Leading from Wherever You Are


In today’s workplace where the hierarchical model is dead, we are constantly told that we can lead from anywhere. I’ve written about this before, more than once actually, but it’s a concept I struggle with. And it’s certainly easier to write about than to live.

I am the curator for an independent school. For us, May 28 wasn’t just a Thursday, it was the closing day of the semester. For the sophomores class begins with a “check-in.” Today, we ended with a “check-out.” Why does that matter and what does it have to do with leadership? Well, one of the things we talked about–and we’ve been talking about on and off–is group behavior and individual responsibility within a group. This class has struggled all year with group dynamics. Things were so bad in October that we asked everyone to sit up straight, feet on the floor, hands on the table, eyes closed. Then we gave them three minutes to come up with one thing they had done to improve class and one thing they had done to hinder group dynamics. (They were cautioned ahead of time that for this to work everyone had to be willing to be vulnerable.) They were remarkably forthcoming. Of course, they are 15-year olds, but nonetheless. And no, things weren’t perfect following that “Come–to–Jesus” moment, but they were better. So today in our “check out” we looked back to gauge how far we’d come. And what came out of that discussion is what’s important to leadership for adults as well as students: that everyone in a group, whether it’s a classroom, a board meeting or a department meeting, bears responsibility for the outcome. Not everyone has to speak, but  everyone–not just the teacher, department head or director–has a responsibility to those around the table.

When you understand that you are as responsible as your director for the success of a meeting, the dynamic changes. Imagine if you feel responsible, not just to the agenda, the project, the exhibit, whatever, but to your fellow teammates, Visualize what might happen. Because it’s in those moments where I think it’s possible to lead even if you are not the person at the front of the room. I’m not saying it’s easy. It needs to be intentional, and it’s certainly better if everyone buys in, but it works.  So, if you’re not the person with “director” after her name, here are some ways leadership can happen from where you’re sitting.

  • You lead when you listen.
  • You lead when you don’t interrupt.
  • You lead when you turn the conversation to someone who hasn’t spoken or perhaps never speaks and ask what they think.
  • You lead when you sum up discussion, making sure you and your colleagues understand what’s being asked of you.
  • You lead when you model kindness and respect, and when you allow time for your colleagues to reflect on a new initiative.
  • You lead when you partner with someone who never partners.
  • You lead by raising your hand.
  • You lead when you’re not an eye-roller.
  • You lead when you’re enthusiastic about change.

So if you dwell in the middle–not the corner office–tell us how you lead. Because honestly, if 10th graders can model this kind of behavior, adults should be able to as well.

Joan Baldwin

What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?


I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

from The Summer Day, Mary Oliver, www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html

My friend and colleague Anne Ackerson and I just completed three webinars on leadership for the American Alliance of Museums. We were part of a larger teaching group that included Marsha Semmel from the Noyce Leadership Institute, Wyona Lynch-McWhite, Director of Fruitlands Museum, Nathan Richie, Director, Golden History Museums, Ann Fortescue, Director of the Springfield Art Museum, led by Greg Stevens, Assistant Director for Professional Development at AAM. If you’re interested, you can hear us by going here. The point of telling you that is only that in the final webinar, led by Anne, we talked about aligning your career goals with those of your organization. Among the many topics touched on was some lively “talk” in the webinar chat box on the question of work/life balance. Of course, the perennial question of how do you make time came up. That would be time not just for your soul, but to actually think about your career so you are shaping it rather than just letting it happen to you. These questions come trailing other questions about whether you’re in the right place, and if not, why not? But can you pause long enough to think about it?

This conversation stuck with me and when I heard Isabel Allende quote Mary Oliver’s poem (above) in a Ted Talk, I realized that we in the museum world don’t always take time to take care of ourselves. We work in a world that from the outside looks like a lot of fun, and as if there’s time to ruminate. A career path that is slow and easy. We know that’s not true. Instead, it’s a world where there is a fair amount of pressure.  It’s better if you have a graduate degree, either subject specific or in museum studies, and that costs you. Once you’re employed your starting salary may not be as much as a starting librarian or teacher, and you still have loans that haunt you. You’ll likely work hard, and depending on what department you’re in probably more than 40 hours some weeks. Your weekends may not be your own, especially if you’re in a leadership position.

And that’s where pressing the pause button comes in. The most obvious way to do it is to make the time. It seems so obvious people are often insulted when it’s suggested, but it works. More than a few of the 36 leaders we interviewed in Leadership Matters blocked out time on their calendars simply for themselves. And they did it weeks and months in advance. Those pause points included time with family, friends, mentors, career coaches, and exercise classes. The idea is that if an appointment is scheduled, you’re far less likely to let a meeting run over or stay at the office “just to finish this one thing.” We’ve all done it. And every time we do it, we kick our own self-care down the road. If you factor in caring for others–whether children or aging parents or time spent with a partner–self-care, even something as mundane as updating a Linkedin page– becomes close to impossible.

