No. 12 | All the world’s a stage
Leadership in any walk of life demands more than the essentials of passion and commitment.
In the cultural arena – for the individual practitioner or for the head of an organisation – successful leadership draws on a diversity of personal attributes: creative and innovative in the broadest sense; ready to take (calculated) risks; brilliantly communicative; tenacious, and – to put it bluntly – thick-skinned. So often, no matter what your artistic track record, you will be judged entirely on your latest piece of work. ‘Freedom to fail’ – a badge of honour for today’s business entrepreneur – can seem alien to a critic, theatre audience or exhibition visitor.
In the current geopolitical arena, no leader has more eyes on him than Volodymyr Zelensky. Since his enforced rise to global prominence in February this year, his performance has been both extraordinary and exceptional. It is surely no coincidence that he started off as an actor – ironically enough in comedy. Theatrical credentials in global leadership are nothing new, as witness the transformative achievements of two contrasting figures from the relatively recent past: Ronald Reagan, who first made his name in Hollywood, and Pope John Paul II, an actor and dramatist in his early years.
Zelensky made a choice when, as a star of TV satire, he ran for Ukraine’s presidency in 2019. Three years later, he did not choose to become leader of a country at war. Yet he retains his gift for timing, his ability to play to his audience, and his savvy as a communicator. He knows exactly how to make optimum use of today’s wealth of media channels. Arguing his country’s case with consistency and conviction while exuding ‘everyman’ authenticity, he has gained affection and respect around the world. He has truly become a man for our tumultuous times.
Under titanic pressure, Zelensky’s leadership has enhanced perceptions and understanding of Ukraine as a progressive, democratic state. Without wishing to draw any glib analogies, he can provide a shining model for leaders in the arts.
Over the past 21 years, the Genesis Foundation has sustained partnerships with a number of cultural organisations. In every case, the artistic leader in charge has been central to the Foundation’s focus and to the success of the projects we support. In the arts, as in every other field, institutional values and mechanisms have their place, but, through thick and thin, it is inspirational leadership that keeps culture alive and takes it into the future.