Uncertainty is a leadership hallmark. Museum leaders need to expect it, confront it, and cope with it. Control is almost impossible, especially when it comes to people, who are unpredictable at best. And who does a leader interact with most? That would be your staff.
Sometimes a leader tries to limit unpredictability with command and control. The result is a staff who rarely talks about anything, and if they do, they report and confirm, as opposed to think, wonder, or discuss. By endorsing what the leader says, they agree in public while dissenting in private, a dangerous combination. Thankfully, autocrats like that are increasingly rare. What’s more common is a leader who flees from dissension of any kind. But in today’s fractured world, conflict avoidance can leave a leader in a swamp of unresolved feelings, making change difficult if not impossible.
Conflict is uncomfortable. How many of you have experienced two staff members arguing? It feels both unpredictable and intimate, as if someone were under attack. And if you’re the leader, it may feel as though everyone else in the room wants you to step in and steer the team back to calmer waters. Perhaps they do. On the other hand, they may never have participated in appropriate work conflict and they’re fearful that in the end it won’t be about the work, it’ll be about the individuals involved. And it might.
Learning to argue constructively takes time, so if you’re hopeful that a box of expensive Belgian chocolates will turn a disparate group, ages 24 to 75, into a cohesive team, think again. Healthy conflict begins with trust. Trust grows over time. As a leader you need to:
- Be open, honest, and transparent.
- Apologize when things go wrong and show some humility.
- When things go well, show some gratitude.
- Be consistent and equitable; don’t treat some staff as confidants while leaving others in the cold.
- Share information.
- Listen, don’t judge.
Allow your team to get to know one another. Again, trust in a group builds over time. It’s rarely accomplished by an afternoon hike or a potluck supper. There is a reason outdoor leadership programs frequently incorporate “highs and lows” into team building. By sharing a weekly low and a high, team members get to know one another and quietly build empathy and trust.
And just a reminder here, the bottom line is a better product. When team members are silenced, ideas are sidelined, and what comes to the table is underdeveloped, poorly thought out, and doesn’t include everyone’s thoughts. A team that can really talk about what matters at your museum builds a better museum. So begin by agreeing on communication rules:
- to speak respectfully to one another.
- to attend meetings, be on time, listen fully, and not interrupt.
- to agree on a method for conflict complaints and how they should be handled.
- to agree how decisions will be reached.
Then, grapple with the twin ideas that conflict is healthy, and that you don’t always need agreement. You need compromise, but believing and implicitly asking everyone to agree is a different scenario. Make sure your museum or heritage organization creates a culture of discussions. Ask (you can model this too) staff to back up statements with data and facts so change happens through what you know, not random anecdote or wishful thinking. And last, discussion is iterative. If you reach compromise on a program, exhibit or fund raiser, return to the compromise afterwards. Talk. Decide with hindsight what worked and what didn’t. Move forward.
Bottom line? Assume you hired the good guys. Assume they all want the best for your team, department or museum. Treat them and their ideas as if they matter. They do. Your reward will be a flowering of imagination and creativity. Run with that.
Two of my favorite myths at the beginning of Leadership Matters are: “We are the source of our own best ideas,” and “Anyone can lead a museum.” They come from a place that says museums are simple organizations doing simple stuff, and pretty much anybody can do what needs to be done. After all, there’s a gazillion books and YouTube videos. How hard can it be? I’ve never worked in a really big museum, but I know first-hand that among tiny to medium-sized heritage organizations and museums these two myths spawn a lot of problems, and the biggest may be they limit imagination.
You may have seen this type of behavior cast generationally–the proverbial eye-roll from older staff members when a Millennial suggests trying something new. Or it’s attributed to a particular subgroup within the museum, frequently with the pronoun ‘they’ — as in “It’s a great idea, but they would never go for it.” They refers to a nameless group of powerful people who make decisions for everyone else. Despite the fact staff may have no real understanding about the board’s decision-making process, ascribing blame in these situations is useful. Then there is the financial version, which goes something like, “I love that, but we just don’t have the money right now.” And last, but certainly not least is the version that combines one or more of the others: “We tried that before the recession, and it wasn’t that successful.” If your therapist were in the room for all these comments, she’d tell you you’re writing the script before anything’s happened. And she’d be right.
