Running Culture – on broadening the field of cultural leadership

“The runner – Chicago, United States – Black and white street photography” by Giuseppe Milo (

By the time I’d run my second Edinburgh Marathon in 2011 – it was my fourth marathon in total – I think it’s fair to say that I pretty much considered myself an experienced long distance runner. I was literally following in the footsteps of my Dad who’s been a dedicated runner all his life and can still be found each Saturday morning at the local Park Run chasing down a personal best, or PB, at the age of 75. A PB was certainly something I was aiming for second time round in Auld Reekie and as I approached Portobello – Edinburgh’s coastal suburb – I was convinced it was in the bag. As I pounded the promenade I was intently focused on achieving 6 minute miles and enjoying the exfoliating motion of a not-so-gentle headwind whipping off the Firth of Forth laced with salt, sand and no doubt fellow runners’ sweat.

Being windswept, however, wasn’t to everyone’s liking and my enjoyment of the Forth’s complementary microdermabrasion was cut short when I heard another runner vociferously bellowing; he was determined to know in what time I was intending to complete the course. Almost before I could even answer he started to issue reams of unsolicited advice and instruction, and insisted that I join others in forming a single file behind him. Now I know the British have a natural propensity for queueing but I’d never experienced one actually forming in the midst of a marathon. I couldn’t spot any distinguishing features that marked him out as an official pacemaker, but he was certainly acquiring an increasing number of compliant runners who were dutifully responding to his barks and forming a ‘queue’.

Still determined to run my own race, I simply laughed nervously and gave him a double thumbs up – like you do at the hairdressers when you can’t quite make out the topic of conversation over the buzzing of the clippers. This appeared to have the desired effect and he lost interest into trying to recruit me, at which point he and his multiplying ‘segments’ – it had started to resemble a scene from the Human Centipede at this point (I’d avoid Googling this infamous 2009 Dutch horror film or any of its sequels if you’re of a nervous disposition) – disappeared over the horizon in the general direction of the North Sea.

By now, you’re probably wondering whether you’re reading a copy of Runner’s World or Fangoria, but I can reassure you this is definitely The State of the Arts. My point is this, just like the overzealous unofficial pacemaker, the ‘leaders of the pack’ in the cultural sector – albeit well-intentioned – can at times unintentionally convince those with an alternative take on leadership to set their aspirations aside in favour of a standardised set of styles, reducing the scope for innovation, ideation and inclusion.

To any ebullient cultural ‘pacemakers’ reading this stream of consciousness, the library – the fabled space where drag queens trade skillfully constructed insults – certainly isn’t open and in no way is this intended as a read – one of the aforementioned insults (On this occasion I’d actively encourage you, whatever your disposition, to Google the legendary 1990 US documentary film Paris is Burning). That said, as a sector we’ve got to resist pearl-clutching whenever the mere mention of applying a modicum of critical thinking to cultural leadership is raised. The very same cultural leadership, that despite innumerable initiatives aimed at its diversification, still isn’t as representative of the UK in the 21st century as it could or should be.

Given this hesitancy, it’s totally understandable that aspiring leaders from so-called non-traditional backgrounds – who still don’t see themselves extensively represented amongst the ‘leaders of the pack’ – would acquiesce and slide into the trophy and title-snatching slip stream of lauded individual and institutional cultural ‘pacemakers’. In any sector, attempting to defy convention can prove costly – on an emotional, intellectual and professional level – and no one wants to find themselves sitting alone in the VIP area. But if untapped talent from underrepresented groups is ever going to break free from the pack, the breathing space and sustained support these emerging leaders need to unashamedly embrace deviation, differentiation and individuation, needs to be fast-tracked.

As a restless working-class queer in hot pursuit of my own leadership PB, back in 2013 I took part in the 28th Clore Leadership Short Course at Linden Hall. You don’t receive a medal for completing this kind of course, more’s the pity, but despite the lack of any commemorative memorabilia (bar perhaps a Linden Hall embossed notepad and pen), I do still have fond recollections of my fortnight’s stay at the Grade II listed Northumbrian mansion. Nestled amongst memories of multiple coaching sessions, one piece of advice really struck a chord with me – you can lead from any position within an organisation or sector. My initial reaction to this maxim was a disbelieving eye roll, not being in a senior role at the time I found it implausible that my actions or ideas could possibly influence my peers or those in power. It was only several years later that the penny finally dropped.

As I approached the final furlong of the Edinburgh Marathon at Musselburgh Racecourse, it was apparent to both me and my trembling legs that I wasn’t going to hit my intended finish time. Once over the line, in my fury and disappointment I wondered whether I’d been too rash in disregarding the direction of the unofficial pacemaker. But it occurred to me, once I’d peeled myself off the floor and scoffed a handful of Jelly Babies, that’d I’d run my own race and for the most part I’d actually enjoyed it – that’s if your idea of enjoyment involves chaffed nipples and dislodged toenails of course.

The slings and arrows of long distance running aside, just as you can tackle a marathon as you see fit, you can also approach leadership in the same way, position, privilege and power aren’t everything. You see, being a runner or a leader (or even a drag queen for that matter) doesn’t mean that you need to have an expensive coach, be in an elite category or belong to an exclusive club, you just need to breathe, trust your instincts and only ever go at your own pace. Without wishing to condone spontaneous acts of public nudity, but metaphorically speaking of the bid to broaden the field of cultural leadership, embolden leaders from underserved groups and remove the compulsion to conform, Banksy had it right when he wrote “What we need in this race is a lot more streakers.” (Banksy, Cut It Out, 2004).