True confessions: This week I participated in a meeting where midway through a participant asked why our discussion mattered. The meeting’s over-arching topic was communication so the good news is this staff member felt relaxed and fearless enough to ask that kind of question. The bad news is that if even one person was confused enough to ask, the heart of the matter was lost.
So this is a note to all of you in museum leadership positions. You may have a bundle of good ideas rattling around in your head, but that isn’t vision. If you can’t say it, we can’t see it. In 2014 when we wrote Leadership Matters, Anne Ackerson interviewed Van Romans, President of the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History. Romans talked about drawing his vision (if you’re struggling with this, know that Romans once worked for Disney). His approach wasn’t that different from the Heath brothers “destination postcards”. (Hint: If you haven’t read Switch, put it on your list now.)
If you think about it, a postcard is a great metaphor. You’re on a trip. You send the card that says “Wish you were here.” As museum leaders, that’s what you need to do:
- Tell a story that’s compelling enough that staff can visualize the landscape once change is complete.
- Make sure your story’s achievable.
- Be clear about the journey you’ll take, and who needs to be on the bus.
Back to the meeting: we received an explanation, but it was mushy and unsatisfactory, as if our leader sent the image of a beach at sunset, but left the back blank. Don’t forget vision provides focus. It’s hard for staff to nest in the weeds when you’re constantly moving forward.
Your vision should have some meat on its bones; it needs to provide the “why” for your program, department or museum. Telling staff things will be better if they do X, Y, Z isn’t enough. They’re adults. Let them in on your thinking. Trust them. And last, and perhaps, most importantly, be prepared for push-back. Change is hard, harder for some than for others. Test your ideas out, do your research, experiment alone and with staff. If you aren’t convinced, why should anyone else be?
Today more than ever museum leadership needs to pull itself out of lame mediocrity. Invent. Experiment. Fail. But for goodness sake have a vision that matters.
For the last month I’ve worked with a small local history organization. It is big enough to employ a part-time staff member, own a building and a sizable collection, but small enough to suffer from too few resources and a certain amount of instability. Although it’s located in a little community, where many people with an interest in history and historic preservation know one another, its current board is largely new to the organization. They are each passionate about their slice of the pie whether it is black history, archaeology, women’s fashion, or early technology.
For years their mission was the classic “preserves, promotes and presents the history of” statement. Its blandness was used to respond to questions on grant applications and little more. Everyone believed they knew what it meant. Individually, their ideas about the same vague sentence sustained the organization in a half-hearted way. Collectively though–to quote Gertrude Stein–there was no there there.
The board has talked a lot recently about its hopes and dreams for this organization. They’ve talked about being a task-oriented board, and about living in a community where the demographic skews older not younger. They’ve argued–mildly–about whether history is a story or whether history is some immutable truth or both. They understand how wishy washy their current mission statement is, and they’ve gamely brain-stormed verbs to create a stronger statement that embodies their collective hope going forward.
What is apparent though is how fragile this formula is: A group of interested, committed people + mission = action. If we asked every history organization to bake a cake, they would all be different. And don’t get us wrong those differences are wonderful and important. But the fact that some hire a caterer, some bake one from scratch, and others buy gigantic sheet cakes at the grocery store affects the resulting party. And just as in cake baking there are outside forces working for or against the baking aka organizational stability.
Today, the museum field puts more resources into career training than ever before, but boards need guidance too. We understand that even gathering boards together is like herding kittens, but there is no question they need training, support, and encouragement. And yes, the StEPs program works to enable better board leadership, but boards change, sometimes quickly, and StEPs knowledge isn’t always passed on. The bottom line? The field needs to make the same sort of investment it’s making in staff, in boards because better boards mean stronger, better-enabled leadership and staffs, and more meaningful missions. We’re all for that.
And the answer is…yes, of course! All leaders need to be visionaries, whether they are soft ball team captains, PTO presidents or fortune 500 CEOs. Are today’s museum leaders visionaries? If the results from our interviews for Leadership Matters hold true for a larger cohort, yes, although there are few among us for whom being visionary is a predominant quality.
That said, it’s almost impossible to be a leader without some sense of what an organization can be and what impact it might have. Organizational vision is about possibilities; it’s not about maintaining the status quo. Who gets up in the morning and says, “I hope I’m mediocre today” ? We hope that’s not you, but if your idea of leadership is maintenance, doing it as you’ve always done, then the world of visionary leadership probably isn’t for you.
