On (digital) leadership

This is a lightly edited version of text that was originally written as part of Issue #13 of the Fresh & New newsletter, which I describe as my ‘thinking in progress about technology, design, heritage, music and sound — and where they all intersect. Precursors to fully formed ideas and projects. A notebook in progress. An experiment in fast writing’. You can sign up to receive future newsletters in your inbox over at buttondown.email/sebchan. They don’t (usually) appear on the open web. This is an exception.

Illustration by Katie Shelly, © 2019

When I was at high school I was the captain of a mid-tier cricket team. We weren’t the best but we also weren’t the worst. Unlike kids’ sport teams these days, the role of captain wasn’t something that was ‘rotated’ or ‘shared’. In fact, in my team I ended up with the role because no one else wanted it. And as captain that meant you also had to step in and do things like ‘open the batting against the fastest bowlers of the best opposition team’ when no one else wanted to do so.

These days when I look across the cultural sector and see ‘digital leaders’ struggling in their institutions I think of that somewhat (awful) role as a high school cricket captain. The game has already been rigged against you — your team is only doing Saturday sport because it’s compulsory; your team’s skills are mixed and ‘developing’; and any enthusiasm they might have isn’t directed or focused.

What the best leaders — irrespective of where they work in an institution — need to be able to do is to excite their teams about where they are collectively heading — even if that is into an abyss. They need to shield their teams from distractions, and they need to drive a belief that hard things are possible — and convince colleagues, funders, donors that effort and resources are worthwhile to direct towards those hard, complicated things. Everything else is just management. Museums need managers too, but let’s not confuse leaders with managers.

In these times of austerity or where the ‘reality of the situation’ feels impossible to make change, it is the leader’s role to not let go of the collective imagination — the ‘collective possible’. Possibility matters but impossibility is what often inspires effort and new ideas. And it’s very easy to slip into management mode. Without northstar projects and a sense of excitement, you won’t get anywhere.

It boils down to passion, expertise, and optimism.

1. The non-profit world gets a lot of justifiable flak for trading on its employees ‘passion’. Low wages, ridiculous entry level qualification requirements, underpayment, crunch hours, salary cloaking, these all lead to an exploitation of passion. But leaders shouldn’t let go of their passion. That passion is what fuels change.

Melbourne designer Jussi Pasanen writes in his argument for moving ‘beyond human centred design’ (2018),

“When us designers make things more convenient for users, products easier to buy for customers, and customer service more frictionless, there is virtually always a business transaction that takes place behind the scenes. Something is being bought and sold. When something is being bought, there is almost invariably a direct or an indirect component of extraction, exploitation or emissions to it. This is unavoidable in the system of industrial capitalism, for it is a system that is fundamentally unsustainable.”

Aral Balkan’s ethical design manifesto makes a similar call, there’s elements of this in John Maeda’s latest Design In Tech report too, and last week Koven Smith’s articulated some of the issues closer to home for museum technologists.

2. Leaders need expertise. Recent trends that have seen the arrival of museum leaders from the business world who have brought a different kind of expertise. That expertise, I would argue often isn’t compatible with a where our cultural institutions need to go. Instead expertise and experience is needed from inside arts and cultural heritage — a decade being a middle manager with no experience in actual making/production doesn’t engender good foresight, imagination or, critically, the necessary empathy with which to work well with teams.

3. Lastly, and perhaps most difficult these days, is optimism. Leaders need to have and convey hope — hope that things can change, can be different, and in the case of cultural heritage, that they can be funded. That is how change happens — even revolutions require hope. As well as laughter and mirth.

Optimism can be in short supply right now. Austerity is hurting. At an institutional scale, the resources you imagined you would have have either not materialised or have being reallocated. Then there is the personal burnout — and the highly uneven ability to cope with the stresses of emotional labour resulting from past trauma, gender, race and class. And ever present imposter syndrome.

It turns out none of this has anything to do with ‘digital’. The digital part of ‘digital leadership’ is a red herring.

This was originally written as part of Issue #13 of the Fresh & New newsletter, sent on 11 March 2019. You can sign up to receive future newsletters in your inbox over at buttondown.email/sebchan.

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Seb Chan

I’m currently the Director & CEO at ACMI (Australian Centre for the Moving Image) in Melbourne. Previously Cooper Hewitt (NYC) & Powerhouse Museum (Syd).