Putting Leadership at the Top of the List

Recently exhibit designer Paul Orselli posed a question on the American Alliance of Museum’s LinkedIn Group, asking “What’s Your Best Real-World Museum Advice?” Thirteen people responded and undoubtedly countless more read and thought about the question, before Daniel Spock of the Minnesota Historical Society weighed in with this comment:

“Find mentors you can respect and learn as much as you can from them. Do a lot of listening at first. Explore your zone of discomfort instead of hiding from it; it’s trying to tell you that you are about to grow. Don’t be too picky about your role at first; it is highly unlikely that the perfect fit will happen straight out of the gate. Your education has just begun. Network like crazy, inside and outside of your institution; get to know your field, the people in it and the community you serve. Don’t be too shy about approaching people. Make yourself essential. Identify what needs doing and relieve the burdens of the people around you. Be prepared to serve a long apprenticeship and treat this as a golden opportunity, not a source of resentment. Do it for love, not money. Don’t be too hard on yourself or the people around you. Look for what’s great in each of your team mates, let your appreciation show and celebrate accomplishments big and small. Make sure to get some rest. Look for inspiration beyond the limits of your career.”

In a perfect world we would like to see a discussion of leadership, meaning how people engage one another in a common task, whether from the corner office or anywhere else in a museum, move to the top of any museum list of real world advice. The qualities Spock suggests are important are also qualities that emerged in interviews for our book, Leadership Matters. There we discovered that successful leaders possess four characteristics: they are self-aware, authentic, courageous, and visionary, characteristics that don’t  just show up at work. Instead, the leaders we interviewed integrate work, home, the wider community, and their private lives. We believe that until the history museum field invests in leadership the way it has invested in programming and collections care, the field will continue to struggle.


2 Comments on “Putting Leadership at the Top of the List”

  1. Greg Jackson says:

    You note that until leadership is addressed “the field will continue to struggle.” I’m wondering exactly which “field” you are referring to (museum work in general, museum directors, etc?) and exactly how you believe they are struggling. I’m not disagreeing, just seeking some clarity on the statement. I hope to read your book – I’ve been doing a lot of self-study on leadership and even taking a couple courses on psychology and emotional intelligence in leadership. I agree that this is an area left out of almost all professions outside of business and management.

    • Greg –

      Many thanks for your questions. We use a broad definition of the word “field” in the book — to us it includes the institutions and the people who work in them and the academic and professional training programs — the whole ball of wax. Why? Because we see the need for leadership training and development as a field-wide issue requiring a field-wide response.

      The struggle is pervasive: we see far too many history-based institutions operating at the margins of their communities, off the radar of most economic development activity, out of the conversations regarding mainstream education initiatives, bypassed in the tourism arena. And, of course, there is the constant issue of resources — most history-based institutions compete for very small slices of a pretty small cultural/heritage funding pie. We also see a pernicious mindset of scarcity, due in part to lack of resources, that colors the willingness museum leaders to initiate/pursue collaboration, share resources, and/or foster new alliances across traditional and nontraditional landscapes.

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