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Empowering Leaders in Every Department
By Geri Thomas

Having worked in museums for many years, both in the United States and abroad, I now have the privilege of interviewing museum staff across the country--from directors to administrators--and very often because a board has asked me to step in at what I call a "leadership crisis moment." Recently, these "moments" have ranged from staff asking that a director resign; the hard realities, economic or otherwise, that lead to restructuring departments or entire divisions; staff burnout; or to see why the application of a commercial business model is unable to solve issues of productivity and accountability.

There is a perceived leadership crisis in both the private and public sectors, and leadership theories abound. The tragic world events of the past year and the current disillusionment with business, civic, and religious institutions have called into question our very notions of what leadership is, who can rightly be called a leader, or why leadership matters. Corporations and the private sector have been quick to adopt various leadership theories over the years, for better or worse, but museums are just now beginning to appreciate the value of staff development training in this area. Increasingly, my associates and I are working with museums to offer opportunities to provide leadership training for all levels of staff to meet mission and business goals. The emotional intelligence and primal leadership theories of Daniel Goleman, coupled with Warren Bennis' focus on the individual, and a touch of practical Dale Carnegie, adapt well for the museum community with its social context and emphasis on inclusion and process. Training crafted form these theorists has the potential to empower leaders in every museum department, increase staff potential, and make museums better places in which to work.

Warren Bennis, founding chair of the Leadership Institute at the University of Southern California, has worked extensively with not-for-profit organizations and business alike, and is the author of numerous books and articles on leadership and management theory. Bennis believes that a shift in the paradigm of leadership needs to occur since many myths about leadership pervade our thinking. Two myths that are particularly relevant when working with museum staff are that leadership exists only at the top of an organization, and that leaders are born not made. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Using these principles in museum leadership training sessions, we ask participants to recall what persons were considered leaders in their families and what were the characteristics and traits that made them a leader. In addition to fathers and mothers, other family leaders are named, including siblings, grandparents and an occasional wizened aunt or uncle. When participants are asked who they consider to be leaders in the museum, responses are even more varied--director, department head, registrar, head of a project, the lead visitor service representative, the chair of the board. The characteristics named for both groups include trust, vision, responsibility, empathy, and the ability to share knowledge and make decisions. Through these and other training exercises, it becomes evident that there are many leadership roles within the museum, and that leadership traits are competencies that can be developed through self-reflection and commitment. Sessions like these are particularly useful for museums that are experiencing a lack of accountability among staff, or where individual and group responsibility needs to be bolstered or encouraged.

In his groundbreaking work, Emotional Intelligence, and subsequently in Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman and his colleagues at Harvard reason that how we conduct ourselves and out relationships may contribute more to personal and organizational success than our IQ. The emotional climate within an organization can either make for a productive, balanced--or resonant -- environment, or the opposite can occur: poor working relationships can turn an atmosphere into one of dissonance, doom and gloom. No one wins; few are happy; individuals and the organization struggles.

In our initial interviews with museum staff across the country, we ask the question " what does your museum feel like," based on Goleman's premise that there is a link between the human climate of an organization and performance. Overwhelmingly, initial answers start with the statement that " we are a dedicated staff.....", followed by real concerns regarding the quality of relationships and the lack of communications. We try to tune into the emotional climate of the museum and how individuals give and get information through an exercise where participants discover their unique communication style and learn to recognize and appreciate the styles of others. Less threatening than Myers-Briggs, and more fun, it is an immediate self-assessment tool and a real-time learning experience. It also contributes to organizational awareness and coupled with other activities, can assist in breaking down the perceived divide between the " business" and " creative" sides of the museum.
The long-held leadership model in Dale Carnegie Training emphasizes empowerment--rather than pushing people to meet deadlines and objectives, leadership is more about "creating environments that influence others to achieve group goals." The Carnegie focus is on developing skills or competencies based on people (relationship) skills, self directed individuals and work groups, and leading towards continual improvement. Through activities utilizing some of these principles, participants in our training sessions learn to make shifts towards thinking more as a leader. Where traditionally a supervisor might say " It's your job," or "Your report to me," a more leadership focused statement would be "Tell me how I can support you." In this scenario, people are more readily able and willing to accept responsibility, become accountable, utilize their strengths and knowledge, and work collaboratively. These empowerment principles are particularly useful for museums that recognize the benefits of teams across divisions, departments or functions--leadership and management teams: exhibition development teams; education and programmatic teams, etc.

Museums are not businesses, but they must be run in a business-like manner. The goals of the museum are different than business; instead of profits, museums are driven by their mission, a much more elusive measure of success. Yet museums and museum need to become even more accountable for the work they do. Museum work-life is often not easy. Although museum professionals are the source of progressive, often revolutionary ideas--like inclusion, diversity, the meaningful display of cultures--there remains a large gap in the quality of the museum workplace. Meaningful and productive communications, or lack thereof, accountability, recognition, and compensation are areas cited most often that need improvement.

No single leader can save the day. In museums and in the larger society, effective leadership will need to be based on empowerment, respect, team building and collaboration. What the leadership theories of Bennis, Goleman and Carnegie have in common is the development of the self: self -awareness, self-development, and self-management. This keen awareness of who we are and how relationship skills are vital for individual and group achievement and satisfaction affect the quality of the museum workplace and, ultimately, the way in which the museum presents itself to its varied internal and external audiences.

About the Author

Geri Thomas is President of Thomas & Associates, Inc., a firm that offers staffing, consulting and staff development training to museums and art businesses nationwide. She has conducted numerous leadership sessions for individual museums and boards, and communications and leadership workshops through the American Association of Museums. As Adjunct Professor at New York University, she teaches Museum Management in the School of Continuing and Professional Studies.

Geri Thomas, Thomas & Associates, Inc., NY, 2002

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