When the artist becomes leader … some thoughts

In this continuing series, The Arts in Palliative Care, we look at how the arts in palliative care settings can be a powerful and effective way of addressing the practical, psychological, social and spiritual issues that face people at the end of their lives.

Today, Nigel Hartley, Chief Executive Officer, Earl Mountbatten Hospice, Isle of Wight, UK, explains how the skills of a trained and practising musician are useful in understanding organisational culture and climate.

Nigel Hartley

It is unusual in UK hospices/palliative care services for someone who has worked as a music therapist to undertake a career progression where they eventually become CEO. I began my career as a music therapist, working at London Lighthouse almost 30 years ago. Since then I have worked in four hospices in Oxford and London, and currently I am CEO of the hospice on the Isle of Wight in the south of England.

I have been reflecting on what one’s professional background brings to a leadership role that is unique. It is more common that CEOs of hospices have a background in one of the main clinical professional disciplines such as nursing. What does having been a musician and music therapist bring to a leadership role, which is uncommon and unexpected and offers insights into the role and organisation that might differ from others with other backgrounds and experiences?

Firstly, I think there are common misconceptions about artists and musicians as being undisciplined. Creativity is often viewed as being able to ‘wing it’, to ‘play it by ear’, and sometimes we are viewed as a little ‘fluffy around the edges’. On the contrary, as a musician I spent hours perfecting my craft, studying music and technique in a microscopic way, much like the discipline and craft of a doctor. With such fine, detailed examination of music, I learned to be the best I could be. I also learned about order and control, about the benefits of repetition and also of assessing risk. As an improvising musician, I know about the opportunities that come with what, in other professions, might be thought of as mistakes. In music, mistakes offer opportunities for different direction, for potential and new ways forward.

Working in a health service where most people are afraid of taking risks or of getting things wrong, I find I have a much healthier view. It is OK to get things wrong, as developing a culture where mistakes are part of normality, and changing direction, can be a good thing that fits well into a set of behaviours that I learned to manage as a skilled musician. These behaviours also included a developed and well-practised sense of listening; paying attention in ‘minute particulars’; listening to every note, to every small change in dynamic and colour. These skills prove intensely useful in understanding organisational culture and climate, which often changes imperceptibly on an hourly and daily basis.

The artist as leader brings hope, movement, flow and danger. I have come to acknowledge that danger, which, if handled in a creative and productive way, can pay dividends. Innovation, if about anything, has to be about taking risks, pushing something new and different when something new and different is needed. Roy Lilley, at nhsmanagers.net (1st November 2017) wrote:

“Innovation does not come with well-researched evidence and a well-informed public. It comes with ragged edges, incomplete and bits hanging off. It battles with prejudice and preconceptions. Innovation is not neat, oven-ready and complete. It is born of ideas and inspiration, needs imagination, courage and risk takers.”

There is no such thing as neat edges and the familiar in artistic creativity. Newness is born out of struggle, challenge and danger. This is something which every artist and musician will recognise and live on a daily basis. In my opinion, it is also what every developing and living organisation needs now and into the future.

Links and resources

  • Earl Mountbatten Hospice.
  • A Guide for Therapists, Artists and Art Therapists by Nigel Hartley, published by Jessica Kingsley Publications, 2013.
  • The Creative Arts in Palliative Care, N Hartley and M Payne (eds.), Jessica Kingsley Publications, 2008.
  • Creativity, Discipline and the Arts at the End of Life: An Interview with Nigel Hartley – interviewed by Andy Ridley. In Approaches: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Music Therapy, Special Issue 8 (1) 2016.

Read more posts in the Arts and Palliative Care series on the EAPC Blog

This entry was posted in PATIENT & FAMILY CARE, The Arts in palliative care and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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