Getting In Sync: Disability And Leadership In The Cultural Sector

07/09/2016 10:33

Disability is not seen to be synonymous with leadership - disabled people are seen to need help, assumed not to be able to do things for themselves let alone be at the helm of their own cultural and creative lives as directors, producers, managers and administrators. 

So in 2008, when the British Government put resources into the development of Cultural Leadership with the aim of diversifying the leadership workforce to be more representative of our society, this was the first presumption that needed tackling.

 As part of the Cultural Leadership Programme, Sarah Pickthall and myself were charged with the task of developing a leadership programme for disabled leaders working across arts, culture and heritage; a particularly timely and important investment as the nation prepared to host the Olympic and Paralympic Games and a Cultural programme to match both.

Sync, with its name actually taken from syncopation - an emphasis on a usually unemphasised beat - became the flagship programme for disabled leadership from 2008 - 2012 working with a diversity of disabled (and Deaf) people across the UK, focusing on leadership as behaviours, not just job titles. Many who passed through the programme have developed and sustained high profile careers in the arts, despite the onslaught of benefit cuts and an austere political climate.

"Through SYNC I discovered some personal strengths which fostered my ambitions to run Daily Life Ltd to promote the abilities of other creative practitioners like myself, who are experts by experience of the mental health world." (Bobby Baker, Daily Life Limited)
Leadership for Sync was about very much about changing minds (including disabled people's own minds) enabling them to move forward into leadership thinking and action:  giving them resources to fight their corners and break through glass ceilings through intensive leadership theory and professional coaching support. Disabled people often develop natural skills and talents in designing and leading simply through having to orienteer the minefield of barriers they experience.

"Coaching makes you feel like it's ok to wear your jumper on inside out and not apologise. It is a bit like a wash on the delicate fabrics programme with the full spin on. Every session was like this but I noticed I became more tuned in with assessing issues and understanding them..." (Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director, Graeae Theatre Company)

 London 2012 has been and gone, yet Sync graduates are still developing their cultural offer running their own organisations and projects and making work that tours nationally and internationally despite and because of austerity. Unlimited - and the Unlimited Festival now on at Southbank Centre and shortly to be at Tramway in Glasgow, would not be what they are without Sync.  Those artists will not be beaten or forgotten and many of them attribute it to the leadership learning they began with Sync.
Since 2012, Sync has been rolled out in Australia with support from the Australia Council who invested in week long intensive programmes in Sydney and Adelaide with their disabled arts leaders in both 2014 and 2015 developing new ways of seeing themselves and realising their ambitions.

There have been some high profile shifts for attendees since Sync - such as former Prisoner actress Kate Hood who struggled to get TV roles since becoming a wheelchair user picking up the first regular disabled character on TV soap Neighbours. "At last a major Australian TV series, which is seen globally, has taken the step of casting a disabled actor to play a disabled person. It seems that we are finally catching up with the rest of the world." Kate Hood

Most of the changes are internal. As Australian playwright and film maker Sofya Gollan says: "I attended the Sync Leadership program in Adelaide 2015 as an emerging leader in Australian Disability arts sphere. I was however at a point in my creative career where all I could see were barriers and reasons why I should not continue my professional practice, carrying deep insecurities and regrets from past endeavours that did not succeed as well as I had hoped or had failed. I was also broke and unemployed, my considerable accumulated skills over the years going to waste. [Sync] marked a turnaround in my attitudes towards my work and life that have been nothing short of extraordinary. I identified my leadership style, identified the core values that drive me to create, and learnt analytical tools that I can apply to problems or barriers as they occur. Sync showed me it is possible to be idiosyncratic, yet professional at the same time. It invigorated and renewed my sense of purpose, and gave me the tools I needed to take the next step, and the one after that." Sofya Gollan

The impact wasn't just on individuals - gathering emergent disabled cultural leaders together has had repercussions for the sector as a whole, as Morwenna Collet, who works for the Australia Council comments: "Sync was the first time that disabled leaders from around the country came together to collaborate, learn, grow and fast track our own development as leaders. Personally, I was challenged by facilitators and peers on a range of issues. My thinking and perspective changed and blossomed on topics such as leadership types and how best to use power and influence to create change. Sync had a profound impact my career journey to date.  Sync has given me the confidence to see myself as a leader and enact upon opportunities to continue to develop myself further."

For any nation wanting to develop diversity in arts and culture, the challenge is to develop a sector where disabled people are included and supported beyond individual flash moments so that we are not only put on show, but we get to run the show! As a result of this society changes irrevocably on the ground and disabled people become a natural part of cultural life, not hidden or placed in the margins.
This means investing in disabled people in the long term both because we have right to be included and also because our artistic contribution is striking and our position in culture indicative of that within society itself.
At the end of the day - including disabled people in leadership development, it's about both syncing and swimming.