Mission driven: One leader’s approach to guiding a team through conflict and COVID-19
December 3, 2021
“There is no power; there is only mission.” - Andrew Harris, StageOne
Andrew Harris started his journey at StageOne Family Theatre in Louisville, Kentucky in 2001. He was initially hired as the Education Director and then, in 2007, became the Associate Artistic Director. In January of 2020, shortly before COVID-19 hit, Andrew transitioned into the role of Producing Artistic Director.
As a first semester arts leadership graduate student, I have been exploring the different approaches to and styles of leadership within the arts. This led me to the opportunity to speak with Andrew about his style of leading an organization. I was specifically interested in learning about how he guided StageOne through the early stages of the pandemic and his approach to conflict.
Even after we had completed the interview, those few words, “there is no power; there is only mission,” really stuck with me. I felt that it encapsulated Andrew’s leadership approach well. He talked frequently about his intent to lean into decentralized leadership. In her book Emergent Strategy, andrienne maree brown describes decentralization as “the distribution of functions of power.” Andrew’s intent supports the idea discussed in The Practice of Adaptive Leadership that “leadership does not equal power.” Working interdependently opens the door for the StageOne team to focus on serving the mission rather than an individual’s power.
Ashley: Before you began your role as Producing Artistic Director at StageOne, you also worked as the Education Director and Associate Artistic Director. Did your previous work history and experiences at StageOne impact your transition into the new role?
Andrew: Over my 20 years at StageOne, I’ve seen it at its best and its worst. I’ve seen it through different leadership models and seen the challenges that other people have faced in the Producing Artistic Director position. In some ways, that really helped me as we found ourselves in a crisis with the pandemic. It encouraged me to figure out what we needed to do to keep the doors open. We made a commitment as an organization to use the forced closure due to the pandemic as an opportunity to better define ourselves. There was some restructuring that needed to take place in order to really clarify who we are so that we could lead in and face the challenges created by the pandemic. We didn’t focus on what we do, but on who needs us. We have a mission and vision and we are going to lean into that. When a challenge emerges, you either run scared or you roll up your sleeves and get creative.
Ashley: You mentioned that there was some restructuring that needed to take place. Did the pandemic have an impact on this process?
Andrew: A global pandemic certainly does a great job of highlighting your organizational vulnerabilities. We chose to use that as an opportunity to evaluate the places where we had become complacent in pursuing our mission. One of the first things I did was define a written set of core values for the organization. I defined them so that everyone had a clear understanding of and agreed to these core values. Then, we looked at how to build the structure. It’s easy for people to become siloed within their own department, but that creates a disconnect within the organization. That was something I wanted to change. Theatre is a collaborative art form so I wanted to work hard to remove that barrier.
We had already started a little bit of this restructuring process before COVID hit, but the pandemic put us in a position to do it a lot faster. Early on, everybody was working with haste; there was a lot of panic. For me, it was a place to really lead with transparency. When people don't know what's going on, that creates more fear and panic. When we had to eventually layoff, it was hard, but everybody at least understood it wasn't reflective of their value to us as an organization. We'd been very open and transparent. I leaned into that transparency out of necessity, but it's something that I have maintained moving forward.
We went from a staff of fifteen to one of five so our team now works even more closely together. Everybody is wearing many hats in order to keep us going. I was open and transparent about what was happening and leaned into that idea of decentralized leadership. We considered moving to a dual leadership model but ended up with more of a hybridization of that model. Technically, we are a single leadership model; I am the producing artistic director, but directly under me is a leadership tier. This includes my Associate Artistic Director and General Manager. Theatre’s a collaborative art form so we all collaborate together. We bring different levels of expertise to different areas. The collective power of collaborating is what makes us successful. And that's not just in theatre; I believe that's true in life.
Ashley: I really appreciate your emphasis on collaboration. What is your primary goal for running an organization? How does collaboration play a part in that?
