Leadership in the Performing Arts

May 9, 2016


Tim McClimon

Dr. Tobie S. Stein, professor and director of the MFA Program in Performing Arts Management at Brooklyn College, has recently published a terrific book entitled, Leadership in the Performing Arts. With a stage-setting introduction from Robert Lynch, president of Americans for the Arts, Leadership in the Performing Arts expertly covers such topics as: becoming a leader, the leader's vision, the leader's style, leading the decision-making process, leading accountability and leading change.

Based on interviews with eleven prominent managers and leaders from various arts institutions like Kathy Brown, executive director of the New York City Ballet; Peter Gelb, general manager of the Metropolitan Opera; Heather Hitchens, president of the American Theatre Wing; Karen Brooks Hopkins, former president of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; Arlene Shuler, president of New York City Center; Paul Tetreault, director of Ford's Theatre; and Nancy Umanoff, executive director of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Leadership in the Performing Arts not only answers the question, "how does one become a successful performing arts leader?" but also "what does it mean to be a performing arts leader in today's world?"

In describing the eleven leaders portrayed in her book, Stein notes the following leadership traits that these individuals possess:

  • They stand for something that differentiates them from other leaders.
  • They master the subtle qualities of quiet determination and confidence.
  • They enable their senior team members to share ideas and thrive within their organizations.
  • They communicate and empathize with stakeholders face-to-face.
  • They engender a collaborative and inclusive leadership style.
  • They utilize humility in asking for help when appropriate.
  • They are flexible and adaptable.
  • They use intuition as a way of sensing and sizing up a situation.

The book begins with a discussion of what makes a successful leader in the performing arts and the difference between leadership and management.

  • Kathy Brown: "I think about the analogy of a crew in a boat: While the majority are pulling the oars, there is one captain looking ahead and making a strategic decision, 'Okay, there's a big ship in front of us and we have to aim further east to avoid being caught in the wake.' Someone has to be looking ahead and guiding the direction of the boat."
  • Paul Tetreault: "Leadership is about setting an atmosphere - setting an example, helping to create an environment - in which everyone else can get their tasks done."
  • Arlene Shuler: "My door is always open; anybody can come in and talk to me about anything. They don't all do that, but having an open door is the way I like it to be. Empowering your employees to share new ideas is really important, because it encourages the next generation of leaders to develop."

But, creating an environment where leaders are cultivated and employees are allowed to grow may depend on the changing the culture of the organization.

  • Nancy Umanoff: "There are certain organizations that don't allow people to shine and to develop real leadership skills. It is the person in charge who makes the decision to give employees specific tasks, without the ability to accomplish anything of substance beyond those tasks. It's unlikely that this type of organization is going to develop real leaders."
  • Heather Hitchens: "I think that organizations that aren't going to invest in individual development are not going to create leaders; they're just not. As the leader of my organization, I care about what my employees think because they are coming at it from a different angle than I am. I want to go into the conference room with my entire staff and push the ideas around until they take shape."

Fostering collaborative decision-making can be both more effective and more interesting. But, as some leaders note, this doesn't mean that they need to achieve consensus on every decision.

  • Kathy Brown: "I really feel that multiple heads are much better than one, and different expertise and perspectives help tremendously. I'd much rather have a group of people talking about something and figuring it out, than trying to figure it out by myself."
  • Peter Gelb: "This organization is too large for me to expect everyone to agree. What I do expect is that everyone, at a certain point, works together to achieve a common goal. My expectation is that once a decision is made, everyone will follow it and work towards achieving it."

After discussing a multitude of leadership styles and practices, Stein summarizes her key findings in the final chapter:

  • Leaders move beyond the execution of managerial tasks. They are visionaries. They originate and differentiate the future direction of an organization; assemble the right team; obtain the commitment of team members and followers; make, communicate, and execute decisions; produce and measure results; and move organizations forward. Leaders don't lead alone: they engage stakeholders and experts to obtain maximum results. Leaders give their strategies time to work, knowing that it's critical to link strategic thinking with successful and measureable execution strategies. Leaders are advocates for the change they seek, altering the tired traditions of their organizations, and leading the way for innovative and high-impact practices.

While written about leadership in the performing arts, the lessons to be learned from these exemplary leaders are applicable to any organization - be it for-profit or not-for-profit - and the examples that these individuals set for their organizations and the sector should help guide others in their quests for successful and fulfilling leadership careers. Thank you, Tobie!

 If you have a question or comment, please follow me on Twitter at @timmcclimon and start a conversation there. Thanks for reading and sharing this blog posting with friends and colleagues.

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