Leadership: Being yourself…with skill.

As Event Managers, it comes with the territory that we oversee large teams of people. But often we aren’t taught how to be effective leaders of these teams; even when the success or failure of an event can depend on the strength of our leadership.

Last year I was excited to be selected as part of a leadership development network for women in the live industries. I realised quickly that Leadership is a mammoth subject. In 2009 there were 53,121 books about it listed on Amazon (Grint 2010), and the subject is one of the most researched areas of human behaviour (Dulewicz and Higgs 2005). The endlessly contrasting theories and polysemy makes it difficult to define what leadership means, let alone what makes a successful leader. So how do we become an effective leader when we can’t even agree on a definition? I found that examining some of the key leadership theories is a great place to begin…

Before we go anywhere, lets clarify what makes a leader and what makes a manager; whereas managers work to control, to stabilise, to achieve a set objective… leaders will impact their team through influence and motivation. Leadership is constructed through the interaction between leaders and their followers (Berger & Luckmann 1991). In our career we are likely to do both; and both have their place.

Traditional theories of leadership are the most well-known. In these theories, the characteristics of leaders are seen as inherent and naturalistic; these traits identify great leaders as being born and not made – nature over nurture. It’s easy to understand the popularity of this theory when you look at the natural charisma of leaders like Mandela or Ghandi, and wonder how a mere mortal could ever compare!

However, leadership isn’t exclusively based on our innate personality traits. We shouldn’t discount our ability to lead because we don’t ooze the charisma of Steve Jobs; Tim Cook still led Apple to 28% growth in 2019. Despite the thinking of traditionalists, leadership is actually a learned skill that simply uses our existing personality to build on. Hence the “great man” theories of leadership have been replaced with more contemporary concepts, incorporating the importance of behaviour and cognition. Goffee and Jones (2000) succinctly summarise this as “being yourself, with skill”.

So, what are these skills? Performance approaches to leadership specifically examine the areas of knowledge and cognition. A leader needs proficient technical skills, such as knowing how many people we can fit into our event space; but also non-technical skills such as the ability to communicate and make decisions when we realise there are actually too many people in our event space! However, as you might have guessed, the list of essential leadership competencies is highly debated between theorists, and arguably contextual depending on the situation.

Conversely, behavioural theories of leadership will focus more on the way we act as leaders, as opposed to our individual personality traits or learned skills. As leaders our behaviour could focus on tasks, or it could be relationship based. More dominant or personable leaders may lead with an emphasis on relationships, whereas planners and strategists may lead with a focus on tasks. However, as leaders we are rarely so binary, with our behaviour tending to blend these styles dependent on the situation.

As we have seen throughout, there is a repeated notion that leadership is profoundly contextual. Our leadership style at any one time is influenced by factors including the organisation, the team, the task, or the goal. As Event Managers, how we lead during incident response for example, will vary from how we might lead during standard operations (a contrast I will examine in my next blog post!). A single leadership style and competency won’t suit all scenarios, and as leaders it is pivotal to understand how we adapt our style to our external environment.

And if we have any spare time left, we also need to consider the involvement of our followers. It seems obvious that there is no leader without followers, but historically they have been overlooked in leadership theory. As leaders, our followers are not just recipients of our leadership; their participation in the process is essential for its success. We might be able to manage a team without followership, but can we inspire, motivate, guide, and lead a team without their active involvement? Successful leaders will always consider the participation of their followers.

So, there is a lot of leadership theory! If you are looking for a quick-fix way to become a great leader then I would advise that it won’t happen. Leadership is a learned skill, and iterative process. As leaders, we develop over time and adapt to suit our environment. But it’s also important not to be overwhelmed by leadership. There is no right answer or final goal which will determine our greatness on a universal spectrum of leadership. It is a highly personal journey of learned experiences that will continue throughout our whole career. But by taking some time to consider your own characteristics, behaviours, followers, and leadership style, you will be on the right track to improving who you are as a leader.

