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.
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.
Above: Old Salem President Frank Vagnone doing his own bit of hands-on learning
at the museum.
While my position is “Curator,” it’s for a school not a museum so a lot of daily museum life passes me by. Recently, though, I visited Franklin Vagnone, in Winston Salem, NC. Frank is one of my heroes, a museum thought leader who is generous, truthful, and authentic. For those of you who don’t know, Frank is President of Old Salem Museum & Gardens, a position he’s held for just about a year. Frank also runs Twisted Preservation his cultural consulting firm, work that takes him around the world, thinking, talking, and quite literally shaking up traditional stand-behind-the-rope sorts of historic house interpretation. (And if you are a historic site person, and haven’t read his book, Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums you should probably order it. Today.)
Anyway, part of the fun of visiting museum colleagues on their home turf is you get to be a tourist with the best of all possible guides: the museum leader. The weather was beautiful, and Old Salem is ridiculously picturesque, but better than all of that there were close to 1,000 school children on site, accompanied by parents, teachers and younger siblings. It was awesome. Surrounded by shouts of “It smells good in here!” and “Look at this!,” it reminded me why I got into this business in the beginning. And looking back on being engulfed in nine year olds busy folding laundry and trying to make a rope bed—the barriers in the Old Salem Brother’s House are gone—it made me grateful to be a museum person or at least part of the wider museum community.
We’ve talked about some dark stuff on these pages: sexual harassment; workplace bullying; bad boards; and most recently, the trials of searching for a job in a way too crowded field. But at heart, and I can’t speak for all of you, it’s a field we love. And part of why we love it is that sharing is fun, whether it’s sharing knowledge–how did people without electricity read in bed?–or sharing experience–folding a large linen shirt isn’t as easy as it looks—or sharing an explanation–like why static electricity makes your hair stand up–or looking for answers: Why do an artist’s brush strokes move in one direction and not the other? That joint search for answers, whether it’s with excited elementary students or committed and curious adults, is a journey worth taking. So here are my top five reasons to be grateful for being in this field:
- I get to work, meet, and speak with some truly fabulous humans, who challenge and change the museum world.
- Being in a museum, as opposed to being on the Internet, means being in the presence of something real. That brings its own awesomeness.
- Being in the museum world means we’re often in the presence of beauty, and it’s ours to care for as best we can.
- The objects, art, scientific discoveries, even the plants and animals we care for, all have stories, and it’s an honor to share stories with the public.
- Museums are metaphors for so much else. Each well-worn spinning wheel, each deKooning sketch, each set of medical instruments is a window into another place and moment. We’re the bridge, and that’s a great place to be.
Does this field make you grateful? Why?
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
Dear friends, colleagues, readers and acquaintances,
Let’s face it, there is just too much information out there. Yes, some of us are seduced and beguiled by fake news or give up news altogether, but there is also a lot of really good writing going on. So if you’re taking time off before the new year and plan to devote yourself to self improvement of one kind or another, we recommend a cozy chair, a hot beverage, some great music, and one or more of the following.
A Truck Full of Money by Tracy Kidder–If you’re a leader or a wanna be leader, pay particular attention to the early chapters where Paul English sets up his first company.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates–A must read, particularly if you’re white, and deep in your lizard brain you think your beliefs and your unconscious biases aren’t aligned.
Articles and Short Reads:
42-Ways to Make Your Life Easier A little trite, but true. And you can download it.
Cleaning the Museum A voice from 1973 to remind us how important all our staffs are not just the ones with cool jobs.
Raising a Trail-Blazing Daughter Even if you’re not a parent, good advice from the notorious RBG.
Five Myths that Perpetuate Burn Out Across Nonprofits One of our favorites. We’ve written about this from the museum point of view, but this is better.
When It’s Dark Enough, You Can See the Stars is about the tenacity of nonprofit leaders. It’s about why we’re in this game even in the toughest of times.
How Far Should We Go In Building Leadership Qualities? To thine own self be true, baby.
Growing Bigger, Staying Collaborative – 5 Tools for Building Non-Bureaucratic Organizations True to form, Nina Simon doesn’t hold back about sharing the good, the bad, and the ugly of her museum leadership journey. This time it’s about facing and embracing organizational change.
The 5 Elements of a Strong Leadership Pipeline Thanks to the Young Nonprofit Professionals Network for the lead to this post which stresses organizational culture, learning through exposure, and knowledge sharing as key ingredients in movign
And to Listen to:
Just a Little Nicer If you’re not already a fan of NPR’s TED Radio Hour you should be. This is a good one to listen to as we look toward resolutions for 2017.
SNL’s Cold Open Hallelujah If your life is so busy the 8 million times this flashed on your screen you missed it, you need to adjust your life. Then you need to listen.
Last week Pat Summit died. You may not be a basketball fan or more specifically a women’s basketball fan, but if you’re interested in leadership, you could do worse than Google “Pat Summitt Quotes.” If her name means nothing to you, she was the University of Tennessee’s women’s basketball coach for four decades. And she has the distinction of being one of the best coaches in college sports–male or female–ever. Saturday, National Public Radio replayed an interview with her. You can find it here: Remembering Coach Pat Summitt. One quote particularly struck me, in part, because of an experience I had earlier in the week. First the experience: A female colleague of mine asked me to read a piece she had written. She is a good writer, and like all writers she wanted a second pair of eyes especially since her subject was institutional history, a combustible mix of facts, nostalgia, and personal experience at least in our 125-year old institution. Now, the quote:
LINDA WERTHEIMER, BYLINE: Did you ever think you were too tough?
SUMMITT: Not really (laughter). You know, I think you can challenge people, but you don’t want to break people down. But you’ve got to sometimes just pull them aside and say, you know, you’re OK but you could be better.
Perhaps you’ve already figured out, reading my colleague’s paper didn’t go well. As I’ve said, she’s a good writer, and some days, she far exceeds good. But not all of us are good all the time. And one thing I’ve observed about women in the workplace–myself included–is too often work and self are intertwined so if you’re challenged, it’s as if YOU are challenged, not the work, which even on the best days belongs to the organization, and more to the point, was created in its service. So, in a perfect world, criticism of a project/piece of writing/exhibit/you-name-it, is an exercise in how to make it better because in perfecting whatever it is, we aid the organization.
What does this have to do with the University of Tennessee’s late basketball coach? Think about her statement above. If you are a museum leader, think about challenging without breaking people. Some of us have had bosses who believe leadership is about domination. I worked for two different people, a man and a woman, who seemingly weren’t satisfied unless an employee left their office in tears. Clearly that’s not what Pat Summitt meant. She saw her role as pushing players to do their best, and the flip side of that is letting them know when their lack of effort let the program down. None of us is perfect, and it’s comforting to know that your director, department head or board chair, cares about you enough to help you do your best work.
If you’re an employee, you know when you’ve done something well–when your idea was a game changer, when your exhibit label said it perfectly–and you know when what you’ve done is mediocre. So step back. Breathe deep. And be ready not only to acknowledge what went wrong, but to hear your direct report when she offers suggestions for the future. She isn’t saying you’re a bad person, only that you are capable of more. Nor does one less than stellar project equal a judgement on all the work you’ve ever done. If you’re a good museum educator when you go into your director’s office, you’re still a good one when you come out, just one that needs to reflect, and go forward, having made some changes. Challenge yourself to de-personalize. It’s not your project, it’s the museum’s. It’s far easier to fix what you don’t “own.”