Nina Simon and the Wisdom of the Crowd

First we want to thank all of you interested in women’s issues for helping us break a record at the end of March. Four hundred and fifty people read our March 25 post. So for all of you interested in women and work, here are two links that may prove significant:

Amanda Hess’ article “Maybe It’s Time for Employers to Stop Being So Sexist When Women Ask for Raises”  (, March 28, 2014)

Aine Creedon’s “Three Strategies for Women who Want Raises” (Nonprofit Quarterly, March 28, 2014)
And for those of you in possession of the double X chromosome remember, April 8 is the day we catch up with our male counterparts, so we hope you took your BFF out for a drink to celebrate.
So now, let’s talk about what being a visionary gets you. As many of you know, we divided the 36 leaders interviewed for Leadership Matters into four groups–self-aware, authentic, courageous and visionary. Not that each of our interviewees doesn’t possess all four characteristics in abundance, but dividing them allowed us to highlight how each is important in for leadership.

It’s no big surprise that the smallest group in our book is the visionaries. How many of you know a truly visionary leader? As we’ve said more than a few times on these pages, organizational vision is about possibilities, not about maintaining the status quo. If you want the same-old, same-old, then visionary leadership isn’t for you. Visionary leaders see not only possibilities, they articulate them in such real and compelling terms that their followers see them too. Once their dream is articulated, visionary leaders create pathways to make it real. These definitive, decisive steps are what set true visionary leaders apart from dreamers who never quite make their ideas come true.

We knew before Leadership Matters was even outlined that we wanted to interview Nina Simon. Nina–in case you’ve somehow missed her out-of-the-box career path–was once an unknown blogger, commenting on the museum world from the vastness of cyberspace. Today she’s the Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. And she’s a visionary. But interestingly, she’s a humble visionary. At some level, Nina’s leadership can be summed up by her need to check in with all of us–with her staff, with her community, and with her internet followers through her blog Museum 2.0.

Which brings me to NPR’s recent story, “So You Think You’re Smarter Than a CIA Agent,”. In the story, NPR’s Alix Spigel interviews a pharmacist named Elaine Rich who, along with 2,999 people is part of something called the Good Judgement Project. One of the points Spigel makes in describing the Good Judgement Project is that counterintuitively if you average a large number of predictions together, the errors cancel each other out and you end up with a more accurate guess. She adds that a large crowd of different people with access to different information who pool their predictions are in much better shape than a single very smart person, or even a small group of very smart people. There is a lesson here, one that Nina Simon got to before any of us.We could call it the lesson of not living in a vacuum; the lesson of not cooking up exhibits and programs deep inside the museum and then being surprised when the public doesn’t love them. In the museum world, Simon figured this out a long time ago. Even before she became a director, she was all about the wisdom of the crowd.

Unlike the Good Judgement Project, Simon is not trying to predict whether North Korea will test another missile. Instead, she is interested in how participation–whether by community, artist, staff or individual–changes things. But here’s the dicey bit, and maybe it’s what makes Simon a visionary. Not only was she among the first to bring the wisdom of the crowd into her museum, she’s comfortable with it. And maybe that’s something all proto-leaders need to ponder. When you ask the crowd what it thinks, you have to be prepared to live with the answer even if it changes things fundamentally. There is a pay off though. The crowd is right there with you. It sees Simon’s museum as its own because she constantly asks for thoughts and opinions. And she (and her staff) are prepared for instability and change based on what folks say they want.

Not all of us are visionaries. And that’s probably a good thing. But as you think about leadership, think about your willingness to trust the crowd, to change mid-stream, to adapt. That’s the Simon lesson and it’s part of great leadership.

Leadership First

Green nowThis is our 13th blog post. Not that we’re superstitious or anything, but perhaps–in honor of lucky 13–it’s time to return to the word that brought us here: leadership. We believe it’s an issue that the history museum field needs to grapple with NOW. Not later, not because the who-knows-where-historical society hired an imaginative go-getter unintentionally and has a few good years.  And not because there aren’t great leaders out there, there are, but because they should be everywhere. And every history organization, from the gigantic to the tiny, needs to make leadership a priority. It’s an issue that needs to solved before all the others. So, if your big issue is better design, improved interpretation, or open-access cataloging, hold your horses, and let’s deal with leadership first.

At the conclusion of our book, Leadership Matters, we threw down the gauntlet. Who knows if anyone will listen, but we laid out a leadership agenda for individuals, institutions, funding organizations, graduate programs, and professional organizations because we want to spark a revolution. The idea is easy, but in order for it to happen, the field must change. Without forward-leaning, mission-driven, intentionally entrepreneurial leadership, no amount of collections care, building preservation, or programming will be enough to secure a museum’s future. And until we change the old way of doing things, behavior won’t change. This is change that begins with individuals acting for themselves, recognizing their own leadership development needs and advocating for training, mentoring, and new opportunities. It’s change carried forward by institutions who know that maintaining the status quo isn’t enough, and who commit to developing their organization’s human capital. It’s a change that must be supported by funding organizations who recognize leadership development and training opportunities as key to organizational capacity building. And last, it’s a revolution that must be sparked by the graduate programs who must introduce leadership training at every level. The next generation of history museum students needs to know leadership is necessary no matter where they hope to end up. And it’s as important for the chief curator or the director of education as it is for the director.

Spring, which we here in the northeast fervently hope is coming, is often the time when organizations do personnel assessments. If that’s on your to-do list either as employee, team leader, organizational leader or board president, make 2014 the year you invest in leadership. You know what to do. Make change and make leaders.

Women and Museums


Since March is Women’s History month, we wanted to focus this week on women, leadership, and museums, and specifically women in history museums. One thing we know is that the history and cultural heritage museum field is increasingly female dominated. That might be a good thing, but perhaps not entirely. Those of you who share the XX chromosome should pause and reflect on the fact that April 8 is the day when your wages catch up to your male colleagues.  In a recent press release about pay inequity, the American Association of University Women (AAUW) pointed out that while young women are paid 90 percent of what young men are paid, when those same women reach age 35 the wage gap widens. “Employers should lead on this issue. The pay gap hurts families and costs a typical woman at least $400,000 over the course of her career,” said AAUW Executive Director and CEO Linda D. Hallman, CAE. “While some CEOs have been vocal in their commitment to paying workers fairly, American women can’t wait for incremental change. AAUW urges companies to conduct salary audits proactively to monitor and address gender pay differences. It’s just good business.”

There is a sad truth in the history museum world. We’ve heard it often enough that we listed it in Leadership Matters as one of our field’s top 10 myths. Here it is: “Compensation is secondary because the work is its own reward.” We remarked that while the work CAN be tremendously rewarding, you still pay the same amount for gas that Warren Buffet pays. So if you’re a woman, negotiate. Know what salaries are for your area for comparable jobs–other museums, teachers, librarians. If you don’t want to quit and your organization can’t or won’t compensate you appropriately, see if you can negotiate for time or leadership training. Just don’t roll over and accept what’s offered when what’s offered isn’t fair.

And if you need courage before your annual review, you may want to read the “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships,” released by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) at the beginning of March. The report was bookended by features in both The New York Times and the Washington Post, profiling women directors of some of New York’s and Washington’s leading museums. (And if you’re not a subscriber to Take 5, a little jewel of an Internet newsletter created by my co-author Anne Ackerson and four pals, you should read their recent “Women Are the Architects of Society” post where these articles are mentioned.)

Interestingly, there are more female museum leaders in the greater Washington,D.C. area than in New York City. And while it is heartening to read these women’s profiles, here are two distressing thoughts: First, the vast majority lead art not history museums. Second, according to the AAMD report, no matter how exalted these women’s positions, they are still making .79 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earn.

