I’m on a ferry from Naxos to the port of Piraeus. The ship’s wake spreads behind it like a bride’s white veil as it pulls away from the pier. As we clear the headland I glimpse a dolphin fleetingly arc out of the water. Then again, a brilliant flash. Then gone.
I’d arrived on the Greek Island a week before, on the 45 minute hopper flight from Athens. There weren’t any tickets available for the return journey, so my only option for leaving the island to connect with my flight home was a five and a half hour ferry journey. I knew stresses lay ahead: I had two hours to get from the port to the airport, drop my bag and board, less if the ferry was delayed. It was a gamble and I don’t like gambling where travel is concerned*.
On the other hand I liked the idea of travelling across the water, experiencing the real time transition from island to mainland, the maritime environment of salt spray, wind and waves, the changing horizon with bodies of land emerging and disappearing as we sailed among the archipelago. I decided to cope with the anxiety of the impending race to catch my plane, and the possibility of missing it, by living in the moment of the journey and use the time and the wide ocean vista for some creative thinking.
The weekend before my Greek holiday had been spent in a reunion with a good number of my Clore Cultural Leadership cohort, marking ten years since we’d embarked on our fellowships together. Several of our group have the kind of careers envisaged when the programme was established : impactful leadership at the wheels of significant and successful cultural institutions. Their career trajectories have been impressive, cutting skilfully through the choppy seas of arts, museums, archives, libraries infrastructure, making waves of influence across other sectors, partnerships and politics.
And then there are a group of us whose careers have steered a different leadership course, a patchwork of polymathic projects, creating individual interventions, flying kites of surprise. ‘Fleadership’ as one of our number calls it, untethered stinging, provocation of the status quo through large or small acts of creative practice.
When I completed my Clore Fellowship I set out to be in the first group. Today I find myself in the second, and it has really only been this year that I have come to the realisation that this is where I belong. The journey of the past ten years, which started out from senior arts management roles, has led me on a twisty route, taking in the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, enjoying a range of consultancy, enabling and development projects, but with an increasing involvement in creative practice – including my own.
A few days ago a Facebook post from a friend and colleague pointed out the propensity of independent creators and producers to describe themselves as ‘just freelance’. It echoed a discussion we’d had the previous weekend, about practising leadership outside organisational status. There are many challenges in this, including the difficulty of sustaining visibility, influence and leadership recognition when not at the helm of a vessel cutting a course across the sea’s surface. Instead, making progress which, like the dolphin, arcs above the waves at intervals.
And energy. One of our Clore weekend discussions was about generating and managing energy as an independent artist or producer, and the importance of forward motion in doing this. In dolphin leadership, you have to keep swimming beneath the surface to build the momentum to leap out of the water . That’s the work we create or produce. When you lose energy, you lose the thing that helps you breathe, the work. And there’s nobody on deck to help out.
I realise as I watch the waves break along the side of the ship, feeling it roll beneath me, passing distant islands, that I am no longer driven by a career course beyond what is required to enable my work. The trajectory of organisational leadership is no longer what I aspire to in my own journey – although I remain fascinated by organisational dynamics, by the strategies of leadership, as an activity, not a title. What motivates me is the arc of individual projects, ideas, collaborations and campaigns. I take energy from the creative connection of seemingly disparate narratives ; like the link between a sea voyage, a Facebook status and a leadership discussion. I find my passion in fusing art-forms, audiences and big ideas ; like breath[e]:LESS, the project I am going home to do, the exploration of climate psychology through narrative poetry, electronic music and psychadelic culture, in a cross between a theatre performance and a gig.
It’s what keeps me swimming in this particular ocean and jumping above the waves.
*I made the plane. Just
image : Oceanwideimages.com