Program Perspective: Museums and 21st Century Leadership

By Randy C. Roberts, Ph.D.

Several months ago I was invited to be part of a Western Museums Association (WMA) 2014 Annual Meeting panel about 21st century museum leadership. I immediately accepted the invitation feeling grateful for the opportunity to join colleagues in dialogue about a topic that I believe to be critical to the essential work of museums in our communities and in society. As the time for that conversation nears, and I am called to reflect on leadership opportunities and challenges, my own leadership work, and the state of leadership in the museum field, I have to admit to feeling a bit disillusioned. As a student of leadership I am often energized by ideas that I believe could bring about great change. In my years of practice as a museum leader I have experienced moments of elation and moments of despair. My belief in the promise of museums has not waivered. At their best, I believe museums can bring people together across differences, problematize norms to advance intentionality in understanding, and create space to engage in the full breadth of being human. For museums to reach this potential, or even come close, I believe that we need to better understand and enact leadership across our organizations. We may have the best intentions, but our success depends on our ability to work effectively both in our organizations and in our communities. And this is the point at which I feel some sense of despair. Leadership is critical, yet beyond conference sessions and occasional articles, little attention is given to what it means to lead in museums. The field of leadership is little understood.

Let me share a bit about my understanding of leadership in museums—with hope that this is just a small taste of the conversation that will take place at the 2014 Annual Meeting. My understanding of leadership is framed by the following definition developed by Professor Richard Couto: “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values.” To me this says that leading is values-centered and based on understanding the self and others; to understand shared values, people must be in relationship. It also tells us that leadership is action-based; leadership happens when people are taking initiative. The second part of my understanding is that museums are complex systems, what Peter Vaill described as environments of “permanent whitewater.” Knowing that complex systems function on the edge of disorder, flowing between randomness and control, I understand change in museums as a feature of their organizational architecture, rather than as an episode that will pass. Understanding museums as living systems presents new ways of understanding leadership. As Margaret Wheatley (2007) says, the challenge to leaders is not to direct or tell, but to “create conditions where human ingenuity can flourish.”

Creating this kind of environment calls for what Ron Heifetz and others have called “adaptive leadership.” This means that problems that have not been faced before cannot be solved by tried and true solutions that experienced managers often bring forward in moments of pressure. Rather, new challenges traverse barriers of knowledge, skill, and function. The solutions may be murky and may not be seen by those in positions of greatest authority. Adaptive leadership suggests that solutions to non-routine challenges are best addressed in the context of shared leadership, recognizing that those in authority do not and should not be expected to have all the answers.

So why am I feeling a bit disillusioned? Because so many times, sessions billed as being about leadership turn out to be about how to get into a position of authority or how to manage the people who are in authority. Because we don’t pay attention to understanding leadership in the same way that we undertake understanding our content areas, pedagogy, or our visitors. Because I think it’s time to acknowledge that museums will do their best work when we are all engaged in leading and when we are engaged in following, when we understand our shared values, and when we have the courage to take initiative together. I’m looking forward to hearing what you think and having a robust conversation in Las Vegas this fall.

Learn more about the 2014 Annual Meeting here.

Randy Roberts is the Assistant Director of the Shrem Museum of Art, a new institution that is scheduled to open at UC Davis in 2016. She also teaches in the JFK University Museum Studies program. Randy holds a Masters degree in public administration from Ohio University and a Ph.D. in leadership and change from Antioch University.



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