What Happens to Leadership When There’s a Vacuum At the Top?

pull together

How many of us have found ourselves in an organization, program or department with a leadership vacuum? Likely more than a few. The reasons may be obvious: Your board or director is in a search because a position is open. As distressing as that can be–and with good planning it doesn’t have to be–you know the vacuum is finite. You will participate in interviews, the search committee will do its work, the position will be filled.

But what happens if the position is filled and the replacement is worse than having an empty office? What happens when the candidate leaves all her sparkle in the interview room and can’t muster a shred of enthusiasm for the actual day-to-day life of your organization? Or worse, her only interest appears to be in advancing her career–the panel she’s on at a national meeting, the article she’s writing or worse the renovation project she’s undertaking without doing her homework on the funders?

Clearly you have a couple of options: You can be terminally cranky, retreat to your office, offering minimal help to your colleagues while you wait for the Kuerig to hiss to a stop. We don’t recommend this unless you are also looking for another job, and potentially seeing a therapist to deal with your anger issues. Another choice might be to try to help your new director or department head. This may work if she has a fraction of self-awareness and is simply overwhelmed by the newness of it all. Be aware though that being Edgar Bergen to her Charlie McCarthy helps her not necessarily the organization. When she finds her feet, you may find yourself without a role. There is a third option, though. You can work to help your museum or your department. Where do your talents and skills meet the unfinished projects? If you step in for the good of the organization as opposed to some Mean Girls form of personal gain, you will likely, to use a sports analogy, push the ball up the field. That transforms leadership into a process that benefits the museum rather than a cult of personality.

In John Maxwell’s book The 360-Degree Leader, he quotes a lovely little sign from a local business that says, “The 57 Rules to Deliver the Goods.” Rule one is: “Deliver the goods.” Rule two is: “The other 56 rules don’t matter.” No, museums don’t manufacture things, but they are responsible to a public. They manufacture ideas, offer experience, programs, chances for creativity and contemplation. That’s the goods. A leader who has awkward social skills, who doesn’t listen, who says her door is open and then stubbornly refuses to change her mind, isn’t going to change. At least not because her staff wants her to. But the work goes on. If you see a project languishing, step up and deliver the goods. Even if your director doesn’t acknowledge what you’ve done in a way that satisfies, put it on your resume, add it to your list of projects on LinkedIn, and contemplate the future. Hopefully, to quote John Maxwell again, you are someone who’s growth oriented not goal oriented. You realize that life is a process of growth, reflection and experimentation, not a series of tick boxes to check off. That’s what you want for your museum and for your life.

So for all of you rowing in the shell with no coxswain, row with your teammates not against them, row as hard as you can, and know where the finish line is.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

Women+Museums: The Survey — An Update + An Invitation


A big thank you to all 300 plus of you who’ve filled out the survey, either the short or the long version. If you haven’t done so, please click on the Women+Museums tab above and you’ll be directed to the survey. If you think it’s not for you, it is. It’s for men and women, longtime museum employees, museum graduate students, consultants, free lancers, board members and volunteers. Answer the questions that apply to you and then move on. We’d rather have you answer some of the questions then not hear from you at all. So go forth and answer. We’re anxious to hear your thoughts on gender.

Do Museum Leaders Need to Be Visionaries?



And the answer is…yes, of course! All leaders need to be visionaries, whether they are soft ball team captains, PTO presidents or fortune 500 CEOs. Are today’s museum leaders visionaries? If the results from our interviews for Leadership Matters hold true for a larger cohort, yes, although there are few among us for whom being visionary is a predominant quality.

That said, it’s almost impossible to be a leader without some sense of what an organization can be and what impact it might have. Organizational vision is about possibilities; it’s not about maintaining the status quo. Who gets up in the morning and says, “I hope I’m mediocre today” ? We hope that’s not you, but if your idea of leadership is maintenance, doing it as you’ve always done, then the world of visionary leadership probably isn’t for you.

One quality visionaries leaders possess is they create pictures that capture the future. It is those pictures that help a staff or a board see why a project matters, and it’s a critical step in advancing vision. We might add that if you as a leader can’t paint that picture, you probably have no business asking your colleagues to jump on the bus with you. And you can’t blame them, they want to know where they’re going. But be careful. There is a major difference between being a visionary and being a dreamer. Dreamers talk. They may paint great pictures, but there is no follow through, just more dreams. It’s hard to respect a leader who can’t articulate her vision or explain the steps it might take to get there. Again, if the leader hasn’t thought the process through, she has no business asking her staff to join her.

