“Contrary to what I believed as a little girl, being the boss almost never involves marching around, waving your arms, and chanting, ‘I am the boss! I am the boss!’” —Tina Fey from her book Bossypants
I’d have to agree with Tina, leading people isn’t about the status it affords you. It’s about creating a work environment that encourages thoughtful participation by all employees. In the case of museums it’s also about creating an environment in which visitors want to participate. (For a thought-provoking read on how museums are negotiating a shift toward a more participatory model I recommend an article by Adam Gopnik in The Walrus from June 2007 called “The Mindful Museum.” Nowadays, museums may even be asking themselves if the ideal would be to have visitors who feel comfortable enough with and connected enough to the content before them to wander the galleries chanting, “I am the boss! I am the boss!” Can you imagine this kind of ownership? Maybe it would be more like, “Art is the boss. But I’m definitely a collaborator!”
In my last blog, Museum Leaders in the Making, I gave a broad-stroke introduction to NextGen, a museum leadership program I attended back in March. In my blog I promised to follow-up with a few more posts that dig deeper into the issues and ideas that surfaced in my first reminiscence. The first lesson in leadership: hold one’s self accountable for following through on promises made. (Hence, blog #2 albeit delivered a little later than I’d hoped.)
In this blog I’m going to expand upon one of the Facebook status updates I made while in California that considers subjectivity and adaptability in leaders and leadership. What will blog 3 look like? Not sure yet. If you have any opinions based on what you’ve read in my first two entries, please let me know. Some contenders are work-life balance and thoughts on modulating between personal and professional arenas; looking at the heightened competition and demands museums face in an ever flatter world robust with choices; the power of metaphor in understanding one’s organization; and decoding organizational structures.
On to the status update … Basically, I posted quotes from one of the week’s scholars, Bill Sternbergh. “You see the world as you are not how it is.” Also, “as the boss it’s your responsibility to adapt rather than expecting others to change.”
Let’s separate out the two bits. First, “You see the world as you are and not how it is.” This may not be a huge revelation for most of us, but it’s something to be reminded of once in a while: humility. So, in my work I can assume that my understanding of the world is highly subjective. To go even narrower, I can assume that my understanding of my field, museum education, is highly subjective. This isn’t to say a theory I put forward is not based on observation and empirical evidence I’m gathering through research; it simply suggests that my motivations will always be colored by my reading of the current state of __________________(fill in the blank). Perhaps this is why bit number two is so crucial: “as the boss it’s your responsibility to adapt rather than expecting others to change.” Boss in this statement goes beyond the individual manager. What if we think of the boss as a stand-in for the museum? When the museum is understood as (or actively embracing) taking on a leadership role it needs to act more organically and collaboratively than may feel comfortable if it’s going to adapt to the changing needs of its audiences. This sounds simple, but it’s actually quite challenging. Building and nurturing relationships is hard work and this is essentially what goes into creating stronger and clearer pathways for communication between people and between organizations (museums) and people (museum visitors).
Museums as leaders within their communities (and beyond) need to act with intention. This comes from something interesting Douglas McLennan, founder and editor of ArtsJournal, discussed during his NextGen seminar—it’s not just about offering an experience or grabbing someone’s attention, but rather it’s about cultivating relationships. There is a lot of choice in the world today. If museums want people to choose them they need to extend a hand, actively listen, and, to borrow the words of Tate Modern Director Nicholas Serota, “… respond to and become places where ideas, opinions and experiences are exchanged, and not simply learned.” (Here’s a companion piece to the Gopnik article mentioned above: “Why Tate Modern Needs to Expand,” The Art Newspaper , May 2010. Museums need to intentionally invite a new kind of interaction, one that doesn’t do away with the specialized knowledge and talent of curators, educators, exhibition developers, etc., but rather provides opportunities for the commingling of expert voices (“Art is the boss.”) and public contribution (“But I’m definitely a collaborator!”)
A few final nuggets along these same lines:
- The more interaction is allowed the more trust is developed.
- You give up control to gain influence.
- You have to practice relationships to get better at them.
These are statements to grapple with for sure. Solid truths? Maybe. Maybe not. But the way in which the world is operating, and people are wending their way through it, begs that we (you, me, and museums) ask the question. I might edit the second statement to read, “You share control to gain influence.” What do you think?
Blog number three will be coming up in a month or so.
Other Walker blogs that connect with some of the ideas I’m putting forward: