Amid the efforts of movements like #MeToo and #WeSeeYouWAT to rectify decades (if not centuries) of harmful practices across multiple industries, many have advocated for an interrogation or even dismantling of the traditional executive hierarchy in the workplace. For those who follow dramaturg Lauren Halvorsen’s weekly newsletter, Nothing For the Group, (and if you don’t, you definitely should) you already know that the “Regional Theatre Game of Thrones” is her cheeky and timely title for a segment that tracks the ever-changing landscape of leaders and leadership models in the American Theater Industry. Beheadings and other gruesome deaths aside, as the allusion to the popular series might suggest, the moniker is quite apt for describing the seeming-constant turnover of theater administrators—artistic directors in particular—plaguing the industry in the past several years. Indeed, ASC is no stranger to the traditional hierarchy of Artistic Director and Managing Director at the pinnacle of leadership, or the tectonic shifts caused in an organization by upheaval in these roles, either, but when the time came to put someone new on our “throne” a few years ago, we opted for an alternative way forward instead.
Ever heard of “distributed leadership”? We hadn’t either until we began operating that way! What we have learned since is that many nonprofit organizations are gravitating towards this model, following in the footsteps of countless academic institutions, and that it’s been around for longer than you might think. Over at least the last two decades, research and case studies have come to define this leadership model as “participatory leadership across an organization. In an organization which practices distributed leadership, both the responsibility and the accountability of leadership is embraced and shared by those who have the expertise and skills to move the institution forward. This is accomplished not singularly as a positional leader, but through a team of accountable leaders.” Or, as Linda J. Rosenthal of the For Purpose Law Group puts it more plainly, “‘Shared leadership’ takes the historical model of organizations and leadership and turns it on its head. Gone is the rigid, top-down, vertical command-and-control hierarchy with a sole ‘heroic’ leader at the helm.” Once we got started on this journey, ASC also learned that we are in excellent company. Here are some of the arts organizations that have embraced their own versions of distributed leadership within the last decade: Cal Shakes, the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Destiny Arts Center, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, On the Move, Terrain, and Thousand Currents.
There is no “one size fits all” model of shared leadership, but the research shows that every organization needs certain conditions in place for it to be effectively executed:
- High levels of trust – both necessary to operating within a distributive leadership structure, but also as a result of operating that way.
- Investment in learning – investing resources in the learning and development of all staff in order to equip them to make informed decisions individually and to contribute to shared decision-making.
- Values are important – not only values-based leadership, but also to the importance of building a structure that supports organizational values.
- Patience and Time – Initially these changes can mean investing in a process that could last several months, but the results lead to increased impact.
And, if those circumstances are met, the benefits to the organization and its employees include the following:
- Power to decide on programs, including raising funds – with well-defined roles, internal information sharing, communication, and trust, fundraising, and budgetary discretion can be highly distributed.
- New ideas and innovation – Sharing information leads not only to more ideas, but also to faster internal communications systems so that staff at all levels have immediate access to sharing ideas.
- More responsibility and responsiveness – more ownership in decisions and the results.
- Increased and diverse external representation – Staff members at various levels of power within the organization are able to freely speak and interact with outside partners, media contacts, and funders, which leads to quicker decision making overall.
- Greater impact – growing programs, maintaining talent, raising more funds, addressing new issues, or creating new partnerships.
For the most part, this has been our experience at ASC. We have found that every department has significantly more autonomy and can therefore make decisions more quickly. We have found ways to share information and improve our transparency, and more members of the organization have agency to help with decision-making and blossom into leaders.
In a nutshell, our version of shared or distributed leadership looks like this: In order to represent all interests in Operations, Production, Programming, and Engagement, the Management Group (MG) is composed of at least one team lead or department head and occasionally solicits input from other Company employees and outside resources to provide additional expertise, perspectives, and information to the MG to better inform decisions. Right now MG consists of eight people in our company of around 55-60 employees, representing all facets of each department from finance to education to production management. These individuals co-equally and collectively make decisions on behalf of the organization. Our Management Group works toward consensus on final decisions on issues that rise to a company-wide level whenever possible. Examples of these consensus-driven decisions include: annual budget creation and other financial issues; creation of new positions within the company and hiring/management/evaluation of employees; creation/implementation of company policies and community agreements, etc. While this diffuse structure offers heightened expedience and autonomy for decision-making at the department level, company-wide issues are addressed at a more deliberate pace. Do we have lengthy conversations about every single problem? No. But we take time when it really matters, and consult as many people within and without the company as we need to in order to make an informed decision.
Some aspects of our company structure, however, have not and probably will not change. We still have an Artistic Director, the inimitable Brandon Carter, but for decisions that affect the entire company his is one of several voices rather than the sole voice heard on an issue. Sometimes, when we can’t reach unanimity, the proverbial “buck” still stops with the AD and the other two “board report” employees on staff, but it’s rare. Think of our hierarchy as more like Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table rather than—to harken back to Halvorsen’s Game of Thrones metaphor—a solitary (and terrifying) Cersei Lannister at the peak of the hierarchy pyramid, poised to topple alone. Whatever mistakes or victories that ASC achieves now, we achieve them together.
Want to learn more about Distributed Leadership? Check out these sources (which we also cited liberally in this blog):
- Case Studies in Distributed Leadership
- Need to move faster and smarter? Level up with distributed leadership
- Distributed Leadership as a Sustainable and Inclusive Leadership Approach
- Shared Leadership: A Primer for NonProfits
- Shared Leadership: A Lawyer’s Perspective
- Distributed leadership in organizations: A review of theory and research
- Structuring Leadership: Alternative Models for Distributing Power and Decision-Making in Nonprofit Organizations
Meet the ASC Management Group:
Stephanie Cabacoy – Associate Director of Development and Engagement
Brandon Carter – Artistic Director
Thomas J. Coppola – Production Manager
Kevin Maroney – Director of Development
Natasia Reinhardt – Associate Artistic Director
Aubrey Whitlock – Associate Director of Education Programming
Jessica Wiseman – Director of Finance and Operations
Amy Wolf – Associate Director of Marketing and Sales
Got questions? Email our company leaders at firstname.lastname@example.org.
2023 is ASC’s 35th Anniversary and we’ve got an incredible artistic year planned. Now playing at the Blackfriars Playhouse: Shakespeare’s As You Like It (through May 14) and Sarah Ruhl’s Eurydice (through May 13). Opening next is a limited engagement of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (abridged) [revised] (again) from May 17-June 4—tickets are now on sale! Visit our website for a full calendar of events.