What makes a good leader?
There isn’t a ‘one-size-fits-all’ list of qualities because it depends so much on context. But some of the recurring elements that recur when I consider people I think of as leaders are:
I’m going to wimp out of naming names here. We did an interesting exercise during DALI of identifying who we thought were leaders (disabled and non, cultural industries and beyond) and listing their qualities. There were people there I admired for their strategy and effectiveness, but could also see flaws which undermined their influence.
Is leadership different for disabled people?
Some leadership traits are contrary. For example, whilst ego is important, so is humility – to bring others in, support their development, ensure they receive credit. To recognise where your own skills end and others can do the job better; then both to delegate and step aside.
Yes, it can change it the experience of leadership and/or heighten it. If we learn from our experiences of impairment and disability, there is the possibility we will work in a much more inclusive way – not just inclusion of disabled people, but in the broadest sense. The experience of exclusion can (though not guaranteed) lead to a much deeper knowledge of the complexities of the social world and a greater motivation to work for ‘fairness’. If part of leadership is taking risks, going where no one else has dared, inspiring people to take up the mantle, etc, then this is everyday stuff for a lot of us. The disabled individual who is well informed, articulate, personable, etc, has the best chance of getting their own needs met. It shouldn’t rely on this, but may be it makes a lot of disabled people naturals for moving into leadership roles. If impairment and disability mean an individual develops non-standard solutions for their own life, then they have a good grounding in imagination and practical problem-solving.
The experience of exclusion and (lack of) involvement could go either way – it’s made some of our strongest and most belligerently effective leaders (segregated education deserves some credit for that!), but it’s held back many others who doubt themselves so deeply that their leadership potential is swallowed up. Direct action has been fundamentally important in bringing out new leaders (although it’s also had its own share of power games) and I think grassroots/community/activist projects are really important in nurturing this. There’s lots of room for apprenticeships too. Used well, this could rejuvenate our ailing movement (disability and disability arts); there’s a good argument for apprenticing disabled people with potential alongside non-disabled people in our own organisations where there is a leadership gap; but only where there is a clear plan for transferring the role fully to the apprentice.
Do you think there are barriers to leadership for disabled people that non-disabled people don’t face?
I am currently working in the film sector and estimate it to be quarter of a century behind the arts sector on inclusion of disabled people, whether as practitioners, audience or subject matter. I’ve worked in film for a decade and it’s taken all of that time for me to understand the medium, the industry and the constraints enough to be able to throw the rule book away. I’ve now decided that I won’t make films on mainstream terms – not least because it’s virtually impossible, or only with too much harm to myself. I can be a stronger leader, a potential role model and produce films of quality and integrity only if I practice in a non-standard way.
Repeated attempts to enter media work led to numerous experiences of blatant discrimination until I gave up on media related work and went on to other things. I later returned via a circuitous route, inventing my own way in. I have no formal training, but at times have had to know more/do better than others to prove my value. Being a disabled filmmaker might just be possible within the mainstream, but I also run inclusive productions and make political work about disabled people and it does not sit easy in the mainstream. I find it continually frustrating that I am regarded as a burden/demanding, rather than as a resource. I do a lot of direct equalities related work, but am reducing this as it leaves no energy for my practice.
Various themes and questions:
If I make disability my focus, is this liberation or ghettoizing? I think the former, but have had a lot of people warn me it’s the latter.
Does it matter that I’m seen as less of a leader or an artist if I choose disabled people as my primary community?
If I raise issues of equality and inclusion because no one else is doing so, does this stop me from speaking out on other things? (My last MP certainly seemed to think so.)
How do we learn to value what our experiences provide? There is so much in our combined experiences to build on that we represent an amazing resource for the sector. How do we get the sector to a point where it grasps that?
How far do I compromise my self and my needs to make headway in the sector (crawling up stairs, etc)? And how much do I have to be responsible for the impact this might have on the next disabled person who comes along?
As disabled people, is there a greater requirement for us to conform or does it give up an opportunity to chuck out the rule book altogether? If the latter, then how do we cope with going it alone?
When it all gets too hard keeping on, how do we support each other in a way that lets us get back out there? (Or how many more accessible loos do I have to escape to for a quick weep?)
How do we identify and nurture allies? How do we, as a community, get better at being allies to each other?
How does anyone have an inkling that they (or anyone else) is a leader? How do we identify potential leaders? There need to be opportunities for people to experiment (and fail) with leadership roles – rather than, as now, often having to prove themselves capable before they have any experience.