Back from AASLH with Flashes of Leadership Inspiration

Admittedly, we’ve been back for more than a week, but it takes a while to process a meeting as big as AASLH’s annual event. Here, in no particular order, are some take aways from our three-day adventure:

  • Minneapolis is a pretty cool place. As is St. Paul.
  • We were impressed by the Minnesota History Center and the Walker Art Center.  In both institutions, their commitment to diversity showed big time.
  • We really liked MHC’s insistence that museums need to meet teachers where they are–time starved and over-worked–and “curate” the vast field of history for them.
  • We really liked the way Dina Bailey reinforced the notion of leading from the bottom up by saying that leadership is like sparks around a room–that every time a staff member raises a hand, volunteers for a project or takes part in discussion, they are leading.
  • We got a lump in our throats listening to Ryan Spencer speak from his heart about being a servant leader and his devotion to museum stewardship.
  • We loved hearing a group of museum women quote A. A. Milne while encouraging each other to be braver, smarter, stronger.
  • We applaud members of AASLH’s program committee who are thinking about a 2015 session on “Leading Well, Leaving Well,” so discussion will start on how to leave while you’re at your best whether you’re 40 and moving on or 65 and bowing out.

See You in St. Paul

St Paul

Hello again,

We’re off to the AASLH Annual Meeting in St. Paul, Minnesota where Saturday, September 20 at 9 am we’ll be leading a session on Leadership Matters: A Look at 21st Century Museum Leadership with four of our interviewees, Dina Bailey, Director/Curator at the National Center for Civil Rights; Ryan Spencer, Senior Manager and Venue Interpretation, Firestone Farm, The Henry Ford Museum; Chris Taylor, Diversity Outreach Program Manager, Minnesota Historical Society, and Kent Whitworth, Executive Director, Kentucky Historical Society. So if you are in St. Paul, please come and say hello.

We are also conducting a discussion on issues of gender at 8:30 am this Friday in the lobby of the Crowne Plaza, the conference hotel. So no matter who you are, if you are interested in women’s issues in the museum world, please join us. Otherwise, we’ll be back here post-St. Paul at the end of September.

Anne & Joan


For Women Only: Let’s Talk About Gender in the Museum World

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Here at Leadership Matters we are contemplating a new project. We think there are some gender issues at work in 21st century museums that need to be explored and we would like your help.

Here’s the deal: Museums are complicated places. Women’s work lives are also tricky. Museum work possesses all the same complications of life in business or another sort of non-profit, but there are differences. It’s a field popular with women; it’s still possible to get an entry level position without a graduate degree; with the exception of leadership positions, it’s not unfriendly to women who are parents; and, at least at the national level, it’s known for welcoming attitudes regarding race, gender and sexuality. On the negative side, it’s a world where many positions, particularly those in leadership, demand graduate degrees and require long hours, yet, with few exceptions, don’t pay high salaries or offer much in the way of benefits.

This isn’t meant to be a whine fest. We want to hear the good and the bad. To begin, here are two questions:

  • Are workplace challenges more acute for women if a field is under-resourced, under-appreciated, or in some instances under utilized?
  • And, how does leadership, internal decision making, and external perception change in a female dominated profession?

And, if you’re going to be at the AASLH meeting in St. Paul in two weeks, we’d like to talk with you about your experiences on the gender playing field. We’re hoping to set up a conversation or two to talk about these issues in person.  So, let us know via this post if you’d like to meet up or email Anne at  Watch for us on Twitter — we’ll be posting what we see and hear.



What We’re Reading…


Vacation and travel are over and the Leadership Matters folks are back in the saddle. We thought we’d start off with a reading list just so you know we haven’t been idle. Here are some things we’ve enjoyed.

In the book department….Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide to Mindful Leadership by Janice Marturano. Yes, mindfulness is everywhere, and no it’s not all about breathing and meditation. Think purposefulness. And it’s less than 200 pages so it won’t take long to read.

