What Happens to Leadership When There’s a Vacuum At the Top?

pull together

How many of us have found ourselves in an organization, program or department with a leadership vacuum? Likely more than a few. The reasons may be obvious: Your board or director is in a search because a position is open. As distressing as that can be–and with good planning it doesn’t have to be–you know the vacuum is finite. You will participate in interviews, the search committee will do its work, the position will be filled.

But what happens if the position is filled and the replacement is worse than having an empty office? What happens when the candidate leaves all her sparkle in the interview room and can’t muster a shred of enthusiasm for the actual day-to-day life of your organization? Or worse, her only interest appears to be in advancing her career–the panel she’s on at a national meeting, the article she’s writing or worse the renovation project she’s undertaking without doing her homework on the funders?

Clearly you have a couple of options: You can be terminally cranky, retreat to your office, offering minimal help to your colleagues while you wait for the Kuerig to hiss to a stop. We don’t recommend this unless you are also looking for another job, and potentially seeing a therapist to deal with your anger issues. Another choice might be to try to help your new director or department head. This may work if she has a fraction of self-awareness and is simply overwhelmed by the newness of it all. Be aware though that being Edgar Bergen to her Charlie McCarthy helps her not necessarily the organization. When she finds her feet, you may find yourself without a role. There is a third option, though. You can work to help your museum or your department. Where do your talents and skills meet the unfinished projects? If you step in for the good of the organization as opposed to some Mean Girls form of personal gain, you will likely, to use a sports analogy, push the ball up the field. That transforms leadership into a process that benefits the museum rather than a cult of personality.

In John Maxwell’s book The 360-Degree Leader, he quotes a lovely little sign from a local business that says, “The 57 Rules to Deliver the Goods.” Rule one is: “Deliver the goods.” Rule two is: “The other 56 rules don’t matter.” No, museums don’t manufacture things, but they are responsible to a public. They manufacture ideas, offer experience, programs, chances for creativity and contemplation. That’s the goods. A leader who has awkward social skills, who doesn’t listen, who says her door is open and then stubbornly refuses to change her mind, isn’t going to change. At least not because her staff wants her to. But the work goes on. If you see a project languishing, step up and deliver the goods. Even if your director doesn’t acknowledge what you’ve done in a way that satisfies, put it on your resume, add it to your list of projects on LinkedIn, and contemplate the future. Hopefully, to quote John Maxwell again, you are someone who’s growth oriented not goal oriented. You realize that life is a process of growth, reflection and experimentation, not a series of tick boxes to check off. That’s what you want for your museum and for your life.

So for all of you rowing in the shell with no coxswain, row with your teammates not against them, row as hard as you can, and know where the finish line is.

Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson

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