Perspectives on skill, inspiration and healthy environments, by Erin Sanchez
If you’ve ever experienced a really exceptional leader, you know that leadership matters. But have you ever thought about what made the difference for you? Research looking at the behaviours of leaders in dance environments has indicated that perfectionism, creativity, anxiety, and general wellbeing can be positively influenced by leaders who support a few key concepts: giving those they lead a sense of autonomy, belongingness, and competence (Quested and Duda, 2010; Miulli and Nordin-Bates, 2011). I talked to three artists and leaders about their most inspiring leaders, about how they lead and keep a healthy environment, and how they’ve learned their skills on the job.
Ingrid Mackinnon is an experienced professional dancer, rehearsal and movement director. She has worked with a variety of directors and organisations, including Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, Uchenna Dance, Royal Shakespeare Company, Vocab Dance and London Studio Centre’s Jazz Co. She is also Head of Dance at Wac Arts on the Diploma in Professional Musical Theatre.
Jaivant Patel is an award-winning independent dance artist, cultural producer, choreographer and creative consultant. He is Artistic Director of Jaivant Patel Dance, Associate Artist at Arena Theatre, Artist-In-Residence at Midlands Arts Centre and a member of the board of directors for Dance4. He is also an independent artistic and quality assessor for Arts Council England. In 2017, Jai Jashn Dance, a non-profit community organisation under the umbrella of Jaivant Patel Dance was a recipient of The Queen’s Golden Jubilee Award for Voluntary Service.
Thea Barnes is Resident Dance Supervisor with Disney’s The Lion King in the West End, where she has worked since 2001. She was the Artistic Director for Phoenix Dance Company from 1997-2000, as well as independent dance researcher. She danced professionally with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre and Martha Graham Dance Company.
Who are the best leaders you have known, and how did they impact you?
- Ingrid: The best leaders I have known are those who lead by action. Those who lead by simply doing what they do and doing it well. The leaders who have had the most impact on me are those that empower and leave the door slightly open for others to do the same or more.
- Jaivant: I have realised that leaders aren’t always people in leadership roles i.e. artistic directors. For me, Bisakha Sarker and Nahid Siddiqui have had a massive impact on my professional career; looking at all factors from many lenses, being specific about approach and focus, the importance of continuing artistic practice and having many layers to the work you do to enable the accessibility of it. I consider Tamara Rojo to be an inspirational role model who continues a professional dance career alongside her artistic director role. Paul Russ at Dance4 taught me a great deal about organisational strategy, artistic policy and how this links in with the wider dance ecology.
- Thea: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Nelson Mandela inspired me because of their knowledge of the history and challenges facing all people within their preview and the solutions they offered in countering often quite difficult and troubling times. Charisma, oratory skills, disposition especially when challenged, and their ability to inspire people to believe in themselves and what they could accomplish when working towards agreed goals and ideals also illustrated what I believe are essential characteristics of a leader. Barack and Michelle Obama, like King and Mandela, are leaders who offer ideals and solutions people can believe in and pursue. In dance, Artistic Director Emerita of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre Judith Jamison was an admirable role model and leader in her own right whom I admired for her stature and performance ethic, and who continues to be the inspiration in her organisation and beyond. Martha Graham was an artistic leader who saw in me the potential I could not fathom in myself. Graham used this insight to encourage all dancers in her company to be the “Acrobats of God” she believed they could be.
“The leaders who have had the most impact on me are those that empower and leave the door slightly open for others to do the same or more.” Ingrid Mackinnon
What are the key qualities good leaders should have?
- Jaivant: To remain humble, and to have an open-door policy; to have neutrality and think of the bigger picture, and be considerate and compassionate. They should have confidence in others less experienced, and respect, encourage and support everyone around them.
- Thea: Qualities observable in a leader are extensions of management style; how a leader manages to get a group with varied personalities and ideas of their place in the group to work together to accomplish independent and group goals. During ongoing, real time interactions and crisis times, variations of both an autocratic style, directing and making all decisions without discussion with workers and a participative style where the leader is open to input from workers on how to accomplish tasks given, can function positively.
With experience comes an awareness of when best to use elements of both management styles. A leader must have a clear overview of what the overall goal is and what tasks need addressing. Management strategies evolve out of a creative or artistic vision of what the group is about and aspires to be. The leader has to know and share this vision with all involved for the vision to be successfully accomplished.
