Is there anything unique about the way leadership is practised in the arts sector?

Do people working as learning professionals in the arts (visual arts, museums, music, theatre, dance) develop their own approach to leadership?  We asked ourselves and our fellow arts learning professionals to define our skills, qualities and styles.

Then we wondered how our skills, qualities and styles might differ from corporate leaders. We imagined that people in business leadership roles would be especially ‘hard-edged’ and single-focused because of the underlying profit motive. We wondered to what extent they would value creativity in leadership? To find out, we interviewed nine business leaders.

Our resulting comparative research project is part of engage’s year-long leadership course for arts-learning professionals (www.engage.org/extend-1415.aspx). Our UK-wide research group (Louise French, Fiona Mair, Carly Mee, Cath Sherrell and Lesley-Ann Smith) present our tentative, small-scale findings below in the hope they will inspire you to consider what leadership might be.


Figure heads AW

  • Valuing and enabling team
  • Passion
  • Project management skills
  • Collaboration
  • Being constructive
  • Supportive + enthusing
  • Approachable / personable
  • Problem solving
  • Technical skills
  • Project management
  • Collaboration
  • Communication
  • Vision
  • Confidence
  • Awareness [of self/others]
  • Ownership
  • Lack of communication
  • Lack of ‘buy-in’
  • Lack of defined roles
  • Needed to find expertise
  • Growth and profit driven
  • Strength and resilience
  • Decisive
  • Valuing and enabling your team
  • Vision
  • Transparency/credibility
  • Constructively challenging
  • Analysing boundaries
  • Influencing
  • Leading by example
  • Clear roles and responsibilities
  • Valuing and enabling your team
  • Vision
  • Communication
  • Lack of communication
  • Micro-managing
  • Lack of ‘buy-in’
  • Misjudging the team
  • Not allowing enough time
  • Lack of defined roles

  • “My team are much more inclined to work well for someone who is creative and respects creativity.”

    The Herald
  • “As a leader, your job is to make sure that the people around you are getting the most out of themselves.”

    Sky Sports
  • “Praise is very important, even for the smallest things.”

    Jaguar Land Rover
  • “If you have a goal, you have to keep that goal in vision”

    Borough Market





Valuing & Enabling your Team


One of our most striking findings was the number of similarities between leadership in the arts and the corporate sector and our preconceptions of the corporate sector have definitely been challenged through this research.  Where corporate contacts used slightly different language, from our interviews there was a shared emphasis on building and supporting teams, communication, and vision.

The corporate sector seems to use communication and softer skills because they recognise their effectiveness, even if the end target is different from ours. We tend to value them in and of themselves.

We felt that a major difference between us and the corporate sector was the importance they place on positive reinforcement and advocacy.  A number of our contacts talked about how they celebrate successes within their team, and how as you start to achieve successes, you promote these more widely and so advocate for your work, as well as acknowledging success within team.

Broadly our research also emphasised that in the arts sector almost all jobs have a functional role, whereas in the interviews it was clear that there were specific roles for leadership within the corporate sector.  Generally leadership training within the arts sector came across as under-resourced whereas the corporate sector considered it extremely valuable to invest in the employees providing a structured progression, and therefore in the arts sector there appeared to be more limited opportunities to progress.  These final points may partly be due to the size of organisations, and also the impact of someone being away from their functional role within the arts.