We don’t need another hero

Author: Mary Cloake


COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter movement, climate change, multiple social and gender inequalities – the world is in a state of flux, but we have an opportunity to embrace this moment and reset. 

There is a consensus in the arts that we need to create change not only across the sector, but in wider society too. To address deeply embedded racism, the climate emergency, entrenched inequalities – and of course the immediate pandemic. And to address them directly to ensure the arts world is more socially engaged and representative.

When faced with a crisis or challenge it can be easy to default to historical models of leadership and problem-solving, but it might not be what we need right now.

The Guardian recently published an inspiring interview with Alicia Garza, co-creator of the Black Lives Matter movement in which she said:

“Leadership today doesn’t look like Martin Luther King”

This is not to take away from his undoubted impact, influence, and legacy, but Martin Luther King was very much a heroic figurehead whose rousing speeches personified a movement. 

Garza goes on to say: 

“We are often taught that, like a stork, some leader swoops from the sky to save us… it obscures the average person’s role in creating change”.

As the Guardian piece points out, Alicia Garza is – purposefully – not synonymous with the Black Lives Matter movement. Instead it is a movement built on collective collaborative action, not individual glory. We can learn much from this approach. 

There is a consensus in the sector about the change we need to make: a shift in who curates, who gets to make the artistic decisions, who has control of the resources. Indeed there is now an urgency about the need to shift from the long-standing model of authorial artistic leadership to a distributed, diverse and inclusive artistic leadership. 

So the destination is clear, but how are we going to bring this into existence? By riding in on our steed to save the day? 

Many of us would recognise the arts as an individualist culture where we need to stand out, to be seen, to be a hero. 

Hierarchies based on personality have been embedded in our institutions since their foundation. But if we are to change the culture of our decision-making systems we must look to move beyond a culture of individualism, of personal vision and singular achievement. To move beyond the heroic leader towards a more collective leadership approach.

Changing our ideas about what leadership is will take time, but we must start somewhere.  And this is what we need to do if we are to successfully mobilise the arts in the service of social change. 

We all agree that we need diversity at senior levels in arts organisations, we need thinking that is creative and lateral as opposed to hierarchical and heroic, thinking that embraces the intersectional.   

This also means a change in what we call a hero and our image of ourselves and our leaders.  But the nature of leadership can and will respond to changing times – it has always done.

To return to the philosophy of Alicia Garza once more, she discusses the importance of  building alliances in her new book The Purpose Of Power: How To Build Movements For The 21st Century . Here is an answer to the question of how we can create sustainable movements that reflect the best of who we are and who we can be.

When we stop trying to be the hero a new form of collective leadership can emerge. One that is built around bringing different groups together under a shared vision. One that fosters new types of mutually beneficial relationships between artists, practitioners, freelancers, communities and institutions. One that builds understanding of the value of the experiences the arts offer and creates the networks and alliances that support this within a society with many challenges.

We need to work to build the complex interwoven web of trusting relationships and knowledge that’s needed to mobilise these possibilities. 

That’s our next job. Collectively. Working together.