What is Cultural Leadership?

Get a fresh view from British Council on developing Leadership in the cultural sector and the main challenges for the 21st century Cultural Leaders.

Cultural leadership is the act of leading the cultural sector. Like culture itself, it comes from many different people and can be practised in many different ways. It concerns senior managers and directors in subsidised cultural institutions; public officials developing and implementing policy for the cultural sector; and a huge range of producers, innovators and entrepreneurs in small companies, production houses and teams. In the cultural world, nobody has a monopoly on leadership.

Leading the cultural sector is practised in two different ways. First, it concerns competently managing the organisations of the cultural sector, ensuring that they are financially viable, legal and with well-organised staff. Second, it means leading culture itself - making work, productions and projects which show different ways of thinking, feeling and experiencing the world - bringing dynamism to the economy and wider society.

Many of the challenges that cultural leaders need to navigate are common to those faced by leaders in other areas of social and economic life. How to stay solvent in an ongoing financial crisis. How to engage with digitally connected, networked individuals. How to work in less carbon intensive, environmentally sustainable ways. But cultural organisations are different from other organisations and as such face their own distinctive challenges.


Cultural organisations are geared towards producing new ideas. It is their production of these new ideas as performances, exhibitions, styles and sounds which makes them cultural. Balancing this priority, with the need to run a financially sustainable organisation and hopefully one that makes a positive difference to the world, is which gives cultural leaders a unique set of challenges. Here are some of them.

Describing value

Unlike business leaders who can point to the bottom line, or leaders of charities who can measure their impact against a clearly defined social problem - leaders in the cultural sector face a constant struggle to explain and communicate the value of what they do. This task is made harder because the ideas cultural organisations produce are non-replicable. Because they canʼt produce the same play, song or installation over and over again, they have to inspire confidence in projects without precedent or known outcomes.

Working in networks

Ideas thrive in loose networks rather than rigid structures, so cultural leaders have to too. This is why cultural leaders donʼt have to be at the head of big organisations to be important. Rather they often need to simultaneously operate in small companies, production houses and as loan agents while being connected to rich and diverse networks of supporters, funders and collaborators. There is a complicated balance for cultural leaders to maintain.

Living dangerously

Cultural sector leaders often have to place themselves in danger. The best cultural organisations produce ideas that make new ways of seeing, thinking and feeling possible - their work is an expression of human freedom. This can be a benign, quiet act, but it can often threaten vested interests and powerful elites - especially in illiberal political regimes and places where giant-corporations hold the balance of power. Cultural leaders have to maintain a moral conviction and the ability to route-around, confront and subvert authority.

Social work

The rise of free-markets, digital technology and the liberated individual have bequeathed a world saturated with design, media and rich, complicated forms of communication. Symbols are everywhere, used by individuals and organisations alike to define their politics, their values and their attitudes. With cultural expression so prominent there are huge opportunities for cultural leaders to make a positive difference to things that matter, but the strategies and tactics which they can use remain unclear.

Other interesting stories: