It’s summer, and that means I’m making an attempt to read more than I do during the rest of the year, and to make progress on the pile of books that otherwise sit there staring at me, each a potential learning journey. This summer, with gratitude to my neighbor who lent me her copy, I recently finished Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere.
The suburban Ohio community that Ng creates felt very real to me, particularly the character of Elena Richardson, a working mother of teenagers who is solidly on the path she’d laid out for her life back in high school. Except, of course, it isn’t really happening that neatly, and definitely not as deeply as Elena might have hoped. And then, in part because she is so sure of what is right and how things should really go, they unravel, shaking her integrity and calling into question her deepest passions and dreams.
While there is much, much more to this novel, Elena’s story resonates in my mind with another book I’m reading this summer, On Becoming a Leader, Warren Bennis’ classic about leadership originally published in 1989. In it, he says, “Good leaders engage the world. Bad leaders entrap it, or try.” Oh, poor Elena…
While some of the references in On Becoming a Leader feel a little dated to me, and I’m yearning for more examples by and about women and people of color, it’s a wonderfully clear and readable book about what leadership is, and what it is not. Bennis showcases good leadership through examples and insightful perspectives which any leader can learn from. Since summer is often a time that we are able to reflect and view our work, role, and organization from a more detached vantage point, I’ve been doing some reflecting about Bennis’ second basic ingredient of leadership: passion (the first being a guiding vision).
We’ve all heard that if we love what we do, we’ll not think of it (most of the time) as work. And the majority of us who are actively pursuing roles within the arts and culture field entered into this field because of a deep, magnetic passion. For me, that passion traces back to when I was a teenager and first fell in love with the sound and feel of the symphony orchestra. I started out as a musician, and soon started asking so many questions about how the organization operated that it seemed inevitable that I would join the administrative team of an orchestra. After a decade of working within orchestras, though, I was looking for my next adventure and came to realize my passion was broader than this particular art form and type of organization—I wanted to engage with the really big, sticky questions about how people engage with art in this rapidly changing world we live in. While in some respects my passion has remained the same throughout this process, in other ways it has shifted in focus as I myself have grown and changed, taking on greater responsibility and leadership over the years.
Everyone has their own path when it comes to the relationship between passion and leadership. As you consider your own path, here are a few questions you might ask yourself:
What passion first drew you to the world of the arts?
What passion brought you to the system you have chosen to work within?
Can you tell the (hi)story of your passion?
How do you communicate your passion, and your sense of possibility and hope, to others that you intersect with?
How does this passion that you feel link to your vision of the change you wish to make in the world?
When we reconnect with, likely revise (or reinterpret), and therefore renew our passion for what we do, we create hope and we create space. And we need both hope and space to take risks. In the words of Samuel Beckett:
Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.
Another lesson of great leaders that Bennis reminds us of is that they are not afraid to take risks or to fail. It’s not that they want to fail, but that they know that failure, or things not going as expected, always happens. They also know, however, that experimenting and taking risks is the only way to begin to fulfil their vision for the change they hope to lead others toward.
Becoming a leader is a process that never concludes, and one that requires a great deal of self-knowledge. I like these four lessons of self-knowledge that Bennis outlines:
- You are your own best teacher
- Accept responsibility. Blame no one.
- You can learn anything you want to learn.
- True understanding comes from reflecting on your own experience.
So, I invite you to take some time to reflect this summer, particularly about your passion. Enjoy reflecting on the stepping stones of your own experience, looking back at the passion that drew you into the work you do now, and looking forward to the passion that will propel you into whatever you take on next.