And if you listen to Matt Killingsworth’s Ted Talk on happiness, you will realize how mindfulness, purpose and happiness are linked. If you are a leader, you will also discover that roughly 47 percent of our time is spent with our mind wandering and that when it wanders, we’re not happy. So a staff, a team, a department who can focus with purpose is likely to be a happier group of people. So listen. If you want to be part of Professor Killingsworth’s study, go to

While we’re on the subject of mindfulness, you might also want to read’s article on Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman’s book Love Your Enemies. Again, we’re not advocating one religion over another, Thurman and Salzberg are Buddhist teachers, but if there’s anger–big or small–in your workplace, reading their book may help you. What leader doesn’t need to not be victim or slave to their emotions?

On the other hand, if you want to think about leadership not in the context of work and management, but rather as it exists at America’s elite colleges, we suggest you read Tara Burton’s Atlantic essay.

Because we’re always encouraging you to read everything you can about leadership, not just museum articles, not just business and leadership web sites, but as they say in education, “across the curriculum,” here’s a poem as well.

Before We Leave
Just so it’s clear—-
No whining on the journey.
If you whine, you’ll get stuck
somewhere with people 
like yourself. It’s an unwritten law.
Wear hiking boots. Pack food
and a change of clothes.
We go slowly. Endurance won’t
be enough. Though without it
you can’t get to the place
where more of you is asked.
Expect there will be times 
when you’ll be afraid,
Hold hands and tremble together
if you must, but remember
each of us is alone.
Where are we going?
It’s not an issue of here or there.
And if you ever feel you can’t
take another step, imagine
how you might feel to arrive
if not wiser, a little more aware
how to inhabit the middle ground
between misery and joy.
Trudge on. In the higher regions
where footing is unsure
to trudge is to survive.
Stephen Dunn


And one last thought, if you’re a member of the double X chromosome group, go get a copy of Debora Spar’s Wonder Women: Sex, Power and the Quest for Perfection. We think there’s a lot of food for thought.


Museums are People

Paper figures

So it may seem disingenuous to quote anything Bill Gates says after his comments about museums last fall. Remember him telling the world that donations to museums are morally reprehensible? Well, he’s entitled to his opinion, and this post isn’t about philanthropy or really about Gates. It is about one of Gates’ favorite books though. Business Adventures by John Brooks, a New Yorker writer. Why should you care? Well, because if you’ve been paying attention here, you know we keep advising, coaxing, and encouraging everyone to read, listen, watch everything you can about leadership, business and organizational behavior. Much of the best stuff written is by writers about the for-profit world, and while Business Adventures was written before many of you were born, it’s still a good read. (If you’ve given up reading books in favor of what’s online, check out Seth Stevenson’s post on Slate about the book.)

So…how does Business Adventures connect with the museum world? Well, in describing the Ford Co. and the disastrous launch of the Edsel, Brooks makes the point that Ford failed because of the decisions made by the men running the company. Some of those decisions were random, some were wrong, and a few resulted from poor communication. Brooks finishes by reminding readers that corporations run on people. Why don’t museums think like this? If anything, museums might say they run on collections, yet the rarest of pieces is meaningless without the care, interpretation and governance brought by  museum staff and volunteers.  In a world where just about everything is available online, the role of people in the museum equation carries more weight.

If you’re a leader do you put your staff and volunteers front and center? Does your board treasure its staff, acknowledge the free-will talents of volunteers, and make a point to invest in them? Do you invest in yourself? Are you open to opportunity and not mired in process? We believe museums reflect the people who work in them. Strong organizations care for and about their staffs and their volunteers. Do you? Does your organization? Share your stories with us.

Knowing When Enough is Enough

Stay or Go?

In our last post we talked about what to do when you work for a less than savvy leader. This time we thought we would follow up by discussing how and when you should leave. What, leaving, you say? Yes, quitting. Because sometimes it’s the right choice. In the last post we reminded all of you to take care of yourselves. Giving yourself permission to quit is part of that. Yes, there are exceptional leaders out there, but the ratio of mediocre to excellent is probably 10 to one. Know who you work for and what it’s doing to you.