What’s even more distressing is where are history museums in all of this? Because if we believe AAMD’s report, here’s another irony: gender discrepancies apparently grow with budget size, meaning that museums with overwhelmingly huge budgets, specifically those with annual operating budgets of $20 to $100 million, have fewer female CEO’s. While that may be irritating if you’re a female PhD in art history with an MBA to boot and a yearning to run a really big art museum, there are no history museums with budgets that big. In fact, a Google search of “Biggest” or “Best” museums in the United states produces a list of art museums along with New York City’s Museum of Natural History and Washington’s Holocaust Museum. But this isn’t a rant about how history museums consistently miss getting a place at the table, it’s a discussion about women and their leadership roles in the country’s history museums and cultural heritage organizations. And it’s meant to pose some questions about what happens when a field becomes female-dominated which is exactly what has happened on the history side of the aisle. So…if you’re not rattled enough, here’s another disturbing little fact courtesy of Forbes. In 2012 The New York Times released a report that showed that for the first time many men were entering fields traditionally dominated by women. The examples The Times gave were teaching and nursing, but it could just as easily have been museum leadership. Apparently some men view these professions as family friendly–thus the shift. But here’s the bad news. Women apparently climb the ladder in these fields. Men? Not so much. They zoom on what Forbes termed a glass escalator that whisks them to the top, past their female colleagues, straight to management. The lesson: if you are female the leadership track may not be a straight shot even in a field where 63-percent of all professional and senior positions are held by women.

So what’s the good news? One of the characteristics of the leaders we profiled in Leadership Matters was self-awareness. Whether you are a man or a women, if you’re on the leadership track, you need to be self-aware. You need to know how salaries at your institution stack up. If you’re female, you need to make sure you are being compensated fairly. Tell your department head, your director, your board, why you matter. And mean it. Incremental change comes when each of us makes individual choices. What have you done lately to level the gender playing field?

Modeling Courage: What’s It All About?

imagesWe thought a lot about courage when writing Leadership Matters. When we began, if you’d asked us to write down our top three leadership characteristics, courage might not have made the list. But as we listened and questioned our 36 leaders, it was clear that courage is key. Courage is often the catalyst, because without courage vision is missing and without vision there is no action. That’s actually rooted in a bit of Aristotle, who, among other things, wrote, “Courage is the first of the human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others.”

Too often we associate courage with strength not leadership, with Navy SEALs rescuing Captain Phillips on the high seas, with a lone survivor’s harrowing return to civilization or a wounded warrior’s mountain summit. But in the world of history museums and heritage organizations there’s not much call for daring-do or brute strength–well, maybe there is, but that’s another blog. Courage in the history museum world is more nuanced and more personal, and definitely a necessary facet in a leader’s profile.

Why courage? Because sometimes being mediocre isn’t the right choice. Sometimes leaders have to take the counterintuitive approach and push, pull and drag an organization outside its proverbial comfort zone. That takes courage. As one of our interviewees said, “Courage is about conveying vision and having the strength to sell something even when it doesn’t make any sense.” Courageous leaders are entrepreneurial. They are willing to challenge outdated rituals and deal with uncomfortable situations. Which brings us to the personal side of courage and leadership. Courageous leaders have to be willing to go first.  That sounds dubious, but it’s important. Leaders lead by modeling. If you want your board to pay attention to its strategic plan, you need to make a centerpiece. If you believe the mission statement is old, tired and boring, you need to stick your neck out and offer everyone a new version to tweak, change and challenge.

And be ready to live with the results. In these situations being courageous doesn’t mean maintaining control. It means quite the opposite particularly when it comes to feedback. When it’s time for evaluations, why not go first? Offer your team or staff the criteria you’ll use for their annual reviews and ask that they apply them to you. Have them work together. Listen to what they say. Take it to heart. It takes courage for any leader to make herself vulnerable, but leadership is about learning, constantly holding oneself up and examining strengths and weaknesses. Don’t ever confuse an open door policy with a 360-degree review. It’s the asking for help that builds trust, and that’s what takes courage.

Why Creativity AND Leadership Matter


The collective intelligence of a community comes from idea flow; we learn from the ideas that surround us, and others learn from us. Over time, a community with members who actively engage with each other creates a group with shared, integrated habits and beliefs. Idea flow depends upon social learning, and indeed, this is the basis of social physics: Our behavior can be predicted from our exposure to the example behaviors of other people.

