As we enter a new year, it is important to think about leadership and how it, depending on its effectiveness, steers us towards growth, development and the fulfilment of our goals not only as organisations, but as individuals. I am often asked “what makes good leadership?” or “what are the characteristics of a good leader?” but I’m always hesitant to answer as there are no clear-cut answers, and standard definitions fall short in the way of describing the nuances and multifaceted nature of good leadership.
My primary focus when it comes to leadership rests within the arts and culture sector, not only in my role as CEO of the National Arts Council (NAC), but when looking at the sector as a whole and identifying the necessity for effective leadership to steer the sector towards playing a more significant role in the economy, and contributing more positively and with greater impact to society.
To me, effective leadership entails placing values at the heart of an organisation. Values which, in turn, are rooted in positive behaviour aimed at promoting growth, equality and strong, robust communities. Effective cultural leadership also entails the ability to recognise and embrace changing realities, and the ability to articulate vision and bring about change through working with peers and within networks.
The relevance of cultural leadership cannot be overstated as, now more than ever, South Africa (and I’d go as far as including the world) is in need of creative and innovative solutions that call for collaboration and greater networking. This is particularly important in an increasingly connected world where stronger networks and collaborative approaches enhance cultural diversity and a spirit of togetherness rather than conflict.
In this sense, effective cultural leadership calls for individuals to step up and be original and true to themselves. It reinforces the notion of understanding one’s talents and how they can contribute to the sector’s growth. Leadership, therefore, is not merely about rank but the ability to embrace all contributions and understand that leadership happens at all levels. This means active participation by all in finding solutions and contributing to socioeconomic progress.
Effective leaders listen attentively and are always ready to see things from different perspectives, learn, understand and be empathetic to the positions of others. Above all, good leaders understand that being in a leadership position does not necessarily make one a good leader. In order to steer individuals and organisations towards the achievement of impactful and far-reaching goals, effective leaders in the arts and culture sector place a strong emphasis on the individual to know who they are and act from a place of honesty and sincerity – this to yield best results in terms of focus, direction and the overall quality and impact of work.
South Africa finds itself in a state of flux when it comes to cultural leadership, especially since identity in a country with a history such as ours is fragmented to a point where many believe there is no such thing as a true South African Identity. Thus far, the closest we have come to articulating the notion of “South African-ness” is “ubuntu”. However positive this notion may be, it is difficult to implement, especially at a time when new technologies have imposed a global culture that is heavily influenced by the West and developed world, thereby limiting the appeal of and access to more localised, authentic and unique cultural expression.
With that said, there are South African cultural organisations, which the NAC has had the privilege of working with, that are being led by individuals who have a strong understanding of their place and roles as leaders. These include Lefika La Phodiso, the Umcebo Trust, Ifa-Lethu, Africa Meets Africa, Lalela and ASSITEJ, among others. All have succeeded in making unique contributions to cultural advancement against all odds to benefit the most deserving communities.
In 2017 and beyond, the NAC will continue its collaborative approach through identifying key partnerships that need scaling up. We plan to invest heavily in these partnerships, not only in terms of funds but through promoting our partners on all platforms available to us. It is part of our vision to see the arts take their rightful place at the centre of a thriving economy. There’s no doubt our country has enormous and unparalleled talent and potential. What we need to realise is the coordination efforts in order to work to scale and implement good models to benefit the entire nation.