November 16, 2012 7:21 pm

The art of leadership

Cultural activities have the power to build social integration and point to a higher purpose for humanity

For the past couple of weeks, most of the world has been debating a common theme: what combination of human qualities makes for an inspired leader? The Americans have given a fresh mandate to a charismatic leader who still has it all to prove. The Chinese have watched the manoeuvrings of their governing classes with impotent fascination.

The Church of England is looking forward to its first new leader for nearly a decade, the culmination of scrupulous and widespread consultation; Egypt’s Coptic Christians have put their faith in the divinely enlightened fumblings of a blindfolded boy to choose a new pope. And then there is the BBC, hammered by critics, traduced by thankfully rare but blinding shafts of incompetence, and fast losing its sense of purpose. Who will lead it to calmer waters?

This coincidental confluence has focused our minds. What kind of leaders should we look for? Exemplars are picked out from the tough-talking world of business, the diplomatic rollercoaster that is politics, and the morally pure realm of the spiritual. Headhunters look for a hybrid of Jack Welch, Henry Kissinger and Gandhi. They are hard to find.

One area that the headhunters ignore is the arts world. That is not so surprising. In the febrile cockpit of political life, the arts are regarded as a flaky accessory. Despite the evidence attesting to the power of cultural activities to raise consciousness, achieve social integration, improve behaviour and point to a higher purpose for humanity, none of this is ever raised in the white heat of an election campaign. Remember: it’s the economy, stupid, and don’t pause to wonder why people might be stupid.

But a trick is being missed here. The current generation of arts leaders, in Britain at least, is outstanding. It has shown the kinds of qualities that are demanded for any high-profile leadership position. Here are some of them:

1. Boldness When Nicholas Hytner took over at the National Theatre in 2003, he might have been expected – initially at least – to play safe with the National’s perceived core constituency, those swathes of middle-England day-trippers happy to see long-established classics, in search of mild diversion and gentle wit. Instead he opened his tenure with Jerry Springer: The Opera, a scabrous musical that opened itself to charges of blasphemy. There could have be no stronger statement of intent: this was going to be a new type of National Theatre that was not going to languish in the middle of the road.

2. Suppleness Thanks to the mixed funding model that culture in Britain enjoys, relying on both public subsidy and private sponsorship, its institutions have learned to adapt flexibly to changing times. Most of the past decade has been generous to the arts: they have benefited from trenchant government support, and record levels of business investment and private giving. The funding cuts of recent recession years have been weathered with aplomb. Arts leaders have become assiduous book-keepers.

3. Democracy Much of the money flowing into the arts has been used to ensure that they are accessible to all classes of people. The National’s Travelex scheme, selling tickets for £10 (now £12) has been one of the highest-profile examples. The Royal Opera House, though enjoying a hefty public subsidy, can offer surprising value for money. I paid £6 earlier this week for a negligibly restricted view seat to see a superb triple bill of ballet works. And the principle of free admission to museums has been defended tigerishly.

4. A sense of mission The finest achievement of Neil MacGregor at the British Museum has not been its succession of scholarly and crowd-pleasing shows, but something more fundamental: he has explained, with unprecedented clarity, what the museum is for. You may or may not buy the argument of the need for the encyclopaedic museum as a debating chamber for contrasting views of the world, but that argument has never been expressed with such urgency and eloquence. The BBC, for one, needs to refresh its own mission statement with something that approaches MacGregor’s savoir-faire.

5. Imagination This should of course be home base for arts leaders, but it is not always a given. They can be cowed by internal politics and the demands of increasing bureaucracy. They haven’t been. The range and variety of work available to arts lovers today is breathtaking. Under Nicholas Serota, Tate Modern has become a radical laboratory for artistic expression that has also attracted crowds in their millions.

London did not become the world’s cultural capital by accident. It was not by chance that Danny Boyle’s lively and leftfield opening ceremony for the Olympic Games proved such a success. It was built on the achievements of a class of leaders that has proved to be both visionary and pragmatic. It has shown what it is to lead. As current events show us, it is not as easy as it looks.

More columns at www.ft.com/aspden

peter.aspden@ft.com

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