This week, in the wake of Senator John McCain’s death, the news was filled with tributes and remembrances from his friends, colleagues and family. From the beginning it was clear those tributes weren’t partisan. They came from both sides of the aisle, perhaps none as succinct as Joe Biden’s, “My name is Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat. I loved John McCain.” What do any of these remembrances surrounding McCain’s death have to do with leadership? A lot actually.
One of the great truths about leadership is good leaders are confident enough to embrace dissension with grace. If McCain’s life taught us anything it’s that we should be passionate, we should care, we should love a good argument. But that the argument is about work, it’s about the place we serve, the museum we care about, and when it’s over, we reach across the aisle or the table, shake hands, share a drink or a raucous joke.
Too often leaders, particularly leaders unprepared for their role, can’t abide dissension. It rocks the boat. They can’t separate themselves, even in their own heads, from the organizations they serve. And that is an important distinction. While some days–the Sunday you wore your oldest sweat pants to the grocery store and ran into an important, and impeccably dressed donor aside–it may feel like you are your organization, you are not. You serve the museum. You don’t embody it. And it’s that distance that permits you to welcome dissension at the staff table.
And dissension is necessary. In eulogizing McCain, President George Bush said, “Back in the day, he could frustrate me. And I know he’d say the same thing about me. But he also made me better.” It’s not just you who needs to be better, it’s your organization. If secretly, you’ve made up your mind, know what you want, then have the guts to state it and stand behind it. Don’t waste your staff’s time by asking their opinion when what you really need is adulation. That might work once, but over time it wears thin. Staff stop offering ideas, and neither you nor your museum changes for the better.
Encouraging dissension and discussion is a great equalizer. It says to everyone in the room that all ideas have value, from the person hired last week, to the person who’s working on her BA, to the curator with the PhD. Encouraging staff to be direct and strong-willed means they won’t flinch if you are direct and strong-willed back. They understand it’s not personal, it’s about work. Allowing your staff to bat an idea back and forth, engenders trust. Why? Because it tells the participants you trust them. Discussion isn’t about who wins or gets her way. It is an act of creation with the museum’s best interests at heart. And that’s what we’re all after isn’t it? A better museum—right?
Not long ago a reader commented that leadership isn’t everything, that there’s a value in being a good follower as well. That remark stuck with me. In the four years since we began this blog we’ve looked at leadership from all directions. We’ve written about being the Lone Ranger director, about leading from the middle, about decision making, and about leadership and self-awareness. But we’ve neglected what it means to be a foot soldier. So today we turn the spotlight on followership.
According to our friends at the Bureau of Labor Statistics there are 353,000 museum and heritage organization employees. We have to assume that the vast majority do not occupy the corner office. They tend to have more responsibility than authority. They are assistant curators, fund raisers, educators, and volunteer coordinators. Some may go through an entire week and not see a member of their organizational leadership team, and yet all the planning, the vision, and the courage leaders incubate comes to life with the followers. They are the yin to the leadership yang.
Our reader was right: There is a stigma associated with followership. If your aspirations lean toward leadership, you don’t want to be tagged as the person who gets behind the concept, works well with others, and helps deliver a superior event, program or exhibit. Leadership in the United States is an individual thing, populated by creative outliers who sometimes believe they can do it on their own. Followership is a different sort of place.
Leaders sometimes have a reputation for arriving fully formed behind the big desk, but unless you’re an entrepreneur/visionary like Jeff Bezos your career trajectory usually begins as part of a team, a program, a department. There you learn to collaborate, to work with others. You support your leader’s decisions and share in the resulting successes. And, in a healthy museum or heritage organization, you feel comfortable challenging leadership, particularly in the face of something unethical. And even if you go on to become a leader, whether by accident or aspiration, without an understanding and an empathy for the qualities of followership, your leadership practice will suffer.
Of course there are also staff members who are undistinguished followers. They are the hermits–isolated individuals who’ve left before they leave. They are the unmotivated, kind of like an 8th grader who won’t participate in the team project except to tell everyone else what is wrong with it. And they are the trouble makers who participate through gossip, leaving discord in their wake.