Alex Pentland writing in Wired, February 7, 2014

As Austin Kleon suggests in his wonderful little book, Steal Like an Artist, you’re only going to be as good as the people you surround yourself with. He goes on to remind you that means not just in real life, but in your digital life too, suggesting that following the smartest bloggers and writers on the Internet will make you smarter. And it will. A little like when your parents said that reading cheesy magazines would rot your brain. He closes by suggesting that “If you ever find you’re the most talented person in the room, you need to find another room.” The point of all this is that history organizations–whether the teeniest, tiniest local history organization or the biggest state historical society–need to surround themselves with smart, creative people. And they need to ramp up the idea flow that Wired‘s Alex Pentland mentions above in the opening quote. In our experience, too many leaders get mired in process and skip the idea flow.

While there are many creative leaders among the individuals we interviewed for Leadership Matters, there are a few we identified as “Visionary.” They are the type of leaders who not only see possibilities, but articulate them in such real and compelling terms–called “visual postcards” by the Heath brothers– that their followers see them too. In short, they are comfortable with idea flow. Pentland describes these leaders as explorers, people who search for what’s new rather than what’s best.

We begin Leadership Matters with 10 Simple Myths and end it with 10 Simple Truths. Two of the Truths are pertinent to this discussion. The first is “Get Integrated.” By that we meant integrating ideas, information and standards from diverse places to leap frog your museum forward.  We might add that while you’re leaping cross-culturally, you need to remember to pause long enough to let people–staff, trustees, volunteers–bounce ideas off one another. You can’t do that if you’re convinced a successful meeting is one where discussion is squashed in aid of moving the agenda forward. Focus discussion on a concept and idea and rescue it from minutiae.

The second simple truth is “Tap Your Entire Network,” meaning that leadership isn’t about the guy at the front of the room, but about everyone else, too. Good leadership demands collaboration, and that’s when invention and creativity happen or to quote Kleon again, “Our failure to copy our heroes is where we discover where our own thing lives.” Leaders who open themselves and their institutions  to new possibilities, discover what they have never seen before.

So going forward, how might 21st-century history museum and historic house museum leaders change? First, commit to leadership development, for everyone, from board members to shop manager to curators. Second, make space in meetings for ideas to grow. For ideas we recommend Creativity in Museum Practice’s: develop risk taking; build learning cohorts; encourage learning from failure; and last advocate for prototyping spaces. Remember, it isn’t about getting it perfect, it’s about getting it right.

How do you keep ideas moving?

Leadership Means Articulating Value (as a Group) Not Just as Individuals

download (1)Recently Slate’s photography blogger Jordan Teicher wrote a piece called “This is What a Librarian Looks Like.”  There he describes a project by photographer Kyle Cassidy who attended the American Library Association’s mid-winter meeting with the express purpose of documenting its membership. Perhaps Cassidy was hoping to unwind the cultural stereotype of Marion the Librarian with his photographs of librarians with pale orange glasses, pink hair, and skin that is many shades of brown, not just white. I suspect, were he to attend the American Alliance of Museums meeting this May, he would find his share of museum folks who look no more like Cary Grant playing David Huxley, the befuddled curator in Bringing Up Baby, than the ALA’s librarians resemble stereotypical librarians. But…I worry that museum folks might not talk about the field as a whole the way these librarians talk about libraries. Here are some quotes:

“Libraries are the center of the community, the last place to receive truly unbiased information. Libraries are the poor man’s university, the place where you can have all the knowledge of the world for free.” Edwin Maxwell, Brooklyn Public Library

or listen to this one

         “I have two things to say about libraries. The first is that libraries are a place to make it happen. And the best quote I found about libraries is actually by Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. He says, “When you’re growing up there are two institutional places that effect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.” J.P. Porcaro, New Jersey Chapter Councillor for ALA


        “Libraries are the last safe, noncommercialized space that truly welcomes everyone in the community and brings them together.” Jenny Levine, ALA Internet development specialist

There are more quotes, all of them strong, all of them interesting, and all of them about the library field as a whole. And here’s what worries us: Museums, particularly history museums, and particularly history museum leaders, need to be able to articulate value in much the same way, and we worry that in too many instances, museum leaders talk about their own institutions and not about the field or history itself. And every time that happens the public fails to see history museums in the aggregate. Museums don’t have to be the “a last safe space” or ” a community center,” but perhaps they are places where the average person learns history, not in a put-you-to-sleep-only-dead-white-men-are-important kind of way, but in a way that has meaning for an individual life. A place where learning about big concepts like democracy, individual rights, religious freedom not only makes you a better citizen, but helps you understand your life in context.

