Leadership and the Game of Checkers

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Before we begin, I’m old enough to remember when having a great designer–and that meant print–and a wonderful, smart, people-loving group of museum guides meant your organizational persona was in good hands. Not true today, which is why when the inimitable Mar Dixon sends this blog post, I read it. If your organization is big enough to have its own communication department filled with creative souls who make magic with memes, gifs, Instagram, and other metaphorical moments, you should read it too. Right now.

Since I often write about workplace issues in MuseumLand, it was arresting that the first explanation blogger Lori Byrd-McDevitt mentions for the exodus of social media folk from our world is “Burnout and mental wellbeing are not proactively addressed,” and the second is “It’s hard to be under-resourced and unvalued, yet overworked.” This is a wake-up call folks. It’s not like these symptoms aren’t happening elsewhere in the field. The difference here is that, as far as I’m aware, education curators, directors and collections managers aren’t able to leverage their talents to the likes of Elon Musk or Khorus. Share this with your board.

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When I was a child I spent summers with my grandparents. When twilight came, and the dishes were done, I played checkers with my grandfather. He was not a new-age granddad who believed in letting his grandchildren win. I lost with startling regularity. After a double or triple jump I glowed only to be whipped back to reality as my checkers disappeared from the board. It took multiple summers before I realized that what was important wasn’t necessarily what happened in the moment, and that sometimes sacrificing a piece provided an advantage.

Why the checker story? Because leaders not only need their own ideas about what a museum or heritage organization can be and where it might go, they need to predict the future. This is where the checkers metaphor comes in. Good leaders look across the board, not just at the move in front of them. They do scenario planning — daily, weekly, monthly, annually. They don’t assume if visitation is up that it will continue to climb. They watch for the next new thing, making sure it’s not just a shiny object. They try to understand which community alliance will grow and which will not, and to decide which underwriting will support their museum’s goals and which will end up kidnapping them.

And who is successful examining the future and why? Certainly not everyone. Some leaders are fearful, holding a rigid middle-of-the-road course that drowns their museum in mediocrity. Some are simply blind, running into one obstacle after another. Others get tripped up by detail, and fail to look at the big picture. And some don’t consider more than their own point of view or at least their point of view as echoed by a like-minded staff or board.

Understanding what’s coming means listening to a variety of voices. Voices that challenge, authentic voices, courageous ones. Whether you’re a board member, director or program leader, don’t be seduced into believing that because something is currently moving one direction it will continue to do so. That kind of thinking will lock you in. Bad trends prevent you from experimenting, and if things go well, you won’t try anything new because you don’t want to rock the boat.

To truly be attuned to the future, you need to watch, listen, and understand the people who make up your community–your museum workplace, your volunteers and members, and your wider community. Listen for more than a sound-bite. Be deeply engaged for more than a moment at a time. Empathize, empathize, empathize. The future will still come at you fast, but you’ll be better prepared.

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Last, an invitation: The new edition of Leadership Matters is out.  If you are coming to the American Association for State & Local History’s Annual Meeting in Philadelphia August 27-31, please join us for a book signing August 29 between 3-4 pm. We’d love to see you, and maybe sign a book for you.

And if you see any of the book’s newest interviewees, congratulate them! They are: LaTanya Autry (Newark, DE), Cheryl Blackman (Toronto, CA), Karen Carter (Toronto, CA), Sean Kelly (Philadelphia), Lisa Lee (Chicago, IL), Azuka MuMin (Columbus, OH), Frank Vagnone (Winston Salem, NC), Hallie Winter (Oklahoma City, OK), and Jorge Zamanillo (Miami, FL). They join the 27 Leadership Matters museum and heritage organization alumni in the NEW edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord.

Joan Baldwin

Image: From “How Checkers Was Solved,” The Atlantic

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