Leading Means Being More Human

Written by Mike Murawski

In an April conversation with New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman about leadership in times of crisis, business expert Dov Seidman stressed the need for business leaders to put people ahead of profits and heed the call to pivot in ways that are anchored in “deep human values.” Seidman ends the exchange by saying, “Leaders who in this pause hear that call … will be the ones that will earn our most enduring respect and support.” I found it worth noting that as the initial economic impact of the pandemic hit, Seidman was tapping into something that most museum directors and boards were not: the importance of people—and, I would add, the deeply human values that lead us to care for each other first before we panic and obsess about the bottom line.

As the grim picture of revenue loss and budget shortfalls have become apparent for many museums during the COVID pandemic—especially for larger institutions—we have repeatedly seen people in leadership positions deciding to prioritize balanced spreadsheets and protecting endowments over connecting with and supporting the people that make up their organizations. I see this as indicative of the problems with leadership that I outlined in my previous post, a model of leadership in which the decisions of one person (or a small few) are based in a desire to preserve power and authority.

Counter to this, I have spoken with a few directors at institutions faced with the same financial problems that have nonetheless refused to lay off staff. The reason for this, one director said, was because “it didn’t feel like the human thing to do.” They were willing to be more human at a time when those following the traditions of leadership were protecting themselves, hoarding power, and hiding behind hollow public relations statements. They were refusing to perpetuate harm at a time when trauma was all around us.

During the Radical Support Collective’s four-week reading group on ‘leadership in times of crisis’ that I was a part of back in April, we read Who Do We Choose To Be? (2017) by Margaret Wheatley, a teacher and leadership consultant best known for her classic 1992 text Leadership and the New Science. While I still have many questions about Wheatley’s thoughts on leadership, one quote early in her book resonated with me in this particular moment. Her words have helped me understand the vital importance of transforming leadership, specifically, as part of the work to change museums. She writes:

“I know it is possible for leaders to use their power and influence, their insight and compassion, to lead people back to an understanding of who we are as human beings, to create the conditions for our basic human qualities of generosity, contribution, community, and love to be evoked no matter what.” (8)

Better Humans Make Better Leaders

Embracing a human-centered mindset in museums asks us to elevate care, relationship building, and collective well-being as integral elements to our institutions’ values and culture. It is about putting all human beings (not just visitors or audiences) at the center of our organizational thinking rather than collections, big donors, endowments, curatorial silos, or shiny capital projects. For those in leadership positions, I think this means setting aside ego, stepping back, learning to listen in radical ways, and making decisions based in care and deeply-held human values—and doing this all while it runs counter to conventional thinking, entrenched legacies of leadership, and the expectations of funders.

In his 2019 book Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up, leadership development expert and executive coach Jerry Colonna writes about how the habits and behavioral patterns of CEOs have been detrimental to their own well-being and the well-being of others. On page one, he states:

“I believe that better humans make better leaders. I further believe that the process of learning to lead well can help us become better humans.” (1)

In my copy of Colonna’s book, these two sentences are heavily underlined. I remember reading this for the very first time, and just sitting with it. I was in the middle of a particularly challenging decision, and I was looking for guidance on how to move forward. Much of Colonna’s book and practice is focused on radical self-inquiry and finding ways to listen deeply to our own hearts. I thought about how white dominant culture and traditional gender norms teach us to resist this vulnerability and instead put up a façade of confidence and decisiveness. Make the decision, stand by it, get back to work, and move on.

Being a more human-centered leader—and leading from a place of deeper human values—requires us to resist this pressure to perform the rigid expectations of ‘leadership’ that are harmful. It requires us to slow down and ask ourselves a series of meaningful questions:

  • What is my work to become a better human?
  • What is my own power and privilege within society and within the structures of this institution?
  • In what ways have I been making decisions based on the norms and expectations of a toxic workplace culture?
  • How am I complicit in creating or reinforcing the conditions of a toxic work culture?
  • How can I break free from existing and traditional expectations, and lead from my heart and from a place of humanness—despite the risks or consequences?

After all, as Colonna writes, “Power in the hands of one afraid or unwilling to look into the mirror perpetuates an often silent, always seething violence in the workplace” (181).

