5 Pieces of Advice for When You’re Not the Official Leader

Team leader

This is a letter to museum folk who are not leaders. It’s a letter to those of you who work on teams, in departments of one or many, who carry out the hopes and dreams of someone else. It’s also a bit of an apology. Many writers, bloggers and TedTalkers describe leading from anywhere. They write (and talk) as if leading from the back of the room were the easiest thing in the world. We’ve even been guilty of saying it a few times here.

While we believe it’s possible to always behave like a leader, we want to acknowledge the difficulty of having responsibility–sometimes huge responsibility–but no authority. And we want to note that in the world of bad museum leadership, a position that is all responsibility and no authority, particularly topped with gender and generational differences, is its own special hell.

What’s the difference between authority and responsibility? A person with authority is someone who has the power, resources or status to get stuff done. An individual with more responsibility than authority is a person who bears the consequences of someone else’s actions. Most leaders wear both hats, and it’s a tricky business. Understanding that leadership is about interdependence not authority is something it takes new museum directors time to figure out. While they learn, their staff sometimes suffers. What should you do to maintain your sanity if you work for someone who believes being a museum director is about making her staff carry out her wishes? Well you could quit, but let’s suppose you don’t want to.

  1. Don’t get caught in the blame game: It’s easy to lash out when you feel powerless, and to be honest, it sometimes makes you feel better. Save the sassy comments for after work with friends you trust. Instead, figure out whether you can move forward with whatever you’re charged with on your own. Make sure you understand your own behavior: Are you someone who needs the metaphorical gold sticker to know you’re doing a good job? In other words, do you really need the ED or does talking to her just make you feel better?
  2. Your ED, supervisor, board won’t listen to you: Look around. Who are they  listening to? What qualities do the people being heard have? Can you do what they do? Have you been clear about what it is you need, and more importantly, the consequences if you don’t get it?
  3. You are totally overwhelmed by the 8 million things you’ve been asked to do, none of which were even remotely on your radar in grad school, nor do they even have much to do with American material culture which is why you got a master’s degree in the first place: Break your list into parts. Pick off the low hanging fruit before moving to something more complex. Don’t be the lone ranger. Work with your team or colleagues to conquer what’s more difficult, and then be the person who brings in something delectable to celebrate and say thank you.
  4. Working with your colleagues has all the appeal of a middle school group project. Once again, you feel like you’re carrying the weakest member of the team. And sometimes you will be, but don’t assume everyone approaches work like you do. Try and figure out your colleague’s work styles and play to their strengths. Whoever coined the phrase “You get more bees with honey than vinegar,” was not kidding.
  5. If one more person tells you that you’ll understand whatever it is when you’ve got more experience or takes your idea, rephrases it and gets all the credit, you’re going to scream. You know your own work culture best, but if smiling and suffering silently has gotten you no where, you can challenge people. Be polite, but prove you know what you’re talking about. Remember the first step in getting woke is getting woke. And perhaps, most importantly, if you see this happening to another colleague, step in and help her out.

So…we’re not saying it’s easy, and we are here to acknowledge that in the course of every museum career you will encounter weak or authoritarian leadership. But don’t let it stop you. Keep a list of your successes and read it over when you’re having a dark day. Use your words. No ED can intuit what’s going on in your head. Be clear about the challenges and risks you see ahead, and ask for help. When you talk to your ED, make it about work, not about your unhappiness. Don’t wait for permission for every single step. Have a plan for the project ahead, get it approved, and move forward.

Tell us how you deal with the authority/responsibility dilemma.

Joan Baldwin

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One Comment on “5 Pieces of Advice for When You’re Not the Official Leader”

  1. Elizabeth B. says:

    Thank you for acknowledging how hard it can be to lead from the middle (bottom). This is something I read tons about in grad school and wrote bright, optimistic, and, generally, completely ridiculous essays about. When the rubber hit the road in my career, it just wasn’t that easy to effect change without some authority to do so. When it did happen, it came about at a sometimes glacially slow rate. As someone who is about to hire her first subordinates, I’d love to know if you have any specific advice for not squelching leadership potential of those “below” me on the organizational chart?


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