Charles Jensen

In a recent edition of Thomas Cott’s “You’ve Cott Mail,” readers encountered a series of blogs and articles exploring the utility—and, in one case, the aftermath—of embracing a term like “emerging” in its application to artists.

It was earlier this year when Barry Hessenius, too, addressed in his blog the importance of identifying emerging leaders. “I wonder whether or not we are isolating these people by relegating them to their own niche as ‘emerging,’ and whether or not by confining them to their own ‘silo’, we might be doing them, and ourselves – at least in part – a disservice,” he wrote.

By identifying emerging leaders, the early impulse was to provide support and resources. But it was the majority group who defined this difference. The term does not apply to them, only to a separate group. A discrete category. Others.

Or, to put it another way, by creating “emerging leaders,” the term separated the field into two groups: “emerging leaders” and “leaders.”

Before continuing, three illustrations:

1. The term “hipster,” like its predecessor “yuppie” in the 1980s, has become inextricably linked to this cultural moment. Yet, who is a hipster?

“Hipster” is a term co-opted for use as a meaningless pejorative in order to vaguely call someone else’s authenticity into question and, by extension, claim authenticity for yourself. It serves no conversational function and imparts no information, save for indicating the opinions and preferences of the speaker. Suffice it to say, no one self-identifies as a hipster; the term is always applied to an Other, to separate the authentic Us from the inauthentic, “ironic” Them.

2. When the Emerging Leader movement began, it was a moment when a consistent talking point could not be escaped in the arts field: who would inherit the kingdoms built by the leaders of the 70s and 80s? The answer seemed elusive, and yet in the late 90s, at a convening of leaders held by Americans for the Arts, a group of young (?) leaders in entry-level and middle-management positions spoke up and said, “We will. We’re right here.”

The field, in response, embraced the label “emerging leader” to describe these professionals, signifying the hope it would be they who would rise into the executive directorships left vacant by the cohort of leaders nearing retirement age. To support them, the field developed specialized learning tracks, professional development programs, and even funding opportunities to spur skill development and networking within this peer group.

3. Americans are obsessed with nomenclature. To wit, consider the political evolution of our description of physical difference, of ablism: we first used “crippled,” then abandoned it when it became pejorative; we embraced “handicapped,” then abandoned it when it became pejorative; we embraced “disabled,” then began to abandon it when it became pejorative.

Now let’s return to the discussion:

These illustrations, while seemingly tangential, demonstrate why the problem isn’t the word “emerging.” The problem in any of these cases has never been our actual terminology—it’s the philosophy that we need a qualifier at all.

Consider the ruffling of feathers that has occurred when the field has sought to qualify that second category: “established leaders” seemed too institutional. “Seasoned leaders” felt patronizing and a little agist. “Experienced leaders” was redundant. After all, aren’t they simply “leaders”? Shouldn’t we just leave well enough alone?

Yet no corresponding ruffling of emerging feathers has ever created as significant a noise or change in our field’s vocabulary.

Let’s pause to take the temperature of this discussion: is identifying emerging leadership useful to both current and next generation leaders? Yes. Is its terminology pejorative? Yes.

The use of “emerging” to describe those we hope to rise into leadership positions has created a lesser class of arts professional, one that experiences any number of attitudes from those outside of it: for every person who supports the emerging leader movement by extending opportunity, funding, and mentorship, there is another professional ridiculing our experience, downplaying our contributions, or, perhaps the worst: asking us to unlock the mystical secrets of The Facebook, The Twitter, and social media communities.

Yet, those of us within the “emerging” class remain within it, relying on the network of peers, mentorship, and opportunities we need to move forward in our careers. We realize we must work within this frame. We see the benefits and do our best to ignore its shortcomings.

But it’s perhaps time for us to spur some evolution in this dialogue. This frame is not our frame. To put it another way, before we understood we were emerging leaders, we may have considered ourselves leaders with a lot of road ahead of us.

As Barry wrote in June, the emerging leader movement may have come from the right place, but it has created a silo isolating emerging leaders from the rest of the field rather than fully embedding us with in.

While the emerging leader cohorts are so useful to us, we should remember separate is not equal, that we may be ultimately doing our field a disservice if we cannot find ways for emerging leader networks and a complete field of multigenerational leaders to coexist.

But in order to coexist, we must sincerely regard each other as colleagues, not as separate classes. And that middle ground can’t be charted by either of us alone.

9 Responses to “No One Calls Himself a Hipster and Other Emerging Fallacies”

  1. Devra Thomas says:

    Charlie, This post is timely, as the Emerging Leaders Council is about to welcome in four new members. What is the Council’s plan to implement this idea of fewer silos and more cross-generational work? And, bigger picture, when will these leadership opportunities actually arise? Yes, Barry, and more recently Michael Kaiser, both talk about how many of US there are, and yet, here we still sit, waiting.

  2. Such a semantic debate in the past was more French than Anglo-Saxon. You’re feeding another nightmare for my Francophonissimus compatriots. How to invent new French words while the American ones have become internationnally adopted? Even when the American words created from latin roots (quite often old French!), the French elite wants to have their genuine words. One of the worst side-effect of that form of chauvinism I reject is the lack of good translation of French papers into correct English language; then a lot of good scientific papers written in French are not indexed correctly in the international databases and by the way aren’t taken into account for instance in the Shanghai classification of the universities. May I recall the first paper on genetics was written and published in Czek language by Gregor Mendel!

  3. Charlie Jensen says:

    Hi Devra,

    Thanks so much for your comment! Over the last three years, the ELC has really focused on uniting, serving, and convening emerging leader networks nationwide. I feel we’ve made great strides transitioning into a role that facilitates national dialogues about emerging leader professional development up until this point, and I hope it will continue into the coming years.

