BLOG: Leaders of the future: authenticity and battling the impostor

17 January 2019

BLOG: Leaders of the future: authenticity and battling the imposter

By Mel Carter, Culture Bridge North East Area Manager and Artsmark lead

Over the past 7 months I have been lucky enough to be a part of the 2018/19 cohort for the Extend Leadership Programme. Led by Engage. Extend is a professional development programme for those working in learning and education roles across all art forms.

I wasn’t entirely certain what to expect from the programme’s first residential in June last year. I’ve long been plagued by impostor syndrome – that voice we all have in the back of our minds telling us that one day somebody is going to notice that we’re not a real grown up after all – and, to be perfectly honest, I wasn’t convinced I was even the right person for the course. But what I found was a rare opportunity to spend 3 whole days immersed in thinking – my own and others’ – and really take the time to understand myself as a leader and identify the skills I want to develop further. We heard from inspirational leaders from the culture sector and beyond, all talking very openly about their experiences and what leadership meant to them. My fellow cohort members were candid in sharing their reasons for being there and their areas for development, generous in their sharing of hopes and fears.

And there was a theme emerging from all these conversations – authenticity. Every single speaker talked about being true to themselves, not compromising their integrity, and finding a place for themselves within their sector that enabled them to lead with their core values at the heart of their work. We explored the concepts of relational and distributed leadership; the idea of leading from the centre and inspiring collective ownership. Most of all, we were repeatedly encouraged to use Extend to develop in whatever way we needed to as individuals; that there was no “right” way to “do leadership”.

The message was simple: in order to be an authentic leader, first be yourself. To beat impostor syndrome, don’t try to be someone else. When you put it like that, it’s obvious really.

I’ve been sitting with these thoughts for a while now, and exploring them in various contexts. With 3 others from my Extend cohort, I’ve been delving into co-created evaluation, and looking at how arts organisations can use this to increase the influence that participants have on programmes – which in turn can lead to more authentic and meaningful participation. This requires a bit of a leap of faith, and a leadership style that places trust in the distribution of control. We’re developing a resource that will support organisations who want to look more closely at this.

Throughout, this word “authenticity” was ringing a bell… ah, there it is, in the Quality Principles; “be authentic”. Now I see that this isn’t just about access to resources or quality of output, but about being true to ourselves as arts leaders, and enabling children and young people to develop a sense of their own authenticity as well.

After all, isn’t that what so much of the arts is about – empowering us to work towards self-expression? Arts experiences give young people a safe space, far away from the binary world of right and wrong answers, to explore ideas and feelings, and develop a sense of self. The strong leaders I know and admire all have great integrity; they know who they are and what their values are, and they bring this into their work. So, to create a future generation of inspirational leaders – no matter what their field of expertise – providing opportunities from an early age for them to develop this sense of authenticity is surely key. We need our young people to be able to experience a wide range of art forms; to watch, to question, to respond, to make, to take part – to see that there is no one way of leading, and to accept and celebrate their strengths as individuals.

I don’t think it’s possible to ever completely eradicate impostor syndrome – but could the arts help the next generation to answer those niggling doubts more effectively?

Applications for Extend 2019/20 open in February;  Click here for more information, or email Dawn Cameron, Programme Co-ordinator.