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.

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2 Comments on “Leadership First”

  1. Trevor Jones says:

    I’m wondering if our lack of overall leadership exists in part because the stakes are so low. Although many history museums have suffered budget cuts over the last few years, few have disappeared entirely. Poor leadership rarely leads to the loss of the business or the firing of the leader and thus good leadership is undervalued. If history museums can be rudderless and irrelevant but yet survive, where’s the inspiration to create dynamic lasting change?

    • Trevor–
      A really thoughtful comment, one that’s got us thinking. No doubt, there are many history museums that were they businesses, would have long since closed there doors the victim of healthy competition from more entrepreneurial neighbors. Yet, as you point out, they hang on. Clearly this is not the case for art museums. Is it the people attracted to positions at the trustee level? Is it something as yet unidentified in the overall culture that allows for the status quo to be enough? Is it a culture that says it’s enough to preserve, care for and interpret, and that’s enough. Much to think about.


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