We do not under any circumstances mean to suggest that there aren’t a million mitigating circumstances that might keep you in a job — from graduate school loans to partners’ careers to children — but remember, leaving, if your decision isn’t about failure, it’s about choice. At the very least it demonstrates self-awareness and courage.

Leaving isn’t easy. Ending something never is. But sometimes people are trapped by inertia. Why? Because they will tell you they owe something to their employer, because they have a contract, because they have to stay two, three, five years before moving on. If you are burdened by one of these arbitrary constructs, ask yourself why.  You know yourself. Is your job making you sad or angry or frustrated? If you have experimented with the suggestions we offered in the last post: developing networks; using employer perks to build your resume; tweaking your job description, and you are still sad, mad, frustrated, maybe it’s time you thought about going. Don’t write the script about why you can’t, start looking, just apply. Remember, a museum has to say yes before you even get to interview, and if you are lucky enough to get an offer, you can always say no. So be bold. You got into this field because you liked it; liking the field isn’t a reason to condemn yourself to a horrible work situation.

And here’s a P.S. about leaving, for those of us who are baby boomers. We came of age when graduate student loans were small(er); many of us presided over organizations during the golden age of history museums; and now many of us are lucky to be leaders. And while there are a million mitigating circumstances to keep us in place–paying for children’s college loans; waiting for retirement funds to recover from 2008; any number of family situations—we need to be self-aware. Know when work life is more about repetition than innovation. If it’s the former, be gracious. Step aside. Leave at the high point.

Thinking of quitting? Tell us your thoughts.

When the Leadership Isn’t Good

frustration aheadThere’s a presumption in these blog posts that most museums leaders are good at what they do.  Or at least that they strive for something beyond mediocrity and plain vanilla management. And that their employees do, too. We’ve met enough really great leaders to know that not everyone in museum land is struggling with bad leadership. But it’s probably too much of a Kumbaya moment to believe everyone out there is blissful, so we’re going to use this post to try and think about what to do in the case of failed leadership.

One of the most problematic things about working for or with a poor leader is that it’s not always something you can talk about objectively or even constructively. Friends are sympathetic to a point. Spouses, partners and significant others take your side and feel angry for you. Therapy’s not for everyone. Then there’s quitting. That’s obviously a solution, but it’s often not the easiest. So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about being an employee when the leadership is weak:

  • Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to do. Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many organizations haven’t updated their job descriptions. Is your skill set lightyears from your job description? Making sure the two are in synch may change expectations–yours or your CEO’s.
  • Take care of yourself. Check in. Don’t allow yourself to be used, made uncomfortable or insulted. Ignorance is not an excuse.
  • Take ownership for what you can control. If your institution allows one professional development opportunity a year, make sure it serves your needs. If you are allowed to take an online course at work, make sure it builds your resume, not just the organization’s.
  • If things are uncomfortable, write it down. Know when the dumb jokes started, when you stopped being part of senior leadership team or how long it’s been since you had an employment review. Even in the digital age, it’s not a bad thing to keep a work journal in pen in a spiral bound notebook.
  • Be the leader your boss/department head or director isn’t. That doesn’t mean trying to take their job, it means taking the high road, being kind, being collegial, pulling the team together even when bad management makes everyone feel unsafe.
  • Network! Obviously the lack of leadership at your own institution is a drag, but it isn’t the end of your career. Find your role models elsewhere, whether they’re digital or colleagues you meet locally or regionally. And if there isn’t an organization, call up six people who do your job in your city, town or state, and ask them for an after-work drink or an early morning latte.
  • Learn to speak for yourself. That’s not the same as speaking about yourself, but look for openings to tout your own successes.
  • Know when to leave. Sometimes we are so inured to bad management that we allow inertia to hold us in place. Yes, there are a million complications from significant others to aging parents to college tuitions to keep us in place, but if you’re going to stay, understand why and give yourself a time limit or a goal–I’ll stay ’til my car is paid off, my partner finishes graduate school, my child finishes eighth grade.

So we’re guessing not all of you out there in museum land are blissful. Tell us how you manage.