For skilled followers–the ones coveted by all museums– work trumps individual differences–political, religious or lifestyle beliefs. For these folk, what’s important is what’s shared–delivering, for example, a brilliant historic site program blending geometry, history, and philosophy with grace and humor–not what you don’t. Every organization needs those folks. Accomplished followers are the people who bring good humor to collections storage when a pipe bursts and it’s all hands on deck. They are the folks who say thank you.
So, if you’re a leader, know your team. Even if your team is two volunteers and a part-time curator. Listen to them. Value them. Know what motivates them. Welcome the moments when they challenge ideas because it indicates they’re with you, and they want the best for the museum. Figure out ways to remove the barriers with which they may be struggling. Pay them what they’re worth. Thank them.
Leadership Matters was on the road over President’s Day Weekend, heading south to the Small Museums Association meeting in College Park, Maryland. There, we talked about “Lessons from the Workplace: Women in the Museum.” We’ll be back next week to report on the audience reaction to issues of gender and the museum world, but in the meantime, here are some things that have captured our attention recently.
Books: Women & Power-Manifesto by Mary Beard. A short (128 pages), but blistering account of how women have been silenced throughout history. Don’t want to spend the money on the book? Here’s the backstory from the New Yorker: The Troll Slayer.
Managing People and Projects in Museums: Strategies that Work by Martha Morris. Morris rightly states that “The majority of work in museums today is project based.” So, why not combine the topics of projects, people, management, and leadership in one easily accessible book from a veteran museums studies educator? In addition to a whole chapter on museum leadership, Morris takes a deep dive into creating, managing and sustaining teams, including the team leader’s critical role.
Articles & Blogs: Not enough ethical challenges in your leadership life? Read this: The Family That Built An Empire of Pain.
#MeToo and the nonprofit sector: Vu Le is the fertile mind behind the blog, Nonprofit AF. If you’re not reading, you’ll want to make this one of your weekly must do’s. In the post we highlight here, Vu offers up his thoughts about creating safe environments for staff, volunteers, and community members. “We must examine our implicit and explicit biases,” Vu writes. “We need to confront one another and point out jokes and actions that are sexist. And we need to do our own research and read up on all these issues and not burden our women colleagues with the emotional and other labor to enlighten us.”
In this Harvard Business Review article, the fastest path to the top of an organization usually isn’t a straight shot. The authors rely on extensive research to explore why big, bodacious, and bold may feel counterintuitive sometimes, but are usually the keys to CEO success.
The Women’s Agenda is a regular shot of women’s empowerment reading from across the big pond (Australia, that is). News and research is gathered from around the globe on women in leadership, politics, business, and life.
Are Orchestras Culturally Specific? Jesse Rosen, League of American Orchestras president and CEO, recently led a discussion with four thought leaders about orchestras and cultural equity. From the intro: “While diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) are complex topics that require thoughtful consideration and strategic action, the concept of equity can be especially nuanced. It challenges us to fundamentally reconsider what it means for orchestras to play a constructive and responsive role in their communities—a role that acknowledges and responds to past and current inequities in the arts and in society.” Museums and other cultural institutions, take note.
Video: This video features CharityChannel’s Stephen Nill and members of the Governance Affinity Group of the Alliance of Nonprofit Management discussing their research on nonprofit board leadership. The discussion centers around a ground-breaking survey representing the second phase of research on this topic. The first phase, the widely acclaimed Voices of Board Chairs study, investigated the roles and preparation of board chairs, surveying 635 board chairs across the United States. Not only is there very little research that investigates nonprofit board chair leadership, but there is even less about other pivotal leadership roles within boards such as the officers and committee chairs.
You may think there’s not much connection between endurance running and museum leadership, but perhaps there is. Take a look at this video on how to run a 100 miles. Perhaps there are some parallels?
Sound: A big thank you to podcaster Hannah Hethmon who assembled all the museum-related podcasts in a handy link for us all: https://hhethmon.com/2017/12/31/a-complete-list-of-podcasts-for-museum-professionals/
This is a letter to museum folk who are not leaders. It’s a letter to those of you who work on teams, in departments of one or many, who carry out the hopes and dreams of someone else. It’s also a bit of an apology. Many writers, bloggers and TedTalkers describe leading from anywhere. They write (and talk) as if leading from the back of the room were the easiest thing in the world. We’ve even been guilty of saying it a few times here.
