How Arts Leaders Manage Challenge: Change Your Perspective

Rising arts leaders face a host of challenges including too much to do with too little time, constant deadlines,  not enough money, time or staff to carry out the great work, conflicting priorities and having to respond to numerous constituencies.   In these situations, it’s easy to focus on the negatives.  Yet happily, there are some very effective strategies to help you get out of a funk when you hit a wall.  This is what the rising opera leaders who took part in the 2013 Opera America Leadership Intensive learned at our recent workshops on how to be an empowered leader.

In my last post, we looked at what you could do to manage challenge by changing the situation so that you could come up with strategies to both to address the situation and to manage yourself.  

In fact, you also have 3 more options when the going gets tough:

Change Your Perspective of the Situation

Leave the Situation

Accept the Situation

Let’s examine these 3 other options.

Change Your Perspective

Difficult situations can be highly stressful and frustrating.  Yet, with time and practice, it is possible to turn around your attitude and change your view of the situation.   

Here are a few techniques that will help you to change your attitude and feel more energized to deal with the situation at hand.

Change Your Thoughts

Challenging situations often make us feel powerless and generate negative thinking.  To counter those negative thoughts, tap into a mindset of flow by recalling a situation when you were confident and on top of your game. Then, create an affirmation of what you were like at your best and pick one or two words that can inspire you to manage yourself through the challenge. Because these words come from your actual experience of success, you know that you can do this!

 Changing your thinking in this way is a habit that you can cultivate.  Start by becoming aware of the situations that give rise to negative thinking.  Pay attention to the thought.  You can journal about it, send yourself an email or a text or put a post-it note on your computer.  You will be amazed at how quickly you will spot the thoughts.  Once you recognize them, substitute your Flow words for the negative thought.

When our opera leaders were able to change their negative thinking by focusing on their strengths and envisioning themselves in Flow, they felt more inspired and energized to dig in and come up with solutions to the challenge at hand.  And since many of them were trained as musicians, they knew how to practice and were confident about their abilities to implement a new way of thinking!

 Use Visualization

Visualization is another powerful way to change your thinking and get you in a positive mindset. Visualize yourself at Flow and then imagine how you would handle the situation if you were in fact your Flow self.  It helps to zero in on one characteristic that will power you through.  For our opera leaders,  “bold” and “courageous” were the watchwords that helped to turn around their attitude and find the confidence to handle the difficult situation.

Another way to use visualization is to think through the challenge and focus on what in particular seems difficult whether it is the personalities, the lack of resources, the skill level and/or the behaviors.  Then, work your way through the difficulties and think about how you would like the situation to run.  How do you feel?  What are you doing? 

You can practice running the difficult scenario in your mind and then use your ideas to turn your situation around the next time it comes up (which in fact is a way to change the situation!)

Focus on the Positive

Another great way to change your perspective of a difficult situation is to focus on the positive.  Research from positive psychology, the scientific study of the strengths and virtues that enable individuals and communities to thrive and whose mission includes “find[ing]and nurture[ing] genius and talent”, provides a number of tools that can help us to turn our energy around.  

  • What’s working?

Our opera leaders found this to be a powerful question with answers including: 

    1. I am excited about growing and learning.
    2. My staff is hardworking and dedicated.
    3. I am proud of what our company is doing.

•Reframe:  What is the opportunity in the challenge?

Our opera leaders found many opportunities in the challenge of having a new project that strains the resources of an organization:

    1. New projects often create opportunities to learn and grow, both for the leaders and for their staff members;
    2. New projects can take a company in a new direction, thereby creating new synergies, new partnerships and collaborations and new audiences.
    3. The staff can bond over the challenge and find ways of working together more efficiently and more effectively.
  • Practice Gratitude 

Positive psychologists have long advocated practicing gratitude as a way of turning around your thinking.  

This too is a simple habit that you can cultivate by making a list of 3 things for which you are grateful.  By doing this on a daily basis, you will begin to focus on the things that are working in your life. 

  • Practice Mindfulness

Another way to change your perspective is to focus entirely on what you are doing without worrying about the other things on your to-do list. If you are worrying you might as well not do it!  So stay in the moment and you will soon find that not only are you more effective but you will have a lot more energy for the tasks at hand!

  • Broaden your view

Another helpful strategy  to change your perspective is to broaden your view.  When you are bogged down with too much to do and too many competing priorities, you may find yourself thinking “I’ll never get this done” or “I can’t stand doing this”  or “I am worried that I can’t do this”.

What can you do?  Think BIG PICTURE

For our opera leaders, this meant focusing on the fact that they were doing something that they deeply believe in.  Moreover, they all chose this profession and realizing that this was a choice made them feel a lot better. 

Leave the Situation

Let’s move on to another strategy when you are faced with a big challenge:  leave the situation. 

First, this does not necessarily mean that you are quitting your job!  It means examining what part of your situation is causing you problems. Is it a particular person?  A particular project?  A task that you can’t stand?  If so, what can you to eliminate that particular aspect of the situation?  This is where delegation can come in handy. Look around and see if there is someone else on your staff that can take the matter off your hands. 

And if you are in charge of staffing, leaving a situation might also mean that a person on your staff will have to leave.  That’s another choice that you can make and as a manger, it’s up to you to handle that process effectively.

If the entire situation is getting you down, what can you do about this?  

Go back to your values and your goals. Make sure that being an opera leader is YOUR agenda, not someone else’s.  Better to recognize that now than later in your career. If you are genuinely not interested and committed and have something else that you would rather do.

Leaving works when it represents a choice on your part.  It differs from being a victim because you are not resigning yourself to gloom and doom. 

Accept the Situation

After analyzing the three foregoing options, perhaps you are left with elements of your situation that you know you cannot change. Now is the time to accept what is. And this is different from being a victim because even though in both cases nothing changes on the outside (i.e., you are still at the same job or working in the same program), it is your attitude that will make the difference. 

Acceptance brings peace because you have made a conscious choice to live with that situation.

And with that, you should be feeling a lot more in charge of your difficult situation.  Cultivate this framework and you will be amazed at the difference it makes in helping you to feel energized and empowered.