September 25, 2019; Crain’s Detroit
Mosaic Youth Theatre in Detroit has had a hard few years from a leadership perspective. It decided two-and-a-half years ago, at its 25th anniversary, to adopt a dual leadership model—not that unusual for a cultural organization—but it has reversed that decision after losing two executive directors in that brief period. The executives had been brought in to partner with the founder, who has also retired this month, as had been planned since last year.
It appears that much of the job was to improve the organization’s finances and management—the group had been running a multi-year deficit. Both new executive directors brought two decades of experience with them, but the fit (and there are many ways in which this “fit” must be judged) must not have been right.
Let’s face it: As a founder in a dual leadership position myself, I get that it can be stressful, but the last thing I would want to do is reinforce the idea that dual leadership models are unworkable, even when the dread founder is still on the scene. Still, there are considerations that should be surfaced and some of these are ably covered in this article by Gene Takagi, who shares a lawyer’s perspective on the arrangement.
Commenting on the resignation of the latest executive director, Stephanie Worth, board chair Cornell Batie says, “The Board of Directors decided to realign the organization and as a result eliminated the executive director position. This change is to ensure the organization is structured appropriately and positioned for sustainable growth in the future.”
And just like that, it is back to one leader in DeLashea Strawder, who was originally tapped to be just the artistic director. Strawder has been at the organization since 2003 and appears to have an intimate knowledge of its inner workings and community role, which is impressive and hope-inspiring.
Founded by Sperling in 1992 to address gaps in metro Detroit arts education, Mosaic provides “out of school” programs in theater, vocal music programs and technical stagecraft to more than 500 students from more than 50 metro Detroit schools.
Mosaic’s acclaimed all-teen performances have toured Africa, Asia, Europe, Canada and 25 states throughout the U.S. including performances at The White House, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Carnegie Hall and the Apollo Theater.
During its first 25 years, more than 95 percent of its teen performers graduated from high school and went on to college, according to a 2008 University of Michigan study commissioned by Mosaic.
There are some fields of nonprofits where the dual leader model is more common—in the arts and in publishing, for instance. Done right, it can lessen the load and provide a wider and more expert span of attention, but the chewy stuff is, as always, in the middle, where the alignment needs to occur in a way that advances both mission and margin. The “fit” requires not just mutual respect between the two, but a clear shared and constantly updated vision for what is being built. Is it easier? Not necessarily, but it can work if the will and the skills are present.—Ruth McCambridge