Why does any of this matter? Haven’t leaders since the dawn of time been the ones who worried about whether the weapons were sharp, the chariots tuned up, and the horses well fed NOT whether they were really motivated for battle? Yes. Is that healthy? Probably not. To be the best you can be, you need to understand yourself, know your strengths and weaknesses and the situations where you perform the best. You can’t do that unless you spend time reflecting–time only or mostly with yourself. So here’s some Leadership Matters advice from Anne & me for taking care of yourself:

  • Keep an accomplishment jar (that’s a picture of Anne’s jar up top). Over the course of the year write your accomplishments, big or small, on slips of paper and put them in a jar. Read them on New Year’s Day.
  • Give yourself some quiet time, whether a walk once or twice a week, meditation, worship. You pick.
  • Read outside your field!
  • Visit Roadtrip Nation and figure out your road map or MindTools to discover a decision-making tool that will help you focus your career direction.
  • Update your Linkedin page especially the summary statement. Make it succinct and make it great. Even if only strangers read it, you’ve done it. You’ve figured out where you are now–the first step toward where you might go.
  • Be open to opportunities outside of work.
  • Don’t let your default setting be “I’m too busy or too tired.”
  • Recognize a job that’s killing your spirit. If you can’t leave the job, reach outside of work to make yourself happier. If you can’t leave the town you’re in, define your skill set and look outside the field.
  • Don’t be like Marley’s Ghost. Work at moving forward not dragging the past behind you.

How do you press the pause bottom? Share them with us here.

Joan Baldwin

Humility and Leadership


Last week my colleague and collaborator, Anne Ackerson, wrote a piece on her blog, Leading By Design, about the three most important qualifications for a nonprofit executive. The piece grew out of an assignment Anne gave her American Association for State & Local History online students. This is a class on leadership and in a nutshell students were asked to list their three most important qualifications for leadership. So guess what noun made the list? Yep, humility.

I know little about Anne’s students, but their choice of humility has stayed with me. It’s interesting that in the tangle of nouns and adjectives currently associated with leadership–words like courage, humor, integrity and vision–humility is rarely in the top five. And yet, it’s so obviously a good thing.

Its roots are in the word humble from the Latin humilis, which in turn comes from humus or ground. It’s sort of the opposite of the boss you always hated who was full of bluster and brashness, signifying nothing. And even though it’s nowhere in the definition, humility speaks to me of quiet, of a less-is-more style of leadership where a leader believes the organization and its needs trump her particular glory.

But don’t think humble leaders are just polite people. They may have manners, and they may be warm and friendly, but that’s not what defines their humility. And can it be learned? Well, we hope so. Here are Leadership Matters’ humility prompts: First, keep learning: You may be smart, but don’t be a know it all. Realizing you’re not the smartest person in the room keeps you humble. Don’t drink the success Kool aid: Just because you got the big job, doesn’t mean you’re any smarter, just that you were a good communicator and you were lucky. Remember there’s always a bigger fish: Know and understand your competition, personally and organizationally. That breeds humility as well. Embrace the two-percent: What does that mean? It means that 98-percent of our ideas are mediocre, but the remaining two percent might be genius. Take that two-percent and prototype like a mad woman especially if it’s not your idea. Show your staff how much their imagination matters. Remember to be first as in learn first, praise first, fail first, prototype first–you get the idea.

So, think about it. Is humility in your toolbox? Does it come to work and return home with you? Make sure it’s there. It will keep you humble and make you a better leader.

Because we’re always asking you to read across the “curriculum;” to get out of your bubble and see the connections and synchronicity in things, here are some things to listen to. In the first one–an interview with the Right Reverend Gary Hall on the Pew’s new research on Christianity in America, pay particular attention to his answer to the second question. Remind you of another field you know? And with the second one, trust is the foundation of all human relationships. You cannot lead without trust. Listen and learn.

Share your thoughts.

Joan Baldwin

What Makes a Good Leader

Retired General Stanley McCrystal talks agility, speed, and trusting your team.