The idea of connecting past to present is the subject of numerous blogs and online conversations, most recently Frank Vagnone’s Anarchist’s Guide, but we think it has to become second nature. If you’re a history museum leader and someone asks you about your museum, how do you respond? Is your answer couched first in the particular? The Blah Blah Historical Society owns an important house with a beautiful and rare collection. Sigh. Or the Somewhere Historic House was occupied by the British during the Revolution. Snore. What is the real value here? Isn’t it that all history museums are threads in the warp and weft of a national narrative? That they seek to offer places where people can reflect and understand the concepts that make the United States unique?

If someone asked you what history museums do, what would you say? And if you’re tempted to answer anything that begins with collect, preserve and protect, take a breath and think again. Float up 30,000 feet and think about why cataloguing, conservation and exhibitions matter. Then answer the question.

From Books to Blogs: What We’re Reading

unnamedSince we advocate regularly for leaders to read widely, here’s a sampling of what’s been on our desks, bedside tables, laptops, and Kindles. In no particular order, we recommend….

Austin Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist (New York, Workman, 2012) read in combination with Creativity in Museum Practice by Linda Norris & Rainey Tisdale (Left Coast Press, 2013). If you think of Kleon’s for the individual and Norris & Tisdale’s for groups/organizations, your desk will be littered with creative possibilities.

Daniel Goleman’s Focus: The Hidden Driver of Excellence. We especially love his chapters on “How Leaders Direct Attention” and “The Leader’s Triple Focus,” where Goleman discusses among other things, the science behind leaders who inspire.

Chip Heath & Dan Heath’s Decisive: How to Make Better Choices in Life and Work. Another good read from the Heaths. Two good chapters: “Overcome Short-term Emotion” and “Avoid a Narrow Frame.”

“Netflix and Google Books Are Blurring the Line Between Past and Present,” a great article for historians, curators, and archivists.


Leap of Reason:  Managing to Outcomes In an Era of Scarcity by Mario Morino (2011)
This highly readable monograph is meant to spark the critically important conversations that every nonprofit board and leadership team should have in this new era of austerity.  Here’s a sample:

“The vast majority of nonprofits do not have the benefit of good information and tools to determine where they’re headed, chart a logical course, and course-correct when they’re off.  They’re navigating with little more than intuition and anecdotes.  Only a fortunate few have a reliable way to know whether they’re doing meaningful, measurable good for those they serve.

Nonprofits must reach clarity of what change they’re trying to create, acquire specificity on how they will accomplish that change, determine what information they need to track how they’re doing, and then use this feedback to make continuous improvements.

Technology can help.  But more important is cultivating the right organizational culture and getting the right people in the right jobs to drive toward the right outcomes.”

Best news:  the Kindle edition is FREE!

Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard by Chip and Dan Heath (2010)
This book describes how small changes can yield big results when one is tuned into the rational and emotional forces at play.  Like the Heaths other books, the lessons are delivered through engaging narratives of real-life examples.

Balancing the Mission Checkbook is the blog of the Nonprofits Assistance Fund
(, a Minnesota-based resource that offers financial management training, technical assistance, and information.

The Wisdom of Teams: Creating the High Performance Organization by Jon R. Katzenbach and Douglas K. Smith (2006)
I read the the 1992 edition a few years ago and continue to revisit it when thinking about how groups work together. Whether is a committee, a staff work group, or the board of trustees, all are teams ripe for nurture.

The blog Createquity (
Described as “a unique virtual think tank exploring the intersection of the arts with a wide range of topics including politics, economics, philanthropy, leadership, research, and urban planning, Createquity is a hub for next-generation ideas on the role of the arts in a creative society,” this is a blog I subscribe to and often dip into for interesting and eye-opening perspectives on the arts.