We’ve just returned from Austin, Texas and AASLH’s annual meeting that brings history museum folks together every year in a new spot. The skies were blue, and the location in the center of the University of Texas campus beautiful. What’s not to like about sitting with coffee and colleagues in a beautifully-planted courtyard between sessions? But one of the best moments was hearing Darren Walker, President of the Ford Foundation.
This amiable, relaxed, yet powerful conversation was a tone-setter and a metaphor for the way the field has changed over the last decade. There was no lecture, no powerpoint, no white guy behind the podium. Instead Walker chatted with Dina Bailey, CEO of Mountain Top Vision, and an interviewee in our Leadership Matters book. Walker is a slight man, warm and funny, but someone who knows where true north is. His view of history is nuanced, and his approach to the human race generous. “We all romanticize and mythologize our narrative,” he said, “because we need to do that. How do we talk about the journey without demonizing the choices that were made?”
Asked what quality is needed for today’s leadership, Walker had a one-word answer: courage, adding that there are a host of disincentives to leading with courage, but because the risk now is greater than ever, now is the time to speak up, speak out, and be bold. He suggested that even 20 years ago the American narrative was more straightforward, less complex, but less honest. He sees today’s national narrative as more oppositional, making leadership difficult. “Great leadership is about bridge building,” Walker said, adding, “It’s much harder to build a bridge than a wall.”
He urged the audience to speak up and speak out. “Progress won’t be made unless we get uncomfortable. Our boards can be very comfortable with privilege and prestige.” He believes what we need from boards today is people comfortable with justice, equity, fairness, and opposition.
When Bailey asked him if museums should be neutral, Walker responded with a story, remembering when a Ford Foundation board member asked him why the Foundation supported artists making political art. Walker’s response was that art has always been political to some degree or another, and it’s naive and dishonest to believe otherwise. “Privileged people and institutions don’t like change,” he quipped, adding that privilege becomes a collective around the board table.
Walker talked about the fact that it’s possible to succeed without humility or curiosity because success insulates people from the hard reality of truth telling. He cautioned the audience that sometimes it’s necessary to engage with board members in a way that helps them realize they are speaking from privilege. “Trustees want to do right,” Walker said, “but we all bring our own bias and limitations.” He urged the audience to meet people where they are, and for museum leaders to remind their boards that they are there not just to preserve but to innovate.
One sobering note before we close. As part of the AASLH Conference we presented a panel discussion with four interviewees from our book, Women in the Museum, and just as we did at AAM, we asked the audience for a show of hands indicating who had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace. Almost the entire audience raised their hands. Nationally, one in three women experience workplace sexual harassment, and over 71-percent don’t report it. Isn’t it time the museum field took Darren Walker’s advice and stepped up, spoke out, and showed some courage in protecting and supporting its female employees?
Photo by Wyona Lynch-McWhite
In a week a friend and colleague of mine and Anne’s begins a new job. When all the papers were signed, and everything was real, she wrote to tell us the good news. Moving from a smaller organization to a much larger state-funded position, means she transitions from supervising a few to many.
Our friend and colleague is beginning a new chapter, and she isn’t alone. In the last year a number of our professional colleagues have gotten new jobs or new job titles. One thing distinguishes all these folks; not one thinks s/he has “arrived”. They are all learners. They read widely, observe carefully, and reflect. So while this annotated list is for them–you know who you are–we hope all our readers will find something they like.
For the Individual Leader/learner:
- For women leaders: 7 Small Steps Women Can Take to Make Their Voices Heard
- The importance and danger of bias in the workplace: 13 Cognitive Biases
- One of our colleagues to whom this post is dedicated, spent part of his first 100 days as a new leader doing other staff members’ jobs. He already knows what this article teaches us.
- What If Companies Managed People As Carefully as They Manage Money
- This was written by women to their younger selves, but we believe much of it applies to humans: Six Leaders on the Advice They Would Tell Their Younger Selves
About the Business of Museums:
- Written using theatre as the primary example, this article asks a lot of basic questions about non-profit workplace diversification. Diversity for Dummies
- If you aren’t already reading this blog, you should be: How Imaginary Lines Drawn By Cultural Institutions Hold Them Back
- An explanation of the difference between diversity and inclusion and why it matters: Beyond Diversity
A Short list of books and Ted Talks for leaders:
- Daring Greatly by Brenee Brown.
- We Need to Talk About An Injustice a Ted Talk by Bryan Stevenson.
- Why It’s Time to Forget the Pecking Order at Work
Six Practices for Your First 100 Days from Leadership Matters:
- Listen. Don’t wait for your turn to talk, listen.
- Love what you do.
- Participate before making decisions.
- Model empathy and respect.
- Practice reflection. Write, walk, meditate before or after work.
- Identify your biases and work to leave them outside the office.
And, last, a poem from Mary Oliver:
The Summer Day
Who made the world? Who made the swan, and the black bear? Who made the grasshopper? This grasshopper, I mean- the one who has flung herself out of the grass, the one who is eating sugar out of my hand, who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down- who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes. Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face. Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away. I don't know exactly what a prayer is. I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass, how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields, which is what I have been doing all day. Tell me, what else should I have done? Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon? Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?
—Mary Oliver taken from https://www.loc.gov/poetry/180/133.html
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
Recently LinkedIn, Fast Company, and a host of others have written about skills aspiring CEOs need to get hired. It occurred to us that this is something the for-profit world does all the time, but the museum world? Not so much. When was the last time you read an article in History News or Museum News about qualities future museum professionals should possess? And with the simmering crisis of the baby boomer bulge at one end of the workforce and numerous graduate programs at the other, no one talks about what qualities work for the field now.
Here is LinkedIn’s list: LinkedIn’s Skill List. No surprise, it’s tech heavy. And while it’s not that those skills won’t benefit a museum world that lives increasingly online we believe what the field needs in its leadership quiver is character traits as much as skills.
That said, what should museums big or small, rural or urban, look for in leaders? Here–in no particular order–is our top ten.
- Courage: Leadership anywhere isn’t for the thin-skinned. Leaders need to be willing to choose the path less taken and bring followers along.
- Humility: Leaders need to know how to say they’re sorry; how to fail, get up and move on.
- A respect and an interest in the power of the Internet, and comfort with social media: Not that all leaders have to be IT geniuses, but any museum leader who thinks Twitter is for politicians or the Kardashians needs to think again.
- An understanding that whatever brought you into this field is not what has catapulted you to leadership, and a willingness to acknowledge your origin story but leave that work behind.
- That mediocrity isn’t enough. 21st-century leaders have to realize that for organizations to succeed they need to excel. Maybe not every day, but more often than not.
- An interest in people, meaning the community your organization serves–since that is why you are blessed with the 501c3 designation; an interest in your board of trustees, your staff, departments, and volunteers. You do history or art or science with them not for them.
- A moral code that means you are fair and equitable regardless. Just regardless. You mentor, you advise, you fire if need be. Your organization has a values statement and an employee handbook.
- An excitement about the world. You didn’t become a leader solely because of your passion for 18th-century English samplers, early airplanes, or abstract painting. Leadership requires an omnivorous interest in everything from your curator’s daguerrotype exhibition to the best type of roofing shingle, to bear-proof dumpsters. It is all yours to think about, and most importantly, as a leader, you are the glue that guides and connects your organization to your community at a multitude of levels.
- A sense of humor. Leaders need to laugh.
- A vision and the ability to illustrate that vision so others can understand, whether they are the young gazillionaires or the Rotary Club lunch-goers. And the ability to strategize and make the vision a reality.
If boards of trustees made genuine attempts to hire individuals with even half of these characteristics, organizations might be stronger, and new hires less surprised by the job of leadership.
What’s on your list?
