Teachers and Leaders: What Kind of Museum Leader Are You?


In my world we opened an exhibition this week, but more importantly we began school. As the school’s curator I am embedded with its Humanities classes so this week, once again, I found myself in the classroom. And as I sat through opening days, I was reminded, not for the first time, how much the life of the classroom is reminiscent of staff meetings, how much good teachers are good leaders and what each has to learn from the other.

Some teachers open the year with a logistic framework just as some leaders begin with a run down of the week, month or season to come. Here is the list of readings. Your assessments (read events, exhibitions, publications if you’re in the museum world) will take place on these dates. The marking period ends here. In a museum we’re reminded of our to-do lists and our roles. Or we remind others. Everyone introduces themselves and we learn a little bit about the teacher. If it’s a first meeting for a new director something similar happens. All good. All useful.

On Thursdays though I went to English with a very talented teacher who took a slightly different tack. He began by asking  students to tell him one thing about themselves. The answers ranged from someone who has a grass allergy to their number of siblings, number of pets, types of hobbies. Then he asked everyone to read Tom Wayman’s poem “Did I Miss Anything?” If you haven’t read it, you can find it here. While it’s a poem weighted with sarcasm, the message is clear: bring your best self to class; participate authentically; understand that the time devoted to class or to staff meetings can never be recaptured. The discussion was aimed at the importance of full participation. At one point the teacher asked the class whether they had experienced having a class come to an end and realizing they hadn’t any real idea what had happened. I suspect I’m not alone in having a similar thing happen at meetings.

Which brings me to the question of how meetings (department, staff, program) are different or similar than classrooms. I haven’t met too many leaders willing to be as direct as this teacher is and yet I wonder how that would work out. I’ve known leaders whose idea of being direct was entirely transactional. I have a vision. I will tell you how that vision should be fulfilled. You will do it. We will talk. I will point out how you could be better next time. (Or the abbreviated version which goes something like, “Bring me a rock. No, not that rock, a different rock.” And yet what happened in class this week wasn’t that at all. It was expressed as a hope that changes in individual behavior would create an improved group dynamic. The hope that students who do the reading and come with one thought they want to explore have the power to change the class. The hope that by being truly present, by speaking in response to what’s on the table they will drive the conversation forward and create something. When that happens, staff don’t have to ask, “Did I miss anything?” when something keeps them from a meeting. They know the answer is yes.

So what’s your leadership style when it’s your turn to run a meeting? Have you mastered asking for behavioral changes without sounding like a preemptory librarian? Have you thought about how asking for change from individuals creates change in the group? Do you have the patience to wait for group chemistry to happen or would you rather have your wishes fulfilled immediately? And which is more important, that you push and prod your staff to be the best they can be or that you get the job done? Because to be fair that’s probably the biggest difference between the classroom and the museum’s back office. In a classroom the “product” if you will, is the student, that she absorbs content, yes, but more importantly that she’s nurtured to be the kind of person we want around the museum staff table some day. Museums, in fact most businesses or non-profits, want that person to arrive fully formed: smart, intentional, a good listener, creative. Sadly, not everyone learns that in the classroom. Maybe you don’t need to, but if your meetings sometimes suffer from too much window gazing or under the table texting, maybe asking for change isn’t a bad thing? After all who can object to the opportunity to be their best selves?

As always, we’d love hearing how you lead.

Joan Baldwin

Are You a New Museum Leader?


Perhaps because I work at a school, September always marks the start of the year. And as this summer draws to a close, I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a new leader, not only because we have an interim head of school, but we are in a search for a new long-term leader.

Our interim head is an experienced person who, if he were a different sort, would be taking long walks on the beach and thinking deep thoughts, his working life over. But he’s made a life not only of leadership, but of being an interim. And we’ve all pinned a lot on him. Will he be change agent or maintainer?

Thinking about the months to come, made me wonder how many of you are starting new jobs, either as directors or department heads, and as you step into your office for the first time, whether you ponder what your staff think about you. Because I can assure you, they are all expecting something different. There are the naysayers, who are certain you and any other new leader will fail. In their minds, the job is too complicated and you can’t possibly understand what’s happened. They see the institutional history as a lengthy mistake-ridden narrative iced with gossip. You, poor benighted soul, cannot lead in a way that’s meaningful because you simply can’t cope with such a complex plot line.

