Confidence and Courage in the Museum Workplace

confidence

As some of you know, Anne Ackerson and I teach a course in Johns Hopkins’ graduate program. Leadership of Museums, runs in the fall so, at the moment, we are deep into questions of why leaders do what they do. This week one of our students asked some pointed questions about the connection between courage and confidence. For me, her comments had particular resonance since I witnessed several leaders fail in the courage department during the work week.

When our student co-joined these two qualities, I believe she was thinking of the definition of confidence that goes, “A feeling of self-assurance arising from an appreciation of one’s own abilities or qualities,” as opposed to “the feeling or belief that one can have faith in or rely on someone or something.” How that first definition relates to courage is interesting. The OED defines courage as “The ability to do something that frightens one; bravery.” Do museum leaders or wanna-be leaders need both confidence and courage or is one enough?

As leaders there’s no quality you need more than self-awareness, and self-awareness is fertile ground for confidence. Knowing yourself, understanding your faults, and being able to act on that knowledge makes for great, confident leadership because to quote the OED, you appreciate your own abilities.

But what about courage? Museum leadership 101 isn’t exactly an assault on Mount Everest. How often is courage necessary? My answer? More than you think especially  when people–volunteers, board members, visitors and colleagues– speak from a worldview laden with bias. This week colleagues of mine were victims not only of unkindness, but racism and gender stereotyping. What’s a leader’s role when a team member demeans or castigates another in public? And what happens when those remarks are rooted in bias or stereotype? Should you say something? Maybe? But speaking up takes more than confidence. When emotions are high, when one colleague defines another using stereotypes, it can be a frightening situation. You’re the person staff looks toward, yet you’re afraid you’ll say the wrong thing and make the situation worse. What if you betray your own bias, and don’t appear equitable? What if you sound garbled and confused?

All possible, but think about the consequences of staying silent. At the very least you will experience a loss of trust. After all, the berated staff member, not to mention the ones listening, expect leadership to step in. When you don’t, they wonder if you really do have their back. Second, by not acting, you make it seem as if the organization itself is complicit in your silence. That permits either side–bully or victim– to use your inaction to bolster their arguments. Last, how does not saying anything hold up against your own values? How do you feel when you don’t live up to your own expectations?

In the workplace courage isn’t solely about riding in on your white horse to protect staff from bias-filled bullies. Courage is what allows us to admit a mistake in public, or say we’re sorry. It’s coming to the aid of a friend who’s being hit-on by someone they clearly want no part of. It’s standing up for the values and voices missing from the table.

We live in a world where everyone comments–on news stories, Twitter, Facebook, and in real life. Being willing and able to say stop, to say that’s unkind, or those are not the values this organization stands for, takes confidence and courage. What museum would be hurt–particularly back-stage in the workplace–by an extra dose of courage? Let’s find some.

Joan Baldwin

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3 Comments on “Confidence and Courage in the Museum Workplace”

  1. Michelle says:

    This would make for a terrific conference theme.

  2. Kathleen Powell says:

    This is a great post! thanks!

    I’ve always thought that courage is an undervalued trait in leaders. We sometimes forget that it takes a lot of courage to make decisions (big and small) and be willing to stand behind those decisions no matter the consequences.

    While the examples that you mention in your post are incredibly valuable and important ways that leaders need to show courage, don’t forget all the every day decisions that are being made in the museum workplace. Good leaders do this constantly and should be applauded for the courage that is needed to be the person who is willing to take the heat along with the praise!

  3. Thank you for this! Both Cs mentioned are Crucial.

    With regard to “Maybe?”, I believe the aphorism “silence gives consent” (although not always so in law) can help leaders decide to speak up or not in cases of prejudice & discrimination.


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