- Ingrid: Empathy, patience and resilience
Which challenges have you have faced working as a leader?
- Ingrid: The idea that I’m working as a leader is new to me!! I’m just doing my thing! However, some of the challenges that I face now that I’m in a position to make decisions and affect change would be the time and financial resource. In the dance sector, I can see how the limited financial resource results in insufficient time to accomplish all that needs to be done. But, on the positive note, the sector is growing and training is getting even more creative on developing strategies to work within the resource available. I’m inspired daily.
- Thea: With maturity and experience in different settings, I continue to develop the insight and strategies to encourage those who I work with to understand what I wanted to achieve and what I believed would get the work done.It is not enough to have a vision and not a convincing plan to achieve it. You have to convince those whom you work with to be as inspired as you are and assist them in their areas of skill and expertise to get the job done. They have to believe in you as much as you believe in them. Articulation of ideas and being clear about what is to be done and how even when you have no sure answers is part of the territory of being the one who leads. Also admitting when first attempts are not successful, being open to criticism, and not being afraid to admit when things go pear shaped. Then you must listen and see, and draw on those standing in front of you to make it all work.
- Jaivant: The belief that I have the ability to do the things that I do, and having to overcome existing preconceptions and inherited notions around diverse communities and creatives from these backgrounds. Leaders in established organisations can feel threatened by the work that I do, and working in a regional area can have limited resources and infrastructure to enable the realisation of professional ambitions. Also, the stigmas and complexities attached with being a member of the South Asian community and who identifies openly as a homosexual man.
What are some strategies you use to keep a healthy physical and psychological environment as a leader?
“Having and continuing artistic practice has kept me grounded I feel keeps me informed about the current issues artists face. Taking time out when required to refresh when under pressure is important, as is talking to peers whose advice you can trust to air out frustrations and to listen to your concerns.” Jaivant Patel
- Ingrid: Coffee! And also remembering that everyone is human so we must communicate on that level at all times. Respect, kindness and laughter when you can.
- Thea: Observation and reading material from dance and sport science journals have provided ideas I can draw on. I have found Psychology of Dance (Taylor & Taylor, 1995) useful for devising ways of working with dancers to enable individual aspirations, attitudes and approaches to enjoy the work. I always hope the manner of working assists and augments their individual visions in our context of work and beyond. I’ve also reviewed Applying Sport Psychology (Taylor & Wilson, 2005) to devise strategies to encourage camaraderie. Spirit, or shared ideals of how and what is to be accomplished, gets people to work together positively and effectively. Spirit helps immeasurably in accomplishing tasks to a high standard of excellence. I have also read business management books and articles on self-development to continually infuse and enrich my working practices and strategies. The motivation is to cultivate the kind of supportive, nurturing and productive working environment I believe works for all concerned.
What are some of the most useful things you’ve learned about leading on the job?
- Ingrid: That I have a lot more to learn and that you don’t have to always lead from the front.
- Jaivant: Having honesty about knowing and asking if you need help getting to grips with skills, you have limited or no experience in. When working with creatives, to consider elements such as work conditions to understand it from their points of view.
- Thea: I have learned through the years to have a vision for what I want to accomplish and be passionate about it! The vision can be how to get dancers more confident in realising a metaphorical meaning in a duet to multiple dancers moving in unison. That passion has to be the driving force to secure people—dancer, singers, tech staff, and resources—wardrobe, props, sets, etc to help accomplish the vision. Whether known, imagined or devised along the way, you have to tailor ways of working to fit the people and the job at hand. The work involves people and getting them to believe in the vision and contribute individually and collectively on all levels towards the goals at hand.
“I have learned to acknowledge there will be those times when you have to think on your feet and be willing to change. It is important to be as aware as you possibly can of the circumstance you find yourself in and what it will require from you and those around you to band together to work confidently, inspired and excellently.” Thea Barnes
- Miulli M. and Nordin-Bates, S. (2011) Motivational Climates: What They Are, and Why They Matter. IADMS Bulletin for Teachers
- Quested E, Duda JL. (2010) Exploring the social-environmental determinants of well- and ill-being in dancers: A test of basic needs theory. J Sport Exerc Psychol.32(1):39-60.
Originally published in One, Issue 5 – Autumn 2018