Do Museum Leaders Need to Be Visionaries?

 

visionary

And the answer is…yes, of course! All leaders need to be visionaries, whether they are soft ball team captains, PTO presidents or fortune 500 CEOs. Are today’s museum leaders visionaries? If the results from our interviews for Leadership Matters hold true for a larger cohort, yes, although there are few among us for whom being visionary is a predominant quality.

That said, it’s almost impossible to be a leader without some sense of what an organization can be and what impact it might have. Organizational vision is about possibilities; it’s not about maintaining the status quo. Who gets up in the morning and says, “I hope I’m mediocre today” ? We hope that’s not you, but if your idea of leadership is maintenance, doing it as you’ve always done, then the world of visionary leadership probably isn’t for you.

One quality visionaries leaders possess is they create pictures that capture the future. It is those pictures that help a staff or a board see why a project matters, and it’s a critical step in advancing vision. We might add that if you as a leader can’t paint that picture, you probably have no business asking your colleagues to jump on the bus with you. And you can’t blame them, they want to know where they’re going. But be careful. There is a major difference between being a visionary and being a dreamer. Dreamers talk. They may paint great pictures, but there is no follow through, just more dreams. It’s hard to respect a leader who can’t articulate her vision or explain the steps it might take to get there. Again, if the leader hasn’t thought the process through, she has no business asking her staff to join her.

True visionaries are often path breakers and founders. They set an organization in motion with their imagination and energy and make it sustainable through careful planning. Visionaries are also change agents. They are the leaders boards hire when institutions need an about face, a shaking up, a new look.  They understand change can be hard, but they see it as an opportunity. They are also experimenters, entrepreneurs and innovators. They think across the disciplines and weave strands from one idea with another to create new ways of approaching problems.

Few of us will be asked to be a change agent and fewer still will have the opportunity to start a museum, but here’s our advice for all of you: Use your creativity. You are not just a manager making sure the folks in the cubicles are slogging through their to-do lists. You work in a museum. Every day you ask the public to look, to see, to make the leap from artifact or painting to idea. Use that. Remember your audience. Throw off the hidebound constraints of museum authority. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes or, better yet, ask them what they think. If it’s been years since you interacted with visitors, change that. In fact, it’s change that keeps us from stagnating, so embrace it. And for goodness sakes, aim for something beyond mediocrity. You, your organization and the field will be well served.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

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