Tuesday, April 7, 2009

What Makes a Good Museum Leader?

In the US, I often think about museum leadership--I've been a director and have worked with many directors. Are leaders of any organization, including museums, made or born? During my time here in Ukraine I've met a number of museum directors, and just like in the US, they run the gamut from energetic and forward-thinking to protectionist and, unlike the US, perhaps corrupt. And as always, I often reply on Anne Ackerson's blog, Leading by Design, to generate new ideas and perspectives. It's a challenge to think about leadership here--the cultural norms are very different. The other day, when I pressed a museum director about his comments, I saw many eyes widen with surprise. It's just not done. I've done my very best to be a good listener here, but in this case I felt it important to ask more questions.

Even though the Soviet Union came to an end two decades ago, the bureaucratic system remains in full force. Most museum leaders came of age before the end of the Soviet system and many still reflect those perspectives. One of the surprises to me, perhaps incredibly naively, is how unegalitarian museum workplaces often seem to be. Some museum staff do all but genuflect to their director, saying of course, whatever he wants is what they will do. I know that occurs in the US as well, but in these situations I find that talented staff are undervalued, and that directorial decisions are made, not on the basis of what is best for the organization, but what is best for the director. I also see that little supervision actually happens. Many people are left alone to do their job, but never really are encouraged to understand how their work moves the organization forward and connects to audiences.

Virtually all museums here are state-run institutions, and so, once you have a museum job, although it may pay incredibly badly, you probably have it for life. I've been surprised at the number of directors who have direct family connections to museum founders, collectors, or former directors--these jobs seem to be often hereditary.

But...and it's a big important but...I see other museums where directors are learning new skills and inspiring their staff. At one workshop, a staff member says, "we do not know how to write grants--what will we do?" and with a gentle, but firm smile, her director says, "We will learn." At another, the director, as one of her first acts, renovates staff offices to improve morale--and does her own office last. At still another, the director's passion for her subject inspires others on staff to work together to do new projects that directly connect to audiences. As I write this though, I notice that many of these inspired directors I have met are women. Not all, but many.

In a way, this connects to other parts of life I see in Ukraine. According to some measures, the life expectancy of a Ukrainian man is only 55; while for women it is (still only) 64. In one conversation, a colleague thought it was because the end of the Soviet Union was very hard on men--their roles had changed and they no longer knew what to do.

But here, women just figured out how to cope. And it's not just museums--another colleague tells me that most grassroots environmental organizations here are run by women. And it even spreads to small entrepreneurs--it's mostly women running the small kiosks that are everywhere in the city selling newspapers, cigarettes or snacks; the babushkas selling vegetables or flowers in the subways are, by definition, women. Several of my young students are married, have children, and are working towards their masters' degrees--and often hold jobs as well. Women work very hard here, and I think they develop the skills and motivation to move forward, to not spend time lamenting a time passed.

Resiliency and an ability to embrace change--maybe that's what makes a good leader.

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