July 16, 2020
While museums are facing the pandemic, whether or not to re-open their physical doors, and anti-racism movements, museum leadership has been brought into question on how leadership could evolve to have a more people-centered focus. Earlier this week I came across the post on Leadership Matters called “Flat Hierarchies versus the Corner Office But What Matters is People”, written by Joan Baldwin, on the state of museum leadership during this pandemic and the rise of anti-racism movements. This post made me reflect on my experiences as a leader and on my previous thoughts on museum leadership expressed in the blog.
According to the Leadership Matters post, the COVID-19 pandemic and anti-racism movements exposed a lot of inequities that exist in the United States and in the museum field recent events led many to call for a new kind of leadership that is less paternalistic and hierarchical, more collaborative. In other words, museum professionals are looking for different ways to lead in the museum that does not support inequity, low pay for front-line staff, corruption, et. cetera. Baldwin raised a number of questions in address of this call:
But what does less hierarchical really look like? What if there is no leader, just a leadership team? Sounds great, right? Everybody plays to their strengths and happily gets the work done. But what happens in a crisis when decisions must be made quickly? What if the team can’t come to consensus? Or what if other members of the staff quickly learn to play one member of the leadership team against another to ensure decisions go their way?
Leadership has a number of considerations when faced with fast decision-making opportunities especially during a pandemic we all continue to face at the time of this blog post. The system of leadership looks different for each museum, institution, and non-profit organization, and no one answer can address all concerns each one has when figuring out how to lead. To determine the answers for questions like the ones posed above, if they are looking to change their approach to leadership, each institution and non-profit should examine what their own needs are before considering any change.
In addition to considering how to answer leadership questions, museums need to be reminded of not just who they serve but who is a part of the team within the museum walls. Baldwin pointed out that to be a museum leader is to also be a people person. In other words, she stated:
It means being someone who understands it’s not about you or about the content that brought you to the field in the beginning, but instead about the team you lead, and the people and careers you nurture. The absence of leaders who actually care about staff creates institutions where bullying is rife, where hot-shot attorneys are hired to defeat unionization, where sexually harassed women are told to go work things out with their co-workers is a horrific and bothersome bi-product of this absence of leadership.
Understanding that museums are run by people who are human with limitations is a significant part of being a leader, and based on the number of cases that have been shared on how front-line staff have been treated it seems that many museums have forgotten this fact. As well as remembering my experience in the museum field, this section of the post reminded me of an early experience I had as a leader, and while it was not in the museum field this experience had taught me the importance of being a people person in the leadership role.
One of my first experiences in a leadership role was back in high school thirteen years ago as a color guard captain. The high school color guard team was a small group with more seniors than other grade levels. By the time I was a senior in high school, one of the members in the same graduating class forcibly took over the captain position; she utilized the position to not listen to any input from myself and other seniors, and other color guard members, and focused on executing her own ideas. Her actions in the leadership role, including insulting and bullying members, led to many color guard members to leave. When she left the high school, I took over the role of color guard captain and worked towards salvaging the team by listening to remaining members on not only their needs but the ideas they had on making the routines better; some of the members that originally left returned to the team. During my experience as color guard captain, I understood the importance of group input since it not only opened my mind to other possibilities for creating color guard routines and remembering their needs as individuals and students, but I also recognized them as future leaders who will be carrying the torch once I graduated. The leadership experience that I have both witnessed and practiced myself had an impact on me ever since. I sought to continue my approach to leadership as a way to not only open myself up to growth but to help foster future generations of leaders move the museum field forward.
Since then I have learned about more responsibilities and considerations leaders face in the workplace to create a strong connection within the communities they serve. In addition to having a connection with the community, leadership needs to be practiced in order to learn how to be a more effective leader. This is especially true in the museum field. In my blog post, “Museum Leadership: What We Need To Do To Develop Our Skills in the Museum Field”,
There is a difference between having the knowledge and actually practicing this knowledge. If museum professionals are under the impression that there are only certain professionals that can exhibit their leadership skills, then we would be hindering our museum professionals and future professionals’ potential. We need to show museum professionals at all levels how leadership skills benefit all of them within the organization. Our field right now is working towards improving the museum workplace throughout the field but there are still issues we need to work through to untangle this web.
When museum leaders practice their skills, they are able to develop the skills they need to connect with other people and evolve as leaders for the future of museums. If museum leaders cannot connect with their staff, volunteers, and board members, then they would be less inspired to be open with their leaders on not only ideas that may help museums move forward but also on their needs as individuals.
To learn more about the Leadership Matters post, check out the link below.
What is your opinion on leadership? Can museums figure out a way to have effective leadership that have their staff’s best interest in mind?