When the Leadership Isn’t Good

frustration aheadThere’s a presumption in these blog posts that most museums leaders are good at what they do.  Or at least that they strive for something beyond mediocrity and plain vanilla management. And that their employees do, too. We’ve met enough really great leaders to know that not everyone in museum land is struggling with bad leadership. But it’s probably too much of a Kumbaya moment to believe everyone out there is blissful, so we’re going to use this post to try and think about what to do in the case of failed leadership.

One of the most problematic things about working for or with a poor leader is that it’s not always something you can talk about objectively or even constructively. Friends are sympathetic to a point. Spouses, partners and significant others take your side and feel angry for you. Therapy’s not for everyone. Then there’s quitting. That’s obviously a solution, but it’s often not the easiest. So here, in no particular order, are some thoughts about being an employee when the leadership is weak:

  • Make sure you know what it is you’re supposed to do. Sounds simple, but it’s amazing how many organizations haven’t updated their job descriptions. Is your skill set lightyears from your job description? Making sure the two are in synch may change expectations–yours or your CEO’s.
  • Take care of yourself. Check in. Don’t allow yourself to be used, made uncomfortable or insulted. Ignorance is not an excuse.
  • Take ownership for what you can control. If your institution allows one professional development opportunity a year, make sure it serves your needs. If you are allowed to take an online course at work, make sure it builds your resume, not just the organization’s.
  • If things are uncomfortable, write it down. Know when the dumb jokes started, when you stopped being part of senior leadership team or how long it’s been since you had an employment review. Even in the digital age, it’s not a bad thing to keep a work journal in pen in a spiral bound notebook.
  • Be the leader your boss/department head or director isn’t. That doesn’t mean trying to take their job, it means taking the high road, being kind, being collegial, pulling the team together even when bad management makes everyone feel unsafe.
  • Network! Obviously the lack of leadership at your own institution is a drag, but it isn’t the end of your career. Find your role models elsewhere, whether they’re digital or colleagues you meet locally or regionally. And if there isn’t an organization, call up six people who do your job in your city, town or state, and ask them for an after-work drink or an early morning latte.
  • Learn to speak for yourself. That’s not the same as speaking about yourself, but look for openings to tout your own successes.
  • Know when to leave. Sometimes we are so inured to bad management that we allow inertia to hold us in place. Yes, there are a million complications from significant others to aging parents to college tuitions to keep us in place, but if you’re going to stay, understand why and give yourself a time limit or a goal–I’ll stay ’til my car is paid off, my partner finishes graduate school, my child finishes eighth grade.

So we’re guessing not all of you out there in museum land are blissful. Tell us how you manage.

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5 Comments on “When the Leadership Isn’t Good”

  1. Carla says:

    Thank you for this posting. There is so much out there about how to be a good leader but little on how to handle the not so good.

  2. Terri says:

    Anne, THANK YOU for this post. I struggled with a position with poorly structured leadership (all chiefs, no indians) AND poor leaders for years. After my name was forged by another department head to further their agenda and they were not reprimanded, I wrapped up as many loose ends as I could for 30 days and gave 3 weeks notice. Sometimes it takes a big hit to the head for ‘pleaser-types’ like myself to really make us realize ruining our reputation is not worth a paycheck.

  3. jessicabrunecky says:

    Really smart post, thanks for sharing. I recently decoupled from a toxic boss and I found myself utilizing many of these tips to maintain my own sanity and sense of self worth. Some are easier than others to implement and knowing when to leave might be the most difficult but, in my experience, the most important.

  4. rjsmith2 says:

    I particularly appreciate the tips to “take care of yourself”, and network, and knowing when to leave. Those will all set you up for success later on.

  5. Thanks to everyone for your candid comments. We appreciate them.

    After nearly a dozen years, a colleague of ours left the small museum where she had been director because of spreading toxicity with her board leadership. She moved to a staff position in an allied nonprofit, where she’ll be expanding and honing her development skills. Two take-aways here: 1) broken board leadership is equally harmful as broken staff leadership; and 2) you may need to move out of your chosen field in order to leave your organization, but do so in a smart way — one where you’ll be adding to your skill set in key ways. It should make jumping back into your field at a later date easier.


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