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