Then there are the completely disengaged, those who tell you it really doesn’t matter who’s in your office, it won’t affect them. Or there are the folks who are convinced you’re the second coming. They have an almost Messianic zeal for your institution and they are waiting for you to right every wrong and also take care of the leaks in the west wing, and raise enough money so the museum won’t have to do that Holiday fundraiser, which they loathe. What’s interesting about these people is they have a very specific agenda and assume it must be yours as well. They also assume that their needs are everyone else’s. They will become naysayers when you don’t seem to be following through on their list.

There are also genuinely happy folks, busily engaged in work. Their needs may be more personal. They may hope you will challenge them, push them toward goals they haven’t yet thought of. Last, there may be some new staff, just like you. They are the ones who look like deer in the headlights. Not only do they not have a clue about what’s going on, they’re also terrified that what little they do know will change when you start talking.

So who will you be? And how will you adapt to the myriad expectations of your staff? Wait for it….yes, I’m going to say it…be yourself. It’s an old saw, but I assume, as you should, that whoever hired or promoted you, did so because they liked you. They intuited the youness of you and that’s what made them select you out of the thousands of eager souls with newly tweaked LinkIn pages.

And if you’ve been reading this blog for a while you know when we say be yourself, we mean the same authentic self you leave home with in the morning and bring to the workplace. That self knows where true north is, but doesn’t let its hair down and over share.

Clearly if you’ve met any of the folks in the list above, you know that pleasing all of them is about as likely as emptying a pond with a sieve. You can’t do it and you will make yourself and everyone else crazy if you try. In fact, I would argue that you’re not there to wave your wand and grant the staff’s wishes. You’re there to speak for the institution, which holds the public trust, and can’t speak for itself. You’re there to chart its course, in concert with your community, your board, AND your staff. So be your one true self. Bring your institutional vision to meetings, but be willing to wait. Hear all those folks with their different needs and agendas out. Lead, don’t manage. Listen, don’t dictate. And, above all, enjoy the adventure of charting a new course.

If you ARE new to your organization or your position, let us know about your experience.

Happy last weeks of summer,

Joan Baldwin

Leading from Wherever You Are


In today’s workplace where the hierarchical model is dead, we are constantly told that we can lead from anywhere. I’ve written about this before, more than once actually, but it’s a concept I struggle with. And it’s certainly easier to write about than to live.

I am the curator for an independent school. For us, May 28 wasn’t just a Thursday, it was the closing day of the semester. For the sophomores class begins with a “check-in.” Today, we ended with a “check-out.” Why does that matter and what does it have to do with leadership? Well, one of the things we talked about–and we’ve been talking about on and off–is group behavior and individual responsibility within a group. This class has struggled all year with group dynamics. Things were so bad in October that we asked everyone to sit up straight, feet on the floor, hands on the table, eyes closed. Then we gave them three minutes to come up with one thing they had done to improve class and one thing they had done to hinder group dynamics. (They were cautioned ahead of time that for this to work everyone had to be willing to be vulnerable.) They were remarkably forthcoming. Of course, they are 15-year olds, but nonetheless. And no, things weren’t perfect following that “Come–to–Jesus” moment, but they were better. So today in our “check out” we looked back to gauge how far we’d come. And what came out of that discussion is what’s important to leadership for adults as well as students: that everyone in a group, whether it’s a classroom, a board meeting or a department meeting, bears responsibility for the outcome. Not everyone has to speak, but  everyone–not just the teacher, department head or director–has a responsibility to those around the table.

When you understand that you are as responsible as your director for the success of a meeting, the dynamic changes. Imagine if you feel responsible, not just to the agenda, the project, the exhibit, whatever, but to your fellow teammates, Visualize what might happen. Because it’s in those moments where I think it’s possible to lead even if you are not the person at the front of the room. I’m not saying it’s easy. It needs to be intentional, and it’s certainly better if everyone buys in, but it works.  So, if you’re not the person with “director” after her name, here are some ways leadership can happen from where you’re sitting.

  • You lead when you listen.
  • You lead when you don’t interrupt.
  • You lead when you turn the conversation to someone who hasn’t spoken or perhaps never speaks and ask what they think.
  • You lead when you sum up discussion, making sure you and your colleagues understand what’s being asked of you.
  • You lead when you model kindness and respect, and when you allow time for your colleagues to reflect on a new initiative.
  • You lead when you partner with someone who never partners.
  • You lead by raising your hand.
  • You lead when you’re not an eye-roller.
  • You lead when you’re enthusiastic about change.

So if you dwell in the middle–not the corner office–tell us how you lead. Because honestly, if 10th graders can model this kind of behavior, adults should be able to as well.

Joan Baldwin