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Museum Leaders in the Making

What is your definition of leadership? This was the question posed to me and my twenty-five colleagues on day one of the Getty Leadership Institute’s NextGen program, which took place at Claremont Graduate University in sunny (and snowless) Claremont, CA last month. NextGen is an intensive five-day course designed for junior museum staff interested in […]

What is your definition of leadership? This was the question posed to me and my twenty-five colleagues on day one of the Getty Leadership Institute’s NextGen program, which took place at Claremont Graduate University in sunny (and snowless) Claremont, CA last month. NextGen is an intensive five-day course designed for junior museum staff interested in leading and identified by senior staff as possessing the potential to do so. The posse gathered in Claremont was made up of curators, new media and technology specialists, educators (like me), registrars, project managers, grant writers, exhibition coordinators, and more. We represented three countries, twelve states, and anything from contemporary art to science to antiquities to plants to the history of the New York City subway.  Some of us are currently directing departments and others of us are poised to supervise people and projects in the months and years to come. A few of us hoped to gain insight into the joy and pain of “climbing the ladder.” All of us had a lot to share and even more to learn.

2011 © Getty Leadership Institute at Claremont Graduate University

What I’d like to do over the next few weeks is share some of what I took away from this professional development experience with the hope of shedding light on the concerns and ambitions of a sampling of people invested in the vitality of your cultural institutions. People who are working toward assuring the relevance of these places and their capacity to inspire—learning how to lead in the broadest sense of the word. Think of my blog posts as behind-the-scenes glimpses into how one museum professional shifted her thinking from the micro level of her specialty area (managing a corps of 100 tour guides and participating in the development of interpretive strategies) to the macro level of the psychology of her home organization and, even further magnified, museums generally.

I’ll share the nuts and bolts from my week such as the “syllabus” we lived and breathed, articulate the larger themes that surfaced throughout the week, and offer a selection of my personal “ahas”—approaches to leading that I hope to enact in my job at Walker.

Now, getting back to the question that launched this post: What is your definition of leadership? I can’t remember my exact response, but it was something like, “A leader shepherds people from the idea phase to the action phase.” I do think this is one part of what a leader does; however, I appreciated NextGen faculty member Bill Sternbergh’s definition: A leader makes the world a little more like the way he or she would like it to be. It’s about learning how to most effectively use yourself. He and his colleagues followed this by aptly reminding us that a person volunteers to lead and with leadership comes responsibility—a willingness to accept that people are both messy and beautiful and the ability to focus as best you can on the latter quality rather than dwell on and damn the former. If you’re going to lead (well) you must hone your ability to adapt, empathize, respond, challenge, and offer direction. This charge not only relates to one leading within one’s organization, but also to how museums at large interact with their publics—external leadership, so to speak.

In ending my first post, I’d like to share with you the syllabus for and my Facebook status updates from my week at NextGen. I’ll be building off of them in future posts. Thanks for reading and helping me process. I’d be interested in hearing your own reflections on what it means to lead in your museum, organization, or community. Leave a comment and let’s get a discussion rolling.

Syllabus: NextGen

Day 1: Building a learning community; Looking inward—understanding our multi-rater (“Benchmarks“) feedback and the results of other personality and relationship assessments (This day was about identifying our typical modes of operating and relating, our challenges, and support networks.)

Day 2: Building effective relationships and tactics of influence; Theories of leadership and learning to lead from wherever you are in your organization

Day 3: Conflict management—seeing the growth potential in conflict; Gender and leadership (Here’s some food for thought: the differences within gender are larger than differences between genders.); Team work; Strategic planning

Day 4: Transitions (Biggest learning here were acknowledging that people transition at different paces. Just because I’ve let go of something it doesn’t mean someone else has.); Financial sustainability; Mentors, modeling, and protégés

Day 5: The museum leadership landscape: an open source future (AKA: how are people currently using technology, how does this use affect the way a person interfaces with the world generally, and what does this mean for museums?)

Discussion of life/work balance was interwoven throughout our sessions.

Facebook Status Reports: NextGen

March 13, 2011

Not sure how to feel about business books that investigate the psychological well-being of Tolstoy, conclude that a therapist wouldn’t have helped, and that he just needed a friend to reassure him that time in the “Neutral Zone” was a perfectly normal part of life’s transitions.

March 15, 2011

“You see the world as you are not how it is.” The wisdom of Bill Sternbergh. Good stuff from NextGen 2011 at CGU. Also, “as the boss it’s your responsibility to adapt rather than expecting others to change.” Big fat blog entries coming up when I have consistent internet access. Will let you know when I post.

March 15, 2011 (Post 1)

What are the opportunities and challenges of an intergenerational work environment? How does a vocabulary steeped in class assumptions influence the effectiveness of how museums communicate with their publics? Just a few questions addressed thus far at day 2 of NextGen.

March 15, 2011 (Post 2)

People are beautiful and messy. Try to focus on the beauty. Good advice coming out of another NextGen discussion.

March 16, 2011

I am a citizen of my organization.

March 17, 2011

Let go of having to be right.

March 19, 2011

The grand adventure at Claremont has ended and I feel drawn to these well-known words from Gandhi: “Be the change you want to see in the world.” Blog posts will come in a few days with digests from what I learned this week at the Getty’s NextGen program.