While we believe it’s possible to always behave like a leader, we want to acknowledge the difficulty of having responsibility–sometimes huge responsibility–but no authority. And we want to note that in the world of bad museum leadership, a position that is all responsibility and no authority, particularly topped with gender and generational differences, is its own special hell.
What’s the difference between authority and responsibility? A person with authority is someone who has the power, resources or status to get stuff done. An individual with more responsibility than authority is a person who bears the consequences of someone else’s actions. Most leaders wear both hats, and it’s a tricky business. Understanding that leadership is about interdependence not authority is something it takes new museum directors time to figure out. While they learn, their staff sometimes suffers. What should you do to maintain your sanity if you work for someone who believes being a museum director is about making her staff carry out her wishes? Well you could quit, but let’s suppose you don’t want to.
- Don’t get caught in the blame game: It’s easy to lash out when you feel powerless, and to be honest, it sometimes makes you feel better. Save the sassy comments for after work with friends you trust. Instead, figure out whether you can move forward with whatever you’re charged with on your own. Make sure you understand your own behavior: Are you someone who needs the metaphorical gold sticker to know you’re doing a good job? In other words, do you really need the ED or does talking to her just make you feel better?
- Your ED, supervisor, board won’t listen to you: Look around. Who are they listening to? What qualities do the people being heard have? Can you do what they do? Have you been clear about what it is you need, and more importantly, the consequences if you don’t get it?
- You are totally overwhelmed by the 8 million things you’ve been asked to do, none of which were even remotely on your radar in grad school, nor do they even have much to do with American material culture which is why you got a master’s degree in the first place: Break your list into parts. Pick off the low hanging fruit before moving to something more complex. Don’t be the lone ranger. Work with your team or colleagues to conquer what’s more difficult, and then be the person who brings in something delectable to celebrate and say thank you.
- Working with your colleagues has all the appeal of a middle school group project. Once again, you feel like you’re carrying the weakest member of the team. And sometimes you will be, but don’t assume everyone approaches work like you do. Try and figure out your colleague’s work styles and play to their strengths. Whoever coined the phrase “You get more bees with honey than vinegar,” was not kidding.
- If one more person tells you that you’ll understand whatever it is when you’ve got more experience or takes your idea, rephrases it and gets all the credit, you’re going to scream. You know your own work culture best, but if smiling and suffering silently has gotten you no where, you can challenge people. Be polite, but prove you know what you’re talking about. Remember the first step in getting woke is getting woke. And perhaps, most importantly, if you see this happening to another colleague, step in and help her out.
So…we’re not saying it’s easy, and we are here to acknowledge that in the course of every museum career you will encounter weak or authoritarian leadership. But don’t let it stop you. Keep a list of your successes and read it over when you’re having a dark day. Use your words. No ED can intuit what’s going on in your head. Be clear about the challenges and risks you see ahead, and ask for help. When you talk to your ED, make it about work, not about your unhappiness. Don’t wait for permission for every single step. Have a plan for the project ahead, get it approved, and move forward.
Tell us how you deal with the authority/responsibility dilemma.
This blog is starting to sound like a broken record. For more times than we can count, we’ve advocated for museums, heritage organizations, and museum service organizations to be value-driven entities. And what do we mean by that? We mean organizations willing to stand up for their beliefs.
Remember the T-shirt that says “Museums are not neutral”? Maybe you wear it proudly, maybe not. If it’s not a slogan you support, is that because you believe leadership is separate from your own beliefs and practices? How does that even work? Is caring about and for objects, buildings, art or living things a value system? No. Collecting, preserving and interpreting might be what your organization does; it’s not what it believes. So what does your organization stand for?
Our beliefs follow us to work. They influence hiring, board and volunteer selection. They weave their way into job descriptions. They affect curatorial decisions, programming and communications. Beliefs can keep staff inured in their own privilege, preventing them from walking in another’s shoes. And when we allow personal beliefs to influence organizational culture negatively, it’s called bias. Like, when a museum hires a diverse team, and then expresses consternation when its ideas land outside the traditional, patriarchal, often white organizational bubble. This shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, you don’t hire a diverse staff just for the photo ops do you? Remember, unchecked bias and absent values can cripple museums and heritage organizations, not to mention the staff they harm.
Once again we’d like to suggest that as leaders, your self-awareness affects not only your ability to understand others, but through you, your museum’s ability to adapt and change. You begin by knowing yourself, and knowing what you believe in. If you are an open, warm, empathetic person, who leads with her staff rather than in front of it, you model core values. Whether you acknowledge it or not, those values influence your museum’s decision making.
Suppose you have a department chair who doesn’t suffer fools lightly. The good news is her staff constantly pushes itself to meet her expectations. The bad news is she’s demeaning and disrespectful when things don’t go her way. You find her staff pacing far from their offices, trying to shake off the latest slights. Her department is famous for resignations that cost your museum money and reputation. Worse, because she doesn’t lead with, she’s alienated the very people who might advise her to behave differently. Clearly if you’re the ED, it’s time for a conversation. How could a museum values statement underpin this conversation? Would it be easier to ask for change based on a shared set of values that include equity, empathy and understanding?
Perhaps a values discussion and the creation of an organizational values statement is on your 2018 to-do list. Don’t put it off. Sit down with your staff and board, and talk about what matters. Do environmental issues top the list? Then how do your museum’s policies and practices reflect environmental preservation? How about gender equity? Is that something you, your staff and board believe in? What changes can you make in governance, HR, exhibitions and programming that reflect an equitable workplace? Does your board and staff believe history has a role in changing communities? How should that resonate in your workplace? Say what you mean. Write it down. Then stand behind it.
An organizational values statement may seem like just one more piece of woo-woo fluff that bloggers and self-help books throw at you in the midst of real life riddled with budget shortfalls, rising health insurance, deaccession proposals, and staff turnover. Maybe. But we suggest that in times of crisis, it’s values that hold organizations together.
I have a colleague who is forthright, direct, sometimes foul-mouthed, and an incredibly dedicated and hard worker. She will also walk your dog if you’re on crutches, babysit so you can have a date night, or bring you food if you get Lyme disease. And no, she’s not perfect. Recently I commented on her new boss–a change that happened this summer–and wished her well. Her new leader is female, the outgoing one male. Knowing the former relationship was difficult, I said something to that effect. Her response? “Yes, but I enabled a lot of his behavior.”
That comment stopped me in my tracks. I asked what she meant. Her response? “Often I couldn’t wait for him to complete a project, write a letter, whatever, so I would make the work happen.” As a result, he looked good. The work got done. The way she explained it, the lightning pace of today’s workplace coupled with the power imbalance of leader to staff member, made discussing what, for her, was a challenging work situation difficult. In her mind, work trumped her frustrations so she she made sure it was completed smoothly, and moved forward. The only problem? Without time to press pause and talk things out, she was angry about doing his work and hers.
Remind you of anything? Maybe you’re an enabler: Trapped in a situation where there is no possible way explain to your boss how often she lets others (like you) pick up the slack. Or maybe you’re the leader. Museum leadership in 2017 is a multi-layered endeavor. The pace is fast, the news/social media cycle relentless. Leaders need a host of skills to move museums or heritage organizations from mediocre to majestic. We would argue, though, that the chief skill should be relationship building. Strong relationships build trust. Trust builds teams, and strong workplace teams change organizations.
We like to think a leader who’s observant about work relationships–whether through listening or watching–would have quashed a situation like the one described at the beginning of this post. Teams flourish because every member has a role to play, and in happy workplaces, staff are willing and able to cover for one another if there’s a need. Museum leaders, however, should never confuse support given willingly to help a colleague with an absence of effort that means other staff members cover or enable for someone who’s not getting the job done. And they need to be self-aware enough, to see that these situations apply to them as well as folks in external affairs, communications or education.
We’ve said it a lot in these pages: leaders need to make a habit of self-reflection–daily, weekly–whatever works. While walking the dog, sitting on the subway, jogging, or watching the sunset with a glass of wine, do a check-in. Go over what happened that day or that week. This isn’t mea culpa time. This is so you’ll know where the dragons are as you chart the course for the next day or week. And sometimes the dragons are you. Be a big enough person to recognize your own failings and self-correct.