Leadership in Culturally Significant Times
When we can no longer lean on predictability and predictive analysis, we need courage to face ambiguity, trust in ourselves and others, boldness in business continuity and – most poignantly – cultural leadership.
A perspective on where we find ourselves now by Venka Purushothaman, Provost at LASALLE College of the Arts Singapore.
We live in culturally significant times as the world becomes a battleground as to who or what defines the culture of the future.
Leaders define culture but leadership, as we know, has had to be redefined in the last three months as conventional wisdom no longer holds a mirror to the rapid changes in demographics, expectation or consumption patterns of the public and in managing crisis.
Until the tail end of 2019, the world was sublime.”
Until the tail end of 2019, the world was sublime. Artificial intelligence, 5G networks, 4th industrial revolution, Brexit, America’s Trump and China’s Belt and Road Initiative kept the world enthralled. There was enough magic in technological breakthroughs and romance in highly connected communities to keep all excited yet alienated from the realities of their world. Travel as tourists, pilgrims, refugees and employees reached fever pitch only to be occasionally and painfully distracted by terror attacks. While the transit lounge became the cultural node that defined global corporate culture, businesses, schools and systems were structured to feed the need to travel. Corporate, political and educational leaders reached stratospheric heights of power just as localised communities dug deeper into the grassroots to commence an assault on systems and leaders for transactionalising their lives, jobs and opportunities.
Overnight the world changed. A century which spent its early years cutting itself off from the cultural practices of the 20th century found itself with a quick fix: a virus. Immediately, the modus operandi of the global community had gone awry in a mere three months. Systems of nation-states, capitalist businesses, kinship systems, healthcare support and even terrorists have been stressed. As the order of things turned on its head, governments faltered and continue to falter as lives are lost. Meanwhile, everyday life and the buzz of humanity is no more. Personal and social distancing rules channelled human lives and lived experiences into becoming archives of real-time – we cannot but feel trapped in a screen.
Await we must for an antidote. The forgotten white-coated sciences re-emerge as the only potential suitor, a knight in shining armour.
But organisations are about people who generate value. Here the desire is for care, safety and assurance.”
If leadership is defined by contexts and conditions – and not solely on return on investment – the first half of 2020 cannot be a better learning platform. To lead in this period is challenging as leaders have been trained to lead on predictability and predictive analysis. Leadership in recent times has focussed on plugging bleeding cashflows. Statements of vision, mission and values have become quiet timekeepers of the bleed. But organisations are about people who generate value. Here the desire is for care, safety and assurance. But in many sectors across the world, institutions are being challenged only by the immediate. The textbooks are out.
Soothsayers, economists and intellectuals are prospecting the future. If at all, there are signs of what leaders might need to embrace. Here, I foreground four factors that have come to inform contemporary leadership: ambiguity, trust, business continuity and cultural leadership.
Leaders have become supreme managers of predictability.”
First, ambiguity. The world has always been ambiguous as evidenced in nature in itself. Over time, humans have created systems and processes to manifestly control ambiguity through institutions and through which people and publics are organised. Institutions beget and nurture predictability through standardisation, and this informs the state of higher education today which advocates creativity and innovation only to ensure they enable the maintenance of predictability. Leaders have become supreme managers of predictability. The demand for contemporary leadership is the ability to face ambiguity head-on, bring people along and build an organisational culture of adventure which will enable leaders to thrive in choppy waters.
This transactional moment produces the need for authenticity in leaders in the wake of a cold and distilled relationship between them and their communities.”
Second, trust. There is a pervasive trust-deficit in society today. People have become more distrustful of governments, institutions and culture. Trust, which has been the foundation of care and belief in societies for a long time, has been devoid since the late 20th century. As Francis Fukuyama aptly said, legal and contractual frameworks have transactionalised and replaced trust in contemporary society. This transactional moment produces the need for authenticity in leaders in the wake of a cold and distilled relationship between them and their communities. However, today people and their various constituents are turning towards ideas of empathy, social justice and the public good. While these values are free-standing entities, they also function as a proxy for the trust that people want from their leaders.
Just surviving to tide over until the ‘normal’ returns is a dream that is being played out in many places.”
Third, business continuity. At the heart of all business is its continuity against risk. In a pandemic season, the return on investment (ROI), of perpetual gain is a contrarian feat to that of just surviving. Just surviving to tide over until the ‘normal’ returns is a dream that is being played out in many places. Leaders have to separate their financial decisions before and after the pandemic. Business continuity is about rising through the ashes with a new approach and perspective with little allegiance to a pre-pandemic approach. But can the bold prevail?
Leaders are cultural advocates and not merely business leaders.”
Finally, cultural leadership. Leaders are cultural advocates and not merely business leaders. They shape the purpose and ambition of organisations, energise its people and develop a practice of culture unique to them and their sector. Cultural leadership is not only about the aspirational redesign of an organisation or setting of a target. It is about having a point of view as to what is relevant to oneself. For example, the world was and remains enamoured with data and big data as it seeks evidence-based actions and transactions for an increasingly educated and mobile world.
But this is what global culture is about, not what organisational culture is. A data focussed company can be motivated by many other things such as enabling communities to realise their global connections through data. As such, it is absolutely vital that an organisational leader is the high priest of culture for the organisation.
These four factors should become part of the new syllabus for leadership training and, if seeded well, will nurture a new generation of culturally-aware leaders who will not be afraid to chase the fortunes of an ambiguous world for,
there is a tide in the affairs of men
Which taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat;
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.
Julius Cæsar. ACT IV Scene 3
 Francis Fukuyama. Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity. New York: The Free Press, 1995.
By Venka Purushothaman
Venka Purushothaman is Provost at LASALLE College of the Arts Singapore.
He is an award-winning art writer, academic with a distinguished career in arts and creative industries in Singapore. Venka advances artistic and cultural networks and cultivates arts and cultural leaders, sensitive to the emerging shifts in culture and society in the twenty-first century.
He has steered the development of numerous path-breaking programmes and founded the collective, Asia-Pacific Network for Culture, Education and Research (ANCER) to facilitate cultural leadership and research in Asia. He speaks internationally on arts higher education specifically on transformative art and design education. Besides published books and essays, he is currently editor of Issue, an annual international peer-reviewed art journal. Venka holds a PhD is Cultural Policy and Asian Cultural Studies from The University of Melbourne and is a member of the Association Internationale des Critiques d’Art, France, (AICA Singapore) and Fellow of the Royal Society of the Arts, UK.