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Animated Edition - Spring 2008
Holding the conch
Research carried out by Cheshire Dance in 2005 (1) revealed that many dance practitioners 'engage daily with strategic thinking, motivation,inspiration, facilitation, team building etc' but could not easily explain what they do or how they do it!' The Creative Leadership Commission, initiated by Cheshire Dance in partnership with Foundation for Community Dance (FCD) and Ludus Dance, invited five dance practitioners - Sue Akroyd (FCD), Diane Amans (Freedom in Dance), Gil Graystone (Ludus), Jacqueline McCormick (Cheshire Dance) and Ruth Spencer (Independent Dance Artist) - to spend 12 days together deconstructing their work as creative leaders to reveal the leadership skills and knowledge embedded in themselves and their practice.

Here,the group reveals how they learned as much about leadership through being and working together as through the content and findings of their discussions.
William Golding's 1954 novel, 'Lord of the Flies' tells the story of a group of schoolboys stranded indefinitely on an island following a plane crash. Superficially a tale of survival, the juice of the story lies in its exploration of the darker elements of human nature that emerge when the boys are left to their own devices, devoid of the restraining influence of the constructs of civilised society.

And what does this have to do with the Creative Leadership Commission: an initiative that came about not through tragic events unfurling against a backdrop of uncertain destiny, but one that was carefully and collaboratively designed with willing involvement from the participants?

Consider if you will, the similarities: groups of individuals 'artificially' thrown together for an intensive period of time in a defined space, without imposed outcomes or knowledge of what will transpire and how it will turn out. There are no pre-determined systems or rules for working together, and no designated authority figure or leader.

In each scenario the group is in control of itself, and the drama unfolds in the 'how', rather than the 'what'. And how does each group fare?
For the protagonists in Lord of the Flies there are no 'givens': with no adults to tell them what to do, or impose structure and no rules to curb their natural instincts, they have to decide for themselves how to function as a group.

Some boys wilfully and happily 'play', others have an immediate need to know what is coming next, who is in charge and what they will, or should, do. Leaders emerge: some by self-selection, some by unspoken common consent and others by formal vote. Some are conferred with leadership status by others based on their athleticism or perceived wisdom/authority. Others demand respect, by virtue of long-standing status from the 'real' world (as house captains at school and so on), while others are silently dismissed or demoted, because of physical frailty, lack of confidence or the absence of inherited status.

The subsequent leadership battles, affiliations and allegiances dominate the interactions of the group and ultimately obscure any sense of shared purpose and unity, with tragic consequences.

And what of the Creative Leadership Group? Did we achieve a happy-ever-after, or did our differences also lead inevitably to tension and breakdown?

In the early stages of the Commission, we too experienced the childlike exhilaration of freedom and lack of constraint, but our adult professional selves added a sizeable dollop of apprehension, performance anxiety and a desire to 'deliver the goods'. This sense of responsibility resurfaced at various points throughout the process as an acute and immediate need to stop 'playing' and move towards clarity, order and certainty.

Our primary medium was discussion, so status was readily achieved by, or conferred upon, the verbally articulate and mentally agile. In the initial race to share ideas, those who internalised their thinking, or were less confident speakers, struggled to achieve airtime. Less immediately obvious, but still tangible, was the sense that status was also 'given' according to known or recognised 'prowess' as a practitioner.

Yet throughout the project, in a reversal of 'status-seeking' behaviour, any given individual might be heard 'apologising' for anything from lack of artistic credentials, to perceived inability to keep up, discomfort at the dominance of the spoken word, a lack of recent practical experience, or any number of qualities or abilities they felt they 'ought' to possess, but didn't. Why, when we achieved status, did we elsewhere seek to undermine it? Is this a female thing? A dance thing? A community dance thing?