I’m not saying money isn’t important. It is. And it can buy a lot, and ease even more worries. But an organization can be really rich and also really boring. Surely you’ve been to some of those. They are beautifully presented, but stiff, still, and flat. There is, to quote Gertrude Stein, “No there there.” But there are other organizations where, without warning and often without huge budgets, you’re challenged, confronted by things you hadn’t thought about before or presented with memorable narratives. They are the places you remember. They are the ones that stick with you.
Imagination and ideas are a museums’ biggest tools. Otherwise you’re just a brilliantly-organized storage space. And yet how do you get out of the scarcity mindset? Practice. Truly. And start small.
If you’re a leader:
- Read widely. Listen and learn from a variety of sources. If you’re a scientist, read the book review. If you’re an art curator, read the Harvard Business Review.
- Model respect, and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Use the ideas that work now. Start small. What percentage of your guests are elderly? Will moving some benches afford a view and make walking from place-to-place easier? Try it. If it doesn’t work, move them back.
- Change is a muscle. Build strength slowly. Don’t over do it.
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a board member:
- Model respect and treat everyone’s ideas as doable even if they’re not actionable in the moment.
- Know what matters. Understand your organization.
- Invite a different staff member to your board meeting every month. Ask them what they would do if you gave them a million dollars. Listen. (And ban the eye-roll.)
- Devote some time as a group to talking about ideas as opposed to what’s just happened, what’s currently happening or what will happen. How can you raise money for an organization if you’re not excited about what it’s doing?
- Think about ideas as cash catalysts.
If you’re a leader or a board member, you’re role isn’t to maintain the status quo. You want more than mediocrity, don’t you? You’re a change agent, and change doesn’t have to come in a multi-million-dollar addition. Sometimes it comes in a volunteer program that models great teaching, a friendly attitude and deep knowledge.
Yours for idea stimulation,
P.S. Two items of note passed over our screens this week: Nikki Columbus, who was briefly hired by MOMA PS1, settled the claim she brought against the museum. Kudos to Ms. Columbus for following through on her claim which accused MOMA PS1 of gender, pregnancy and caregiver discrimination. It takes money, courage and will to take on a monolith, but in the end cases like this one set precedent for others. Second, the Guggenheim Museum joined Britain’s Tate and National Portrait Gallery in no longer accepting gifts from the Sackler family. The Sacklers, owners of Purdue Pharma, makers of Oxycontin, donated $9 million to the Guggenheim between 1995 and 2015. Aligning gifts with core values is a tricky topic so stay tuned.
Everybody knows leaders need vision. Perhaps you’ve had the pleasure of working for someone with vision. If you have, treasure it because to understand what vision means, you have to experience not having it. You might not even realize its absence at first. After all, you’re caught up in your job–you’re designing, you’re putting clever images on Instagram, you’re unearthing things in the collection that haven’t seen the light of day in decades and getting them to talk to one another. And then suddenly you run into a wall. It could be your board, who gives you the old we-really-don’t-do-things-that-way run around. Or it could be your executive director, who looks at you like she has no earthly idea what you’re talking about, when she asks how science, work by an artist of color and rare books will mesh in the gallery. To paraphrase a line from Cool Hand Luke, a lack of vision is a failure to communicate.
Last fall while teaching in the Johns Hopkins Museum Studies program, Anne Ackerson and I received comments from some of our students who felt we were too picky when it comes to the written word. Our response? You’re going into the museum field! So much will depend on how you communicate. If your institutional vision exists only in your head and only when you’re alone, that bodes trouble. Vision can’t be like singing in the shower. It’s got to be shared.
