Cross Pollination, Passion and the Danger of Working for Nothing

imagesAbout a dozen years ago with support from the New York State Council on the Arts, we brought David Baum, author of Lightning in a Bottle to speak at a Museum Association of New York workshop for some of the state’s museum leaders. While Baum was well received–he is a former clown–no, really, he was a clown–he wasn’t the typical museum conference speaker. (Now he lectures at Wharton and guides for-profit and non-profit organizations in issues of leadership.) And he still wouldn’t be. I mean, let’s be honest, when was the last time you went to a museum conference–local, regional or national–where the featured speaker was someone from outside the field? True, lecturers from Wharton don’t come cheap, but is it really so hard to reach outside the bubble and find out what’s going on in the nation’s business schools, IT think tanks, or libraries? Wouldn’t we all be well served with a little cross pollination? Maybe then business types would stop making cracks about non-profits not needing to make money.

But lecturers and cross-pollination aren’t the whole point. Passion is. Baum has it a-plenty as do many of the business/entrepreneurial writers we’ve mentioned on these pages. It’s also what makes Baum an appealing speaker. And it is a quality many of our Leadership Matters interviewees  possess. One told us a story about taking a course at, coincidentally, Wharton. “There were only three of us from non-profits in the class,” she said, adding that there was no separation between how the for-profit and the non-profits saw leadership. She went on to explain that after she spoke one of her classmates commented, saying when he heard her speak about her work, he realized he hadn’t understood passion before.

Which brings me to confusing passion with working for minimum wage. One of the myths we found in the history museum world–although perhaps it exists in non-profits as well–is that compensation is its own reward. Recently, we read a blog called The Culture Feed where the refrain was “You love the mission so it’s worth it.” We respectfully disagree. Leadership, wherever you are in your organization, shouldn’t be martyrdom. If you love the mission but see an organization that’s essentially rudderless, don’t leverage your career on it. We doubt there are any organizations whose mission statements announce to the world they plan to at best, be mediocre or at worst dysfunctional. In fact, in the repetition of collecting, preserving and protecting that make up so many history organization mission statements most seek to do good. But a mission statement doesn’t necessarily define an organization.

Perhaps you are the lightning in the bottle, the change agent, the wild courageous visionary who will lead a poorly funded, poorly governed organization to a place of fiscal safety and creativity. But know yourself. If that’s not you, take your passion and invest elsewhere. If the leadership is superior, the mission WILL not only be worth following it will be the mantra for a sound and courageous organization.


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