Andrew: I want to run an organization where the staff and I all feel responsible for upholding the mission, vision, and core values. Otherwise, it becomes about me, and they're not serving the mission; they're serving me. And that's not the purpose of what we do. There is no power; there’s only mission. We're not pursuing a departmental goal, an individual goal, or even a half-of-the-organization goal. We're pursuing one mission. We may be the staff that is representing this organization right now, but none of us are StageOne. We’re merely stewards of its mission. It is StageOne, and it is mission focused. That's something that, as we’re emerging from the pandemic, we're working towards. We’re making sure that we've got that singular focus; that we're very mission driven. It guides everything that we do; grants that we go after, how we engage with students and teachers, how we talk to our audiences, and even our fiscal responsibility. It becomes the guiding star for all of these things and us.
Ashley: That’s such an inspiring goal. What is something that, as a leader, you have found is often overlooked in the arts?
Andrew: Recognition –you have to recognize people for what they're doing well. That's something that we need more of in our field. Theatre by its very nature is an egocentric art form, and it doesn't need to be that way. That's something that I’ve always believed, but when I had the opportunity to step into a leadership role, especially in the time of crisis, it was really important. It’s so easy to focus on what isn't going well, and so, taking the time to lean into the things that we were doing well is important.
When it came to evaluations this past year, I didn't evaluate each individual employee. Collectively, we did an evaluation of the company against our core values. Here is this core value, how did we do? Where are our areas of growth, collectively? That’s not to say we won't do individual evaluations moving forward, but at the time, that's what we needed. It was leaning into that sense of team, multiple perspective, contribution, mutual support, and open and honest communication. Those are the things that really became touchstones for us early in the pandemic.
Ashley: I really appreciate that “sense of team” that you strive to achieve at StageOne. One of the topics I have been learning about in my leadership course this semester is the different ways of handling conflict. Could you discuss your approach to addressing conflict in your team when it arises?
Andrew: There are several different kinds of conflict so there's certainly not a one size fits all method. But for me, you have to address conflict head on. You can't sit back and hope it resolves itself because it will not. We lean heavily into the concept of productive conflict. When a conflict arises, then the question becomes “why.” What is at the root of the conflict? What is actually going on here? How do we turn this conflict to our benefit?
Ashley: Have you found that the root of conflict often stems from the same issue or does it differ?
Andrew: A lot of times conflict comes because people don't feel like they're being heard so I make sure that I have a clear understanding of the situation. Listening is really important in conflict resolution. I try to make sure that I’ve heard everybody involved and that they have an opportunity to be as open and honest as they would like to be.
Ashley: How involved do you get with the conflict resolution? Do you let the parties resolve it on their own or do you mediate?
Andrew: The ideal scenario is to put the people in conflict together and give them a chance to resolve it. Sometimes they can, and other times a little more facilitation has to be put into it. I try very hard as a leader to avoid the phrase “because I’m the boss, and I said so.” I'm very interested in the decentralization of leadership, which is not the same as abdication of responsibility. Ultimately, I’m responsible because I'm the person held responsible by the board for everything that happens.
When we have conflict though, it is never about blame. If the conflict is around something unethical or something that needs further action, that's a different story. But it's not about who did what. There was a challenge that happened because of a set of circumstances that we need to identify. It’s about finding a way to shift that energy in a way that is using conflict to move us forward. How do we set ourselves up to be the most successful version that we can be?
Ashley: How does the mission fit into conflict resolution?
Andrew: Our mission and core values become checks and balances when we're looking at conflict. We go through our core values and see where we’re not upholding them. I’m a big believer that frustration is a creative state and that conflict can be used to propel everybody forward in new, innovative ways that set everybody up to the greatest level of success. But only if you're willing to engage in the process of putting the mission forward and following it. Again, it all has to be in service of the mission. You're working here because you believe in the mission and the core values that drive us.
What is your higher purpose? The Practice of Adaptive Leadership discusses the importance of a leader defining this question for not only him/herself but also for the organization. For StageOne, that guiding, higher purpose is the mission. Despite the curveball COVID-19 threw, the StageOne team used the pandemic as an opportunity to become an even more mission-driven organization.
As an aspiring arts leader, I found so much inspiration and wisdom in speaking with Andrew. His emphasis on mission and collaboration reminded me how important it is to build a community atmosphere and to then lead that team towards the higher purpose – mission.
Ashley Pope is a graduate student in the MFA in Theatre - Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.