Development priorities

Sue Williams: the non-conformist

by Kim Evans

Sue Williams is an artist and senior policy maker at Arts Council England where she is responsible for national policy on disability equality.  She enrolled on the Sync Intensive programme to ramp up her potential and challenge her thinking about leadership.  Alongside her work as an artist, Sue is very committed to her role at the Arts Council and the Sync Intensive has challenged her, and helped her to create greater impact within her existing role.  Reflecting on the fact that great leaders are often non-conformists too, sheís now more comfortable with being a leader than she once thought!


Sue Williams is an artist and senior policy maker. She works at Arts Council England where she is responsible for national policy on disability equality. She deliberately challenges the stereotype of a leader.  She loves to take creative risks and is fully aware of the responsibility she has to help change the environment for disabled artists and participants but she refuses to take herself too seriously.

Sue is passionate about her job and decided to enrol on the Sync Intensive programme to ramp up her potential and challenge her thinking about leadership. ĎI always thought of myself as a bit of a rebel.  Iíve come to realise that is not incompatible with leadership.  Good leaders are often non-conformists.í

Sue had worked in a disability arts organisation funded by Arts Council England.  She never thought she would want to take on the role of arts policy maker herself. However, when she moved to the University of the Arts she realised that she could make change happen working in a mainstream organisation, particularly change around disability equality. She joined the Arts Council on a one-year fixed term contract, to work on its Creative People project.  She is still there 8 Ĺ years later and is now responsible for the Arts Councilís national policy on disability equality. 

She likes the opportunity to create change and be creative but until recently she didnít think of herself as a leader, although she does lead on national policy.  Until the Cultural Leadership Programme came along, she felt that the term leader was used in a very limited way, with the focus on an individual. 

I didnít like the personalisation of leadership.  For me itís about having a goal and achieving an impact. People are talking about leadership in a much more interesting way now.  Of course, there is the danger that it just becomes another buzzword, that there is more emphasis on theory rather than actually doing it.  But the aim of the Cultural Leadership Programme is to deliver some really practical outcomes.

Her reservations about leadership are not due to a lack of confidence on her part.  She is a frequent public speaker in the UK and beyond. She is comfortable with the fact that the programmes she has written for the Arts Council have made her open to public scrutiny.  In fact, that is something she positively enjoys.  ĎI donít mind that, I like to scare myself and take risks. Being exposed, doing something that will be public and have influence, thatís a motivator for me.í

She does feel that, as a disabled person, she is under huge pressure at times to deliver for her sector. 

Iíve dealt with that by coming to realise that itís not up to me to sort it all out.  I have to create the conditions in which people can sort themselves out.  I think that although we are seeing a lot more disabled people in the arts and participating in the arts, itís slow progress.  We give ourselves a hard time.  I give myself a hard time as a disabled person.  I donít feel that I am allowed to fail.

I do take my job very seriously.  But I try hard not to take myself seriously.  I donít believe that being professional and being a good leader is about being buttoned-up.  When it comes to diversity people expect you to be a bit PC or frowny.  Donít let them stereotype you.  Be playful.

Sue believes that if you are in a job for quite a long time, you have to keep reinventing yourself and she has done that during her time at the Arts Council.   As a disabled person, she is particularly keen to challenge peopleís expectations of her.  ĎOf course you have to be consistent, but create some inconsistency within the frame!í

That need for reinvention is part of the reason that she signed up for the Sync Intensive programme, part of the Cultural Leadership Programmeís engagement with the disability sector.  The title comes from the idea of syncopation, defined as Ďthe emphasis on a normally un-emphasised beatí.  The programme provides opportunities for 15 individuals to work together in a series of development days, online networking and one-to-one coaching.   Sueís cohort included managers in arts organisations, local authorities and museums, and filmmakers.

I went into Sync Intensive to understand my own leadership issues both inside and outside disability.  I particularly wanted to be able to identify the issues and share experience with others.  You have to look your own internal barriers and then at the barriers that other people put around you.  I wanted to look at why I was reluctant to accept that I am in a leadership role.

She found the programme lived up to the intensive title.  ĎYou were really thrown in. Very early on I had to write an article about myself and leadership for the website. I didnít think I had anything specific or new to say but I found that I did.  The article wasnít the one I had expected to write.  It made me feel vulnerable.  I had challenged myself.í

Sue is very committed to her role at the Arts Council and combining that with her work as an artist.  She didnít go on the Sync Intensives to get a new or bigger job.  But she did want to ramp up within her existing role and create greater impact. Sheís learning how to do that within the limitations of a big bureaucracy.  ĎI donít find limitations a bad thing necessarily.  You can use them creatively.  As an artist I will sometimes say, I am only going to use black pens this week or Iím only going to work on paper that is 2 Ĺ centimetres square.  Thatís a creative challenge.í

She also found that the coaching sessions on the Sync programme gave her permission to realign her work as an artist and her work as a funder. She now keeps an illustrated journal, an intriguing diary in pictures.  At the front she has included a quote from George Eliot: ĎIt is never too late to be what you might have been.í  

Sheíd like, in the longer term, to have a 70/30 split between working as a funder and as an artist.  She emphasises the direct connection between how she works as an artist and as a leader in the cultural sector.  They are both about making connections and creating something new; about challenging herself, other people, and perceptions.

Itís important to scare yourself sometimes both as an artist and a policy leader.  You have to take risks. For the first time I am using a journal (a sketchbook) with really beautiful paper.  I am making myself work directly on the page in inks. No pencil. No rubbing out. All my mistakes are visible. Thatís scary, but itís good.

Sue went into the Sync programme feeling uncomfortable with being a leader.

I am confident and I am very driven but I am a bit of a rebel.  I donít like to conform.  It seemed to me that leadership was about conforming.  But as I learn more about it, I can see that great leaders are often non-conformists, people who challenged the status quo. Iíve realised that I am more comfortable with being a leader than I thought!




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