Berger, P. L., & Luckmann, T. (1991). The social construction of reality. Penguin Books.

Dulewicz, V. and Higgs, M. (2005), Assessing leadership dimensions, styles and organizational context. Journal of Managerial Psychology, Vol. 20 No. 2, pp. 105-23.

Goffee, R. and Jones, G. (2000), Why should anyone be led by you?. Harvard Business Review,September-October, pp. 63-70.

Grint, K. (2010). Leadership: A very short introduction.

Unity is strength

In 2020, the event industry made us proud through a demonstration of resilience and adaptability. We pivoted to build hospitals, united to support charities, protested to raise awareness; and all the while we tried to keep events alive through whatever medium could safely facilitate us. Although they deserve it, I’m not going to post a celebratory end of year review about all of these amazing achievements. Instead, I want to recognise and applaud what I see as the most important win of 2020; our increased cooperation as an industry.

As events began to slowly close down in March, something new seemed to be happening. People began to share their knowledge, their experience, their challenges, their solutions. Experienced professionals delivered webinars explaining how they did their jobs. People posted their risk assessments on LinkedIn. Organisations united on Zoom to deliver their thoughts to the wider industry. Education was offered for free…..In a time of uncertainty and instability, we unified as an industry in an attempt to become stronger.

It might seem the obvious way to overcome a challenge, but our industry hasn’t always been this open. Individual events often operate in a silo, and when accidents or incidents occur they are rarely shared with the wider industry. Whilst all organisers are usually working to deliver safe, commercial successfully, culturally relevant events, we seldom cooperate with other organisers to meet these shared aims. Be it through the fear of competition, or the impact of confirmation bias, we often operate as isolationists.

But if we don’t share and cooperate then we open ourselves up to failure. Toft (1997) affirms that a failure occurring in one system will have a propensity to recur in a similar system; essentially meaning that an accident happening on your competitor’s event has a high chance of also happening on your event. Whilst our socials and press usually mean we are aware of incidents when they happen, such occurrences frequently stem from deeply underlying latent failures (Reason 1990; Turner and Pidgeon 1997). Hence, unless we cooperate and share our learned experiences in detail, our industry colleagues are unlikely to understand their full causation. And how can we work to prevent accidents if we don’t understand their causes?

Isomorphic learning is considered essential to the development of safety in other industries (such as aviation, through the AAIB). This type of generative safety culture is what we should be aiming for. In 2020 we took big steps to increase cooperation and learning; but with a long way to go it is pivotal that we move into next year with this as a central theme. Now is the perfect time to adjust any insular operations, and begin to listen to the views, experience, and learnings of others in order to prepare us for a return to this changed world. Let’s adapt our culture to share more widely and support more openly, so all events have the chance to survive and thrive in 2021.

So as we move out of this challenging year, we should celebrate our resilience and whatever small wins we may have achieved; but let’s also sieze the opportunity to establish a culture of cooperation, where we can benefit not just the future of our own events, but the industry as a whole.

Janis, I.L. (1972), Victims of Groupthink, Houghton Mifflin, .Boston

Reason, J. (1990), Human Error, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Toft, B. and Reynolds, S. (1997), Learning from Disasters: A Management Approach (2nd Editi on), Perpetuity Press Ltd, Leicester

Our perception of risk

We are all familiar with assessing risk. Whether it’s writing a risk assessment or dynamically acting on the ground, we have undertaken hundreds (if not thousands!) of risk calculations. Yet how often do we consider that our risk assessments might be distorted or biased? How often are we actually creating the most effective risk assessment possible?

When undertaking risk assessments we can be forgiven for thinking that methods such as ‘probability x impact’ will result in analytical and rational calculations of risk. However, in reality, these reasoned responses are potentially influenced by subconscious short cuts, which are thought to be used by our brains to speed up decision making in dangerous situations. These cognitive short cuts, referred to as heuristics, are much less analytical than we would like; instead, they are emotive and affective rules of thumb that are based on things like our past experiences and the way our brains store information. The quick-fire responses reduce the complexity of decision making; so, if we are being chased by a lion our heuristic response means we don’t need to spend a long time assessing if we should run away. But often unbeknownst to the risk manager, heuristics can impact risk calculations by embedding subjective biases into our assessments. In order to ensure we are producing well-rounded and effective assessments, risk managers should be aware of what these biases are and how we can manage them.

As heuristics are frequently founded on experience, one person will perceive risk very differently from another. This individualistic perception means a risk manager is potentially constrained by their own cognitive limitations. For example, if the assessor is less familiar with the hazard, they may perceive it as being higher risk. In addition, if the assessor perceives the risk as being out of their control and with possible significant impacts, again they may rate it as higher (this is known as the Dread Hypothesis). This is why you might see high-devastation events like terror attacks appearing frequently on risk registers. Using the same example, a number of recent terror attacks may mean the brain potentially recalls them more easily, and hence could decide that they are more likely to happen (Availability heuristic). So even as a reasoned risk manager, our assessments can be influenced by something as simple as frequent media coverage of particular events.

Furthermore, when assessing risk we tend to believe information that supports our own position or preconceptions. Known as Confirmation Bias, this means we often discount other information regardless of how accurate or relevant it is. So, if you are creating your crowd management plan autonomously, are you more likely to believe it will successfully protect your audience? Additionally, if you are updating an old crowd management plan then you could be subject to Anchoring Bias; a tendency to rate risk close to a pre-existing data point, even when this might not be the case.

At this stage I can almost hear the sighs of defeat as you wonder if you have ever made an uninfluenced, rational assessment in your life! Unfortunately, as a risk manager, we are not only predisposed to heuristics; we are also affected by a myriad of external factors.

These external factors can include the safety culture found in your organisation. Culture is formed from the assumptions, beliefs and practices of the organisation, and influences everyone involved in it. There are academic taxonomies of safety cultures, of which Westrum and Reason can offer more detail, but largely it can be said that if you are working for an organisation with a weak safety culture then you are likely to be influenced by this pathological attitude to risk. This organisation might not be enabling huge infringements of duty, but they could be permitting numerous minor violations like failing to enforce the use of high-vis jackets on site. Such actions can combine to reinforce a weak culture. Working as a risk manager, you must be aware of the subconscious impact this can have on the way you assess your risks.

As risk managers, the influences of society can also affect our assessments. Different people will identify vulnerability differently depending on their societal experience; so as risk managers we need to ensure we are using expansive vulnerability assessments. These categories should go beyond our staff and customers, and include less commonly considered heterodox groups. We might not agree with the political extremists or rule-breaking fence jumpers at our event, but we still need to consider if they are in harm’s way. Furthermore, those who we consider not to be vulnerable can actually become situationally vulnerable in different circumstances; those loud-mouthed teenagers who we wrote-off as trouble will suddenly become vulnerable when they end up caught in a circle pit with no understanding of the unwritten rules.

In short, risk perception is constructed from learned experience and external interactions, and will result in varying risk appetites across all stakeholders of your event. The police will have their own set of influences; the crowd have theirs; the Safety Advisory Group have theirs; and the promoter has theirs. However this is not an insurmountable challenge! The key is to understand we cannot eradicate these influences, only understand how they may impact us, and adjust to counteract them where possible. Integration and cooperation with different stakeholders at all levels of the organisation will help with this; always ask the question in multiple ways, to multiple people, and at multiple times. As Paul Slovic once said, risk does not exist ‘out there’, independent of our minds and waiting to be measured analytically and rationally; risk is subjective, impacted by external influences, and perceived uniquely by every person involved with it. To make us better crowd and risk managers, we must understand the influence on our assessments, so we can lessen their impact each time we assess risk.

Clare Goodchild – published in The Crowd Magazine Issue 4, 2020