Leadership Lessons from Our New BookPosted: August 26, 2019
It’s been six years since we published Leadership Matters. When we wrote the original version, Anne Ackerson and I were concerned about the lack of attention paid to leadership in the museum field, particularly in history and cultural heritage organizations. There was a notion that through some office magic or, simply, inertia, individuals became leaders, and if they didn’t, mediocrity was fine; in fact, mediocrity was better than change. Little, if any, investment was made in human capital. You became a director and the rest was up to you. The motto was sink or swim, and not everybody looked graceful in the pool. What we learned, however, was leadership wasn’t some in-born trait, miraculously recognized by search committees. Instead, it was a commitment to self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision, with an ongoing undercurrent of reflection and experimentation.
Now it’s 2019 and we’ve just published a new edition of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord. It’s curious, exciting, and remarkable how much things have changed in such a short time. In 2013, our concerns were internal: a field that was at best negligent about training and developing its leaders, failing to acknowledge that a content-driven education did not necessarily prepare an individual for coping with the foibles of a board and a staff or the public. Today, those concerns remain, but there are huge external pressures as well: rapid-fire communication, communities — from staff to stakeholders — who require a voice, especially those traditionally underserved or ignored, and need to see themselves somewhere inside a museum. Otherwise the work doesn’t matter because without community connection museums are just warehouses of things.
Today’s leaders still possess the four characteristics we identified in 2013: self-awareness, authenticity, courage and vision. That hasn’t changed, but the world has, and our nine new interviewees, LaTanya Autry, Cheryl Blackman, Karen Carter, Sean Kelly, Lisa Lee, Azuka MuMin, Franklin Vagnone, Hallie Winter, and Jorge Zamanillo, all approach their jobs from a different space. Gone are the days of sage-on-a-stage leadership. These leaders are collaborators, relationship builders, empathizers.
Both versions of Leadership Matters end with “10 Simple Truths,” common sense practices from all 36 interviewees about leadership:
- Get invested: As interviewee Christy Coleman wrote, “Museums are not neutral space. We may not be activists, but we’re not neutral. If your community is in crisis and you’re an institution that has the resources to add to that conversation to bring it out of crisis, you are failing if you’re not actively involved in the needs of your community.”
- Be a trust builder: Museums succeed on the relationships they build in their communities, on their staffs, on their boards. It’s that simple. Relationships matter. So do words. And deeds.
- Embrace the greater good: Leaders are the moral compass for their institutions. Don’t check your values at the door, bring them to work. Every day.
- Create a candid culture: Honesty underpins trust.
- Up your frequency: Listen, listen, listen, and remember to get out of your office and know who you serve. As interviewee Azuka MuMin puts it: “Leadership has taught me who I am as a person, vulnerable and exposed, and the better I know myself, the better I am able to lead.”
- Learn and grow together: Leadership is a process. It’s learning. Invest in your people whether they are board members, volunteers or staff, leaders or followers.
- Get integrated: Read widely, think across spectrums. Who or what adds to your institutional narrative?
- Tap your entire network: It’s not all about you. Growing a museum is about being open to possibility.
- Commit to leadership: Leadership matters. Invest in your staff, give them the tools to become leaders. Good leaders are problem solvers and collaborators. They’re also good followers.
- Be accountable: Take the heat. Move forward. Don’t play the blame game. You’re a leader for a reason.
For those of you who will be at the American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) annual meeting this week in Philadelphia, we will see you there. And if you’d like a copy of Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord, we’d be happy to sign it for you, Thursday, August 29, from 3:00-4:00 pm at the Rowman & Littlefield booth in the Exhibit Hall. In the meantime, lead well, with courage, empathy, and vision. And if you see any of our interviewees in Philadelphia this week, be sure to stop and thank them.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson