The Role Of A Leader

Leader of Tomorrow, Justina Aina writes about ADLP session ‘The Role of a Leader in External Relationships’ at Hackney Empire.

For this session the Hackney Empire was gracious enough to host us. I chose to join the London group this time around for the chance to revisit the very first theatre I ever saw a show in but for the life of me I can’t remember what that show was, I was only a littlen.

After dining down and catching up with the Leaders of Tomorrow London cohort, we met Jo Hemmant (Executive Director), Yamin Choudhury (Director of Artistic Programming) and Jane Walsh (Executive Producer) of Hackney Empire. I appreciated the relaxed social setting, where everyone was updating one another, so including part of Hackney Empire’s creative team — asking what they were up to and how they were getting on — meant everyone was on equal footing and also allowed for deeper and more honest conversation to start off the session. We then went on a small tour of the main theatre space; I was taken in by the grandeur and history of the theatre, I could have listened to its history for a good long while. The Empire is a building that has stood the test of time and political changes. It was, and remains, a beacon for the community.

The ITC session explored the topic of ‘The Role of the Leader in External Relationships’ — us, representing our organisation or building, navigating communication and nurturing relationships with other organisations, such as the Arts Council, Freelancers, Stakeholders, Audiences, Suppliers etc. I appreciated how different this session felt — the focus was on us, at this point in time and what projects we were (and still are) pursuing, in addition to where we are up to with bringing those pursuits to fruition, giving us time to perform mid-way evaluations on our real-life creative processes, rather than work on hypothetical situations.

Being able to list and discuss the characteristics a leader needs to communicate effectively with outside entities, really helped to solidify my understanding of what is required of me, as well as what I do successfully without realising. For me, a lot of this session was giving myself permission to claim my space as an artistic leader, achieving the realisation — through recounting my recent experiences — that I have more than enough evidence to back up my claim. On top of that I’m also understanding that speaking the truth about my career is a vital part of me progressing in my career — it’s the same as marketing a show: if people don’t know, how will they go? — and in fact, speaking these truths is not an act of heightened ego or arrogance. This was my revelation whilst discussing ‘self-assuredness’.

Heading closer and closer to the end of the programme, there would be no point having gone on the 18-month journey, if I don’t recount what I gained from it. A session on personal reflection and analysis aided me in transferring my personal reflection time into my professional life. It never occurred to me that the skills I had taught myself, while my mind was wondering in the suit shop I used to work in, would be the same as what I would need to evaluate my performance whilst producing a show — which makes absolutely no sense thinking about it objectively, I just always made a habit of separating the activities of my bill paying job from my personal career pursuits and now I’m at a place in my life where the two finally marry up.

We went on to talking about allowing ourselves space to focus on ourselves and our next steps, to help combat the collective lack of time we feel we have in day-to-day life and the need for tools in which to plan next steps. Charlotte set out a few tasks. The first being, each person taking time to talk out a potential or current idea we want to pursue with a partner as a sounding board and provocateur. Taking an idea out of my brain space into the real space, definitely makes it feel tangible and actionable. She then equipped us with questions to fast track the clarification of our ideas:

  • What is the project?

  • What values underpin it?

  • What’s the vision?

  • Why does it matter?

  • Why is it important to you?

  • What do you need to make it happen?

It was oddly encouraging to know I wasn’t the only person to feel it was a new thing to put action points identified from self-evaluation into play, which is why I think this session was pivotal in where it came. Leaders of Tomorrow were calling themselves out and exploring the actions they knew they had to take to move forward with their pursuits. People were talking about carving out time for thinking and project planning while in full-time work and taking that little time out to send a quick catch-up email. All these things sound pretty easy but when combined with full-time work efforts and being in the moment to solve problems with current projects, it can be hard to do. This has been my reality and, after a year, I’ve only started finding my rhythm of navigating employed work versus personal work and nurturing budding creative relationships. Thankfully I now have additional tools in my box to make this process smoother.

The session progressed into a discussion about the need for humility and owning mistakes — this being an important trait in a good leader as it has knock on effects. The way I understand it: humility in a leader creates an environment where feedback is possible and a vital tool for constant improvement and maintenance of standards. It makes the work environment democratic and progressive — the arts organisation is one that’s built from the best ideas, coaxed and guided by the leader, from the network of creative minds in that organisation. Without it there’s a totalitarian, toxic environment, often leading to the unhappiness of employees and consequently the disintegration of the artistic organisation. While this is obvious, putting it into practice can sometimes be hard; with leaders wanting to save face, as well as minimising the opportunity to be undermined. It seems like the higher up a person gets in their career, the more tempting it is to resort to the shadier side of handling difficult situations.

I was interested in what Yamin Choudhury had to say on confidently relying on previous experiences and it being okay to say you don’t know — promoting complete transparency — taking time to work on finding answers, which comes from having the right support network around you to bounce solutions with. I picked up on the need for finding people who fill in knowledge gaps and everyone understanding the need to keep the metaphorical plate balanced and passing the leading position around each team member — often through delegation, deadlines and catch-ups. With this way of working, there’s less pressure on any one person’s shoulders. I think as freelance/ emerging/ jobbing artists, we usually think that we’re alone on our creative journeys, when that’s definitely not the case. Working this way usually leads to an almighty burn out! It helped to be reminded — through the ITC workshop and witnessing Yamin, Jo and Jane’s dynamic —that from time to time, it’s good to utilise the people around us. They were each other’s champions whilst communicating the challenges and successes of their own positions at Hackney Empire. Jo Hemmant was humble yet confident in her years of experience in upper level organisational management. I think her being able to successfully communicate her confidence, in both her own experiences and Yamin’s, was pivotal in the meetings with the Arts Council, Board Members and Trustees — in the lead up to changing to Empire’s current, unconventional, structure — for that structure to be allowed to exist.

An additional conversation that I found particularly useful was how to navigate a situation where people change how they treat you because you have received a promotion and are now at a higher level within the industry, like when Yamin became artistic director. I learnt that you’ve got to understand that it comes with the territory and you’ve got to let go of the feeling that you were ignored until perceived as useful to someone. Instead you embrace it as something that makes your job easier. I say this as a melanated woman in the arts sector — my experiences aren’t always taken seriously (not sure why) but, having the title I have now, external colleagues in the industry view this as a validator of my existence in creative spaces and actively listen to my point of view. Paraphrased from Yamin’s perspective: working in a subsidised venue, we are publicly funded, so personal feelings have to be set aside to better serve our communities by expanding our network as far as possible.

My takeaway from this day is to focus on asking myself the right questions and taking time to study the bigger picture and understand my tasks within it. I have a new understanding of why the right kind of support network is needed to surround myself with; they can work as a creative springboard for blue sky idea development or to guide with strategic planning of career steps. I’m pleased I took the time to switch things up and joined the London Cohort that day, I was able to continue building networks with the rest of the Leaders of Tomorrow group. There was also the added joy of returning to a building that holds memories for me — being a young girl growing up in the area and seeing the shows Hackney Empire put on, it was like coming full circle. This session solidified the power in trusting my instincts (usually informed by experience/gathered information); doing so leads to great happenings.

Justina Aina is an Actress, Assistant Producer at Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and also a Stage Manager. Originally hailing from London, she is of Nigerian heritage.

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