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IN PERSPECTIVE #12: Matthijs' Sizes - Lessons in leadership.

The first 10 years of leadership were over. It seemed high time for refresher training: take a breath, stand back, acquire new skills and knowledge. But what and where? There were no specific offers for leadership in the arts. There was the option of going to Banff, Canada, for a then unique culture-focused management course. A single culture manager did just that.

I hesitated: put people from arts sectors together and they broadly measure their differences. Within the performing arts, the distinction between dance and music. Within music the differences between classical, jazz, pop, house. Within classical music the immeasurable distance between strings and winds. And so on. In a training where people from the banking world are confronted with those from the service, healthcare, manufacturing and/or security industries, they are more likely to look for the similarities. That's why I chose a general business course and hoped for new techniques and skills.

That it would not be about tips and tricks, but personal traits and idiosyncrasies would soon become apparent. It became a first introduction to Kets de Vries's thinking. More on that below.

The offer is there

There is now a wide range of education and training for managers in the cultural sector. Not only has the general range of management training courses - very diverse in terms of level and cost - grown enormously, sector-specific offerings have also developed.

Most famous is the programme Leadership in Culture (LinC)1 which has now run several editions and has distinctive offerings for business and artistic leaders. LinC is also offered in some individual provinces.

Culture+Enterprise offers business leaders field trips to highly experienced colleagues to share on-the-job experiences and insights.2 In addition, Culture+ Entrepreneurship offers a package of training and coaching, both to self-employed and employed people.

In the Arnhem-Nijmegen region, institutions, with the help of the municipalities, have taken the Culture Academy established with different programmes. 3 And then there are the necessary independently established coaches and trainers who market themselves.

The answer to whether you should opt for generic training or sector-specific depends on the person in question and the need for skill or knowledge. But personally, I would think that to develop leadership, marketing expertise, strategic skills or financial know-how, it is best to opt for broad, generic training. Only if 'networked learning' is preferred, sector-related offerings are more obvious.

Pecunia olet?

I am convinced that the cultural sector has professionalised very strongly in recent decades. Maybe even sometimes too much so; then too much technocracy, rule-driven, routine arises. But more often with good results. The days when the museum director or theatre leader could shout "I only know about art and I want to keep it that way" are well and truly behind us. Museum directors who can give online lectures to a wide audience. Artistic directors who show respect and space for the business leaders next to them, above them or as their deputy. Library directors who care more about visitors than books.

Of course, that does not rule out rumblings and failures in organisations, let alone conflicts between people. There are external threats, such as budget cuts, reorganisations or disappointing visitor numbers. Or there are internal conflicts. And unfortunately, there is then not always a set of handy techniques available for that, results guaranteed.

In practice, both managers and employees of the organisation turn out to be ordinary flesh-and-blood people, with traits and idiosyncrasies that interact. We do not step into the organisation blank. We have a personal history, sometimes bumps and bumps, powerfully developed talents, but also fears, insecurities and allergies. All this works its way into the character of the organisation. An organisational culture develops and the leadership style is directly linked to it.

Neurotic corporate culture

Manfred Kets de Vries has been called the management guru. He has trained directors of large companies, has been at the INSEAD course in Fontainebleau for many years and has written many books on organisational science. As an economist, business expert and psychoanalyst, he can tie a few threads together. One of his recent books is The CEO Whisperer (2021). One of his first (from 1990): The Neurotic Organisation4.

The subtitle of that book captures the essence of his philosophy: 'irrational undercurrents of management'. Many decisions, assignments and processes in organisations are not at all as rational as it might seem. At a paint factory, this is not necessarily different from a theatre company. Interactions between different personal characteristics play a much bigger role than we think. But they remain mostly unexplored and, in any case, undiscovered. The hierarchy in the organisation acts as the cloaking blanket. Perhaps there is rot in the corporate culture, but it only comes out when the rust leads to serious leakage.

Corporate culture is itself, of course, a cultural phenomenon and thus subject to changing mores. Hierarchy is no longer a licence for any behaviour, especially if it is transgressive in a sexual sense. And however dependent an organisation is on the strength of its leader, limits are more often placed on his behaviour. The statement 'the bigger mind the bigger beast' can be turned around, but it does not mean that there is an acceptable balance.

As that culture changes, complaints - anonymous or otherwise - are coming in, first mostly about sexual improprieties, now increasingly about harassing behaviour.5 In culture and media, we now have some illustrious cases. This trend too will catch on, in 'wokism', pettiness and rancour, but before this point is reached, there is much to clarify.

You won't make it with codes alone

The question is whether we can solve it sufficiently with confidants, rules of conduct and codes. And the question is also how wise it is to just collectively cancel caught heroes right away. It is the easiest way.

To speak in Kets de Vries' terms: look at the psyche of the organisation and the psyche of the people who work there, especially the leaders. Don't make them heroes on immeasurable pedestals. The Resistance Museum got it right by making Resistance heroes ordinary people again; ordinary people with extraordinary actions6.

Leaders of organisations, presenters of programmes, artistic figureheads often really do fit on a pedestal, but that pedestal belongs to their function and their substantive actions, not to the person. As a person, they bring powerful qualities that got them to that place, but they also bring their weaknesses. So they deserve business leaders, producers or editors-in-chief who stand beside them and can guide them. They deserve employees who surround them with respect, flexibility, loyalty and care, but dare to contradict them.

It's not easy at all. Leading well is not. Accepting leadership is not. Creating and maintaining a healthy working environment is not. You have to stay sharp for it, sharp on yourself and as critical as caring towards each other, even if there is so much focus on the content. Company culture belongs to everyone who works in the company, not just that one 'hero'.

"What you see is yourself" was one of the first mottos I was given in that first week of my first course. That applies to the art viewer and the theatre-goer - you always involuntarily engage in an interaction - but it therefore also applies to the colleagues of that managerial bully. It's not Matthijs alone, it's all his mates too.

Erik Akermans
Director, consultant and publicist. He attended the training courses 'Functioning of the Manager' and 'Irrational and Dysfunctional Processes in Organisations' at the Rotterdam Business Administration Foundation and a postgraduate course in Strategic Management at the University of Groningen.


1 Leadership in Culture, Utrecht University,

2 Culture+Enterprise, Newsletter 22-11-22, 'Business leaders on tour'

4 Manfred F.R. Kets de Vries and Danny Miller, The Neurotic Organisation, (transl.), Amsterdam-Brussels 1990

5 Incidentally, in this context, a remarkable headline above an interview in NRC with Manfred Kets de Vries, 9 September 2022: "Manfred Kets de Vries has been coaching top executives for decades. I am often unkind. I sometimes shout. Insult them."

6 Reopening Resistance Museum Amsterdam, about it various media in the week of 28 November 2022

Erik Akkermans

Director, consultant and publicist.View Author posts

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