Me vs. Us Museum Leadership


Here are three vignettes I witnessed or heard about recently. See if you can figure out how they go together.

  1. At a quarterly board meeting, a member of the leadership team speaks to the board. His presentation follows the director’s. Asked how it went, he responds, “Great, they loved it, but you’ve got to give them hope.” Then he stops and says, “That guy (meaning the director) doesn’t know how to convey hope.”
  2. A team member completes a really big, really complex project. There is public acknowledgment from the director, the board, the press, colleagues. From her department leader? Radio silence.
  3. A staff member works for a difficult boss. She tries. It doesn’t get better. She tries some more. Going to work stinks. She’s diagnosed with cancer. She takes time off. She comes back. She sits down with the director and tells him she’s accepted another job. She says she has one perfect life and she’s not going to waste it with him.

Did you figure it out? To me these stories are all about leaders who put self before the institution, in other words the antithesis of servant leadership. What’s that? Well, there are books about it, but in a nutshell, servant leadership is a workplace philosophy that puts people first, where leaders serve others, and ultimately, everyone serves the institution. Servant leaders possess rare combinations of humility and courage. Innately, they know service results in success, just not the type of success often associated with go-getter, entrepreneurial, winner-take-all leaders.

What’s that got to do with the three mini-stories above? Everything. If you parse each case, you find a leader who put herself before the organization. Leaders who do that frequently aren’t hopeful. They can’t paint what authors Dan and Chip Heath call “destination postcards,” metaphors that make staff want to get in line and build a wing, finish a major exhibit, complete a fund drive. They can’t do that because in their minds, the future is theirs not the organization’s. It’s tied to “me” and my success as opposed to us and the museum’s success.

In the second story what kind of leader fails to acknowledge staff success except one who’s consummately self-involved? Ditto for the third narrative. Even though we’re missing the details we know in a field where jobs are hard to come by, leadership has to be truly awful before staff walk in and say they quit.

We can’t all be servant leaders. In fact, of the many leadership qualities, servant leadership is one of the hardest because it asks a leader not to be the center of attention. Instead, it puts staff and organization in the spotlight. It makes for a museum where director/staff relationships are strong, where staff know the director has their backs, and where there is always hope because collectively everyone serves the museum. Sounds like workplace heaven, right? Maybe. It’s not a panacea, but take a week and be intentional about the following:

  • Standing behind your staff.
  • Saying thank you.
  • Listening. A lot.
  • Acknowledge a diversity of opinions. And really listening to them.
  • Modeling the behavior you want. If you wish staff would shut off lights in spaces not in use, do you do it yourself? Or do you just send emails asking others to do it?
  • Mentoring, counseling, developing leadership in others.

Not your cup of tea? Tell us how you lead.

Joan Baldwin


5 Comments on “Me vs. Us Museum Leadership”

  1. Evelyn Rose Fidler says:

    To be honest this type of leadership should come easy and natural. In a perfect world we all have To work at it.listening to a diversity of opinions means we often have to suppress ours but in the end we have to take the one that will be most successful. That is the hardest part for me.

  2. Jackie B. says:

    I have been reflecting on servant leadership a lot lately, and I think one thing we need to get better about recognizing is servant leadership is not servile. Even Jesus, the original model for servant leadership, got real when he saw hypocrisy, greed, and other poor behaviors. Those raised in servant leadership modes can end up like the staff with cancer but continuing to toil away in hopes someone above will acknowledge their skills, hard work, and collaborative nature have value. Female leaders in particular need to beware of losing their power or giving it away in the name of service whilst moving toward burnout. These leaders have something to offer their teams and organizations when appreciated and supported.

  3. Sara says:

    A caveat to add to #2: radio silence is better than public criticism. At my last job the only time I ever heard the director say a word about my work was to note in an all-staff meeting how poor a job one of our community partners had done for a recent event and how it made him look bad. It was a partner I had recruited, as part of a larger project that took me months to set up. The other partners all did a great job and the attendees on the whole were impressed by the project, but none of that was acknowledged.

    It’s a little thing in the grand scheme of everything, sure, but that kind of thing can rankle.

  4. Well done. If you have the patience, you might read some longer stories that explore leadership. Two mythical tribes: The Veritas (who value truth and love) and The Cupiditas (who value power & greed) vie for control.

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