Category: Leadership thinking

Alex Bulmer wearing black glasses looking upwards to the sky

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.


Audio of ”Alex Bulmer: Leadership – The Virtue of Inefficiency

A record album spins round and around as the needle lowers its tiny metal tooth into an imperceptible groove. Metal and vinyl: opposite elements, yet part of a collective whole.

This is my leadership metaphor – a vinyl album in 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.  According to the Oxford dictionary, “efficiency” 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 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 that in fact I had 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 shape and size.

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, a lack of awareness, a falling away.  But there, in that particular bean-shaped LA 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, rhythms, 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”.

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, public health care, electricity and roads.

Imagine a Canada wide access grant to cover personal support workers, interpreters, adaptive technology, 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 beyond the assumed….

a person in a wheelchair facing away with a poster on the back of the chair saying We Rise Together
A picture of legs in a paddling pool and a shadow of a person with a hat reflected in the pool.

Leadership comes in many shapes and forms. It no longer looks only like a single standing figure (usually tall, male and white) if it ever did.

Globally, we still need more diversity in who we see in our programmes, on our stages, on the walls of the galleries, around tables, in meetings, on the Zooms. Each country will have its own unique issues and its own unique barriers. Yet we all need more direct representation from disabled people within our arts sectors and ecologies, but we also know that’s not the only way to lead.

This pandemic has showed us other places where influence also lies. We know about the whisperers – both the formal and informal advisors; those who lead by sector expertise; those who can galvanise communities and amplify their demands; the power of demonstration, the power of social media and those who seem to influence simply because of who they know.

Disabled people, in the arts and other spaces, have been claiming territory across all these domains. Look at the way UK’s Lisette Auton reminds us that this new online world is not inclusive of all, Australia’s Caroline Bowditch reminds us just how resilient disabled people always have been, Singapore’s Lily Goh in has pivoted her YouTube channel to both ensure Deaf people have access to relevant information and also teach sign to others, and Canada’s Ophira Calof, Kaileigh Krysztofiak and Dawn Jani Birley present solution finding as the norm, to name but a few. In the UK, disabled artists and cultural leaders have come together under the hashtag #WeShallNotBeRemoved, forming an alliance to ensure the disabled voice is heard as the country plans for the ‘new normal’.

As experts by experience in adaptation, social restriction and on-line access – largely due to the inaccessibility of the world before – we have been able to use that knowledge and hard-earned wisdom to help others and challenge those that seek to make ‘the new now’ inaccessible too.

Is leadership different now? Is the door opening up more easily to us? Will it be different in the future? Will it stay open or do we need to wedge it now?

We have shown that there are many, many ways to lead. You do not need endless energy to lead. That you do not need to do so alone. That our unique ways of being in the world can be seen as advantages and not disadvantages, can provide new perspectives and allow new insights.

It will be interesting to see what sticks and what does not. Whilst we are in lockdown, I am more equal. My fatigue that is exacerbated by travel, is lessened at home and, with captions, I can attend and follow the Zooms and the Teams and the others and contribute. I can also go sit in my greenhouse and stick my feet in a paddling pool if they swell.

The equality of those spaces and the urgency of our times has made me bolder too, less cautious to say what I think. Perhaps too this comes from my lived experience?

Being on the shielding list in the UK means anticipating seismic changes in any work-based risk assessment – what happens if I get ill, or get really ill, or die? Facing up to, and planning for, these possibilities is horrendous in theory but I have found it strangely satisfying in practice, and ultimately confidence building. I believe it will make me imagine new riskier possibilities more readily in the future, be more prepared to imagine the unimaginable.

I am aware of more disabled people being invited to more meetings to talk about the future – although the disabled people are still the same ones and the meetings are often not the ones from which decisions are made. I’m also aware that the decision to reopen in many countries is being driven in the name of commerce, rather than science. I was bored waiting to be asked for an opinion, so I developed a manifesto of my own.

We have to come to the fore, it is our time. We have to band together to make our opinions known, our voices heard. We wait in our individual homes, in our multiple countries, in our single world to find out what happens next. But we can take action, not wait passively. We can fight, influence and do whatever we can to ensure, as the International Disability Alliance says so clearly, that we move forward leaving no-one behind.