Why is Self-Awareness Important to Museum Leaders?

know yourselfWell, truth be told, self-awareness should be important to all leaders, whether they serve in the museum world, the non-profit world or business. Why? On the face of it, leadership may seem like it’s about leaders knowing their organizations, and that’s true, but successful leaders also spend time studying themselves. This isn’t it’s-all-about-me narcissism, instead it’s an understanding of the minute calibrations that individuals and groups must make as they work together.

Take a leader who has no sense of who she is. Staff meetings are sometimes filled with socially awkward silence; team members react slowly or badly because information is delivered out of context or worse in such obscure, oblique ways that staff fail to grasp important ideas; even compliments to staff are stilted because it’s clear the director has no earthly idea what her staff actually does. A self-aware leader might do any one of those things once, but they’re naturally programmed to replay, to adjust, and to calibrate.

Not everyone understands this from the beginning. Some are lucky enough to work for organizations that encourage them to participate in leadership training like AASLH’s Developing History Leaders@SHA. Others take part in leadership courses in MBA programs or with the Chamber of Commerce. Some hire personal coaches. But all learn a rhythm that includes reflection, self-discovery, and reevaluation–even reinvention. It’s a pattern that once it’s practiced personally also works organizationally. Self aware leaders constantly adjust. They replay interactions, making leadership a journey that involves experimentation, evaluation, and recalibration. It’s a process many find humbling precisely because it’s not about you; it’s about you as part of a whole.

Often self-aware leaders are also servant leaders. They will tell you they “serve” the organizations they work for. Their sense of purpose overshadows ego and personal gain or as one of the leaders we interviewed put it, “Your position is not you.” Self-aware leaders are also folks who recognize that influence works better than control. They may be workaholics, but they hold their staffs equally accountable, also. Ceding responsibility recognizes that you can control who you hire, but not their work pace or their personality.

Last, self-aware leaders aren’t Chatty Cathy’s. They don’t need to be the smartest person in the room, they are listeners. Listening–really listening as opposed to waiting for a chance to talk– provides opportunities for change and that’s what self-aware leaders are good at. As Ted Bosley, director of the Gamble House in Pasadena, California, one of the self-aware leaders interviewed for Leadership Matters put it: “You’re so much more likely to move a project forward when you listen with respect and compassion. You need to humble yourself and listen.”

Joan Baldwin


Is It Different for Women?

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Hello, fellow readers. This is the first of what will be monthly posts on women’s issues. As you’re aware, we are hard at work on a new book Women+Museums so it seems only fitting that once every 30 days or so we devote some time to the thoughts, concerns and issues of women in the museum field. Today’s post is for women with male bosses. And if it strikes a chord with men who supervise women so much the better.

One of the most disturbing things we’ve noted about men in power and women as subordinates is that if you are the woman in that scenario, you sometimes feel as though you might be losing your mind. Not because of the 8 gazillion demands on your time or your second job at home or the fact that you don’t exercise enough, but because the man who is your boss, CEO, director or department head looks at you with a kind of innocent certainty as if he would never, ever, ever treat you inequitably. As if, he would never pre-judge a situation even though he has just asked you to take the high road and apologize to the (male) subordinate on the grounds that he knows you want to be an assistant director and this is what good administrators do. Really? Why is it that some men in leadership positions think women need a different kind of guidance than the men who also work for them? Why is it we can’t create an accurate rubric of the skills necessary to lead in addition to skills necessary for success that aren’t gender-based?

In researching Women+Museums, we’re reading a lot of literature about women in the workplace. If this type of book isn’t taking up space on your bedside table, take it from us, there are more of them than you could reasonably get through in a year. There are the well-known books like Lean-In and Thrive, there are books about decision making, about women who can’t ask for things, about raising children even though 60 percent of the time someone else is raising them because you’re at the office, and there are countless books about what to do if you’ve been wronged in some way or if you lack confidence.

One we’ve found useful is What Works for Women at Work and here’ s why. The mother/daughter authors, Joan C. Williams and Rachel Dempsey are very clear that while many of the most heinous forms of bias have been eliminated from the workplace, that doesn’t mean sexism has disappeared. Williams and Dempsey site four types of subtle bias. See if any of them sound familiar. They are:  Prove-It-Again, where women are forced to prove their competence repetitively; the Tightrope, scenarios where women are written off because they’re either too feminine or too aggressive; the Maternal Wall where having children marginalizes women and their career commitment is questioned; and last, the complex, Tug of War, where workplace pressures lead women to judge each other as if there were one right way to be a woman. Williams and Dempsey are critical of many earlier books on women in the workplace because in their minds those books ask women to change rather than looking at the institutions the women work for to change. In other words: don’t fix us, fix the system.

This is what we’d like to do, albeit in a small way, with Women+Museums in the museum world: to pull the curtain back, start talking about gender in an open and honest way, and make whatever changes need to be made.

As always, let us know your thoughts.

Joan H. Baldwin