As a leader, you are the listener, the synthesizer. You’re the one who’s out in the community, taking a current need and linking it to your organizational narrative, to artistic process, to your mission. You’re the one making connections. But once you’ve done that, it’s your job to make folks understand where your brain went, why it matters, and how following that path might engage your community. Clearly. And concisely. Persuading people–whether trustees, staff, or volunteers–to understand the Venn diagram that’s in your head and why it matters is a key ingredient of leadership.
This week I was reminded how important vision is when I was asked for funding priorities for a potential donor. It’s always nice to think someone might give you money, but making sure your thoughts don’t sound like a scrambled word cloud is important. Here’s where the Venn diagram has to translate to someone outside your bubble. Does your shopping list of wants link to the larger organizational mission? If not, why not? Is that mission clear, concise and beautifully expressed? Would it make you intrigued even if you weren’t the executive director or a member of the leadership team? Or does saying it out loud make you weary because you know it’s going to involve explanations, counter explanations and side bars?
Vision doesn’t need a lot of flowery language. It needs clarity. Your listeners need to see what you’re saying. Then they’ll want to follow, participate, and give. And that’s the point isn’t it?
P.S. We rant on and on about how important it is for museum folk to read often and widely. Here are some things that floated across our screens this week:
- A Totally Inclusive Museum by Cecille Shellman
- The inimitable Colleen Dilenschneider on museums and trust
- A clear and well-thought out explanation of benevolent sexism from The Muse.
- For those of you who identify as female and are over 50 or who lead women over 50, and interesting discussion of invisibility vs. finding a new voice.
- Last and maybe most important especially for those who live in the northeast, a heat map of political prejudice by county.
A confession: I don’t like Twitter. In fact, I find it visually distressing. I know that’s not the point, but as a result, I don’t tweet, and only check Twitter haphazardly. All that’s preamble to saying that this week I found the link for LaTanya Autry’s Social Justice & Museums Resource List on Twitter. Yes, it’s been around and growing since 2015, so I guess that’s a lesson I should visit Twitter more often.
Now I’ve found it, a huge thank you to Autry who likely has a gazillion other things she could be doing rather than putting this list together. But there it is, a labor of love, and ours to read, absorb, use, amend, edit and add to. And by being open and editable by anyone, the list is a model for the change we all hope is on its way in museums and in the museum workplace.
Another and perhaps more important thought about Autry’s list is this: If you’re having a particularly bleak week or month–it is February after all–think about what this list means for the museum field. Try and imagine Autry, or anyone else for that matter, creating it a decade ago. I’m not saying it couldn’t have happened, but it didn’t. There wasn’t any appetite for it, and the field–except at the margins– was content being its benign, patriarchal, misogynist, racist self. Even the list’s vocabulary highlights change. Take the verb “decolonize,” which by the way, wasn’t added to the Oxford English Dictionary‘s new word list until 2018. The earliest pieces on the list using “decolonize” date to 2016. And yet, today the word is everywhere.
None of that means there wasn’t good work being done 10 years ago or that there weren’t folks saying that the emperor had no clothes, but museums and heritage organizations weren’t the most woke job sector. Are we there yet? Good Lord, no. But have things changed? You betcha.
If Autry’s 47-page list isn’t enough, she’s also one of nine new interviewees for the revised edition of Leadership Matters due out this fall. That group of nine is a powerful band of humans with a lot to say. While we utilized the same criteria looking for new interviewees as we did for our original book in 2012–equity and variety in race, gender, geography–six years made a huge difference both in the what people were saying, the work they do, their willingness to merge personal and organizational values, and their belief that the days of a single, preeminent, white, binary narrative superseding all others is OVER.
Do I sound too Pollyanna-like? Maybe, particularly when you compare this post to last week’s. But if I do, it’s because I’m old enough to remember a time when discussion of any of these issues often resulted in a conversation that went something like, “You might want to think about what you just said. This is a small field and you don’t want to damage your chances of moving ahead.” Sean Kelly from Eastern State Penitentiary (ESP), and another of our nine interviewees, used the phrase “fetishizing silence” in a radio interview recently. He was talking about the way ESP administrators used an unholy quiet to inspire penitence, but that phrase could just as easily apply to the way the museum world approached workplace grievances, racists remarks, and sexual harassment. If you deny it’s happening and fail to provide appropriate avenues to file grievances, you can almost pretend all is right with the world.
