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  • Shelly Power

On leadership and mental health: Shelly Power

Shelly Power is the executive director of the Pennsylvania Ballet. Previously she was the CEO and artistic director of the Prix de Lausanne and the administrative and artistic director of Houston Ballet Academy. While in Houston, Shelly instituted one of the most integral mental health programs in a ballet school with Minding the Gap senior advisor Dr. Brian Goonan.

Pennsylvania Ballet executive director Shelly Power

A few weeks ago, I walked into a meeting with my senior team and said, “I am depleted, I don’t think I can make another decision right now.” We had just finished a huge project and I am fortunate to be in a space with that team where I can say this, and that’s okay. Those kinds of statements are honest responses and leaders need to be able to have those moments just like everybody else.

It is imperative that the dance community continue to do a better job of addressing mental health. But this effort must be directed at the whole of an organization, including from the top down. Leadership needs the opportunity to make good-faith mistakes and to be vulnerable. Just as a dancer may feel nervous to express to their teacher, that they are dealing with an anxiety because of the fear or stigma it may create, so does a leader who has a team of people looking to them for the right answers without a hint of weakness. By creating space for vulnerability at all levels of an organization we can truly create safe spaces for needed conversation.

On the pressures of leadership

Often stigmas push our need to admit our vulnerabilities away as if they are non-existing. Being elevated to a position of leadership does not negate the stress, anxiety and fear that bubbles up inside us all. I think of all the times in my past that I looked into my executive director’s eyes without even thinking that my problem was multiplied by 20 because there were 20 more people that were asking for the kind of support that I needed.

It’s a double edge sword. On one hand leaders think they need to have all the answers and so do their subordinates. And sometimes, leaders don’t listen with an empathetic ear and gloss over the stress detected. All these things contribute to those small tornadoes that start swirling around in any organization. Our ability to be aware and confront those things and talk about them is imperative. It is not just the problem but the stress it is causing that needs to be addressed.

To be effective, leaders must slow down and reflect on decisions and be able to change them if needed. This requires some time to process os decision-making. I often go to bed at night having made ten decisions that day and two or three will rise to the top and I wonder “did I do the right thing?”

On connecting with dancers and parents

Dance is in a changing landscape of accountability and there are some people who have ignored or abused the cultural shifts that needed to happen. I am very hopeful however that we will see a shift as all these issues have come to the forefront. We need to stop being afraid and start talking and give everyone a safe environment to do so. At Pennsylvania Ballet I see Angel Corella being a very open and honest communicator who self reflects, which helps his relationship with the dancers and staff.

I came from a generation that when you took ballet class you didn’t talk, you didn’t ask questions, you just took whatever was given to you. When I became a teacher 15 years after being a student, I was frustrated because I felt like I was giving all this information and it wasn’t being received. But what I learned is when you are teaching you must learn how to meet the student where they are, instead of expecting the student to be where you think they should be.

What I realized is that over time we gave this new generation (including my own child) a voice and things started to change in the dance world. Dancers, and eventually parents, had stronger voices.

The pendulum swung dramatically the other way, and I got broken in by many parent’s and their strong voices. It took me a while to understand that I had to really listen to where they were and sit in their seat, looking back on myself and asking, “if I were saying this what would I need?” It was hard because parents often come to the table with a high level of emotion because it is their child - I am the same way with my child. On the other hand, often parents wait too long to communicate a concern because they don’t trust the process and have not built a relationship with the teacher or director.

Parents and students create dark outcomes that are based around the fantasy that if they talk about their child’s struggle it will put a cloud over their child. Most teachers and directors want the best for any student and communication is key.

On a holistic approach to addressing mental health support

I think as leaders, some of us started working to give future dancers a more supportive experience than we had. So those students now, have different experiences than dancers 20 years ago.

Shelly with PA Ballet dancers Arian Molina Soca and Oksana Maslova

We need to start having new conversations across the hierarchy of dance organizations. It takes a lot of trust and trust is something that each of us comes to the table with different experiences. In any conversation, I can’t know another’s trust level. But the more time we spend listening, the more we can pick up cues and learn to meet people where they and have productive and deeper conversations. I would note that leaders need the same kind of listening from other people and that is a skill that is developed over time.

I hope that people reading this understand that every time something goes wrong, it takes a little piece of a leader’s confidence. Leaders also need time to reflect and rebuild. We all handle that differently. We talk about it, or try to fix it, but we live with the result of our decisions. As I am on this journey of increasing my own compassion for parents and for students, I just hope that they will do the same and for us as leaders who are really working from a place of best intentions. I think that if you give people space to be human then there is an opportunity to acknowledge both sides of everyday stresses. And then it becomes more of the norm, and some of the anger and stress starts to go away and the tornado dissipates.

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