Who Are You Leading For? You or Your Museum?

Everyone Leads

Recently I’ve found myself listening to NPR’s Here & Now, a show I’m ashamed to say I somehow managed to miss. Not only is it good listening, but in the last two weeks I’ve heard two interesting broadcasts that you may also want to hear or read. Friday, Here & Now ran a long piece on women in leadership in American ballet. Don’t be skeptical until you’ve listened. You are free to turn it off if you don’t hear some parallels between the ballet world and the museum world especially those of you who are women.

I also heard an interview with Stanford professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, the author of Leadership B.S.: Fixing Workplaces and Careers One Truth at a Time.  Professor Pfeffer is NOT a fan of blogs like this one. He’s not much on the burgeoning leadership book industry either. He believes there are too many gurus out there, babbling uselessly and working hard to create metaphors out of their personal narratives. I think his exact quote was that “the leadership business is filled with fables.” While he acknowledges the power of stories, he believes all of us need “accurate and comprehensive data, either qualitative or quantitative.” That is probably true particularly for museum land where we wander about with way too little data in the human resource/leadership arena. He also suggested there’s a difference between the values we espouse for our leaders: courage, vision, empathy, for example, and the ones leaders actually possess, and which, for good or for ill, we’re left to follow.

Last, Pfeffer made a distinction between leaders who lead for themselves and leaders who lead for the institution. At its most basic, this is the difference between the classic ego driven my-way-or-the-highway leader and the servant leader. And that made me think. How many of you have worked for someone whose real goal was personal advancement? Was it automatically bad? Over the years I’ve known some very successful leaders in the museum world. They preside over building projects, vast renovations and top-to-bottom programming change, and in some cases, it’s less about the organization as a whole than it is about the leader. Call it resume building. Call it self-centered, but the work gets done and it’s not necessarily shoddy. It’s just more about them than their museum. The flip side of the coin is the proverbial servant leader. Ask her what she does and she’ll say she “serves” as the director for the blah dee blah history museum. Servant leaders are humbled by their work and their sense of purpose overshadows ego and personal gain.

While these are two diametrically opposed styles, I’m not sure there’s a right or wrong here. As long as the leader’s goals are aligned with an organization’s mission, her motivations are somehow less important. That’s from the leader’s point of view though. Working for the servant leader might be vastly different from working for a leader who’s a closet empire builder. Is it naive to assume that what motivates a museum director might also influence how she treats her staff, how she invests in her staff, and the degree to which creativity and risk are tolerated? On the other hand, how could seeing yourself as the museum’s servant not change how you do everything?

Which side of the leadership coin do you find yourself on? Or does it change? And what do you think of the world of leadership self-help? Do you stand with Professor Pfeffer and say just give me the data or are you inspired by others’ leadership stories? We love hearing from you and despite the Professor’s opinions, we don’t have any plans to stop writing.

Joan Baldwin