Scanning the articles on this list, it feels like we are in the middle of a sea change. Maybe not everywhere, but enough so there is a new normal. And for anyone suffering from “otherness,” anyone who needs support, ammunition, a sisterly voice, a shoulder at the barricade, it offers aid, examples, history and context. Use it, add to it, keep change happening.
Image: Changing Tides by Ellis O’Connor
Sometimes people contact Leadership Matters with thoughts about blog posts. A few weeks ago a friend, a museum thought leader, suggested we speak with someone. Our friend felt this person was worth hearing. And she was right. The interviewee asked for anonymity, but here is what we can say: She uses the pronouns she/her. She worked full time in the museum business for more than a decade. Partnered and a parent, she left the field. She is articulate, thoughtful and self-aware. What gives her story such resonance is not its uniqueness so much as its sameness. And that’s the sad part. It’s 2019. The Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution was introduced almost a half-century ago and remains unrealized, yet, as of 2018, women comprised nearly half the American workforce.
As we’ve said before, women’s narratives in the museum workforce is a Ground-Hog day tale. Not only do experiences repeat themselves over generations, as our interviewee points out, too often harassment doesn’t arrive in the overt ways we’ve seen on television or watched in Congressional testimony. Too often it’s the death of a thousand small cuts. “When you sit underneath the best of the male directors,” she says, “He seems so woke and he’s not touching you under the table.” Her experience though leads her to ask whether too many museum leaders want diversity conceptually, but are ill-prepared to truly lead a diverse organization.
“My experience, ” she said, “led me to fall out of love with my museum.” She describes her former boss as someone who hired women and promoted women, and whose outward-facing reputation was good. But behind the curtain this director displayed many of the subtle gendered characteristics that foster a climate of bias. Oh, lots of men–especially older men–do that you say. You’ve got to roll with the punches. But here’s what happens: Women are told they can’t show emotion; they’re told not to stand up for female staff when inappropriate remarks are made. In other words many of the characteristics that make our interviewee (and possibly you) a successful museum leader–compassion, passion, clarity of thought, cooperation–are the same characteristics that despite success and promotions are not actually valued, but instead are used to target women.
“How can we begin to identify patterns if we can’t talk about them?” our interviewee asked. “When are we going to admit that our internal practices are a problem?” Sadly, her experience with 21st-century bias and harassment didn’t end when she left her full time position. In fact, the museum recruitment process delivered another complex set of challenges. While search firms and museums talked about diversity and inclusion, she describes her journey as “Making it to the end, but not to the choice.” Recruiters told her what to wear for final stage interviews, asked for previous W-2’s as proof of salary, made biased statements regarding work she’d previously undertaken, and allowed board interviewers to ask about her marital status and children. Perhaps most telling, both the recruiters and the museum kept pressing our interviewee for a vision. Could she have come up with a meaningless one-liner? Certainly. Did she? Not really. Reflecting on it today, she says, “This isn’t how I work. I would have spent a year watching and listening, and then we [she and her new organization] would create a vision together.”
Please don’t dismiss that last bit as the whining of a disgruntled applicant who didn’t get the job. That’s not the point. What’s important is her statement “This is not how I work,” because it’s how many women work. Studies show that women lean toward flat, task-focused, collaborative organizational structures. Men, on the other hand, lean toward the transactional and hierarchical, with a focus on performance and competition. Ignorance regarding these issues makes for a clumsy, biased hiring process.
Museums and heritage organizations shell out tons of money to recruitment firms. And even if they don’t use a firm, the entire process of hiring takes time and therefore money. If you’re going to pay a firm, shouldn’t you receive transparent, equitable guidance? People who will help your board not ask women whether their husband will allow them to move? Yes, our interviewee did get that question. No, she didn’t go up in flames. But honestly. Has the needle moved at all?
