How to Lead Artists Without Going Crazy

[This post is written by Aubrey McGowan, and originally appeared on David Santistevan’s blog. Aubrey is a worship pastor at Hope Fellowship and blogs over at Artist’s Permission Slip.]

Have you led an artistic person before? You probably know the struggle all too well.

As worship leaders, we are in contact with so many musicians who embody the traditional definition of artist.

They are brilliant, creative, skilled, talented and, yes, emotional. Artists are very engrossed and connected to their work.

This results in passion for their art, but also taking criticism or feedback very personally.

How do I know this? Because I am an artist.

Confessions of an Artist Leading Artists

In my current role as a worship pastor, I have also become a leader of artists. Leading a team of artists can be challenging, to say the least.

If you’re not confident in how to lead them, you can begin to feel like you are walking on egg shells trying to carefully avoid hurt feelings. The not so “artsy” members of your team can suffer if the free-spirits continue to rule your rehearsals and services without any accountability.

It’s a tightrope we have to walk. On one side, you can create so much rigidity that you drive away the talent and skill you need to create something truly great and go to the next level.

On the other side, a healthy ministry will grow in size and complexity. That will require some structure that artists may not be used to. So, here we are, up on a tightrope. And tightropes are not easy to walk on.

Andy Stanley calls this “a tension that must be managed.” It is not going away. In fact, you don’t want it to go away. It’s like the tension of a stringed instrument that creates potential for the sound of beautiful music.

It is what you want, but it is also your most difficult challenge as a worship leader. Some weeks I walk this wire like a pro, while at other times I lose my balance.

Here some thoughts on leading artists well:

Five Ways to Lead Artists Well

1. Recognize Their Value—You need artists. They are the ones who will continue to inject life into what otherwise may become a dead ritual. Your team needs the spontaneity and the creative energy that they bring. Don’t let their tardiness or lack of preparedness totally overshadow their contribution. Coach them on those important areas, but continue to see and recognize the positive. Brainstorm with them early. Then take their ideas or creations and implement them across the whole team.

2. Lose the “Bad Guy” Complex—Don’t let their sensitivity keep you from honesty. I used to feel like I always had to be the bad guy. I was the one bringing the jam sessions to an end. I was the one who had to confront a team member because they didn’t come prepared. As a leader, I have struggled with this. I want to be part of the party. I want to be everyone’s friend, but I also realize that I am accountable for excellence.

When I look at my own journey as an artist, the people I am most thankful for are the ones who were willing to be honest with me. They were willing to endure my sensitivity and defensiveness to speak the truth. Sometimes it was a gentle correction, and other times it was a critical “fork in the road” conversation. The artists you lead need to know where they stand. This is not being the bad guy, this is being a good leader.

3. Don’t Be Afraid to Challenge Them—Artists need to be challenged. It’s how they innovate. Most artists do their best work when there is a healthy amount of pressure. Left to our own natural tendencies, we artists can slip away into daydreaming, depression and procrastination. What we really need is a challenge that scares us—a challenge that stretches us just beyond what we think is possible.

Here are some ideas:

  • Involve them in the creative process for your events.
  • Give them an opportunity to lead something.
  • Challenge them to come 30 minutes before rehearsal for the next month.
  • Challenge them to practice more.
  • Challenge them to pray.

These are just a few ideas to challenge your artists to rise a little higher.

4. Help Them Build Systems—Sometimes being a free spirit is truly about being an innovative artist. Sometimes it is just plain immaturity. As leaders, we have to prayerfully consider what is an issue of maturity and what is an aspect of artistry. It is our responsibility to help them learn to see it too. Don’t be afraid to teach them how to build systems to manage tasks and schedules. Train them how to do the most important tasks first and get them out of the way so they can be truly free to create. Help them to see how these kinds of systems can help them serve others while making their art better.

5. Don’t Beat Them. Join Them—As a leader of artists, it is easy to dig your heels into systems and processes as the solution to all of your team’s problems. While better organizational structure is vital, it is not everything. Every once in a while, you need to go down one of their rabbit trails with them. Join in on the jam session. Break away from your desk to have a dance party in the hallway. If you always fight them, free-spirits will make you old before your time. If you join them every once in a while, they will keep you young.

We’d love to hear from you. What are the issues you face in leading other artists and being an artist who is led?

Let’s dialogue about this, as I know there can be crazy frustration on both sides.  

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Aubrey McGowan
Hello, my name is Aubrey McGowan and I am passionate about cultivating and inspiring love, imagination, and action in artists of all kinds. Call me an arsonist in the house of the resistance.