had previously discussed to ensure the meeting was fruitful. Our thoughts and observations were met with big ears and engaged eyes. We engaged in a two-way dialogue that felt productive. I walked away from that meeting feeling heard. He was patient, he listened and he was curious, that is how he leads and it was great to see that in practice. He is as much a facilitator as he is a leader, which has changed my idea of what a ‘leader’ does and who a leader can be. I am learning what it means to be a good leader from those around me at 20 Stories High and my fellow Leaders of Tomorrow. To me a leader is someone that facilitates the growth of ideas, passion and excellence in others. No matter how brilliant the individual creative, they cannot be as innovative and exciting as a group of creatives. Facilitating the space and offering the relevant guidance for people to create the best work they can is what excites me and this type of leader/facilitator I hope to become.

Nathan Powell is the Trainee Artistic Director at 20 Stories High.

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