Woman in Circle

This week I have been thinking a lot about gender and leadership. The school where I work is involved in a search, and never in its 125-year history has it had a female head. This is not a surprise since for 85 of those years it was an all male institution; but, after 40 years of co-education people are starting to ask if it isn’t time.  Although nothing is as simple as casual conversations with colleagues sometimes make things sound, recently there are hints of “Well, if we only had a woman leader, life would be good.” I am not convinced even though I am passionate about women as leaders in museums as well as schools. Why? Because independent schools like museums sometimes promote people without the training to do justice to the position. And just because the “soft skills” are often co-joined with the double X chromosome, does not mean women are all fabulous, dynamic leaders. Nonetheless, it would be comforting to know the search is equitable: that both genders are interviewed, and that the finalists are finalists because of their core values not the given attributes they cannot change.

I’d like to pause a moment here and congratulate the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) for its 2013 report “The Gender Gap in Art Museum Directorships.” Now that we are well and truly into research for our book Women+Museums, I can say with some certainty that data about gender and leadership in the museum field is scarce. Actually, data about personnel issues is scarce. So we should be doubly grateful to AAMD for not only making the data public, but taking the time to highlight an issue that’s more or less hiding in plain sight. Selfishly, I might also wish that AASLH and AAM would join forces to do something more comprehensive so we could have a sense of women’s leadership across all sectors of the museum world. Until that happens we have AAMD and data based on a survey of 211 institutions.

Here’s what’s odd though—unless you’ve been in Kimmie Schmidt’s bunker–you know that women hold their own at least in terms of directorships among those AAMD organizations until you get to the ones with the really mammoth operating budgets. Those positions are all held by men. So there’s that issue. Are we to believe that the richer and better endowed an art museum is, the more hierarchical and traditional it is? Are those institutions where power is just traditionally a male thing and there’s no changing that? Is it because when that type of museum begins a search it looks to its peer institutions–meaning museums in the $15 million pool and up– for leaders and since they’re almost exclusively men, it’s sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy?

Then there is the truly awful statistic of female director’s salaries versus male director’s salaries. In its 2012 salary report AAM reported that 52.7 percent of museum directors were female, but they earned only 78-percent of men’s salaries. AAMD breaks its data down into finer increments leaving us with the depressing fact that women who actually move into a $15-million annual budget museum, make even less than male directors, earning 71 cents on the dollar. Of course, this shouldn’t shock us since many women in museums, non-profits, and business make roughly 78 cents to a man’s dollar.

Will this change? Not unless we all recognize it as a problem. So…if you’re applying for jobs, whether it’s your first or your fifth and you’re female, know how much it costs to live where you are applying and know how much you’re worth. Don’t take the first offer. If it’s not enough to live on, say so. And if you’re a director or a board hiring a director, don’t offer a woman less than a man unless she’s significantly less experienced and then ask yourself why you’re doing that. Hire the best person and pay them what they’re worth.

Are you a woman who’s negotiated for salary recently? Do you know if you’re getting equitably paid? Share your thoughts here at Leadership Matters.


Joan Baldwin

AAM Take-aways on Leadership and Women+Museums

Us with Jessica Ferey

We returned from three days at AAM, where we taught in a Getty Foundation funded program on leadership, exhausted, energized, and full of ideas. In no particular order, here are some thoughts:

  • We were part of a seven-person team working with 48 museum leaders from around the globe. We learned as much as we taught. We were humbled by the kindness, courtesy and creativity of our students, many of whom were learning in a second language.
  • We realized that while many issues of leadership are global–there are hierarchical institutions everywhere–leadership is lonely–finding a first job takes courage–changing jobs takes more courage—we also understood how independent some American employees are, whether in museum land or elsewhere, and how Americans sometimes value the individual over the collective.
  • Marsha Semmel spoke to the group about the skills necessary for 21st century leadership. We were struck by how even Millennials find themselves awash in email, social media, apps, voice mail, and how moving quickly while constantly sifting and sorting is one of the great adaptive skills of the 21st century.
  • Anne did a brilliant mini-workshop on career planning, which brought home to us, yet again, how many people let their careers happen to them rather than working to shape them. If you are interested in this, please check out Michele Martin’s great career blog, The Bamboo Project.
  • I did a session on Self-Awareness. Here we were all reminded how few of us take the time to “check-in;” to acknowledge how we feel or felt in a given workplace situation and to use that information as we go forward interacting with colleagues, donors, trustees and our communities. Or as Marsha Semmel put it in a Gertrude Stein-like moment: Communication, communication, communication.
  • Although the Getty program left little time for us to attend many AAM sessions, we were heartened by the sessions dealing with workplace issues–Crucial Conversations–as an example and the rogue session on Museum Labor Practices held at the Ger Art Gallery.
  • One session we did attend was Nina Simon’s on Building Community. Even when what Nina’s doing doesn’t directly apply to our own lives, her generosity and her singular way of approaching a life in the museum world, makes hearing her a pleasure.
  • Our focus group meetings with women for our new book, Women+Museums, were informative as well. A big shout out to everyone who made the time to sit and talk to us. Thank you! It was, however, alarming to think that hostility, groping and inappropriate remarks continue to plague women in museums, even in sites that have the resources to know and understand the law. And while museums are likely not alone in grappling with this problem–the idea of using gender–specifically young women–to attract older, male donors leaves us with a bad taste in our mouths.