True visionaries are often path breakers and founders. They set an organization in motion with their imagination and energy and make it sustainable through careful planning. Visionaries are also change agents. They are the leaders boards hire when institutions need an about face, a shaking up, a new look.  They understand change can be hard, but they see it as an opportunity. They are also experimenters, entrepreneurs and innovators. They think across the disciplines and weave strands from one idea with another to create new ways of approaching problems.

Few of us will be asked to be a change agent and fewer still will have the opportunity to start a museum, but here’s our advice for all of you: Use your creativity. You are not just a manager making sure the folks in the cubicles are slogging through their to-do lists. You work in a museum. Every day you ask the public to look, to see, to make the leap from artifact or painting to idea. Use that. Remember your audience. Throw off the hidebound constraints of museum authority. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes or, better yet, ask them what they think. If it’s been years since you interacted with visitors, change that. In fact, it’s change that keeps us from stagnating, so embrace it. And for goodness sakes, aim for something beyond mediocrity. You, your organization and the field will be well served.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

Women+Museums: The Survey

SurveyRemember, we said we were writing a new book? If not, check out the tab up top that says Women+Museums. Well, we’re doing a survey to help with the research. This is not meant to be a statistically significant survey.  It’s a beginning scan, an opportunity to help us see gender patterns in the museum workplace and understand what’s important to men and women.  We hope it will help to raise the bar and prevent gender from being an obstacle.

Please consider taking one of the surveys and please encourage your colleagues to do so, too.  We welcome input from men as well as women.

The short survey should take about 30 minutes depending on your desire to answer open-ended questions.  If you are a museum employee, please know there are questions about the gender make-up of your institution’s board.

The long survey could take as long as an hour, again depending on your desire to answer open-ended questions.  You’ll need to have at hand the same board information as for the short survey, if it is available to you.

The links for both surveys are below. Enjoy!

Survey short form:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/D6YKQ8D

Survey long form:  https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/D5T8HMG

We are indebted to our colleagues and friends Susie Wilkening and Conny
Graft for their generous help with the preparation of these surveys.


Is It Different for Women in Museums?

tour guide

Suddenly it’s February already.  It’s still snowing, and the sky is still grey so maybe that ridiculous rodent was correct and there is a lot more winter to come.

Last month we promised that we’d write monthly updates on our book project Women+Museums. So one month in, with an outline drafted, a set of focus groups under our belt, a survey almost ready to launch, it’s time to talk about Women+Museums again. We should start by thanking all of you who’ve found us here or through the AASLH and AAM discussion groups on Linkedin and shared thoughtful comments, questions, and suggestions as this project gets underway.

Next we have some questions, but before that we’d like to share a story. In January we conducted two simultaneous focus groups in Connecticut for about 30 women ranging in age from 22 to early 70s, all of whom work at history or cultural heritage organizations. One of the groups also included one warm, intelligent man who works for the State of Connecticut. That’s important to the story because afterwards he buttonholed us to ask whether some of the anger and stories were a) a little overwrought and b) things of the past. Our response was to tell him a story from the other focus group where a visitor to a museum director’s office had managed to insult a young female intern’s gender and race in two sentences. The incident took place in 2014. Our listener looked horrified. We suggested that type of speech was not tolerated in his work place. At a minimum, anyone making antagonistic remarks about someone’s gender or race in a state office might expect to be written up, and continued behavior like that might result in firing. In the end he agreed that his workplace, in requiring a code of behavior, protects its employees from the worst of gender and in this case racial discrimination. But what about the thousands of small history and cultural heritage sites throughout the United States? Is their treatment of female employees dependent on the actions of the best of their board members?  In 2015 is gender discrimination in museums any worse than in their non-profit cousins? How many of your organizations have personnel policies or HR committees on your boards? If you’re a graduate student reading this, do you know what questions can and can’t be asked at an interview?

These are some of the questions we’re trying to tease out of a field that’s often acted as if leadership were some kind of lucky happenstance like good weather or, in another scenario, that “good” leaders were good fund raisers, relieving a board of some of its responsibilities. We are not interested in a them vs. us scenario. We’ve had great female bosses and board members and we’ve had dismal ones. But just as we want this field to treasure leadership the same way it treasures beautiful storage facilities or participatory programming, we also want to encourage equitable leadership between men and women and where success is not gender based.

