Alex Bulmer – leadership and the virtue of inefficiency

A needle sat upon a vinyl record - it’s centre decorated with a fuscia pink and orange design.
‘A record album spins around…’

Alex Bulmer joined the Sync Canada Ontario programme this June. An award-winning writer, director, actor and dramaturge and Artistic Director of Common Boots Theatre, co-founder of Cripping the Stage with British Council Toronto, and the Lead Curator of CoMotion 2022, an international Deaf and Disability Arts festival produced by Harbourfront Centre. Alex shares the spin and turn of her leadership metaphor and more besides.


A record album spins round and around as the needle lowers its tiny metal tooth into an imperceptible groove. Metal and vinyl: opposite elements, interdependent, part of a collective whole, gradually finding their way to a destination.

This is my leadership metaphor – a vinyl album in circular motion delivering a series of artfully-arranged sounds.  On their own the sounds produced by single instruments hold energy (violin/electric guitar) yet somehow together they transcend expectation (orchestra/rock band).

The idea that effective leadership can actually go around in circles intrigues me.  “Going around in circles” is often understood to mean “inefficient”. Yet the opposite – efficient – bears near celebrity status in capitalist vocabulary. According to the Oxford dictionary, “efficient” can mean ability, coherence, labour saving, systematic, productive, effective. To me, the word suggests doing more with less, getting quickly from point A to point B, profit, machines….and even sight.

While swimming in a hotel pool in Los Angeles in 1997, I discovered the virtue of inefficiency.  I was on a solo trip from my home city of Toronto, or more accurately, I was giving myself “travel therapy” as an escape from the reality that I was “going blind”. On my first day in L.A. I asked the hotel staff for some instructions to the outdoor pool, then used my cane to find it.

After several minutes tapping cement and patio furniture, I felt the end of hard and the beginning of liquid.   I knelt down, and reached with one hand to confirm I had in fact found water.

Positioning myself at the edge, I lowered my body into the pool. 

Once in it, I realized I had no idea of its size, shape, or depth. Reaching out, I felt the pool wall and traced it, swimming round and round for quite some time to comprehend its size and shape.

I discovered

cracks in the concrete

chunks missing, filters 

and flaps

I noticed the “slap thwap” of water against the pool edge 

it washed into a hollow sound by the ladder

and

a “slap echo thwap”

underneath

the diving board.

Slowly, gradually, through cycles of not knowing to knowing, I came to understand… 

the pool shape —

was that 

Of

a kidney bean

round at one end and narrow at the other.

I discovered the pool, gathering individual pieces, that, with sight, would have been eclipsed by the whole.

“Going blind” – two words which had, until that moment, suggested loss, lack of awareness, a falling away.  But there, in that particular bean-shaped pool, this “going blind” felt like potential, a becoming – becoming one who circles, a collector of “what’s this”, a perceptual archaeologist.

And so, to circle back to my vinyl metaphor…

It continues to spin…

the metal needle remains connected,

moving along the groove.

Notes, rhythm, phrases, beats of time –

the unexpected, an emergence,

a work of art,

a song.

I am my metaphor. Blindness is a kind of time zone. Perceptual archeology nourishes a sense of meaning and connection. With this, I – and others should thrive. But we live in a “one size fits one” society, designed to streamline most of what we do, to make us “efficient”. To resist is to be vulnerable. The push/pull of this is stressful, unhealthy and exhausting.

We need to build more liveable futures imagined and designed to enable rather than disable. Being enabled, or having access needs met, should not be a privilege held by some. It must be a shared public value, along with clean water, a public health care system, electricity, roads.

Imagine a Canada wide access grant to cover individual access costs – personal support workers, interpreters, adaptive technology or transportation, direct funding available to those who experience barriers or are at risk of exclusion.

Such a thing exists in other countries. Imagine shifting the politics of “help” toward transactional rather than charitable.

Imagine a monthly basic income that enables healthy choices of occupation. During COVID, the Canadian government provided a monthly basic income to those who could no longer work – an amount that far exceeds the pitiful sum given to disabled people who can never work or are excluded from employment due to a lack of accessibility.

So as my needle spirals nearer and nearer to the centre…

Value interdependence

Imagine beyond the assumed

Find your groove

Say “Yes, and…”

Say “NO, but…”

Sing.

What do you think about this?

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