Leadership is always considered top-and-center. It should be everywhere.
If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider scrolling to the bottom and signing up now—it's free and is the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations and learn about upcoming subscriber-only events.
It's been a while since I've written directly about leadership (check out pieces here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and even this recent post on AOC with her thoughts on leaderless movements), but the business press has been, well, busy. As the so-called Great Resignation (read to the end of the links for some really good reading on the GR) morphs for many into the Good Return, museum leaders have to traverse a fine line between boards, department heads, and workers.
Or that's what we want to think. What's really going on? Check out these pieces.
One: Org culture guru Stowe Boyd had an interview with French leadership scholar Céline Schillinger on her idea of "un-leadership." I found it really interesting because so much of leadership is through the lens of old ideas about culture and strategy, not new ideas about the needs of workers who have always been serving customers. Schillinger is focusing on activists as models for leadership:
The activist is a familiar figure in society, mostly associated with political and social issues – human rights activist, climate activist, etc. – sometimes acting as a counter-power to businesses. But the dynamic of activism, in my opinion, has enormous potential for the positive transformation of organizations. We can leverage it to improve the way we work together; to achieve better, faster and more sustainable results.
It's not hard to find parallels between activists and workers in the staff-centered discussions going on in museums right now.
Why is it that leaders – in social, political, and (most importantly) organisational contexts – are seemingly unable to address meaningfully the wicked problems and complex challenges that we currently face? There’s enormous busyness around reconfiguring departments and adopting ‘transformational’ operating models, but in general plus ca change, plus la meme chose.
Is the culprit a cult of busyness, perhaps? Especially in museums—more work is always the answer, more workers the answer to that. The answer is never to find an appropriate level of work for the workers the institution already has (or should have, in the case of antiracism and justice). But that's (sort of) another topic.
Eyewatering amounts of treasure and time are spent in corporate life on leadership development, with people working hard to try and demonstrate that something useful has happened as a result. An entire pseudo-science has emerged to try and prove its worth, in part to justify the economic dividend that goes to those who make it to the upper levels of positional power. The fetishisation of leadership, especially strong leadership, fills our news outlets holding up carefully distorted images of great men (leadership is still deeply gendered) from across the worlds of politics, business, and sports. … the persistently disappeared and unacknowledged constraints that inhibit leaders in every context. … these constraints … are found at large in society and are especially impactful in organisational life.
The business case for investing in the “best” given limited organizational resources appears straightforward: Individuals who have a demonstrated track record of success deserve to be recognized, right? They also seem like sure bets who will benefit the most from development opportunities because they have the requisite experience and capabilities to grow.
A by-product of the leadership development paradox is that the “rest” are typically excluded from those opportunities, creating disparities and perceived inequities within organizations. A longstanding finding of health and policy research is that unequal societies with large gaps between the haves and have-nots have a poorer quality of life. Likewise, organizations with larger gaps between those who do and do not receive development can also be susceptible to organizational disparity.
Additionally, this strategy can violate employees’ expectations. Workers generally believe that organizations have an obligation to provide employees with opportunities for development over the span of their tenure. Failing to fulfill these expectations can ultimately lead to negative consequences, such as poorer work performance, decreased commitment to the organization, and greater intentions to quit.
This article does a decent job on how all workers need the very skills that get them tagged for leadership development in the first place: agility to learn, motivation, a "developmental need." But the article ignores how sometimes it's the org and its current leaders who need to develop so the workers already in place can develop emergent leadership. Is leadership development really developing better organizations?
Four: The difference between being called a leader and actually leading, and what orgs should be developing is detailed in this great piece from Alastair Steward at org culture firm The Ready. It really aligns with my thoughts about the real leaders being those who influence and impact others, not just those who launch initiatives and create more work:
As more employees have realized they deserve to be treated like adults, and that they do their best work with more autonomy, growth opportunities, and connection to purpose, the mismatch between what people need at work and what conventional management provides has become glaring. In parallel, “business thinkers” have realized that incredible business performance is possible when you unlock an organization’s human potential. Those two shifts made it clear that the old vision of “manager” needed to be retired. …
Traditional management isn’t designed to tap into the unrealized resource of human potential; it tends to do the opposite. Servant leadership has good intentions but is still fundamentally limited. If we want to foster effective leadership within our organizations, we need to think about leaders differently than “manager 2.0.” In fact, the aforementioned $366 billion spent annually on leadership development is a strong signal that leadership isn’t just magically happening.
So what’s the alternative? “Out with management and in with leadership!” Except a new name does not a new way of working make. We need a new definition.
Here’s ours: Leadership is creating the conditions for an organization (and the people within it) to fulfill its potential.
A staggering 74% of leadership development is instructor-led training, where participants are provided with training and “best practices” outside of their real work. According to a 2019 article from HBR, “Only 12% of employees apply new skills learned in L&D programs to their jobs; and only 25% of respondents to a recent McKinsey survey believe that training measurably improved performance.”
