As arts leaders, our roles often require us to go beyond the “9-to-5” workday. In fact, it’s not uncommon to see arts leaders working 12, 14, or even 16-hour days on a regular basis to get everything done. While it may seem necessary, the truth is that it’s not okay, because eventually, we experience something all too common in the arts management world: burnout. At the Americans For The Arts (AFTA) conference, which was held in Boston this year, I attended one of the Arts Leadership Pre-conferences, Impact Without Burnout: Resilient Arts Leadership from the Inside Out. The focus of the pre-conference was on developing self-awareness, self-management, and self-care skills, so that arts leaders can make a positive different in their careers, organizations, and communities.
Self-Awareness: Each of us has a different Social Style that determines the way we communicate and react to difficult situations. This may seem obvious, but if you take the time to determine your specific Social Style and understand its implications, you can improve your leadership and communication skills and work relationships.
You can find the Social Styles Assessment & descriptions here: http://www.smallworldalliance.com/documents/SocialStyles-Assessment.pdf
Even more useful is to have your colleagues complete the social style survey, too, so that you are aware of their style and can adjust your tone and words accordingly for improved communication (this is called style flexing). For example, if your social style is analytical and your colleague’s style is amiable, you may experience conflict over setting work priorities. Knowing the differences in advance and understanding how to communicate based on your different styles can help prevent such conflicts.
“Keep in mind that great leaders have the ability to use multiple communication styles, even those outside of their comfort zone, to execute their vision.” – Jeffrey Golde
Self-Management: Once you are aware of your social style and the styles of your colleagues, you can use self-management skills to actively choose what you say and do. According to Beth Kenter, “Self-management is not about avoiding emotions or suppressing true feelings.” The five dimensions of self-management of emotions are:
- Self Control: Keeping disruptive emotions and impulses in check
- Trustworthiness: Maintaining standards of honesty and integrity
- Conscientiousness: Taking responsibility for performance
- Adaptability: Flexibility in handling change
- Innovation: Being comfortable with new ideas, novel approaches and information
As musicians we know the importance of practicing our instrument to improve our musical abilities. But the same is true for self-management skills! You should practice using strategies that help you manage your reactions in emotionally charged situations: active listening, intentional breathing, taking a step back or hitting the pause button, and analyzing the situation as it if were happening to a friend, rather than to yourself – what would your advice be for that person?
Finally, don’t underestimate the power of reflection. Be reflective after meetings or important conversations with your colleagues. Think about how you reacted to information or handled elements of the conversation. These reflections will be more powerful if you take a moment to write them out, so you can truly learn from these interactions and make improvements in the future.
Leaders Listen: A key element of self-awareness and self-management is being an active listener. One of the best responses (yet most challenging) to somebody who is voicing a concern or complaint is, “tell me more.” If you focus on listening, rather than getting defensive or thinking about how you will respond, then the other person will feel as if they are being heard AND you will have additional time to collect your emotions and thoughts to elicit a more productive response.
According to Janet McIntyre, when leaders listen they should strive to do the following:
- Make sure the timing is right and you’re not distracted
- Practice self-management
- Be comfortable with silence
- Listen to what’s not being said
- Use your own body to demonstrative active listening
Here is a listening exercise that we did at the conference, which I found quite useful:
- Pair up with a partner.
- Person A will talk for 2 minutes straight about something he/she finds exciting or challenging. Person B will listen for the full 2 minutes without interruption. No talking, no commenting, no questions. Just listen in silence. You can use non-verbal communication limitedly. Mostly be present and listen.
- Debrief afterwards: How was it for each of you? What was your experience? What was hard? What came naturally?
- Switch roles and debrief again.
You would be surprised how challenging it is to both talk without receiving verbal feedback from your partner AND listen without making comments or asking questions for 2 minutes. For me, not being able to speak at all during the 2 minutes made me a more active listener, as I wasn’t thinking about how I would respond.
Self-Care: “Self-care can minimize your stress and act as an antidote to many of the stressors that you may face each day working at a nonprofit.” – Beth Kanter
One way of handling work stress is to create a Self-Care Plan. This should be customized to fit your own needs and personality. Consider day-to-day activities in the following categories: physical health, mental health, down time, mindfulness, creativity, spiritual self-care, relationship with family and friends, your home, the outdoors, relationship with money, life/work balance, and relationship with technology. Those are a lot of categories, but they are all important to consider when developing a self-care plan that will help you avoid burnout and make you a more impactful leader.
Other tips include understanding and applying habit change (from harmful to helpful), getting enough sleep, moving your body, embracing mindfulness, managing your energy and attention, integrating tech wellness, and avoiding procrastination.
All of these recommendations come from The Happy Healthy Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Aliza Sherman, which will be released in October of this year. I highly recommend you check out this book for more information on developing a Self-Care Plan.
“Leaders know their values, emotions, and communication styles. They have the ability to keep a pulse on their emotions so that they can stay flexible and positively choose how to react to different situations and people. To thrive in the arts, it also requires understanding how to take care of yourself while taking care of your organization’s mission.” Although these aspects of leadership are often overlooked or pushed to the side when we run out of time at the end of the day, they should be the first priority of our lives if we hope to be impactful leaders for many years to come.
Graciela Briceno, Sistema Fellow '11