Leadership Institute Blog Series, No. 3

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Leadership Institute: A Year of Advancement

Leadership Institute: A Year of Advancement, is an ongoing series that shares the experiences of our 15 cohort members as they focus on developing their leadership and management skills through monthly workshops.

To Go On, Remember Who You Are 

“I can’t go on. I’ll go on.” -Samuel Beckett

Malik Gillani, Executive Founding Director of theatre company Silk Road Rising, shared this quote with us near the beginning of his talk on dealing with chaos and conflict as the leader of an arts organization. In a full suit and tie, he delivered possibly one of the most grounded and artful powerpoints I have witnessed to date; and by artful, I don’t just mean creative. I mean that in a TedTalk worthy presentation, he used art, photography, poetry, and paintings to, well, paint his points.

Throughout the talk, he asked us questions to reflect on that would help us navigate troubled waters and times of organizational crisis. They were:

Who are you?

What signs are you sending?

What is the company you keep?

While contemplating these questions, I continued to listen to his presentation, infused with images of lotus flowers and Frida Kahlo, words of Shakespeare and 13th-century Persian poet Rumi, and a new question emerged: What can art and artists teach the nonprofit sector about responding to crisis and chaos?

I think the answer to this is many things. One answer he gave was that “fixers” create problems to solve. Artists do this all the time. Writers literally contrive conflict to resolve it. Often this is in response to or a reflection of real life situation, whether personal or political. Conflict is also what draws us into art, and, I dare say, to life. We don’t want to watch predictable movies, or read books without tension. We want our love stories to have drama. And why is that? Because that’s what real life looks like. It’s messy and dramatic and there are problems we deal with daily at home, at work, and in society.

We started early in the day considering this question of what we might learn from artists when communicating in crisis. Marissa Trevisan, one of our cohort members who does Improv Comedy in Chicago shared lessons from improv for public presentation in times of trouble to what may be angry or confused clients, donors, and partners. Her tips include: drinking water to prevent dry mouth, reframing your language (and the very real feeling) of “nerves” into “excitement”, and slowing down your speaking pace. This last one causes you to think about what you’re saying before you say it, and, another of the cohort chimed in, produces the added benefit of reducing your “ums” and “likes”. As common sense as some of them might seem, I appreciated Marissa for sharing them, because under pressure, these are exactly the kind of things that one forgets to do.

As an arts administrator in my 9-5 and a theater artist in my 5-9, I would like to offer an additional tool that I use as an actor, in my work with youth, and in my own life to deal with conflict: improvisational role-play. Rehearse how to respond in tough situations. Get with your trusted colleagues, or non-workplace friends. Set up the scenario: press release, board meeting, difficult conversation with a supervisor or supervisee.  Have one of them be your “antagonist”, or the person or group of people you might be struggling with. Now, this person, your trusted colleague or friend, needs to really commit to the role, because then and only then will you be able to practice in a situation as close to reality as possible. Try out different strategies and different techniques to achieve the desired outcome. Switch roles; let them give it a go, and see what they try that you might never have thought of.  

No matter your field or position, no matter your strategies and tactics for handling crises and conflict, there will inevitably be crises and conflicts. As art depicts and reminds, they are all around us. Malik left us with the truth and challenge that: when the mind says “I cannot go one”, the soul says, “I will. I must go on”.

I love this because it is not necessarily new, but rather an affirmation of what we often have to do as administrators, managers, and leaders in nonprofits. It is a reminder. In order to “go on”, to evolve, to transform: find your tools, know who you are. In the face of organizational adversity, be professional. Armor yourself in your best suit and tie, but also be grounded. Find, or remember, your roots. Remind yourself of why you came to this work in the first place. Remember what is feels like to solve problems (such as creating new, innovative programs, and receiving grants that took way too many hours of your time to apply for to run those programs).

Listen to who you are to move forward.  Be a master of your universe.


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Quenna is Education Programs Manager at UChicago’s Arts + Public Life, where she founded two community-based theater programs for teens and adults on Chicago’s South Side. Quenna received her BFA from NYU Tisch Drama and her MA in Applied Theatre from the University of Southern California. She’s a teaching artist, organizer with BYP100 and #LetUsBreathe Collective, ICAH For Youth Inquiry company member, actress, and Theatre of the Oppressed practitioner blending TO techniques with acting skills to amplify teens’ voice and hold space to rehearse, tell, and change the stories of their lives.

Learn more about the 2017 Leadership Institute Cohort here