Liz Miller

Elizabeth McCloskey Miller

I have the pleasure of serving as co-chair of the steering committee for Emerging Arts Leaders DC (EALDC), a volunteer-led initiative that provides professional development, networking, and information relevant to emerging arts professionals in the metropolitan Washington, D.C. area.

EALDC hosted our first-ever “book club” event in January with the incomparable Liz Lerman. Liz agreed to meet with our group to discuss her new book Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes from a Choreographer. About twenty emerging leaders came out for the event, which Liz began by getting the group on their feet for a short icebreaker activity.

Liz paired up the group, assigning one person from each pair the role of leader and one person the role of follower. The follower closed their eyes and was led by the leader around the room. Leaders were encouraged to move their partners in creative ways as music played. When instructed by Liz, the leaders and followers swapped roles and swapped partners.

For me, the most interesting part of the exercise came mid-song when Liz told us to stop moving and decide individually whether we wanted to continue in our current leader or follower role. After the activity ended and we took our seats, Liz told us that in this self-directed segment of the leader/follower activity, there was a time when almost everyone in the room had elected to be a follower.

We were all standing still with our eyes shut, waiting to be led. In all of the times she has used this activity before, she had never seen so few people choose to be leaders.

So why would a room full of emerging arts leaders be so eager to embrace the role of a follower?

Multiple theories arose in our conversation:

  • We are so tired of leading during our work days that the idea of being led, even in a task as simple as moving around the room, appeals to us.
  • As emerging professionals, we are still learning about how to lead and therefore look to others for examples of successful leadership.
  • We understand and respect the value of both leading and following, and seek opportunities to fulfill each role.

After the event, I was reminded of something an adviser told me in high school: sometimes the most enthusiastic follower is the best leader.

Certainly this is true in arts organizations—just think of the impact a passionate audience member can have if they like a show. They tell their friends, who in turn tell their friends, and so on.

In order to positively affect change, we must embrace our roles not just as emerging leaders, but also as enthusiastic followers.

Our experiences as followers of important ideas and initiatives will only enhance our skills as leaders in the future.

P.S. EALDC wasn’t the only one talking about the tension between leading and following this winter. Check out the ArtsJournal discussion “Lead or Follow”, which addressed the relationship between audiences and arts organizations. Don Rockwell also mentioned the topic on this Leadership Freak blog, calling the ability to “follow well” one of the secrets to successful leadership.

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