The central challenge of leadership in nonprofit organizations is that mediocrity is survivable.
—Dutch Leonard, Harvard School of Business
I don’t know of any nonprofit theatre leader who starts the day by saying: “Today, I am going to prepare myself a tasteless breakfast, meander to the office where I’ll make some adequate decisions, select a season of passable plays and education programs, and interact with my staff, board and audiences in ways that are thoroughly average.” In artistic organizations, the pursuit is almost always for some form of excellence—excellence that is often defined and sought after collectively. The result of that pursuit, ideally, will be exquisite theatre that will be rewarding for artists while also inspiring to an audience; that draws positive critical reception, and even ripples out to spark conversations and self-reflection in the community at large; and that comes to life within an organizational culture that is vibrant and inclusive, whether well-funded, underfunded or somewhere in between.
Yet there are times when the work we are most proud of is tepidly received. There’s that dreaded response when you ask someone how they liked a particular show—“Ummm, it was interesting”—or the all-too-common case in which something is decidedly off-kilter, but deadlines and ingrained processes for making the work (the pressure of opening night, for instance) can render it impossible to make all of the needed adjustments.
Organizational cultures are, in truth, delicate organisms that need constant cultivation and care. The sheer volume of problems to solve and tasks to accomplish—from fundraising to managing cash flow to getting a set designed and built on time—inevitably means that some things will be done better than others. And when things ostensibly within our control are allowed to slide and become “not very good”—even by our own personal standards—the fact remains that we and our organizations survive.
Still, it’s unsettling to ponder the prospect of our theatres, or even an entire theatre system, surviving in spite of being just “okay.” It reminds me of something the Mountain King, a troll, says in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt: “Among men, the saying goes: ‘Man, to thyself be true!’ But at home here with us, ’mid the tribe of the trolls, the saying goes: ‘Troll, to thyself be—enough!’”
During TCG’s Fall Forum on Governance in November, speaker Cathy Trower (who cited Dutch Leonard’s quote above about nonprofit leadership) talked about how the quality of decision-making is directly related to how well a problem is investigated and framed. She reminded us that Einstein once said, “If I had one hour to save the world, I would spend 55 minutes defining the problem and only 5 minutes finding the solution.”
There is a correlation between time invested to do things and the level of excellence that can be achieved. It’s not that you always need more time—though often more time is crucial. The key is using time strategically to achieve the best results.
Years ago, I had an overachieving mentor who said he handled the problem of overwork by rotating the things he was neglecting on any given day. It’s called “selective neglect.” To be able to do anything exceptionally well (and to remain sane in the process), it’s important to cultivate the ability to place focused, undistracted time on the things that are most valuable and most important, while accepting the inevitability that some other things will be done less perfectly, even abandoned for a period of time or cut from the priority list entirely.
As the years pass, finding that focused time becomes increasingly difficult, especially since the mere distractions of a few years ago are now tantamount to survival: posting on Facebook, checking Instagram, wading through e-mail. At a book-launch panel discussion in New York recently, Svitlana Matviyenko, co-editor (with Paul D. Miller) of the new book The Imaginary App, observed that cell phones, which at first were like an extension of ourselves—gadgets that were fun and made things more convenient—have evolved to become like prosthetics. Letting go is like cutting off your arm. (Ever notice how you panic when you’re halfway to work and realize you left your cell phone on the kitchen counter?)
To complicate matters further, that cell-phone prosthesis and all of its useful (and not-so-useful) apps sit there collecting information about you, day in and day out. In just a few years, most human bodies have come to consist of two arms, two legs, a head and a cell phone—which is actually a powerful computer that feeds on our desire to be in constant communication with the world.
Granted, our new technological limb is more than a time-grabber. It can help us do our work better, access information that helps us frame problems differently, see new ways of working and connect with artists around the globe we’d never have been able to access in the past. It steals focus, but also has the capacity to help us excel.
My hope in this new year is for a stepping-up of the power and excellence of what we do. I want us to be able to focus on the right problems, and invest in meaningful, effective discourse and decision-making processes, whether we’re dealing with artistry, financial resources, audience and community engagement, technology, organizational cultures, fieldwide equity or other crucial issues that have daily and long-term consequences. Have a happy and most excellent 2015!