When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One

act-like-a-leader

Not everyone comes to the museum field eager for leadership. Sometimes we’re moved forward. Sometimes we realize we’re ready for it and we move ourselves forward, but all too often leadership is an unintentional consequence. Like when you become the education director and find out that you’re supervising a staff of 50 volunteers, but only until the organization hires a volunteer coordinator. In the next fiscal year. Suddenly you’re a boss of a lot of people some of whom are old enough to be your parents or your grandparents.

On the other hand, if you aspire to museum leadership, but aren’t there yet, you may have heard or read the phrase, “you can lead from anywhere in the room.” We used it more than a few times in Leadership Matters. And we believe it, but to the uninitiated, it may be hard to figure out how to look like a leader when you’re in row three at an all-staff meeting, and potentially the youngest or newest person in the organization. So here–in no particular order– are some strategies for figuring out leadership before you get the job.

  1. Learn how to say you’re sorry. All leaders make mistakes. And if you can’t humble yourself in front of your team, there won’t be much trust there. The next time you mess up, get out in front of the error quickly. Apologize to your boss and your colleagues and offer strategies, either personal or organizational, for moving forward.
  2. Separate the parts of your job over which you have authority from those where you’re the one responsible. In many museums there are the worker bees who take on more and more work. Why? Because they’re great time managers, they have a sense of duty, and their bosses know a good thing when they see it. But multiple responsibilities don’t add up to authority. They add up to a huge to-do list over which you have little control in the end. The result? You are angry or sad or possibly both. Make a list. Separate your job into areas over which you have real authority, and the areas where you’re responsible. Be strategic. At your next job review, advocate for increased authority.
  3. Enthusiasm isn’t everything. Be strategic when talking about your work. Let your director (or direct report) know why you like something. Hearing general enthusiasm for working with collections isn’t the same as hearing your enthusiasm about finally moving the Excel files to the new open-access collections management program.
  4. Don’t hang out with the office gossip. Every office has one and museum workplaces are offices. That person has defined power as knowing as much as she or he can about everyone. Back-stabbing and talking behind people’s back is not the path to leadership.
  5.  Embrace change. Every office also has the person who can’t cope with change. They mournfully explain why new ideas won’t work, describing in painful detail how some variation of what’s just been proposed didn’t work 15 years ago. Or was it seven years ago? Don’t be that person. In fact, be the person who gently shuts them down and suggests experimenting.
  6. Support your colleagues. They don’t have to be your friends, and you never have to see them three sheets to the wind at the office holiday event, but you need one another to make stuff happen. That’s why you come to work. To make stuff happen. So don’t judge. Just assume everybody’s trying their best.
  7. Advocate for your program, project, exhibit or idea. If you don’t care about what you’re doing enough to talk about it, why should anyone else?

And let us know how you lead when you’re not the person with the title.

Joan Baldwin

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4 Comments on “When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One”

  1. Erika Sanger says:

    8. Thank everyone who has helped you succeed, no matter what role they have played.

    Thanks Anne and Joan!

    • Katie Boardman says:

      I agree with Erika= We all build on the work of those who came before us, one way or another. Good to acknowledge that.
      Also- Sing R E S P E C T to yourself as a reminder to respect your colleagues and yourself. That goes with # 6.

      And, don’t resort to bullying, talking down others and “managing by rumor.” Build the team, instead.

  2. Love Katie’s last point. Good leaders build up and support every team member. Life is so much better when working in an environment of mutual respect instead of one tainted by divisive gossip and rumors.

  3. […] If you are new to Leadership Matters, here are some of our most popular postings for 2016: Museums and the Salary Conundrum; The Salary Agenda; The Top Ten Skills for Museum Leaders; Do Museum Staff Work for Intangibles?, and When You’re Not a Museum Leader: Seven Ways to Act Like One. […]


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