Multiplying Leadership in Creative Communities

Multiplying Leadership in Creative Communities

By Creative People and Places Network
Mark Robinson


A detailed framework by Mark Robinson of Thinking Practice commissioned by the Creative People and Places network to explore and contextualise leadership approaches across the Creative People and Places programme and to consider the impact and learning from this for the wider sector.  

Mark Robinson describes open, collaborative styles of working with others which decentralise and flatten authority, bringing many more voices into leadership and decision-making than typical hierarchical structures. CPP is not unique in these leadership approaches, but part of a progressive movement you can see all over the UK – a distributed model of leadership, rooted in connection and learning.

The report identifies similarities and differences with other approaches and includes useful thinking for others working across the cultural and social sectors to consider. It also describes a broad set of potential elements that can be used, adapted, remixed and built upon.

For a long time, ‘Leadership’ has felt like a tender spot in the cultural sector, with increasing pressures on individuals at all levels. It’s one I’ve poked at a number of times, in work on adaptive resilience and the Inside Outside Beyond  framework commissioned by Bluecoat which considered ‘artistic leadership in contradictory times’. I am grateful to the CPP network for this commission, which has given me the chance to look into the subject again by considering leadership approaches across the network. I have especially sought to identify similarities and differences with other approaches, and to summarise what I think is interesting and useful for others working across the cultural and social sectors, particularly those working where these coincide. I hope it allows people to get a relatively swift take on the landscape, and describes CPP leadership approaches so they can be understood, critiqued and built upon.

Building trust, being open, sharing control

What is most important here, I suggest, is that a fundamental contribution of CPP in Places has not been to add  to infrastructure or arts engagement in so-called cold spots, as perhaps originally envisaged, but to multiply leadership  within the community and systems active in places rich with people and ideas. They have done this by building trust, being open and positive, and sharing control.

Multiplying leadership means more people become confident in leadership work, but it also means vastly more connections between people, which encourages more collaborative, less patriarchal structures for informed decisions, action, co-creation and learning.

Developing a framework

I describe here a framework for that practice. This is an open, collaborative style of working with others which tends to decentralise and flatten authority, bringing many more voices into leadership and decision-making than typical hierarchical structures. It is also, crucially, the act and art of connecting potential leaders to each other in clear, productive structures so that everyone involved is active in the leadership of an organisation, project or community. As such, elements of it can be seen not just in CPP leadership approaches, although that is my focus.

Leadership is changing

These approaches are part of broader movements working to decentralise power and break down patriarchal and hierarchical versions of culture. Leadership is changing not for the sake of innovation alone, but to redefine what cultural engagement and capabilities might mean when everyone is involved. CPP, at its best, has injected new, more open and collaborative leadership into those systems. It has been ‘in the room’ with its vision, and with unusual suspects. This is now deepening at governance level in some places, with independent community members joining consortia discussions. It has been conscious of those not  in the room, and sought to host new conversations. It has brought an approach of ‘saying yes and’, as part of its action research ethos. CPP’s influence, alongside that of others, may demonstrate what Graham Leicester wrote in a prescient paper for Mission Models Money in 2008: ‘We are more likely to act our way into a new way of thinking than think our way into a new way of acting.’

Rooted in connection and learning

It would be misleading to say CPP leadership approaches are either all successful all the time, all the same, or unique within the social or cultural sectors. What I have found, though, is a distributed model of leadership rooted in connection and learning. The network has built on de-centralising and ‘anti-heroic’ strands of leadership practice. CPP leadership can be described as a team game, a collaborative effort of people in relationships, working for each other and the collective across groups, types and power dynamics. In this, it challenges deeply ingrained, dominant ideas about leadership, accountability and control. It also makes it hard work at times for the individuals involved.

It has multiplied the number and range of people involved in leadership within the community and within the systems active in the Places. As will be seen, sharing power, including decision-making, has been of paramount importance, alongside a willingness to learn from failure and an open, trust-building approach. A range of people involved feel this is making a positive difference. Knowing the people and place, connecting people and ideas and building trust have been key.

Non-linear, sometimes messy

They have seen leadership as a non-linear, sometimes messy practice, not a set of skills or actions to be turned on. CPP has built teams which bring in a good range of voices and backgrounds. The leadership across the network has a much higher proportion of women than is typical, with flexible work patterns common, and there are examples of progression from non-traditional backgrounds.

The teams are generally small and there is support from host organisations, which may allow a greater external partnership focus, especially where the host is a non-arts organisation.

CPP is not unique in this, but part of a progressive movement you can see all over the UK, of people developing and modelling leadership in different ways than archaic heroic, individual-centred models. I contrast the example I was given of a chief executive who preferred to meet people of equivalent job title with that of an artistic director I saw quite naturally handing out ice cream and shifting tables and clearing up as part of hosting a conference this year. One, I believe, was living in the 19th century, the other in the 21st.

A framework for practice

How far the collaborative, distributed model can take over from control, targets and ego may depend on our collective ability to multiply leadership in the next decade. The Multiplying Leadership framework is not a job description or person specification, nor a just-follow-the-instructions-and-successawaits‘how-to’. Although leadership is a process not a programme, as Peter Block – whose work on stewardship and community has been an inspiration for much of my thinking – has written, it feels more appropriate to describe this as a framework for practice.

And it does take practice, as those involved have found. Leadership academic Keith Grint says ‘wicked problems’ require ‘messy’ or ‘clumsy’ solutions. Writing about leadership without over-simplifying or over-complicating has felt, to me, like a wicked problem. One danger is it can easily sound as if leadership is one thing, rather than multiple. Even the collaborative leader can be made to sound heroic. I try to avoid that through my keyword: multiplying .

Connecting, collaborating, multiplying

This means diversifying not copying. The three key elements of connecting, collaborating and multiplying leadership can be done in many ways, using multiple and diverse combinations of skills, preferences and approaches. Here I describe a broad set of potential elements – some vocabulary I hope can be used, adapted, remixed and built upon, or indeed over if appropriate. There are also coaching-style questions relating to each element for those who disagree with the idea that ‘nothing is as practical as a good theory’.

If the number, range and diversity of people in leadership is to increase, an argument to which CPP practice has added its voice, leadership will have to be more multiple  and various, transforming a cultural sector still dominated by white men in positions of formal authority. The skills and traits used will also multiply and applications differ. To that end parts of this report are more a set of ingredients with thoughts on what works together than menus and recipes to be followed step by step.

I hope it can be used to summarise CPP leadership approaches, and to add to or adapt others. I hope it does not lead to one ‘new’ leadership, but to many. To paraphrase Louis MacNeice, let us embrace the world’s incorrigible plurality and things being various: multiply now.

Mark Robinson, Thinking Practice


Download the full report 

Creative People and Places is an Arts Council England funding programme which focuses on parts of the country where involvement in creativity and culture is significantly below the national average. More.

Browse by learning pillars
Increasing Reach Outreach & Collaboration
Resource type: Research | Published: 2020