Google the words “vision and leadership” and you will get 493,000,000 hits. The two words go together like ice cream and cone. We tend to think of vision as something a leader must not leave home without, and lack of vision as a bad thing, but like most things in life it’s a little more nuanced than that.
There are plenty of museum leaders with vision who are dreadful at what they do. They need to be the center of the stage; their leadership philosophy is “my way or the highway,”and they have all the empathy of a box of Kleenex. That said, in the vision department, you know what they want, and where they’re going. Their vision may be self-centered, but it’s clear. They may raise buckets of money in some weird form of self-aggrandizement, but money gets raised. They like programs and exhibits because it’s a chance for them to shine at the expense of long suffering staff. Having worked for more than one of these folks, in my experience, there’s a counter-intuitive kind of peace that comes when it’s never your job to have an original thought. But maybe that’s just me.
Despite the digression, it’s not leaders with vision I actually want to talk about. It’s leaders who have no vision. Poor communicators, who are attracted to every shiny object, and can wander in the weeds for hours, these folks employ familiar leadership language, but nothing happens. They blather about starting this new program or that new initiative or tell you they’re revising the strategic plan, but to quote Gertrude Stein, “There’s no there there.” This is bad enough when you’re living it, but the cost when they leave is lasting. Here’s why: Working for someone who doesn’t know where they’re going creates anarchy. It permits everyone to put up their own guard rails and create their own reality. The curators may see the museum as one thing, while education may believe it’s something subtly different, and external affairs may be selling a third version to funders. Oh, and then there’s the board, and who knows what they think.
In theory a new director’s arrival might close these individual paths, funneling everyone behind the new leader, but old habits are hard to break. You may find staff who don’t meet deadlines well or who never finish projects. Why? Well, working for a vision-less leader means there isn’t a lot of decision making going on. Things happen, but not because the director acted as though they mattered. You may find staff who don’t get along well. Why? While there are myriad reasons for staff dysfunction, but a vision-less leader forces staff to chart their own paths, and if there are six staff, there may be six subtly different paths–a sort of individual mission drift.
A leader who succeeds a vision-less ED must be a great communicator. She needs to be explicit about her vision, while at the same time embodying it. If you inherit staff used to charting their own way, here are six suggestions to make life better quicker:
- Pay attention at meetings. Meetings are organizations in miniature: Be clear what you want to accomplish. Create agendas–as normal as that sounds, your colleagues may not have experienced regular agendas. Assign a note taker. Assign tasks. Follow up at the next meeting.
- When staff talks about previous projects, programs or exhibits, ask how they were tracked. Through data, anecdote, both, neither?
- Be transparent, authentic and clear. Listen.
- Use the Heath Brothers’ concept of mining the bright spots*. Look at staff successes and parse how and why they worked. Understand. Repeat.
- Check in with staff often. Does their work have meaning?
- Recalibrate when possible, pointing out how differences in approach mean differences in result.
*Chip and Dan Heath, Switch: How to Make Change When Change is Hard.
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.
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?