Our individual learning styles and preferences seemed clear from the start - there were notable extremes and contrasts. Jacqueline observed that:

"My biggest challenge was sitting. My desire is to access my knowing from a moving experience. Moving takes me to a conscious state where I can tap into different ideas through the physical. My brain seems to atrophy while sitting, my judging mind takes over and thoughts get shut down. I believe I have nothing to contribute. While moving I can quiet the judge, lull it into a false sense of security and suddenly I feel vibrant, confident and the flow of creativeness is abundant."

When our preferences harmonised it was blissful, and we made great strides of recognisable progress; when at odds, there was a collective sense of being 'stuck'. This was exacerbated by the challenges of language. Even with our shared cultural reference points, we struggled with interpretation, specificity, and semantics. This occasionally led to real frustration and tension. And yet we learned that in these places of difference, lay new opportunities. As mutual trust and understanding grew we were able to move beyond the reassurance of commonality and explore points of divergence, uncovering our individual pedagogy, value systems and priorities.

According to John Adair's model of Action Centred Leadership(2), individual, group and task needs must all be addressed for a team to be effective. That's a lot of needs for 5 people to take care of co-operatively: at times, the unspoken question 'how many creative leaders does it take to...?' hung around like the proverbial elephant in the room. Perhaps our community dance credentials went into overdrive - a case of too much facilitation and not enough leadership?

Yet we were a functional team, and at times we felt super-functional - experiencing the euphoric sense of 'flow' that comes when everyone is firing on all cylinders and 'in the moment'. And we did, in the end, 'deliver the goods'.

So how did we achieve our happy ending and avoid the grim descent into chaos and tribal warfare that befell our parallel adventurers? For starters, we were five adults stranded in a room in Cheshire, not a mass of young boys on an island fighting for survival, but there were other factors:

Intention and incentive: we all wanted to be involved in the project, believed in its value, and could see its massive potential rewards for our professional work and personal development.

Timescale: the long and spacious timeframe was, on reflection, a vital ingredient of success. Without time and permission to explore off the beaten track, we would not have had the opportunity to beat a new track of our own.

"That our band of five stayed true to the moment was the biggest achievement for me. It would have been easy to let the product dictate the process. I was proud that we kept our research reflexive, letting curiosity lead discussions. It made a difference to have enough time to dig without having to get to the bone." Jacqueline
The passage of time allowed less assertive learning styles to become active. Without time for people to find their voice we would have lost, or at least not fully recognised, some influential contributions.

Our leadership skills: It would be naïve to deny that our skills as leaders and facilitators positively impacted on the process. Even if we didn't operate in a textbook fashion throughout, we were able to acknowledge, accept and accommodate our dysfunctional moments!

Finally, we offer one further analogy. In Lord of the Flies, one of the boys proposes a system for managing their meetings whereby they pass round a large conch shell and only the person holding the conch is allowed to speak, whilst the others listen. Eventually, the system falls apart, because the 'leaders' start to ignore the rule and speak when they choose, regardless of who is holding the conch.

And therein lies the key to the divergent fates of our two sets of adventurers. Groups work best when the 'leaders' genuinely believe the potential contribution of others to be as, or more, powerful, meaningful and relevant as their own.

"...being disposed to think about other people - having a focus on others as well as self. It's about being interested in other people and being curious alongside them. Leading from the back, from the front and from alongside - and having the judgement to know where is the best place to be".  Diane

All the natural, learned, or polished leadership skills in the world are worth little unless they are underpinned by an authentic interest in other people; a recognition that your own perspective isn't the only one (or the 'right' one); a desire - and the skills - to do what it takes to enable other voices to be heard; and a genuine belief that in doing so, you create the space for different, and richer possibilities for all.

As creative leaders in community dance, this is surely one of the driving forces behind what we do?

The Creative Leadership Group will continue their work together over the coming months. They will be contributing to the Foundation for Community Dance/De Montfort University Conference: "Community Dance in the 21st Century: Challenges and Opportunities" to be held on Saturday 10 May.

For further information on the Creative Leadership Commission contact the group via:

(1) Cheshire Dance Bloom Re-visioning Research 2005; Deb Barnard
(2) Action Centred Leadership Model; John Adair;

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Animated: Spring 2008