Again, leadership training isn't actually helping the org, it's just separating potential leaders from fellow workers.
A heavy focus on upskilling only managers is one major issue with conventional leadership development. The statistics above illustrate the other: Turn-key, context-free training doesn’t work.
Most leadership development is optimized for ease of delivery (via a course or a conference) versus impact. If leadership development exists as a line item in a budget, it’s easier to check a box and say “Done” than it is to provide someone with a series of messier, context-laden experiences (and the support to learn from them) that might actually develop their capabilities. And even if this training developed the capabilities it’s meant to, those skills — like being inspiring, giving feedback, cascading strategy, building consensus, and influencing — often aren’t what’s most important for effective leadership.
The damage is compounded when managers return to work determined to lead. As they try applying the best practices they’ve been taught and find little or no positive change, they end up feeling frustrated and disillusioned. Their feedback isn’t improving performance; their vision isn’t boosting engagement; their cascaded objectives aren’t increasing alignment; and the new status reporting SOPs aren’t increasing accountability.
Zing! Read the whole damn thing.
Five: Rabble-rousing website Corporate Rebels writes about the "veil of ignorance" for leaders, that leaders not knowing what's going on in the org is deliberate (as I wrote here). While one can imagine a counter-argument—how can a leader know everything going on below them in the organization?—that might be a sign of an overly complex organization. (Stay tuned for a future post on how AI is being touted as a way to use data to make sense of our necessarily complex organizations.) The article asks, what museum org would we design if we didn't know what our role was going to be—Director or front-of-house for instance? It's a fascinating and necessary experiment.
Six: Org design firm SYPartners had a piece on something they call "Liminal Leadership." They outlined six "acts" of this more holistic view of being a leader among the led:
Mantra is not a “self-talk” approach (e.g., “I am excited”), nor is it a fake it till you make it technique. A defining feature of a mantra is that it’s an expression of true thoughts and feelings that might not be accessible naturally. The legendary 19th century theater director Konstantin Stanislavski devised similar techniques as a way for actors to get explicit about subtext — what was really going on between characters — and to channel their authentic emotions into the portrayal of a fictional character to make the action truthful. To engage with this process, Stanislavski asked his students: “Haven’t you noticed, whether in real life or on stage, during mutual communication, sensations of strong-willed currents emanating from you, streaming through your eyes, through your fingertips, through the pores of your body?” Mantra focuses or channels these “strong-willed currents” or impulses, even those that are dormant beneath the surface, to forge a clear, unambiguous connection between the actor’s behavior and intentions.
So now it's acting advice? My morning pre-meditation mantra is a reminder of why I'm doing daily sitting and what's behind my own veil of ignorance and delusion. But it's also a reminder to be humble, that it's a practice because I continue to fail—and be human—not a demand to myself to be strong-willed.
Nine: We can take a breather with this HBR piece on being supportive leaders—again, the article is aimed at managers, but I think the advice is the same. The six recommendations for managers when dealing with their reports—validate their experience, seek to understand, guide emotional and physical support, offer specific support, invite perspective instead of prescribing a solution, and acknowledge and appreciate them—are useful for anyone dealing with traumatized and colleagues, and even when practicing self-compassion.
Ten: Finally, I found this HBR piece interesting for the way it seemed to be outsourcing the care of workers from leaders to managers. I can understand—as I'll be writing later this month, middle managers, and indeed anyone in a "middle" role in their organization, are supposed to be the front lines of leadership—but it seems to acknowledge that leaders can't care too much for workers, which I think is a capitalist fallacy.
Since you made it this far, I have some leadership bonus reading for you!
Bonus one: Here's more Corporate Rebels, this time on blowing up the org chart. Their solutions in this short piece are mostly technical and platform-based, but that's only because organizationally they are devaluing singular leadership.
Bonus two: Here's a good piece from Quartz on how leaders and other influential people in the org can decenter themselves in meetings and other work-public settings.
Bonus three: Finally, I'm going to write more about this HBR article later because it's packed with useful myth-busting about organizations in perpetual crisis mode. Here are some of the things that orgs have claimed they can't do in the face of remote work: can't keep their culture sound over virtual meetings, can't have peer coaching (only HR- and consultant-led), can't open up internal opportunities (which I've written about here) to counter the Great Resignation. Definitely check this piece out.
Thanks for reading—and, remember, you are already a leader. That might be this week's liberation reminder, to stop chasing titles and climbing the org chart like a game of Donkey Kong. (And remember that even if you're not classically ambitious, your org might put you into a cycle of ambition that's hard to escape from.) A better, more liberated organization finds leadership emerging from everywhere, inside and outside the institution. It should be our goal to assist that emergence.
If you're reading this and not a subscriber to Museum Human, consider signing up for a free subscription below—it's the only way to read the site's longer weekly post on the organizational culture of cultural organizations and learn about subscriber-only events. Thank you for reading!
cover image by Alexander Mils / Unsplash [description: a chessboard viewed from behind the black king and a row of pawns]