    I can’t speak yet for what the council will do next–each year when we convene in January, we chart our course for the year by determining what are the most pressing needs of our colleagues. However, as this meeting is not far off on the horizon, I’m hopeful we can enter this issue into our workplan as something to address with the rest of the field.

    I’m encouraged by a moment from this past June’s Americans for the Arts Convention. At the end of what was a wonderful emerging leader pre-conference expereince, the ELs were ushered into a large ballroom with members of the cross-generational public art pre-conference, and together we took in a panel discussion about public art. We need more of this cross-pollenation. While the EL pre-conference was great because it gave us all an opportunity to learn and network together, we can’t grow and develop in a vacuum. We need interaction with our colleagues elsewhere too.

  4. Jennifer Armstrong says:

    I’m very hopeful about the future of our field because conversations like this are occurring more often, in more places, and with more diverse voices. It is a healthy strategy to take a pause and reflect on what was, what is now, and what the best path forward is.

    In the beginning…. Our purpose in speaking up at that meeting in 1999 was to have our voice actually heard. The meeting was comprised of 100 leaders discussing the future of the arts in community. “We” were the four delegates present who were under forty (and maybe all under thirty) years of age. We expressed concern that at meetings like this across the country, younger voices were not included. We were excluded from conversations to build our present and future.

    At that time in the field, young professionals weren’t being thought about or talked about, unless it was to say that we weren’t up to the challenges of leading the field forward – even though many of us already were. We wanted to dispel their myths and raise awareness that younger leaders in the field were in fact making an impact.

    We saw a need for increased professional development opportunities and to be part of a network of younger leaders who could grow in the field together. Leadership development for the emerging generation in the field was not a priority, and you would find very few attending national conferences. There also wasn’t a peer network in place to share support and exchange ideas like our more senior leaders already had in place.

    We wanted an increased focus on our own career development, a peer network, AND to be at the table with other leaders of various experiences and ages to learn together, have greater opportunities to advance, change or create the agenda, and to build our collective future.

    A lot of growth has happened since then. Where do you want to lead from here?

  5. Graham Dunstan says:

    I write to echo what Jennifer said and to thank Charlie for bringing up the topic. It speaks volumes that we are even having this discussion and that it is hosted in an open forum officially supported by Americans for the Arts.

    I’m heartened by the fact that 14 years after we began our work with emerging leaders there are now quite a few nonprofit arts (and other) organizations that have followed the lead. It shows that our field has a commitment to the future from a number of generations of arts leaders, and it demonstrates that Americans for the Arts was ahead of the curve in its leadership on this issue.

    Effective programs and organizations change and grow: certainly this is the case with the EL program. I look forward to seeing how it continues evolving and how the field works to better the professional development of its leaders, ensure effective mentoring, relay best practices, and help transition leadership into the future.

    Let’s work to stay ahead of the curve…

  6. Charlie Jensen says:

    Jennifer and Graham,

    Thanks so much for adding to this essay. Without that moment where the field realized it needed to recognize its own emerging leadership, we could not be in the position we’re in today, where we can discuss the merits of evolution. The threat, of course, is regression, of losing the critical support for tomorrow’s leaders or losing sight of their ongoing contributions to the field. Rather than an either/or, we need to work toward a both/and–a field that nurtures/identifies leaders and incorporates them more broadly into the field as a whole.

    • Greg Esser says:

      The name/brand/identity is often the hardest piece to get right. As one of those pesky youthful upstarts from back in the day, I too am greatly encouraged by how much has happened in the field since Winston-Salem, but much still remains to be accomplished. Regardless of what the effort is labeled, it remains critical to engage and cultivate leadership across all ages and to plan for succession and evolution. Rather than viewing this new focus as a segregating silo, I prefer to view it as a foundation upon which future bridges are being built. I have since established my own non-profit arts organization and now face some of the same difficulties of founder’s syndrome that were subjects of criticism and concern earlier in my career. Yet having faced the challenges of being an “emerging” leader before there was a name for it, I actively put in to practice the opportunities for leadership development, for professional growth and training, and for having a voice in shaping the direction of the organization for those who are joining now. That continuum of leadership has become an inherent part of how I view the health of my organization. Cross-pollination should be more than momentary. There are still structural shifts to be made. There are still “die in their boots” leaders/founders who will stay at their own helms for decades. But the paths of organizations and of individual careers are not predictable. The energy of true leadership will forge ahead without regard. That is the light we will follow into the future.

  7. […] In a recent edition of Thomas Cott’s “You’ve Cott Mail,” readers encountered a series of blogs and articles exploring the utility—and, in one case, the aftermath—of embracing a term like “emerging”…  […]

  8. Catherine says:

    I have often referred to myself as an “emerging” arts leader, but never considered it to have a negative connotation or put me at a disadvantage. I seem to have made a more positive association with the term.

    In my mind, this word provides a sense of ANTICIPATION – in this case, as an up-and-coming arts leader. Perhaps it relates to my tendency to see the glass half-full, but “emerging” has always signaled POTENTIAL for me, not deficiencies…

    American for the Arts highlights emerging arts leaders as a network of new leaders, sharing and cultivating their interests, skills, and commitment to the arts. With this as the predominant message, I think the term “emerging” tends to evoke an atmosphere of synergistic leadership, growing and evolving in real-time.

    Catherine

    P.S. Regardless of the term, it is good to call attention to the use of language and its potential to shape public perception — Are we creating a barrier or catalyst?

    Thanks for this interesting post!

Leave a Reply

*