Why is Self-Awareness Important to Museum Leaders?

know yourselfWell, truth be told, self-awareness should be important to all leaders, whether they serve in the museum world, the non-profit world or business. Why? On the face of it, leadership may seem like it’s about leaders knowing their organizations, and that’s true, but successful leaders also spend time studying themselves. This isn’t it’s-all-about-me narcissism, instead it’s an understanding of the minute calibrations that individuals and groups must make as they work together.

Take a leader who has no sense of who she is. Staff meetings are sometimes filled with socially awkward silence; team members react slowly or badly because information is delivered out of context or worse in such obscure, oblique ways that staff fail to grasp important ideas; even compliments to staff are stilted because it’s clear the director has no earthly idea what her staff actually does. A self-aware leader might do any one of those things once, but they’re naturally programmed to replay, to adjust, and to calibrate.

Not everyone understands this from the beginning. Some are lucky enough to work for organizations that encourage them to participate in leadership training like AASLH’s Developing History Leaders@SHA. Others take part in leadership courses in MBA programs or with the Chamber of Commerce. Some hire personal coaches. But all learn a rhythm that includes reflection, self-discovery, and reevaluation–even reinvention. It’s a pattern that once it’s practiced personally also works organizationally. Self aware leaders constantly adjust. They replay interactions, making leadership a journey that involves experimentation, evaluation, and recalibration. It’s a process many find humbling precisely because it’s not about you; it’s about you as part of a whole.

Often self-aware leaders are also servant leaders. They will tell you they “serve” the organizations they work for. Their sense of purpose overshadows ego and personal gain or as one of the leaders we interviewed put it, “Your position is not you.” Self-aware leaders are also folks who recognize that influence works better than control. They may be workaholics, but they hold their staffs equally accountable, also. Ceding responsibility recognizes that you can control who you hire, but not their work pace or their personality.

Last, self-aware leaders aren’t Chatty Cathy’s. They don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, they are listeners. Listening–really listening as opposed to waiting for a chance to talk– provides opportunities for change and that’s what self-aware leaders are good at. As Ted Bosley, director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, California, one of the self-aware leaders interviewed for Leadership Matters put it: “You’re so much more likely to move a project forward when you listen with respect and compassion. You need to humble yourself and listen.”

Joan Baldwin

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