When we think of courageous leaders we usually conjure up images of battle-hardened military officers, Ebola-fighting doctors and nurses, or athletes overcoming injuries to reach the finish line. It’s hard to apply those same definitions of courage to the museum environment or any nonprofit cultural institution. Rightly so, most museum curators will never be called upon (we hope) to drag collections from burning buildings, directors won’t need to make split-second decisions that cost their museum the equivalent of the Super Bowl, and nonprofit board presidents won’t be leading protests in the streets calling for more equitable public funding of arts and culture (although that would be kind of cool).
There’s a different kind of courage that must be summoned in the course of museum work. As Joan Baldwin and I write in Leadership Matters, this kind of courage is about doing the right thing. And it’s about doing it every day – in small, quiet ways and in bigger, more visible ones. Courageous museum leaders hold deep convictions about the nature and impact of their work. They know when to pull back, but they also champion barrier-breaking thinking and programming. Courage allows leaders to give staff the authority and responsibility they need to flourish both personally and professionally.
In her 2013 Forbes article, Susan Tardanico wrote, “Demonstrating leadership courage – whether it’s having an uncomfortable conversation, communicating when you don’t have all the answers, or making a decision to move ahead on a new project – can be scary. Yet it’s precisely the kind of behavior that fosters trust and sets a crucial example for others to follow at a time when they’d rather hunker down and wait for the storm to pass.”
Tardanico offers up ten traits of the courageous leader: confront reality head-on; seek feedback and listen; say what needs to be said; encourage push-back; take action on performance issues; communicate openly and frequently; lead change; make decisions and move forward; give credit to others; and hold people (and yourself) accountable.
The leaders we chose to highlight in the courageous section of Leadership Matters all push the boundaries of what history museum can and should be. They are independent seekers and thinkers, and straight-talking influencers. They embrace many, if not all, of Tardanico’s traits.
How will you be courageous today?
Anne W. Ackerson
We thought a lot about courage when writing Leadership Matters. When we began, if you’d asked us to write down our top three leadership characteristics, courage might not have made the list. But as we listened and questioned our 36 leaders, it was clear that courage is key. Courage is often the catalyst, because without courage vision is missing and without vision there is no action. That’s actually rooted in a bit of Aristotle, who, among other things, wrote, “Courage is the first of the human qualities because it is the one that guarantees all others.”
Too often we associate courage with strength not leadership, with Navy SEALs rescuing Captain Phillips on the high seas, with a lone survivor’s harrowing return to civilization or a wounded warrior’s mountain summit. But in the world of history museums and heritage organizations there’s not much call for daring-do or brute strength–well, maybe there is, but that’s another blog. Courage in the history museum world is more nuanced and more personal, and definitely a necessary facet in a leader’s profile.
Why courage? Because sometimes being mediocre isn’t the right choice. Sometimes leaders have to take the counterintuitive approach and push, pull and drag an organization outside its proverbial comfort zone. That takes courage. As one of our interviewees said, “Courage is about conveying vision and having the strength to sell something even when it doesn’t make any sense.” Courageous leaders are entrepreneurial. They are willing to challenge outdated rituals and deal with uncomfortable situations. Which brings us to the personal side of courage and leadership. Courageous leaders have to be willing to go first. That sounds dubious, but it’s important. Leaders lead by modeling. If you want your board to pay attention to its strategic plan, you need to make a centerpiece. If you believe the mission statement is old, tired and boring, you need to stick your neck out and offer everyone a new version to tweak, change and challenge.
And be ready to live with the results. In these situations being courageous doesn’t mean maintaining control. It means quite the opposite particularly when it comes to feedback. When it’s time for evaluations, why not go first? Offer your team or staff the criteria you’ll use for their annual reviews and ask that they apply them to you. Have them work together. Listen to what they say. Take it to heart. It takes courage for any leader to make herself vulnerable, but leadership is about learning, constantly holding oneself up and examining strengths and weaknesses. Don’t ever confuse an open door policy with a 360-degree review. It’s the asking for help that builds trust, and that’s what takes courage.