The Moulding of the Polymath

Interview with Lucy Shaw, Programme Director, Oxford Cultural Leaders

Interview with Lucy Shaw, Programme Director, Oxford Cultural Leaders

As Saxton Bampfylde prepared to sponsor this year’s Oxford Cultural Leaders cohort, we sat down with Programme Director, Lucy Shaw, who shared with us her perspective of leadership and how to cultivate it in our current and future leaders. Complexity is a constant in this sector and it therefore requires interesting and innovative approaches that position self-reflection and the recognition for ongoing development among leaders and supporting the needs of their teams as a priority.


Complexity and the polymath. How is leadership development meeting this increasing need?

Cultural organisations across the globe are operating within increasingly complex operating environments, shaped by new and often constrained funding models, changing audiences, new technology and rapidly evolving political and societal trends. Coupled with this are additional pressures from more and different stakeholders and the need to engage with different kinds of people using new skills. These issues are multi-layered and interconnected. As such, they present significant challenges for CEOs, directors and senior management teams to navigate.

Leaders need to think about how they can work with their teams to embrace significant transformation in the way their people work, to develop new approaches and to even reinvent themselves as businesses, whether commercial or not-for-profit, with entrepreneurial ways of thinking and behaving.

Having access to expertise from across the cultural and business sectors has enabled Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums Division to develop a unique programme for cultural leaders in partnership with colleagues from the Saïd Business School. The programme was held for the first time in March 2015, and each year since it has brought together dynamic leaders from across the world to experiment and take risks with new business models and to explore new ways of working and creating organisational cultures that are dynamic, inclusive and foster innovation.

Oxford Cultural Leaders (OCL) is a week-long residential programme that is held annually in the spring. It aims to develop a cadre of leaders who are able to skilfully and confidently tackle these challenges. It is designed for dynamic and reflective directors, heads of department and senior managers who want to challenge and redefine their identity as a leader and their vision for their organisation at a time of great challenge and complexity for the cultural sector.

The programme encourages and prepares leaders to embrace adaptive and transformative change: the sort of change that occurs when people and organisations are forced to adjust to a radically altered environment. Adaptive work becomes a necessity when an organisation’s core principles are questioned, when the values that made the organisation successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge with no obvious solutions. When this happens, leaders have to look beyond providing leadership in the form of solutions and authoritative expertise, and challenge the way they work: how can we adapt, and still be authentic – how can we be different but still the same?

An ‘adaptive leadership’ approach can be effective when a situation or challenge arises that is outside the current leadership / management toolkit or repertoire.  It can be the bridge between what an organisation wants to achieve, and what it is currently capable of achieving. Part of this process has to include recognition of the organisation’s limitations and a willingness to accept that the ‘business as usual’ approach isn’t enough.


“An ‘adaptive leadership’ approach can be effective when a situation or challenge arises that is outside the current leadership toolkit or repertoire.”


Today’s leaders need to have the insight and ability to uncover the hidden talents and qualities of their people. They must understand how developing and encouraging new ways of thinking, changing behaviours and acquiring new skills will help their organisations adapt, enabling them to become more sustainable and resilient. Arguably, they need to be a polymath capable of balancing multiple stakeholders within complex, changing and multi-layered environments.
OCL’s programme has been developed and honed over the last five years to support leaders with such demanding challenges and this year we are delighted to be working with Saxton Bampfylde as our Corporate Partner and Sponsor for our 2020 programme. Saxton Bampfylde’s values mirror those of OCL and we look forward to continuing this new partnership and to be supporting the future development of cultural sector leadership together.

Lucy Shaw Biography

Lucy works for the University of Oxford, where she is Programme Director for Oxford Cultural Leaders (OCL) – an international executive leadership programme for museums, heritage and the arts, which she launched in 2015 in partnership with the Saïd Business School, University of Oxford. She curates and facilitates OCL, as well as developing new content and teaching on the programme. This work includes research exploring the changing expectations and demands of museum leadership: The Museum Leader’s Report. Lucy is also Head of Programmes and Partnerships at the University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums Division (GLAM), where she works within the divisional office team leading the Partnership and Engagement Team.


Back to Arts, Culture & Creative Industries - Summer 2020