Museums and Accidental LeadershipPosted: June 20, 2016
It happens in many careers: the thing that called you in the beginning disappears as you climb the ladder. You become a teacher because interacting with students charges your batteries, but when you’re catapulted into administration, those opportunities diminish. You become a librarian because you love research, but you’re good with people so you’re promoted. Soon you rarely interact with the public. Now you manage staff and go to meetings. Sound familiar? How many of us have similar stories? They are the professional equivalent of an origin myth–the moment you understand people actually —create exhibits, catalog collections, study insects–you fill in the blank–for a living? Your answer is count me in. But then things change. And on one hand, that’s good. You got a promotion! That’s great. But is it?
What brought you to the museum world in the beginning–passion for history, art, natural science, good people skills, combined with imagination, humility, humor and self-awareness–pushes you up the museum ladder, away from objects, plants, rare books, paintings, whatever drew you in the beginning. Suddenly you’re miles from what once delighted and inspired you. Your new skill set includes HR minutia you never knew existed, combined with anecdotal information on fire suppression, and how best to motivate staff when it’s 90 degrees and the air conditioning fails. And then there’s the constant drum beat of money. Who’s got it. Will they give it? Under what conditions?
We can’t tell you the number of people who have told us that scenario is not something they want. Yet the pattern repeats. And in a field with chronically low salaries especially for women, leadership and advancement go hand in hand. So what should you do? Not to sound too apocalyptic, but how do you accept leadership without losing your soul? Be strategic. Be aware.There’s a lot we can’t control in life, but there is a lot we can. And your career isn’t as arbitrary as next month’s weather map. So here are some things to consider when you are pushed to move beyond your passion.
- Understand your field. The museum workplace has many subsets, regions, communities under a very big umbrella. Do you know where you want to go?
- Do you understand your current organization, what its leadership opportunities are and what they entail. If you take the opportunity offered, where will it lead?
- What about your own life? What changes will more money and more responsibility bring? Do you have support outside of work to cope with those changes?
- Have you done a self-check in? Does it seem as though the stress of a leadership position is manageable at this point in your career? Is there time for what brought you to the field in the beginning? Can you retain that connection in a way that is meaningful?
If the answer to the last question was no, can you foresee a time when it might be yes? When your children are all in elementary school? When your parents don’t need you as much? When your organization’s building project is complete?
The point is leadership comes to many of us, and like most things, it’s better if it’s planned rather than having it feel accidental. And it comes in many forms. Being department head is not the same as being a lone leader at a small organization. Your skill set may fit one, but not the other. And more importantly, it may fit one now and the other later.
So embrace the old adage, “Never say never.” Instead, recognize responsibility when it’s handed to you. Know that you wouldn’t get it if folks higher up the workplace food chain didn’t think you could handle it. Organizations need good leaders at every level from project to program, department to museum wide.
And tell us how you choose…