Where You Lead, I Will Follow: The Importance of the Leader-Follower Relationship in Museums

Added to Medium, March 29, 2018

We cannot run museums without the dedicated museum professionals in various department positions. Previous blog posts and recent articles have pointed out why the relationship between leaders and followers are significant in the museum field. In the past, leaders and followers were seen as clearly defined positions within the administration; for instance, leaders make impactful decisions to run the museum while followers do whatever leaders ask them to do as passed down from a hierarchical ladder. Times have changed, however, and the roles are blurred to work together to help museums run.

I learned from my experience over the years that leaders and followers can learn from one another and collaborate together to keep a museum running. After getting my Master’s degree, I began working directly with the visitors as a museum educator in historic house museums in Connecticut. The skills I gained came from both experience working with the public and from colleagues who worked longer at the location than I had. We gathered together whether before and after programs, or during staff meetings to learn how to improve our skills as museum educators. As we gathered for museum educator meetings at the Noah Webster House & West Hartford Historical Society for instance, we shared experiences during the school programs with each other and the Director of Education who also shared information that would help us understand the overall educational goals of the institution.

After I went to Long Island, I began to learn more about the administration perspective of running the museum. I learned about booking programs, running a volunteer program, and other administration tasks at the Long Island Museum. At the beginning of each school program that requires volunteers, the Senior volunteers share their passions as well as their stories that they believed will help the education department. When I started work as both a museum educator and the office assistant at the Maritime Explorium, I learned more about the administrative perspective in running the museum while educating children through STEM activities. The previous examples revealed the overall lesson we should all take away as we continue our museum careers: we learn from each other and work together to have successful programming in museums.

Leaders and followers have varying experiences in the museum field, and they can learn from each of their perspectives to run the museum. Followers typically work directly with the visitors, and learn from the visitors what museum staff and the museum in general can improve on to fulfil its goals. Leaders typically work with the administrative tasks that run the museum such as but not limited to grant writing and ordering materials for programs.

What we need to remember is the museum’s most valuable asset, other than its collections, are its staff, both paid and volunteers. Leaders and followers in the museum field have many contributions to help its museum continue fulfilling the mission. Each museum professional working in a museum have varying needs, emotions, and personality traits, and being able to work effectively with groups and within groups is essential to the museum professional and to the museum’s success in fulfilling its educational mission.

Hugh H. Genoways and Lynne M. Ireland discussed leadership a number of times in their book Museum Administration 2.0 and they emphasized the importance of leadership for all museum professionals within the museum. One of the statements about leadership pointed out there is no one person who is responsible for exercising the leadership skills. In the book, they stated “Leadership is no longer perceived as the solitary province of the person ‘in charge’, rather it is exhibited by every staff member who has the ability to institute change, and does so, however minor that change might be” (4). Each staff member has the capabilities to contribute to museum’s progress based on what they bring to the museum.

Even though our resources now put emphasis on leadership being expressed by all staff members, there is not enough details describing the importance of followers. In the Leadership Matters blog, Joan Baldwin wrote about why followers matter in the museum field. On the followers in the museum field, Baldwin described them as this:

They tend to have more responsibility than authority. They are assistant curators, fund raisers, educators, and volunteer coordinators. Some may go through an entire week and not see a member of their organizational leadership team, and yet all the planning, the vision, and the courage leaders incubate comes to life with the followers. They are the yin to the leadership yang.

In other words, one cannot work without the other. As museum professionals, we need to remind ourselves of the importance of this yin yang relationship in the museum’s organization to successfully run the institution. Leaders and followers should learn to be a part of a team and recognize each other’s strengths.

Baldwin also emphasized that being ineffective leaders and followers will hinder the performance of the museum’s operations. If individuals go on to become leaders without an understanding and an empathy for the qualities of those who follow them, then their leadership practices will suffer. Individuals who are not effective followers tend to be unmotivated and trouble makers that drive productivity down; to have effective followers, museums need individuals who believe that what is shared is important than what is not shared.

To be sure we have effective partnerships between leaders and followers, there are a number of factors that need to be considered. For instance, in one of my blog posts “What is the Right Fit? A Deeper Analysis of Museum Boards”, I pointed out the importance of keeping communication open between museum’s leaders and staff members. I also said that each board and staff member needs to have a clear understanding of their roles and responsibilities. Hugh H. Genoways and Lynne M. Ireland’s Museum Administration 2.0 stated that some of the board responsibilities are but not limited to:

Review and approve policies consistent with the museum’s mission and mandate, and to monitor staff implementation of these policies.
Ensure the continuity of the museum’s mission, mandate, and purposes.
Plan for the future of the museum, including review and approval of a strategic plan that identifies the museum’s goals and ways to attain them, and monitoring implementation of the plan.

When museum leaders are aware of what their responsibilities are, they would be able to understand their roles in helping the staff and the museum effectively run programs and museums’ other functions.

Baldwin also pointed out in her blog post that getting to know the team is essential in being effective leaders. She stated in the blog,

Even if your team is two volunteers and a part-time curator. Listen to them. Value them. Know what motivates them. Welcome the moments when they challenge ideas because it indicates they’re with you, and they want the best for the museum. Figure out ways to remove the barriers with which they may be struggling. Pay them what they’re worth. Thank them.

If museum leaders value and appreciate their followers, there would be a healthy partnership that will successfully run a museum.

All museum professionals have the leadership skills and the ability to follow through on running programs, exhibits, events, et. cetera. We should listen to one another, and work together as a team to accomplish so much for our institutions.

What are some examples you experienced in the leader/follower dynamic? Did you have any challenges when creating stronger partnerships?

Genoways, Hugh H., Lynne M. Ireland, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Museum Administration 2.0, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017.
What is the Right Fit? A Deeper Analysis of Museum Boards

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