What I’ve learned from six months of co-leadership

Shot of a group of diverse ballet dancers performing in a theater

Lamesha Ruddock, Co-Executive Director of Boundless Theatre and Creative Director of Blemme Fatale Productions

At 22 years old, it’s unusual to be able to say that I’ve just spent 6 months as co-Executive Director of a theatre. But that’s what I’ve been doing – job sharing with an older adult at the London-based Boundless Theatre. 

How the co-leadership role came about

The heart of Boundless Theatre is co-creation with young people – the whole company exists for young people, but internally they realised that they could better represent 15-25 year olds by better trusting young people to lead, and providing opportunities for us to do so. Now, by talking to us, it’s opened to the door to more young people being involved. Now young people have seen there are young people in senior roles, they will be encouraged to try to work in the arts themselves.

I shared the role with two other co-Executive Directors due to one being on leave for part of the time – Ellie and Ine. The role has included everything from budgeting, fundraising and HR, to drafting board papers and managing people – and sometimes working with artistic directors – a big range!

How we shared the role

At the beginning I shadowed Ellie who took a financial lead, and allowed me to shadow her when she was doing that, whilst I took more of a lead on programming. What we do depends on who we’re working with and what our relative strengths and interests are. Sharing a role allows you to work to your strengths, and being able to learn from one another has really allowed us to develop ourselves. 

Benefits of co-leadership

Co-leadership can encourage both leaders to take a step back; it allowed us to think big. For example, Jordi and I wanted to bring a new thought process to commissioning work – to create a new green lighting criteria for people we work on, and a rigorous process for thinking about what Boundless is for and who they should work for. We’ve also looked at hosting an open table with other emerging leaders or existing leaders looking to develop – to ask how we change the space, bring others to the table, and make your own table! Jordi and I have similar thought processes, and it’s been incredibly affirming for both of us to see that.

The experience has really helped me to put imposter syndrome to the back of my mind, and I feel more determined to keep going for the roles I want, realising the skills I have and what I’m really capable of. I feel like we should all apply for positions we want – because the worst we can get is feedback. I now have an even stronger sense of where I want to go, and I have more belief in backing myself to do it now.

Boundless supported me in a number of ways, from suggesting people we should speak to, events I should go to, and tools I could use. I also got mental health first aid and safeguarding training through Boundless which is great for my development.

Challenges of co-leadership

Fundraising, applications, invoicing, payments: there’s always a small or big fire to put out! However, this role has allowed me to realise I like fire-fighting – and I’m good at it. Equally, being able to share the problems was good.

I would say there’s also been a challenge around the amount of space co-leaders have to programme something artistic in, and for the executive directors to strategise something meaningfully: we could have more tangible impact and legacy this way.

Why leadership needs a shake up!

There’s something very wrong with leadership in workplaces right now – people feel it’s impossible they would reach leadership roles, and people that are in leadership roles often don’t want to stay there. 

From my perspective, entry to senior leadership is hidden – nobody knows how to get those roles. Now I understand it’s agencies that place people in those roles. It’s rare that there are clear ways to progress internally in an organisation – which is why we see artistic directors bouncing around from venue to venue as opposed to progressing in one.

Some people don’t like having young people leading, but older adults need to realise young people want to take on the responsibility of leadership, inspiring people, changing cultures. Overcoming that is difficult – especially in such a competitive arena like the arts.

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