It’s the next issue of Leadership Learnings where we ask a diverse group of individuals what qualities are important in a leader. Next up is Kamilah Rashied, a self-described cultural engineer and Director of Education at Court Theatre — University of Chicago’s resident theatre.
Ok, so you’re probably wondering what a cultural engineer does. Kamilah identifies as a cultural engineer because she’s intrigued by how we make culture, how we support people in making it, how we bring it to the public, and how we engage the public with it. Culture to her is the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves and she’s interested in how to support it.
In her current role, she leads the Court Education Initiative which expands upon the theatre’s mission through learning and engagement efforts for the public including youth development and teaching through artist residencies within Chicago Public Schools.
Here are the qualities Kamilah finds important in leaders:
Compassion is always an important quality for a leader to have, but particularly now. I’m always thinking about the wellbeing of my staff and my peers. It comes up a lot because of COVID creating stressors for people in a lot of different ways. So it’s important to be compassionate while you are also asking people to be productive. When you take away their ability to be in the same room with each other and to function in all the ways that they’re accustomed to, I think it also means you have to think about productivity in a different way. So what helps me, and what I hope that other leaders would do in a moment like the one we’re in, is to let compassion guide decision-making around what you think productivity should look like and how people need to be able to work to accommodate their situation.
Let compassion guide decision-making around what you think productivity should look like.
To be compassionate and a leader at the same time, you also have to acknowledge that you’re not perfect. I have days where I beat myself up because I know in hindsight how I wanted to handle something, or I know what I probably should have done earlier to avoid something happening.
And I think it’s important for that compassion that you’re trying to give out as a leader to extend toward yourself. I have days where I go, “You did the best you could with what you had to work with and you got to let it go. Stop beating yourself up about that.” Anybody who’s really being honest acknowledges that there are many moments where you’re not confident. And there are many moments where you’re not 100% sure that a choice that you’ve made is the best choice, but it’s the one you knew how to make at the time. And you have to exude confidence even when you don’t feel it.
It’s important for that compassion that you’re trying to give out as a leader to extend toward yourself.
To be honest, I have not experienced a lot of compassionate leadership. But one leader that stands out was Krista Bryski Richard with the Chicago Park District. I’ve never met someone who was so resilient, so buoyant, so upbeat — no matter how difficult her job was. One of the things that really impressed me was her commitment to bringing that joy to the lives of the people that she worked with. She was intent on making sure she created an atmosphere in which people felt supported and positive.
She wanted to know about your life not to be in your business, but just to be interested in you. And I knew that her way of being was sincere because even after I was no longer working with her, we continued to have the most excellent, wonderful rapport.
Being an honest and earnest leader is important. Be real with people, don’t placate people through your leadership. See them as partners.
Be real with people, don’t placate people through your leadership. See them as partners.
I’m learning that it can be really meaningful for me to subjugate my ego and to listen really deeply to what my team has to say. And even what they’re not saying. The way you create a culture where people feel like they can communicate with you and be honest is by being that way yourself. Be a communicator, be transparent, ask people, “What do you feel like you don’t know, but you should be included in? What do you think you should have a voice in that you don’t right now? What does it look like for me to hear you in a lot of different ways? How do I create different lanes for you to really communicate what your needs are?” Not everybody feels confident saying, “I have a problem with the way you did this, and I wish you would have done something different.” Not everybody’s going to tell their boss that.
It can be a struggle because you have so many responsibilities, but people still need you. I try to be the kind of manager that people know will be there when it’s important. I don’t know if I’m always successful, but part of being a successful leader is routinely making yourself available. People shouldn’t feel like they need an intermediary or an appointment to come and stand in your doorway and say, “I need you.”
Part of being a successful leader is routinely making yourself available.
One of the things that people misunderstand about leadership is that it’s not just you sitting on a throne and doling out responsibilities to people. It is very unglamorous work sometimes. It is very stressful work. I think it’s a very sobering moment and a humbling moment when everybody looks over to the right to get the answer, and then you look to the right and no one is there. You are the person who is supposed to be figuring it out and filling everyone with confidence that we will achieve whatever the goal is.
I don’t know if every leader should have this quality, but I believe in continuous improvement. I have walked away from successful programs and all I can think is, I would change this, I would move that, that should have happened this way.
Part of the joy for me is about continuously making it better.
I don’t know why, but part of the joy for me is about continuously making it better. Part of the joy for me is saying we got to this level of quality, now, what else can we do? It can lead to a very intense way of working. I have really had to learn to have proper work-life balance.
Good leaders take breaks. They believe in other people taking breaks. They understand the necessity for intense working periods and for intense concentration and intense focus and moments of imbalance to be able to get to a desired goal. But I think good leaders are healthy leaders and they take breaks. And I had to learn that having had burnout more than once in my professional life.
Good leaders are healthy leaders and they take breaks.
But it’s actually pretty critical to take breaks, rest, take care of myself, have a personal life, to have friendships that have nothing to do with work, to have a social life where you don’t talk about work, to take vacations, to take days off, to have days where you don’t deal with work. So I’m really big on when I’m done for the day, I’m done. Some people are done, but then they check their phone or they obsess about it. I’ve tried to create patterns, especially now that everything happens from home, where I have very clear delineated lines of, you are done thinking about that and you are done doing that for today, and you will not return to that until tomorrow. I’ve turned off notifications on my phone.
It really is okay to turn your notifications off. And it’s really okay to take breaks and really take one. If you’re going on vacation, don’t respond to any kind of communications that are work-related. Good leaders are healthy leaders who take breaks, and effective leaders know the necessity of themselves and everyone around them having that balance, having that rest and thinking of it as critical to success and prioritizing it at a high level. I’m really flexible about it because I need to be for myself, but also because I don’t want to create an environment where I might be encouraging a lack of wellness. I don’t want to be responsible for other people’s poor health.
The truth is they have a whole life that has nothing to do with you, and they have the same needs that you do and they need rest just like you do. I think if people only see you in that sort of go-getter capacity, they’ll forget that you actually have a whole other life outside of them and needs just like them.
The truth is they have a whole life that has nothing to do with you, and they have the same needs that you do and they need rest just like you do.
When you prioritize well-being, balance, care for yourself, rest, when you take breaks, you encourage other people to feel like they’re entitled to it.
As leaders, we have a role in making the spaces and ways we work increasingly fair. I say increasingly fair because we do inherit legacies. We walk into spaces or cultures that are inequitable and we didn’t make the rules.
As leaders, we have a role in making the spaces and ways we work increasingly fair.
If you have agency as a gatekeeper through leadership, there’s an opportunity and responsibility to make that space increasingly fair, whether it’s for people who are differently abled, for members of the LGBTQIA+ community, for women, or for people of color. We have a role to play in the change that we want to see in the world.
There’s a colleague of ours in the city who has worked in arts and culture for a long time. Her name is Angelique Power and she became the executive director of the Field Foundation in Chicago. When she came to the foundation, one of her first steps as a leader was to prioritize marginalized groups. It was a big deal that a woman of color was coming into that role, telling her board, and putting everyone on notice in the city that she felt like this is what foundations should be doing. I could feel the culture of philanthropy and the arts in Chicago paying attention to her and taking note.
I really admired her because sometimes there is a heroism in not waiting on people to understand, not waiting on people to get it or to support you or applaud you. She stepped out into a radical space before it was really a discussion in our city and that is a kind of leadership.
Sometimes there is a heroism in not waiting on people to understand, not waiting on people to get it or to support you or applaud you.
Sometimes leadership is visionary. You go before anyone else and you say, “This is what the future should be.” So she was always a hero of mine as a leader in a lot of different ways, because of how publicly she decided to pivot her foundation in a very new role. It encouraged me to continue to have a certain kind of audacity in my own leadership.
What do you think of Kamilah’s take on leadership? Leave a comment or nominate someone we need to hear from in this series.