Managing Challenge for Arts Leaders: How to Empower Your Leadership by Changing The Situation

This week, I had the honor to work with the 14 participants in Opera America’s Leadership Intensive, a program dedicated to identifying and forming the future leaders of opera by providing them with the skills and contacts that can help them advance in their careers.

My role was to teach the “soft” skills of leadership:  how to empower yourself to lead and how to master emotional intelligence, dynamic communication and conflict management so that you can effectively inspire and lead others.

One of our self-empowerment exercises was to discover your options when you are bogged down in a challenging situations and you are having a hard time coming up with solutions.  In other words, how can you find an opening when you hit a wall?

Our rising opera managers often find themselves with too much to do, too little time, not enough resources, a busy (if not close to burned-out staff)—and often having to respond to someone else’s agenda. For example, what if one of your board members funds a new program that is a terrific addition to your season but comes at an extremely busy time when the staff already has its hands full?  The staff is complaining that they can’t possibly do it and you are told to lead the charge because the program comes from one of the board members.

The good news is that there are 4 options for managing difficult situations which can provide hope no matter what the situation.

Here is what we discussed and what you can do if you hit that wall.

At the outset, let’s call out one strategy that some people are tempted to follow when the going gets tough:  throw in the towel.  This is victim thinking.

Yes, there are times when we all feel powerless in the fact of huge challenges.  Victims answer the question of 

“What can I possibly do here??????”


 “Nothing. It’s hopeless.”  

Victims remain stuck. Think about how powerless they feel.  How do they show up for life? Apathetic.  And what is it like to be around them? They can drain our energy and make it hard for others to move ahead.

Victimhood is recipe for burnout:  emotional depletion, lack of effectiveness and depersonalization and cynicism. 

Fortunately, there are other choices here. Resilient people like our opera managers will bounce back from a challenge and ask themselves,

“What can I do about this?” 

It is important to be aware of when you feel like a victim because awareness is the first step to change.  When you find yourself thinking that a situation is hopeless, take a few moments to be aware of your thoughts and feelings around the situation.  Then, go through the following list and examine what your options are.  

Here are 4 different strategies that I recommend when you hit your wall:

  1. Change the situation.
  2. Change your perspective of the situation.
  3. Leave the situation.
  4. Accept the situation.

By thinking through these four options, you can come up with a lot of strategies that will help you generate solutions to the problem, as well as make you feel much more on top of yourself and your entire situation.  That’s what powerful, effective leaders do!

In addition, you can spot when the people around you are feeling like victims and help them to turn the situation around as well.

Let’s start with the first option:  how can you change the situation.  Here is what came up for our opera leaders.

Change the Situation

  1. Tap into your Ideal Self

One thing you can do is to create the Ideal Image of yourself:  what you are like when you are at your best in your role.  Develop a list of strengths, characteristics, skills and behaviors of the Ideal Leader and focus on which ones are your star traits. In tough times, zero in on one of those characteristics and apply it to the present situation.  If you have done it in the past, chances are you can do it again. So focus on and play to your strengths to help you feel more confident in your leadership role, especially under challenge.

In our workshop, the words “bold” and “courageous” came up in this exercise. That inspired our workshop participants to take some bold actions that they might not have had the courage to do otherwise, like call in the whole team to discuss the situation, leverage the strengths of the team and look for the opportunities that might exist for personal and leadership development.

Another way to use the Ideal Image tool is to look at what skill or behavior would help you out in this situation and focus on getting better at that skill.  Building your skills is a great way to change the situation and also will make you a stronger leader.

         2. Focus on What’s Important to Manage Your Time

In challenging, we often feel stretched because of a perceived lack of time to handle the work.

I say “perceived” because sometimes, it is possible to get rid of unnecessary tasks and focus on the important things.  In our workshop, we learned how separate what is urgent from what’s really important (more on that soon!) and set the right priorities.

You can free up your time by focusing on what is important and delegating some of the urgent tasks to other people on your team. In addition as leaders, you can help your staff and colleagues by reviewing calendars with them and helping them sort through their priorities and get rid of unnecessary tasks. 

Finally, you can conquer a lot of your own overwhelm by saying NO to anything that is not a priority for you

You can also get rid of unnecessary distractions like interruptions from other people, unnecessary emails and meetings by blocking out time to work and then scheduling time to return emails and phone calls.  If necessary, let your colleagues know that there will be times when you are not available for calls or emails and that you will be responsibly returning their inquiries during another block of time.  This is another way to free up your time for the important work that you want to do.  

Finally, it is important to get rid of mindless time-wasters like numbing-out on the Internet or social media.  This did not seem to be a problem for this crowd but it’s important to pay attention to time wasters when you are someone with bigger and better things to do!

      3.   Manage Your Conflicts

Difficult situations often carry with them a lot of emotion-and when emotions run high and there is a good chance that differences can spill over into conflict.  While many people shy away from conflict for fear of not knowing how to handle their emotions or handle the situation, there are many tools that you can learn to make you a better conflict manager.  Here are my top 5 suggestions for how to manage conflict. 

  1. Know the different conflict management styles and strategies and which ones to apply in any given situation.
  2. Separate the people from the problem to focus on the behaviors at issue and what might be going on with the other party that would lead him or her to act in a particular way.  This analysis is a great way to get past difficult personalities.
  3. Think in terms of underlying interests instead of taking a firm stand so that you can identify common goals and shared interests and build from what you already agree on.
  4. Think through your conflict situation before deciding to meet with the other party in order to clear your emotions, have an open mind and consider what might be the best options. 
  5. Follow the process for having safe and productive conversations around conflict.

      4.  Get Support

Leadership under challenging situations can be difficult if you feel alone. One of the benefits of the Opera America Leadership Intensive is that these rising opera leaders now have a network of supportive colleagues to whom they can turn when the going gets tough.   So find a mentor, talk to a peer or a colleague, hire a coach, tap into your network or touch base with someone on your personal board of directors to get support and guidance. 


    5.  Preventive Medicine:  Stress-relief Activities

Over the long term, one of the best changes you can make is to commit to stress-relief activities like yoga, meditation, exercise, creative outlets or personal development activities. Many of our participants found that exercise was a critical part of their stress management.  As such, they realized the importance of scheduling time for exercise.  Moreover, this group was highly committed to personal development and therefore on-going learning activities were another priority that could help to keep them fresh and in check under stress.

For a quick refresher, take 3 deep breaths to clear your mind and renew your energy.  This too was a great strategy for our group.


Amazing, isn’t it, that you actually have solutions when you hit a wall!

Next time, we will examine three more options:  change your perspective, leave the situation and accept the situation.