(cross-posted from ARTSBlog – my thanks to to Jean Cook of the Future of Music Coalition and Fractured Atlas‘s Adam Huttler for their contributions to this piece, and my apologies if you’re reading this multiple times.)

We hear a lot of talk about the coming leadership transition in the arts. Baby Boomers are nearing retirement age, and Gen X’ers and Millennials are itching to take on increased responsibility. It’s important both for the good of the arts as a whole and for the individuals involved to make sure that, when the time comes, the people getting behind the wheel will have had some experience riding shotgun first. Hence our conversations have frequently centered on professional development, training, networking, and mentorship as strategies to better prepare our young(er) drivers.

It’s important to recognize, though, that the conversation isn’t-or shouldn’t be, at any rate-solely about passing the keys from one generation to the next. That’s something that has been happening since time immemorial, and is part of the normal cycle of nature and humanity. What’s so newsworthy about that, really? Naturally, there are lessons about leadership to be handed down from the elders to the newbies – and the conversations on ArtsBlog on this issue have boasted some elders’ generous attempts to do just that. Every so-called “emerging leader” who knows what he or she is talking about acknowledges that there is much to learn from those who came before, and that we would be foolish to pretend that we already have the answers. After all, the calls for mentorship are coming more from the younger generations than it is from the elders.

But even as we honor and benefit from the contributions of the Boomer and Silent generations, we also must face the fact that there are some forms of wisdom that are not transferable from previous generations. Our world has changed dramatically just in the time that Generation Y has been alive, and the rate of change only keeps increasing. Certain ways of thinking, communicating, and organizing ourselves are proving to be a better fit with the past than they are with the future. So as we develop new strategies to support the next generation of arts leaders as they begin this leg of the journey, we need to keep in mind that simply talking about where we’ve been will provide an incomplete map of the road ahead.

So, what is this new normal that we face? What are the imperatives that anyone leading an arts organization in the 21st century, regardless of generation, must grapple with in order to lead effectively? Recognizing once again that we do not have all the answers, here is an attempt at identifying the most important factors.

  • Technological literacy. Nearly all of the sweeping changes in how we do business and live our lives that have taken place during the last 20 years can be traced to dramatic advances in communication and data storage technology. Twenty years ago, there was no World Wide Web, cell phones as we know them today did not exist, word processing software was still in its infancy, and a typical hard drive held 1/10,000th of the space boasted by a comparably-priced device today. Think about that for a second. In a single generation’s time, our collective capacity to store, process, and share information has exploded beyond all recognition. This one development has completely transformed our work and our relationships, and its impact on the arts and arts organizations is no exception. Future arts organization leaders will need to, at a minimum, be literate in current technologies, and ideally should be fluent in them. As for the leaders of our entire field, the service organizations and grantmakers among us should have the capacity to shape technological trends, not just keep up with them.
  • Transparency. Yes, all of those status updates on Facebook about what people had for dinner are annoying. And why would you broadcast details about your love life to everyone you know? It may seem nonsensical to those of us who grew up in a different environment. But in the digital age, secrets are increasingly a fiction. The proliferation of data, the ease of sharing it, and the slow demise of less easily tracked transactions (e.g., cash) all mean that unless you remove yourself from the grid (and thus miss out on all of its benefits), information about your activities is out there for people to find whether you like it or not. If this is the case for individuals, it’s doubly so for arts organizations, many of which are nonprofits and subject to various regulations governing the sharing of information with the public. Recognizing how thoroughly technology has changed the rules around information-sharing, the more forward-thinking leaders in the sector have begun taking a “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” approach to transparency, recognizing that trust ultimately remains the true currency of effective operations. Proactively sharing data that previously would have been considered confidential and merging internal and external “faces” can enable the organization to speak authentically with one voice. But transparency need not be merely a defensive measure. What arts leaders are realizing is that transparency, widely adopted, can have benefits of its own, especially when taken to the next step:
  • Collaboration. The advent of numerous “crowdsourcing” platforms has shown us that sometimes, things get done better, faster, and more cheaply when we all chip in. While competition certainly has its virtues, the arts sector can only thrive in the 21st century if its individual actors remember that, in the end, we are all on the same team. The theater that opens up shop down the street from yours is not a threat – it’s an ally in your quest to make your street a place to see theater. The organization that starts a program similar to yours the next town over is not drawing foundation funds away – it’s a source of new capacity that can benefit your program even as you teach the lessons you learned from your own experience. As much as the private sector extols the virtues of competition, in every well-functioning workplace collaboration and division of labor is the norm. When we are working toward a common goal, that is as it should be. Thus, the arts leaders of the 21st century will need to be ready to embrace coordination of efforts, willing to occasionally divest their ego from a program for the good of the field, and enthusiastic about learning from and teaching their peers in a variety of contexts.
  • Openness. One could write an equation based on the previous two concepts to the effect of “Transparency + Collaboration = Openness.” Openness is the state of mind, the work philosophy that results from adopting both a collaboration orientation and a commitment to transparency. When fully absorbed by the arts field, openness will have far-reaching implications for how individual organizations go about fulfilling their missions. At its most fundamental level, openness translates to letting people into your line of sight who would normally stay underneath the surface. It means accepting and seeking out conversations with total strangers who nevertheless share your interests (now easier than ever before thanks to blogs, Twitter, and other social media). It means considering how the work you’re doing intersects or parallels the work people like you are doing in seemingly unrelated fields, like education, communications, international aid, or urban agriculture. It means changing hiring practices and internal organization management to reflect the fact that people are multidimensional and that good ideas sometimes come from the least expected places. And most of all, it means opening up the important conversations and decisions about our future to everyone, not just the select few who have always had those conversations and have always made those decisions. Generational transfer is all well and good, but if the only result is fewer gray hairs and balding heads among the power elites of our field, we will have completely missed the point of our moment in history.
  • Adaptability. Finally, the reason we find ourselves where we are today is because things changed so fast and so completely in a single generation. If those two decades are any guide, the pace of change is not about to let up anytime soon. Who had heard of blogs ten years ago? Who had heard of Facebook seven years ago? Who had heard of YouTube five years ago? The arts leaders of the 21st century, above all, will need to be prepared for a bumpy ride and many twists and turns as they make their way forward. Strategic planning, formative evaluation techniques, and data analysis will play increasingly important roles as arts organization leaders learn not just whether their decisions are effective, but how to make effective decisions in such an environment. Those who are most adept at adaptation will, just like Darwin predicted, be best positioned to survive and thrive.