Courageous Leadership Matters

jumping fish

When we think of courageous leaders we usually conjure up images of battle-hardened military officers, Ebola-fighting doctors and nurses, or athletes overcoming injuries to reach the finish line.  It’s hard to apply those same definitions of courage to the museum environment or any nonprofit cultural institution.  Rightly so, most museum curators will never be called upon (we hope) to drag collections from burning buildings, directors won’t need to make split-second decisions that cost their museum the equivalent of the Super Bowl, and nonprofit board presidents won’t be leading protests in the streets calling for more equitable public funding of arts and culture (although that would be kind of cool).

There’s a different kind of courage that must be summoned in the course of museum work.  As Joan Baldwin and I write in Leadership Matters, this kind of courage is about doing the right thing.  And it’s about doing it every day – in small, quiet ways and in bigger, more visible ones.  Courageous museum leaders hold deep convictions about the nature and impact of their work.  They know when to pull back, but they also champion barrier-breaking thinking and programming.  Courage allows leaders to give staff the authority and responsibility they need to flourish both personally and professionally.

In her 2013 Forbes article, Susan Tardanico wrote, “Demonstrating leadership courage – whether it’s having an uncomfortable conversation, communicating when you don’t have all the answers, or making a decision to move ahead on a new project – can be scary. Yet it’s precisely the kind of behavior that fosters trust and sets a crucial example for others to follow at a time when they’d rather hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.”

Tardanico offers up ten traits of the courageous leader:  confront reality head-on; seek feedback and listen; say what needs to be said; encourage push-back; take action on performance issues; communicate openly and frequently; lead change; make decisions and move forward; give credit to others; and hold people (and yourself) accountable.

The leaders we chose to highlight in the courageous section of Leadership Matters all push the boundaries of what history museum can and should be.  They are independent seekers and thinkers, and straight-talking influencers.  They embrace many, if not all, of Tardanico’s traits.

How will you be courageous today?

Anne W. Ackerson

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