This process of self-inquiry is ongoing, and we need to practice holding space for qualities such as care, compassion, healing, deep listening, emotional maturity, and a sense of interconnectedness with other human beings and with our planet. It is a practice that we can cultivate and grow through journaling, meditation, mindfulness, dialogue with others, building a community of support with those who truly value these qualities, and learning from work being done outside the field of museums in social justice, restorative justice, community organizing, nonviolent communication, climate activism, and healing practice. These are not ‘soft’ skills, as they have frequently been referred to as a way to write off and devalue them. These are essential skills. At a time when our society is in urgent need of care & healing, being a more human-centered leader means making a commitment to create the conditions for these qualities—and the individuals who uphold these qualities—to thrive.

Breaking Through the Resistance

Some of you might be having trouble processing how any of this relates to leadership (or, at least, the ideas of leadership you’ve held dear for so long). Or you might be thinking that, while this all sounds nice, it is just not practical within the ‘reality’ of an organization. You might even be thinking to yourself: I get all of this, but will my employees and team respect me if I am more vulnerable and more human?

You are not alone. The entire construction of ‘effective leadership’ in our minds has been built up by the systems of white supremacy, patriarchy, and corporate capitalism (for more on white supremacy & white dominant culture in museums, see my earlier post here and a really good Incluseum post here). So it makes some sense that you are feeling resistance to any suggestion that you uproot these entrenched ideas. But trust me, we need to let our reticence and resistance go, and open ourselves to new ways of doing things. Not only are these outdated norms of leadership holding our organizations back, they are harmful to us, those we work with, and the communities we are aiming to build connections with. Ask yourself why unfixing and rethinking your ideas about leadership makes you uncomfortable or defensive? What might be causing you to be fearful of change, in both a personal sense and an organizational sense? What is the worst thing that will happen if you make a commitment right now to being a more human and empathetic leader?

Being More Human Together

The work of transforming museums and nonprofits into more human-centered organizations is certainly collective work—no one person, no matter how much self-inquiry they do, is going to bring about transformative change alone. And changing our ideas about leadership is also a collective and collaborative endeavor.

The rise of initiatives, organizations, and groups such as Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action), the Empathetic Museum, Museum Workers Speak, Museums Respond to Ferguson, Museums and Race, Museum Hue, Decolonize This Place, Art + Museum Transparency, Museums Are Not Neutral, and others have all elevated care, justice, transparency, equity, relationships, human connection, and empathetic-centered action as transforming forces for museums and cultural organizations. These campaigns and movements, along with many others, are filled with leaders willing to make a difference, stand up for what’s right, and take care of our communities and each other. We’re seeing that happen right now in so many ways, including the powerful mutual aid fund created by Museum Workers Speak in response to the massive lay-offs across the museum sector. Through the leadership of so many individuals, these groups have developed resources, toolkits, rubrics, and roadmaps that offer support, thorough research, and assessments aimed at dismantling oppressive structures and practices. So for anyone feeling isolated or struggling to make change happen within your organization and its leadership, there is a growing movement here to support you.

More to Come…

This is the second post in a series called “Leading Towards a Different Future” that takes a deeper dive into ideas about leadership and some steps for taking action. I am, of course, open to questions, conversation, and bringing together more ideas that can help us move toward changing museums.

Upcoming posts in this series will explore what it means to stand apart and lead from the heart, how and why to adopt collective and non-hierarchical models of leadership, the need to develop and recognize leadership everywhere in our organizations, and what action steps can be taken to build a different kind of leadership for museums.

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About the Author

MIKE MURAWSKI: Independent consultant, change leader, author, and educator living with his family in Portland, Oregon.  Mike is passionate about transforming museums and non-profits to become more equitable and community-centered. After more than 20 years of work in education and museums, he brings his personal core values of deep listening, collective care, and healing practice into the work that he leads within organizations and communities. Since 2011, he has served as Founding Editor of ArtMuseumTeaching. Mike is also currently the co-producer along with La Tanya S. Autry of Museums Are Not Neutral, a global advocacy campaign aimed at exposing the myth of museum neutrality and calling for equity-based transformation across museums. In 2016, he co-founded Super Nature Adventures LLC, a creative design and education project based in the Pacific Northwest that partners with parks, businesses, and non-profits to design content, illustrated maps, and interpretive resources aimed at expanding access and learning in the outdoors and public spaces. When he’s not writing, drawing, or thinking about museums, you can find Mike on long trail runs in the forests and mountains of the Pacific Northwest.

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