At the start of my working life, when people still hired me for my hands instead of head, I would use my excess intellectual energy to improve the work I was doing. I’d redo the archives or tinker with a machine to optimise its output, and I’d learn to race pallet trucks to improve logistics. My behaviour made sure employers liked me, as my ideas helped their business move forward.
The challenge of cultural leadership (any kind of leadership) is that in a rapid changing world, organisations need more ideas to move forward than a few formal leadership positions can come up with, especially when these leaders are also highly involved in management tasks.
This is less an issue of ideas, than the misconception that leadership is a position, rather than an attitude. There are countless great ideas for the future of museums. Unable to find their place in traditional hierarchies, these ideas often result in new, competing organisations. According to Lizzie Muller and Scott East, this challenges traditional leaders and organisations, and requires new approaches to educate future leaders:
“The classic model of cultural leadership education aims to propel mid-career professionals towards directorships. (…) But young practitioners are redefining the future of the arts and culture right now – often through independent spaces and self-initiated projects.”
“This form of grassroots leading by example operates under the mainstream radar and is rarely recognised as leadership. That’s because we mistakenly tend to equate leadership solely with authoritative or hierarchical, rather than relational power. That mistake is bolstered by popular mythologies) of the cultural leader as either artistic genius or strategic businessperson – both of which rely on individual prominence, influence and experience as hallmarks of leadership.”
More than anything, leadership is an attitude, not a hierarchical position. The people best suited to sit at the top of a hierarchy may even not have any of the characteristics typically associated with leaders. Such Level 5 Leaders, according to Jim Collins, combine extreme professional will with personal humility. They create the perfect conditions for others to succeed. Such leadership is very different from the artistic genius with a management course still common in many cultural institutions, and may be much better suited for the challenges organisations face today.
The need for a change in leadership is acknowledged widely. Robert Thorpe and Lucy shaw write:
“The sector needs leaders who can respond to these challenges and who are prepared to experiment and take risks with new business models and ways of working whilst supporting and creating a climate for new ideas.”
In a recent HBR article, Francesca Gina and Bradley Staats describe how leaders (and organisations) behave to become fertile ground for new ideas and learning. Successful leaders focus on failure as much as success; they hire people for their potential and not their past achievements; they focus on long term planning and vision instead of their daily to-do’s (they are, after all, not managers); they take the time to think. Just think: how many ‘leaders’ do you know who are stuck in endless meetings and their email inbox?
The challenge of leadership is not only a challenge for leaders, though. It’s a challenge for everyone. As Cards for Culture co-developer Erik Schilp mentioned (quoted on the wall of at least one major museum conference):
“The qualities of leadership are no longer reserved just for the leaders.”
Neither are the responsibilities of leadership. The type of grassroots leading by example Muller and East mention are not optional for organisations serious about moving forward in this century, they’re obligatory. The formal leaders create the culture and conditions for ideas, while the grassroots leaders have the responsibility to generate and implement them. Together, they move the organisation forward, regardless of their positions.
Leadership is one of the eight themes in the Museum Edition of Cards for Culture. If you play the leadership cards, you can see how leadership affect everything, and is part of everything. It cannot be limited to our formal leaders. New leadership is also a trend card, which you can use to future proof your ideas and strategy. Most importantly, however, Cards for Culture can be used as a tool for grassroots leadership. It allows anyone in your organisation to take responsibility for the creation of meaningful new ideas and the development of the strategies needed to implement them.
Cards for Culture – Museum Edition is developed by Erik Schilp and me and designed by Robin Stam. Support our campaign on Kickstarter before Sunday 22 November 2015, 11:59pm CEST and be among the first to receive a box with 100 high-impact cards for strategy development in museums.