As always, share your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson


Courageous Leadership Matters

jumping fish

When we think of courageous leaders we usually conjure up images of battle-hardened military officers, Ebola-fighting doctors and nurses, or athletes overcoming injuries to reach the finish line.  It’s hard to apply those same definitions of courage to the museum environment or any nonprofit cultural institution.  Rightly so, most museum curators will never be called upon (we hope) to drag collections from burning buildings, directors won’t need to make split-second decisions that cost their museum the equivalent of the Super Bowl, and nonprofit board presidents won’t be leading protests in the streets calling for more equitable public funding of arts and culture (although that would be kind of cool).

There’s a different kind of courage that must be summoned in the course of museum work.  As Joan Baldwin and I write in Leadership Matters, this kind of courage is about doing the right thing.  And it’s about doing it every day – in small, quiet ways and in bigger, more visible ones.  Courageous museum leaders hold deep convictions about the nature and impact of their work.  They know when to pull back, but they also champion barrier-breaking thinking and programming.  Courage allows leaders to give staff the authority and responsibility they need to flourish both personally and professionally.

In her 2013 Forbes article, Susan Tardanico wrote, “Demonstrating leadership courage – whether it’s having an uncomfortable conversation, communicating when you don’t have all the answers, or making a decision to move ahead on a new project – can be scary. Yet it’s precisely the kind of behavior that fosters trust and sets a crucial example for others to follow at a time when they’d rather hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.”

Tardanico offers up ten traits of the courageous leader:  confront reality head-on; seek feedback and listen; say what needs to be said; encourage push-back; take action on performance issues; communicate openly and frequently; lead change; make decisions and move forward; give credit to others; and hold people (and yourself) accountable.

The leaders we chose to highlight in the courageous section of Leadership Matters all push the boundaries of what history museum can and should be.  They are independent seekers and thinkers, and straight-talking influencers.  They embrace many, if not all, of Tardanico’s traits.

How will you be courageous today?

Anne W. Ackerson

Why is Self-Awareness Important to Museum Leaders?

know yourselfWell, truth be told, self-awareness should be important to all leaders, whether they serve in the museum world, the non-profit world or business. Why? On the face of it, leadership may seem like it’s about leaders knowing their organizations, and that’s true, but successful leaders also spend time studying themselves. This isn’t it’s-all-about-me narcissism, instead it’s an understanding of the minute calibrations that individuals and groups must make as they work together.

Take a leader who has no sense of who she is. Staff meetings are sometimes filled with socially awkward silence; team members react slowly or badly because information is delivered out of context or worse in such obscure, oblique ways that staff fail to grasp important ideas; even compliments to staff are stilted because it’s clear the director has no earthly idea what her staff actually does. A self-aware leader might do any one of those things once, but they’re naturally programmed to replay, to adjust, and to calibrate.

Not everyone understands this from the beginning. Some are lucky enough to work for organizations that encourage them to participate in leadership training like AASLH’s Developing History Leaders@SHA. Others take part in leadership courses in MBA programs or with the Chamber of Commerce. Some hire personal coaches. But all learn a rhythm that includes reflection, self-discovery, and reevaluation–even reinvention. It’s a pattern that once it’s practiced personally also works organizationally. Self aware leaders constantly adjust. They replay interactions, making leadership a journey that involves experimentation, evaluation, and recalibration. It’s a process many find humbling precisely because it’s not about you; it’s about you as part of a whole.

Often self-aware leaders are also servant leaders. They will tell you they “serve” the organizations they work for. Their sense of purpose overshadows ego and personal gain or as one of the leaders we interviewed put it, “Your position is not you.” Self-aware leaders are also folks who recognize that influence works better than control. They may be workaholics, but they hold their staffs equally accountable, also. Ceding responsibility recognizes that you can control who you hire, but not their work pace or their personality.

Last, self-aware leaders aren’t Chatty Cathy’s. They don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, they are listeners. Listening–really listening as opposed to waiting for a chance to talk– provides opportunities for change and that’s what self-aware leaders are good at. As Ted Bosley, director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, California, one of the self-aware leaders interviewed for Leadership Matters put it: “You’re so much more likely to move a project forward when you listen with respect and compassion. You need to humble yourself and listen.”

Joan Baldwin