Doubt is a superpower: Raleigh Little Theatre’s executive director reflects on leadership in the time of COVID and #blacklivesmatter
November 30, 2020
Heather Strickland, the newly-appointed Executive Director of Raleigh Little Theatre, (RLT) embodies the phrase “force of nature.” She is a confident and passionate director, actor, and choreographer, full of joy for the work of making art and building community. I first worked with her in 2015 on an all-female “Titus Andronicus” with Bare Theatre, and we went on to collaborate on Theresa Rebeck’s “What We’re Up Against”, Simon Stephens’ “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” and several other projects.
I was eager to catch up with her and to learn what leading the organization during a pandemic has been like.
We started by discussing how her choice to take the job—which she began on June 17th—was or was not affected by the pandemic. The job she had applied for in 2019 was a whole different kettle of fish by the time the offer was on the table. Her response surprised me--she didn’t consider turning away from the challenge for even a second. “When your best friend calls you and says ‘I need help,’ you don’t think about personal stakes. You jump in your car and say ‘I’ll be there in 10 minutes.’” I’m reminded of a familiar and often unhelpful bit of advice to young thespians: “if you can be happy doing anything else, do it.” Otherwise, you’ll find yourself jumping at the opportunity to lead a theatre company in a time where human beings can’t gather in groups.
RLT has been an artistic “best friend” to Heather since circa 2005, where she has taught, performed, directed, served as a fight and intimacy choreographer, and also served on the board. Although this is her first Executive Director role, she is no stranger to leadership. She served as Communications & Development Director for The North Carolina Partnership for Children before joining RLT, as well as having a long history of directing for the theatre. She observes that she leads like a theatre director, no matter who she’s leading. “We do check-ins and reinforcements [a rehearsal practice that involves sharing what energy you are entering or leaving the rehearsal space with], and my main goal as in any leadership role—theatre or otherwise—is to remove barriers for my team.”
In Yes, And, a text I’ve been exploring this semester, the authors frequently discuss the need for leaders to model that it’s okay to fail and it’s okay to be playful. Once myself, Heather, and RLT’s Artistic Director Patrick Torres were working on a show together, and we decided (jokingly) that we would develop a circle of blame so that we could each pass the buck in the event that a bad decision was made. Heather came to rehearsal the next day with “I Blame _____” buttons. I wondered how Heather’s innate playfulness in the rehearsal room translated to the role of Executive Director.
“Well, I used to compartmentalize. There was theatre-Heather, and there was professional work-Heather. Then, nine years ago, Mom-Heather was added to the mix, and suddenly there were too many Heathers to keep up with.” Once she stopped compartmentalizing and embraced her innate joie de vivre in the more formal areas of her professional life, she shared that everyone she worked with actually seemed more comfortable. “Those around me felt safe,” she shared. She also echoed a topic we often discuss in class: perfectionism as a symptom of white supremacy. “We have been socialized to value characteristics of white culture--fear of conflict, perfectionism, quantity over quality. We fear mistakes. But what usually happens when you mess up? It’s all okay, and everyone just goes with it.”
A related question I had was: How do you balance humility and curiosity with being able to make confident, definitive decisions? Humility in leadership is a topic circling our political sphere right now, but can you go too far in the other direction?
“It goes back to being okay with failing,” Heather asserted. “The curiosity and humility are necessary, but then you have to move forward with the decision.” Making a decision that is informed by humbly listening is what is important, and allowing endless humble listening to replace decision-making isn’t leadership.
The Zone of Productive Disequilibrium, a theory advanced by Heifetz, Linsky, and Grashow in their book The Practice of Adaptive Leadership spoke to me in my reading this semester. The theory asserts that leading adaptive change means keeping one’s team in a zone where they are discomfited enough to be moved to make change, but not so overwhelmed that they shut down. This requires leaders to be okay with the heat of disequilibrium—something I instinctively shy away from. I asked Heather how she has navigated productive disequilibrium as a leader.
“I’ve gotten good at naming it in the moment,” she laughed. “Conflict is temporary. It doesn’t always feel that way when you’re in it, but just naming the conflict creates a bubble where you can address it.” She went on to share that she really values conflict, and values the relationships in both her personal and professional life where both parties can experience conflict and get on the other side of it. I’ll bet we can all think of a time where a spat with a friend or partner resulted in a more trusting relationship on the other side—why should we cheat our professional relationships out of the trust that can come from productive conflict?
“Getting on the balcony” is another core concept from The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, meaning that we need to take a bird’s-eye view as leaders, and avoid getting bogged down in details. I’ve watched Heather excel at perfecting details in a rehearsal room, and wondered how she keeps a healthy balcony view now as Executive Director.
“Early on, Patrick [RLT’s Artistic Director] and I created deciding principles for decision making: 1) we prioritize the quality of the experience; 2) we prioritize the health & wellbeing of staff and community; 3) we make decisions based on long-term financial stability; and 4) we always prioritize equity, diversity, and inclusion.” The whole RLT staff now uses this as a guide. RLT has a robust mission and vision statement with similar values reflected, reminding me of the importance of constantly evaluating how choices are linked to organizational mission.
I moved on to a question that has been forefront in my mind as I navigate my first semester of graduate school: How do you deal with imposter syndrome as a leader?
I was met with a knowing laugh. “My husband likes to say ‘I don’t trust anyone who doesn’t feel imposter syndrome sometimes.’ You have to remember, it’s a superpower too. Those moments of doubt are moments of growth.” Heather reinforced her earlier point about the importance of naming the feeling, and asserted that naming insecurity is a powerful step towards modeling safety to fail. “Those moments of ‘I don’t know if I can actually do this’ are horrible, but I try to hone in on the moment and look at what it’s trying to tell me.”
Finally, we wrapped up our conversation by discussing the million-dollar question: What does the theatre world look like on the other side of COVID-19, and what do we need from our leaders during the next several years as we navigate through this time?
“We have to lead for equity.” Heather said. The early childhood field (where she worked prior to joining RLT) has been training her to identify oppressive practices for a while now. “Early childhood actually started doing EDI-centric work [equity, diversity, and inclusion] much earlier than the theatre field at large,” she shares. “Theatre considers itself diverse and inclusive, but theatre doesn’t just exist in the art produced. There’s the business side, too. We have to look at how we are creating and sustaining the art.”
With a background in intimacy and fight direction, it doesn’t surprise me that Heather takes a process-centered approach to theatre leadership. Intimacy direction in performance focuses on creating a safe, replicable series of steps for handling a messy process, enabling the artists to take more risks within the safety of an intentional container. By implementing these safe containers for our art at the level of organizational leadership, we’re doing the same thing: giving theatremakers a safe and equitable space to do what they do best.
Heather feels that leadership calls for a focus on equity, modeling freedom to fail, and keeping joy and humor central to the most difficult conversations. The parts of this conversation that made it on to my Sticky Notes of Inspiration Wall (yes, it’s a physical wall beside my desk covered in sticky notes) included valuing conflict and self-doubt as superpowers.
I think all leaders would do well to remember that both doubt and conflict, while uncomfortable, can hold important messages for us, and by leaning in to the discomfort we can hone in on what our bodies are trying to tell us. At a time when uncertainty and tough decisions wait around every corner in the arts and culture sector, I’m struck by the importance of making friends with uncomfortable feelings and creating containers where our most creative minds can take risks without fear of failure.
Rachel Nunn is a graduate student in the M.F.A. in Theatre in Arts Leadership program at Virginia Tech.