One quality visionaries leaders possess is they create pictures that capture the future. It is those pictures that help a staff or a board see why a project matters, and it’s a critical step in advancing vision. We might add that if you as a leader can’t paint that picture, you probably have no business asking your colleagues to jump on the bus with you. And you can’t blame them, they want to know where they’re going. But be careful. There is a major difference between being a visionary and being a dreamer. Dreamers talk. They may paint great pictures, but there is no follow through, just more dreams. It’s hard to respect a leader who can’t articulate her vision or explain the steps it might take to get there. Again, if the leader hasn’t thought the process through, she has no business asking her staff to join her.
True visionaries are often path breakers and founders. They set an organization in motion with their imagination and energy and make it sustainable through careful planning. Visionaries are also change agents. They are the leaders boards hire when institutions need an about face, a shaking up, a new look. They understand change can be hard, but they see it as an opportunity. They are also experimenters, entrepreneurs and innovators. They think across the disciplines and weave strands from one idea with another to create new ways of approaching problems.
Few of us will be asked to be a change agent and fewer still will have the opportunity to start a museum, but here’s our advice for all of you: Use your creativity. You are not just a manager making sure the folks in the cubicles are slogging through their to-do lists. You work in a museum. Every day you ask the public to look, to see, to make the leap from artifact or painting to idea. Use that. Remember your audience. Throw off the hidebound constraints of museum authority. Put yourself in someone else’s shoes or, better yet, ask them what they think. If it’s been years since you interacted with visitors, change that. In fact, it’s change that keeps us from stagnating, so embrace it. And for goodness sakes, aim for something beyond mediocrity. You, your organization and the field will be well served.
Joan Baldwin & Anne Ackerson
A library in the middle of a community is a cross between an emergency exit, a life raft and a festival. They are cathedrals of the mind; hospitals of the soul; theme parks of the imagination. On a cold, rainy island, they are the only sheltered public spaces where you are not a consumer, but a citizen, instead. A human with a brain and a heart and a desire to be uplifted, rather than a customer with a credit card and an inchoate “need” for “stuff.” A mall–the shops–are places where your money makes the wealthy wealthier. But a library is where the wealthy’s taxes pay for you to become a little more extraordinary, instead. A satisfying reversal. A balancing of the power.
Caitlin Moran from Libraries Cathedrals of Our Souls, Huffpost, The Blog, November 2012
No judgement against libraries because we love them. But we wish Caitlin Moran had been writing about museums. And we want to ask why, because although she’s among the most eloquent, Caitlin Moran isn’t alone. Is it as simple as writers naturally waxing poetic about their childhood love of libraries, and from there it’s a hop, skip and a jump to their love of libraries now? Maybe. Do writers not go to museums when they were children? Do people–not just writers–not think of museums in the aggregate the way they think of libraries? Is it easier to think of libraries as a group?
It seems to us that museums need to be in the middle of their communities. Maybe they aren’t quite the emergency exit, life raft/festival hybrid Moran envisions, but what are they? And what do they — should they — mean?
First we want to thank all of you interested in women’s issues for helping us break a record at the end of March. Four hundred and fifty people read our March 25 post. So for all of you interested in women and work, here are two links that may prove significant:
Amanda Hess’ article “Maybe It’s Time for Employers to Stop Being So Sexist When Women Ask for Raises” (Slate.com, March 28, 2014)
Recently Slate’s photography blogger Jordan Teicher wrote a piece called “This is What a Librarian Looks Like.” There he describes a project by photographer Kyle Cassidy who attended the American Library Association’s mid-winter meeting with the express purpose of documenting its membership. Perhaps Cassidy was hoping to unwind the cultural stereotype of Marion the Librarian with his photographs of librarians with pale orange glasses, pink hair, and skin that is many shades of brown, not just white. I suspect, were he to attend the American Alliance of Museums meeting this May, he would find his share of museum folks who look no more like Cary Grant playing David Huxley, the befuddled curator in Bringing Up Baby, than the ALA’s librarians resemble stereotypical librarians. But…I worry that museum folks might not talk about the field as a whole the way these librarians talk about libraries. Here are some quotes:
“Libraries are the center of the community, the last place to receive truly unbiased information. Libraries are the poor man’s university, the place where you can have all the knowledge of the world for free.” Edwin Maxwell, Brooklyn Public Library
or listen to this one
“I have two things to say about libraries. The first is that libraries are a place to make it happen. And the best quote I found about libraries is actually by Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones. He says, “When you’re growing up there are two institutional places that effect you most powerfully: the church, which belongs to God, and the public library, which belongs to you.” J.P. Porcaro, New Jersey Chapter Councillor for ALA
“Libraries are the last safe, noncommercialized space that truly welcomes everyone in the community and brings them together.” Jenny Levine, ALA Internet development specialist
There are more quotes, all of them strong, all of them interesting, and all of them about the library field as a whole. And here’s what worries us: Museums, particularly history museums, and particularly history museum leaders, need to be able to articulate value in much the same way, and we worry that in too many instances, museum leaders talk about their own institutions and not about the field or history itself. And every time that happens the public fails to see history museums in the aggregate. Museums don’t have to be the “a last safe space” or ” a community center,” but perhaps they are places where the average person learns history, not in a put-you-to-sleep-only-dead-white-men-are-important kind of way, but in a way that has meaning for an individual life. A place where learning about big concepts like democracy, individual rights, religious freedom not only makes you a better citizen, but helps you understand your life in context.