This brings us back to the initial question. If we don’t talk about these things because we hope for promotion, don’t want to be a trouble maker or anticipate a future job search, how can we change anything? As I’ve said too often on these pages, bias and harassment is often delivered in a thousand tiny ways that constantly reinforce who has power and who doesn’t. It’s not just the province of men. Women do it too. And for those of us who are white and cisgender, there’s a whole other layer of inherent bias we carry with us directed, often implicitly, toward colleagues of color.
The museum field must stand up for women, all women, not just white ones. Can we legislate people’s feelings? No, but as a field we can say what we care about and what we believe in. How can AAM have a Code of Conduct that applies only to its annual conferences, but not to its membership?
- Understand what implicit bias or second-generation discrimination in the workplace looks like. It’s not only inappropriate touching or racially charged language. It’s the death of a thousand cuts, and the odds are, you have colleagues of color and/or female colleagues who are experiencing the effects of it.
- Support your friends and colleagues. If you hear hate or inappropriate speech, say something.
- Learn to recognize your own biases. If you find yourself admiring your male boss who roars, but not the female leader who roars, ask why. Emotion is emotion. Why is women’s tied to hormones and men’s to courage?
- Ask yourself what you can risk to support others. This is a small, tight field. Becoming a leader is a tricky business. If you’re the person known for saying the emperor has no clothes, will you ever get promoted? Are you counting on someone else to be that person?
- Find resources and participate through Gender Equity in Museum’s Movement (GEMM); Museum Hue, Incluseum; AAM, AASLH, AIC, and other national, regional, and state professional associations.
Leadership, in museums and non-profits, isn’t a destination, it’s a journey. And for me, as an observer, a writer, and a commentator these last few years have been a zip-line of learning, yanking me out of my white, straight world, and forcing me to do more than tell myself I’m a good person and not racist. There were some rough moments, particularly when, while writing Women in the Museum, I struggled to understand intersectionality. And that’s not to say I’m perfect, but I’m aware.
This week I read a piece by the wonderful Vu Le, who writes the blog Nonprofit AF. (Hint: If you don’t follow Vu, you should.) In it, he describes what he calls “funder fragility.” Essentially, it’s the reaction of largely white foundation funders when non-profits of color point out that 90-percent of grants go to mostly white organizations. Leaving aside the financial inequities of this situation, here’s what’s odd. According to Vu, when this is pointed out to foundation staff, their reaction is personal, defensive and sometimes a bit weepy. The conversation sidebars while white, privileged staff assure their grantees that they are not the problem. Here’s Vu’s summation: “A group that has privilege and power is criticized, and a member of that group becomes hurt and defensive instead of reflecting on and trying to see systemic challenges and their role in it. Often times, the conversation is derailed and enormous time and energy are spent to reaffirm the offended/defensive individual and make them feel better.”
This struck a chord for me, not on the funding side, although I’ve no doubt it’s true, but on the human behavior side. What is it about human nature that prevents us from separating ourselves from what’s actually going on? This is not dissimilar to what happens when an individual shares that a family member is gravely ill only to end up comforting one or more people in the group about their own troubles.
Personally, one of my biggest struggles in my intersectionality learning curve was recognizing that even though remarks about things I’d written felt personal, they weren’t, and I needed to see it that way. The individuals who were gracious enough to talk to me about intersectionality didn’t know me from Eve. They don’t know how or where I was raised, where I went to church, whose 9th grade class campaign I worked on or who I dated. They only know the words I used. And in the moment, I’m the only person responsible for those words. If they are wrong, then I’m wrong, and I need to stop and listen. My response shouldn’t be resistance and prevarication, but a request for help: Help me understand.
As we’ve said about a gazillion times on these pages, words matter. Racist, sexist, misogynist speech is rarely one-off, White Supremacist-vitriol that’s immediately actionable. More often it’s experienced as the belittlement of a thousand remarks. As leaders, whether executive directors, curators, team leaders or board members, we are responsible for those words. There is no age, place of power or privilege where we get a free pass to be offensive, even unintentionally. So….
