Leadership, Learning and Leaving: Knowing When to Go

MarkBuckawicki – Own work, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=96062140

This week I learned someone I’ve known for decades will be leaving their position. Amidst platitudes about going in a new direction and spending time with family there is the scent of a leave-taking that’s less than mutually acceptable. How is it that some museum and heritage organization leaders can believe life is good, and all is well, when their boards feel so differently? How do leaders lose touch with their organizational DNA enough to let things slip out of their hands? And isn’t there enough to worry about for leaders in age of COVID without constantly considering whether you’ve overstayed your welcome?

When you consider the careers of longterm leaders, there are some common characteristics. They are self-aware. I know, duh? But they really are. They review their days, their weeks, learning from what went well, while tweaking and changing what didn’t. And they definitely aren’t bored. In other words, five years, 10 years in, they are still creative, coming to work ready to collaborate for meaningful change, and constantly ready to think creatively about their organizations. And they have healthy, respectful, and productive relationships with their boards. This last one is perhaps the most challenging since it’s one person–you, the president, CEO, or director–and a group of people who, in theory, work collectively rather than individually. The board hired you, and frankly, good, bad or indifferent, they have all the cookies.

So how do you know when it’s time to go? Here are some things to consider:

  • I know it’s COVID, and just walking into your office sometimes feels like a challenge, but does your leadership position feed your soul? Challenge and change keep us agile and resilient. A job with the comfort of a perfectly broken-in pair of shoes doesn’t always demand your creative side. Instead, it makes you complacent. Are you ready for a change?
  • Conversely, are you stressed beyond measure? Do you long, not just for time off, but time away? Are you out of ideas, and it’s affecting your health, making you impatient and cranky at the very moment when your organization needs patience and empathy?
  • Does it feel like there’s a shadow museum happening without you? Do conversations end when you walk into a room? Are decisions you once would have been integral to now made without your input? Is your relationship with your board, once friendly and collaborative, now a long slog over egg shells?
  • When was the last time your board completed performance review for you? Indifference is sometimes worse than dislike. If your board won’t put the energy into its relationship with you, what does that tell you?
  • While this is mostly about you, consider how your unhappiness affects your team. Staff who work for an engaged–and presumably happy–leader are 59-percent more likely to be engaged themselves.

There is an old adage that it’s easier to get a new job when you’re already employed than when you’re not. That might mean resigning a leadership position at your peak or soon after rather resting on your laurels. This is a moment when, unlike so much in leadership, it IS truly about you, and your ability to move elsewhere depends on your self-awareness and your humility, as well as your ability to recognize that you’ve done as much as you can do.

Museum leadership isn’t a lifetime appointment. You challenge and change an organization and you move on. You know deep down if your job as museum director is no longer fulfilling, and you may suspect that there is someone–maybe even someone on your own staff–who might make a better leader than you are now as opposed to the person you were when you arrived. Some leaders look several times a year–not formally–but they do put the periscope up and look around. For some, that may be too disruptive, but it exercises a set of muscles that otherwise lie fallow.

In Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord Anne Ackerson and I talk about leadership as a journey rather than an end game. Remember Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline and how he stresses “Organizations learn only through individuals who learn?” Leadership is learning. If you’re not learning or someone is hell bent on preventing your learning, it’s probably time to exit gracefully.

Joan Baldwin



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