The idea of connecting past to present is the subject of numerous blogs and online conversations, most recently Frank Vagnone’s Anarchist’s Guide, but we think it has to become second nature. If you’re a history museum leader and someone asks you about your museum, how do you respond? Is your answer couched first in the particular? The Blah Blah Historical Society owns an important house with a beautiful and rare collection. Sigh. Or the Somewhere Historic House was occupied by the British during the Revolution. Snore. What is the real value here? Isn’t it that all history museums are threads in the warp and weft of a national narrative? That they seek to offer places where people can reflect and understand the concepts that make the United States unique?
If someone asked you what history museums do, what would you say? And if you’re tempted to answer anything that begins with collect, preserve and protect, take a breath and think again. Float up 30,000 feet and think about why cataloguing, conservation and exhibitions matter. Then answer the question.
About a dozen years ago with support from the New York State Council on the Arts, we brought David Baum, author of Lightning in a Bottle to speak at a Museum Association of New York workshop for some of the state’s museum leaders. While Baum was well received–he is a former clown–no, really, he was a clown–he wasn’t the typical museum conference speaker. (Now he lectures at Wharton and guides for-profit and non-profit organizations in issues of leadership.) And he still wouldn’t be. I mean, let’s be honest, when was the last time you went to a museum conference–local, regional or national–where the featured speaker was someone from outside the field? True, lecturers from Wharton don’t come cheap, but is it really so hard to reach outside the bubble and find out what’s going on in the nation’s business schools, IT think tanks, or libraries? Wouldn’t we all be well served with a little cross pollination? Maybe then business types would stop making cracks about non-profits not needing to make money.
But lecturers and cross-pollination aren’t the whole point. Passion is. Baum has it a-plenty as do many of the business/entrepreneurial writers we’ve mentioned on these pages. It’s also what makes Baum an appealing speaker. And it is a quality many of our Leadership Matters interviewees possess. One told us a story about taking a course at, coincidentally, Wharton. “There were only three of us from non-profits in the class,” she said, adding that there was no separation between how the for-profit and the non-profits saw leadership. She went on to explain that after she spoke one of her classmates commented, saying when he heard her speak about her work, he realized he hadn’t understood passion before.
Which brings me to confusing passion with working for minimum wage. One of the myths we found in the history museum world–although perhaps it exists in non-profits as well–is that compensation is its own reward. Recently, we read a blog called The Culture Feed where the refrain was “You love the mission so it’s worth it.” We respectfully disagree. Leadership, wherever you are in your organization, shouldn’t be martyrdom. If you love the mission but see an organization that’s essentially rudderless, don’t leverage your career on it. We doubt there are any organizations whose mission statements announce to the world they plan to at best, be mediocre or at worst dysfunctional. In fact, in the repetition of collecting, preserving and protecting that make up so many history organization mission statements most seek to do good. But a mission statement doesn’t necessarily define an organization.
Perhaps you are the lightning in the bottle, the change agent, the wild courageous visionary who will lead a poorly funded, poorly governed organization to a place of fiscal safety and creativity. But know yourself. If that’s not you, take your passion and invest elsewhere. If the leadership is superior, the mission WILL not only be worth following it will be the mantra for a sound and courageous organization.