- Be purposeful in your communication. Make a habit of scrolling sentences in your head or on paper before speaking. Be conscious of how, even when you don’t mean to, words privilege one group over another.
- Recognize that silence also communicates. If you hear something that’s offensive, stand up for your staff and your colleagues. Not speaking up normalizes a destructive narrative.
- Your life isn’t the Hallmark channel and nobody will change in 45 minutes. Challenging a narrative is a reminder that needs to happen repeatedly before behavior changes.
- Learn to listen. Ask for help. Grow your understanding of the people you work for and with.
- Use your position. As Franklin Vagnone says: “It’s important to utilize privilege in ways that expand equity.”
- And if you’re a person of color, queer, transgender, listen back. Understand that for a tiny second someone who frequently has all the power and privilege needs your help, and is asking for some support and context, however awkwardly. Be kind if you can.
This is Black History Month. Next month is Women’s History Month. Maybe in addition to the proverbial Instagram posts about the achievements of women of color, for example, you could make an institutional commitment to eliminating bias from hiring, HR policies, exhibit text, and your Web presence. There are a lot of words out there. Perfection is difficult, but a statement about how your institution feels about bias says volumes.
Good leadership is kind of like good health. You may be blessed with great genes, but you need to work at maintaining a healthy body. Same with leadership. You may start strong, but you won’t have it every day unless you work at it. Intentionally. Forever. Until you walk out for the last time with the proverbial cardboard box full of stuff from your desk.
It isn’t easy. Some weeks leadership is downright difficult. So what happens when things go wrong? What happens when you believe you’ve acted honestly, openly, transparently, and somehow instead of the engaged, productive team you imagined, your group won’t meet your eyes and appears to be quietly seething? Worse, at each meeting, it feels as if you’re being called out. What went wrong? And more importantly, how do you find your way back?
First, no matter who you are, remember the old quote, “some days you get the bear, and others the bear gets you.” Not to mention, your ability to lead is complicated by many factors–your demeanor, your personal life, and your own role as both leader and follower because, whether you are an executive director with a challenging board of trustees or a chief curator responsible for a department, there is always a bigger fish. And the way you lead relates to the way you follow, and more importantly, to the way those further up the food chain see you.
So, to return to our scenario. You’re in a meeting. You’re trying to shape a project and move it forward. Things aren’t going well. Your team isn’t responding, and when they do, there’s an angry passivity in the air. No one seems to want to help you out. What should you do?
- Show some humility: Try “Maybe I got this wrong and we need to begin over. How should we change things?” In essence you’ve asked your team to see you are vulnerable. Why? Because you are. If you choose this path, mean what you say. There’s nothing worse than asking people to help you out when you don’t really want to listen.
- Understand that humility and courage are linked: In showing one you demonstrate the other. Both build trust.
- Make sure everyone participates from the beginning: A lot of novice leaders believe leadership revolves around their being the fount of all ideas while their team supports them. It doesn’t take long for staff to realize their role is essentially passive. All they need to do is show up, smile appropriately, and wait for the meeting to be over. (Hint: If praise is what motivates you, leadership may be a difficult journey.)
- Believe in your team: A process, project or program is always better with input from everyone at the table. Presumably your team is smart. You hired them for a reason. Let them shine.
- Put your personal feelings aside: The fact that your car got stuck in the snow, your washer leaked, you haven’t had a date in six months, or your adolescent broke a major rule is nobody’s business but yours. Focus on the problem at hand. Your issues are not an excuse to snap at your colleagues.
- Work is not a competition: Leadership doesn’t mean you have to best everyone on your team. You may be the path breaker, but you aren’t better at everything. That’s why you have a team.
As a leader, Abraham Lincoln is perhaps best known for his enormous self-awareness and his ability to subordinate his feelings in favor of the work at hand. When things aren’t going well, channel your inner Lincoln. Look at yourself from the outside. Get out of your own way, and focus on the work at hand. That’s why you’re there isn’t it?