The artistic director and CEO was recently recognized for his compassionate leadership. We asked him what it means to be a compassionate leader in dance, and how that’s changed since the pandemic.
The dance world is often mythologized as a place of tough competition under ruthless directors. It’s not for nothing—there’s truth behind that stereotype, even as conversations about dance’s culture problems are ongoing.
One director who has long modeled a different way of leading: Eduardo Vilaro, the artistic director and CEO of Ballet Hispánico, who was recently honored with a Compassionate Leaders of the Year Award from consulting group Compassionate Leaders Circle.
But what does compassionate leadership actually look like, and how can more dance leaders put it into practice? We asked Vilaro about what it means to him, when his compassion is tested, and how he shows compassion to himself.
Before you received this award, did you think of yourself as a compassionate leader?
I’ve thought of myself as a compassionate person, but not always in terms of leadership. But it makes sense for those to go together, because being a leader means embodying the needs of everyone you take on in your journey.
But the idea of a compassionate leader is relatively new as something to aspire to. It wasn’t always talked about as a positive thing, and I think that comes from when there’s a lack of compassion from other leaders. The divisiveness and the horrible rhetoric that was thrown at the Latinx community in recent years has made other leaders take on more compassion. My community needed something else. We can’t be beat up on all the time.
What does it mean to you to be a compassionate leader? Did it change in 2020?
Compassion is about empathy and understanding people. Yes, I was a compassionate leader before 2020—I’d always think about the artists, community and staff. But because of the hole in bigger leadership and the trauma of the pandemic, your empathy goes on steroids.
So, before the pandemic, I’d take time to connect to dancers and staff and listen to their needs, making sure they had a voice through meetings and check-ins. With the onset of the pandemic, we had to take that to a heightened level, to really ask “How can we help you?”
The first thing that came to mind was that everyone will need emotional help. We took on a relationship with two social workers to have workshops about how dancers and staff are feeling at this moment, and to ask “What do you need? How can we persevere?”
Sometimes I was present at these sessions and sometimes it was better that I wasn’t.
The main takeaway was that people just want to be heard; there was not necessarily something to do immediately. They want to say, “I am concerned, I’m worried, I have fears.” That was really important.
Being a director requires making some tough decisions. How do you approach those decisions with compassion?
Well, empathy is one side of compassion, but the other is respect. So, conversations are with respect, honesty and clarity. Have you told your dancer that you’re looking at them to make an assessment? Is what you ask of them clear? It can’t be haphazard. For artists, we love process, but we don’t love administrative process. But you have to set a plan, and have the artist on the journey with you to understanding where they stand.
I will say that there are no dancer transitions this year. It’s a trauma this year. It’s not the moment to say, ‘I didn’t like the way you were dancing, you’ve got to go.’ If someone had a head injury and was in the hospital, you’re not going to say “By the way, you can’t come back to work.”
How does compassion apply when dealing with people outside the organization, like presenters or donors?
Once you realize you are a compassionate leader, you immerse everybody in your thinking. You become a teacher, lead them to understand. Brave conversations are important.
The challenging times are when you come in front of people who aren’t compassionate. It drains you and makes you work harder. You have to approach these one step at a time—maybe next time will be easier. People will hear you if you keep speaking up for your needs.
The racial justice protests of this summer have opened up new conversations for us, especially with presenters. It’s allowed us to demand that we are looked at and respected in a certain way. It’s already very different from how it used to work. We can now chip away at people putting their beliefs or ideals on what a BIPOC organization should be. Presenters can’t say, “I need to have a look, an iconic representation of my idea of a Latinx dance company.” We have a license to talk about what we should be.
Being a leader is stressful. How do you show compassion to yourself?
One of the things that the pandemic showed me was my lack of attention to my own dancing, to myself. So, I got back into it! I’m taking ballet barre and I have a movement regimen. It centers me in a way that I forgot. Even if I’m not 20 anymore and I can’t get my leg up, that’s OK. I can still stretch it. How we nurture our inner dancer is important. If we take care of ourselves, we understand that other people need to be taken care of.
Avichai Scher is a freelance journalist who has written for The New York Times and NBC News.