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Flat Hierarchies versus the Corner Office But What Matters is People

Alex1ruff - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0,

COVID-19 and antiracism have pulled the bandaid off so much in American life, exposing and highlighting inequity after inequity. So it's no surprise, museum leadership is under fire as well. It's an emperor-has-no-clothes moment as staffs call out directors, boards remove directors, and directors sometimes behave just horribly. As a result many have called for a new kind of leadership, less paternalistic, less hierarchical, more collaborative; you know, the kind of unimaginably perfect working environment we all think we want.

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?

Another issue about team governance versus individual leadership is that the team needs to be highly disciplined and self-motivated. Otherwise one member--likely the compulsive one, who's still answering emails at night-- is sure to shoulder more work than the others. While this may work temporarily, in the long term it's bound to fail as it requires too much of one individual without the requisite compensation. And speaking of compensation, there are many in the museum world who expect and occasionally demand a straight glide path to their "top spot." In disrupting that pattern, a leadership team can produce a situation where members aren't mentored properly, and consequently struggle to move out and up.

On the positive side, when problems don't need to migrate to the top office, decision making can be swift. In addition, by removing the traditional high-paying director's position in favor of the more egalitarian leadership team, boards eliminate the huge friction-causing problem of a museum president who makes many thousand times more than their lowest-paid full-time staff. And last, by its very nature a team may engender more risk taking, more creativity and entrepreneurship that a traditional director/president supported by department heads.

So where's the hitch you ask? Why isn't everyone doing this? I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest two answers: First, the museum world is traditional, hierarchical and patriarchal. Based on AAM's 2017 Board Source survey, 55-percent of the people who make leadership decisions for museums are white, male board members over the age of 50, and their knowledge base and comfort level is all about the hierarchy. Second, and probably most important, is in order for the leadership team model to work, everybody on it has to act like a leader. No surprise here, but in my humble opinion, leadership is often an absent ingredient in too many museums and heritage organizations. In many museums it's proffered sometimes as a reward and sometimes as a career full-stop when in fact it is anything but. Leadership is a practice, a way of behaving within an organization. Being a museum director or president asks you to be the primary person who leads, but not the only person who acts like a leader.

Yes, there are museums and heritage organizations where people have big salaries, chic clothes, the right languages, the right degrees, and fancy perquisites, but in the end, a huge part of being a good leader means being a people person. 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.

Museums are made up of people. Whether those skills coalesce in a team of five with no top spot or in a single, much-revered individual, they are still absolutely necessary in creating humane institutions where staff take risks, think creatively, and trust one another. Because guess what? Leadership matters.

Joan Baldwin


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