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Focus on Leadership: Anna Moulton

Aug 10, 2015

Anna Moulton, CEO of Magabala Books, Australia’s oldest independent Indigenous publishing house, completed the Australian Rural Leadership Program in 2010. Five years on, Anna took the time to give us her insights about the program and on what takes to be a leader in the arts.

What did you learn from the Australian Rural Leadership Program (ARLP)?

It was an enormous privilege to take part in the ARLP. It is based on experiential learning, giving you the opportunity to put what you are learning into practice and challenge yourself over 18 months. I gained greater self-awareness and understanding about what makes other people tick, which is so important for communicating effectively and “bringing people with you”. It was a chance to hone my communication skills and powers of persuasion in a group of people with diverse values and worldviews.

Another recurring lesson was about the danger of making assumptions and recognising unconscious bias, in yourself and others.This requires vigilance. I learnt about the art of giving and receiving constructive feedback and how essential good facilitation of groups is, if you want positive and shared outcomes.

We also had the chance to meet inspiring leaders across Australia and overseas.

What do you understand ‘cultural leadership’ to be?

Cultural leadership exists, and is required, at many different levels, from individual artists to arts organisations and to our state and national decision makers. Broadly speaking, I think it includes:

  • Clear vision (collective or shared) and clear pathways to achieving the vision.
  • Advocacy for your art form(s) and for the conditions required to ensure thriving arts practice and vibrant culture.
    In my experience, a real understanding of what it takes to make good or great art, or to support thriving culture, is either misunderstood or sacrificed when economic values prevail. The best cultural leaders find and can articulate the right balance required. They also articulate the importance of diversity to the cultural health of the nation.
  • Understanding what it takes to connect art and cultural practice with audiences, without sacrificing innovation and creative risk taking.

It means competent management, with all that entails, matched with the vision and passion of Board, staff and artists.

What is the most important trait a cultural leader should have?

In this world of competing values and dwindling resources for the arts, cultural leadership requires courage, ingenuity, resilience, integrity and the ability to harness the strengths of others around you, in your team or the broader community.  Good leaders understand how to work collaboratively.  It is hard work but essential for advancing a greater goal or vision.  Regular self-reflection, being open to learning and recognising what you don’t know are helpful practices/qualities for anyone aspiring to good leadership.  So many individual artists are outstanding cultural leaders, but that could be the subject of another essay.

What has made you a leader in your field?

I have accepted some challenging roles which have taken me out of my comfort zone and required me to learn fast.  In particular, I value the opportunities I have had for cross-cultural learning.  I have been fortunate that some extraordinary Aboriginal people have given their time and energy to educating, guiding and challenging me.  They have placed their trust in me to be courageous, fair and true.  The ARLP had a massive impact on me and I am still learning from it years later.  I have sought out professional mentors to whom I am also grateful.

What advice would you give your past self or someone else about leading others?

Make the time in your frantically busy schedule to stop, reflect and look at the big picture.  Taking that time is necessary for checking in with your team to make sure everyone is on track, feeling heard, valued and contributing towards shared goals to the best of their capacity.  I still have to remind myself, it’s not always easy, as most arts managers know. Good leadership is something to constantly aspire to.  Taking time for self-reflection and to learn new ‘tools’ during a program such as the ARLP is a privilege and rare opportunity.

What leaders, past or present, do you admire or look up to and why?

The chairperson of Magabala Books’ Board of Directors, Edie Wright who has successfully steered the organisation through some challenging times.  She is passionate about Magabala’s vision to inspire and empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to share their stories. Edie is the manager of Kimberley Aboriginal Education and a published author. Her quiet strength, clear vision and good heart inspire those around her.

June Oscar and Emily Carter, for their courage, drive and commitment to create stronger and healthier communities in the Fitzroy Valley. Their stance on alcohol restrictions despite great opposition is well known. They have led ground-breaking research into foetal alcohol disorder syndrome in the region, and they run one of the most dynamic women’s centres in Australia – Marninwarntikura.

The Kimberley is full of inspiring women, the unsung leaders who work quietly and without recognition to transform their communities.

Are there any resources that you turn to, or have drawn on for leadership inspiration?

During the ARLP I came across Suzanne Ross’s article “Picturing an Ethical Leader” in which she talked about the various duties of leaders. In that article she quoted Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said: “I would not give a fig for the simplicity this side of complexity, but I would give my life for the simplicity on the other side of complexity”. This is now my professional mantra, something to aspire to.

The Australia Council has partnered with the Australian Rural Leadership Foundation  to support established, high-performing regional arts leaders to participate in the Australian Rural Leadership Program.

Designed for individuals who will lead rural, regional and remote Australia into the future, the program offers a series of experiential sessions during which participants are immersed in diverse, effective leadership practice and perspectives. Through the Program, participants increase their knowledge and understanding of major themes affecting regional Australia and contemporary issues both locally and internationally.

Applications for the 2016 intake close 31 August 2015.

Find out more about Australian Rural Leadership Program and the Australia Council Scholarship.

Image credit: Andrea Wright