By the way, the photo accompanying this post is of us with Jessica Ferey, the mastermind behind Equalarty, her blog about gender equality and arts leadership.  We met up Jessica at AAM and had a great time talking about our projects and her career.

If you attended an AAM session on leadership, workplace behavior or gender-related issues, please tell us about it.

’til next time,

Joan Baldwin

Risky Business

Sally Wagner   Our guest blogger:  Sally Roesch Wagner, Ph.D.

When our museum decided to take on the issue of reproductive rights as our first public dialogue, some colleagues shook their heads in disbelief. “That topic is way too risky,” they said, “We could never do it.”

For us at the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation, the decision was a no-brainer.  It followed logically from our mission and the development of the museum.

We were acquiring the home of a radical (meaning getting to the root cause of oppression) human rights activist, who considered it “impudent questions” when newspaper reporters asked about her husband and her family, her personal life.  “This is my work,” Gage responded.  Following her lead, instead of restoring a dining room, kitchen and bedrooms, we created a historic home dedicated to her work.  Each room in the house contains, not period furnishings but one of her social justice issues: women’s rights (she was the third member of the National Woman Suffrage Association leadership triumvirate with Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton); African-American rights (she offered her home as a station on the Underground Railroad and exposed sex trafficking in the U.S.) and Religious Freedom (she was written out of history for her uncompromising stand against religious orthodoxy and their attempt to destroy the wall of separation between church and state.)  The first room is the Haudenosaunee, symbolizing the influence this egalitarian society had on her vision of transformation.  The only room resembling its original furnishings is the Oz Parlor, where Oz author L. Frank Baum married Gage’s youngest daughter Maud, now rehabilitated to match the photo Baum took of the room when they lived in the house during 1887.

The most important lesson of her life, Gage said, was ‘‘to think for myself.’’ Accept no idea, she counseled, unless you have thought it through, not because it’s popularly accepted or an authority figure has told you to believe it. Visitors are invited to sit on the furniture, examine the artifacts, take photos and write on the walls – all “no’s” in a traditional museum. They are, however, asked to abide by two rules:  ‘‘Check your dogma at the door’’ and ‘‘Think for yourself.’’             While Gage’s challenging ideas fill the walls of each room, her practice required that we set up a process for people to share their divergent views with each other in a respectful manner.  With the assistance of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience (ICSC), we came up with a dialogue process. After conducting test dialogues on economic justice, marriage equality and reproductive rights (all Gage issues) the board unanimously chose to lead with “Who Chooses Whether or not a Woman Births?”  Discussing whether the topic was too controversial, one board member suggested, ‘‘let’s start with the toughest issue. After that, everything will be easy.’’ With a grant from the ICSC, we hired a trainer who led a group of volunteers through a year of preparation: developing educational materials for participants, learning to facilitate, creating an Arc of Dialogue and testing the four-session dialogue.

The results were overwhelmingly positive. Every participant wanted to continue the dialogue; Congress should use this process to resolve their differences, they suggested. The groups came together as the sharing of their personal experiences trumped their differences.

Far from hurting us, this controversial dialogue actually strengthened the Gage Foundation, bringing new allies, credibility among supporters, and additional funding to expand the program. While others described us as a museum with “guts”, we saw ourselves as promoting the foundation of democracy, an informed citizenry engaging each other on the pressing issues of the day.

Did we take a risk?  My friend/colleague Mark Nerenhausen, founding director and professor of practice of the Janklow Arts Leadership Program at Syracuse University, believes that, in fact, we did the opposite. Community dialogues on reproductive justice were a conservative move on our part, as they emerged organically and logically as we proceeded in the direction that we were moving. Risk-taking would be to move backward, to become one more “dusty museum”.  As visitors increasingly demand interactive and relevant programming of substance, perhaps risk-taking is the new playing it safe.

Sally Roesch Wagner is the founding director of the Matilda Joslyn Gage Foundation. She received the Katherine Coffey Award from the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums for outstanding service to museology in 2012.  This guest blog is adapted from “Safe Containers for Dangerous Memories”, an article she co-authored with Sarah Pharaon, Barbara Lau, and Marı´a Jose´  Bolan˜ a Caballero, which will appear in the upcoming issue of The Public Historian.


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