Tag Archives: white supremacy

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.

Upending Our Ideas About Leadership in Museums

Written by Mike Murawski

Since the beginning of this pandemic crisis and throughout the ongoing protests demanding racial justice, we have seen evidence of a wide range of leadership qualities on the public stage—watching national political leaders on TV and through social media, seeing governors and mayors respond to these crises in their own states and cities, and feeling the effects of how those leading our museums and nonprofits have decided to respond.  The behaviors of those in traditionally-defined leadership positions have varied from being fairly brave, vulnerable, and serving the greater good, to acting in ways that are extremely harmful, self-serving, violent, and reprehensible. For museums, we’ve certainly seen this full range of leadership behavior—yet, unfortunately, far too much of the self-serving, harmful kind.

Leadership at institutions including the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Guggenheim, MoMA, Detroit Institute of Arts, SFMoMA, the Getty, New Orleans Museum of Art, Newfields (formerly the Indianapolis Museum of Art), and countless other museums have been called out for their inequitable and opaque decisions to cut and furlough staff, for actions taken to prevent staff from organizing and forming unions, for their role in creating and perpetuating toxic and racist work environments, for sexual harassment and abusive behavior toward staff, for censoring staff and community voices, and for unethical behaviors regarding collections practices, hiring practices, and artwork loan practices. In a few cases so far, demands for accountability from staff, former staff, artists, and community members have led to action—the Executive Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland resigned amid the museum’s problematic handling of an exhibition of drawings by artist Shaun Leonardo, and the Executive Director and Chief Curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Detroit has been fired by the board after charges of mismanagement and racial harassment. In Canada, the President and CEO of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights was forced to step down due to accusations of censorship, racism, and sexual harassment. And the Detroit Institute of Arts Staff Action group is calling for the resignation of the DIA’s Executive Director amidst a whistler blower complaint filed with the state of Michigan and the IRS and claims of a hostile and chaotic work environment at that institution under his leadership.

Rather than these being isolated examples, these behaviors are indicative of a field-wide crisis in leadership—a crisis that has existed for too long, and has been exposed through constant and ongoing efforts to organize and take collective action, increase transparency, and hold institutions and those in positions of power accountable.  As curator, writer, and activist Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell calls out in a recent open letter for Museum as Site for Social Action (MASS Action):

“For far too long our field has been led exclusively by white, cisgenered, male, privileged, overly educated, wealthy, elite, upperclass, heteronormative, ableist, colonist gatekeepers.”

The prevailing notion of leadership has been defined through existing white, patriarchal norms of power, authority, and control as well as the systems of oppression and domination that are so entrenched in museums (for more on white supremacy & white dominant culture in museums, see my previous post here and a really good Incluseum post here). When we use the words ‘leader’ and ‘leadership,’ we are too often only thinking of the single person at the top, the ‘boss,’ an individual who simply holds a job title with words like ‘Director,’ ‘Chief,’ ‘Head,’ ‘President,’ ‘Executive,’ or ‘Chair.’ In a 2017 article for Nonprofit Quarterly, the co-founder of the Nonprofit Democracy Network, Simon Mont, writes, “We have built our organizations around an idea that our leadership should come from either a single individual or a small group,” pointing out the urgent need for this outdated individual-centered understanding of leadership to be replaced. In addition to this narrow idea of top-down decision making, many museums and nonprofits are also replete with poor communication, lack of transparency, overly hierarchical structures, and a distinct unwillingness to change. This all results in the further marginalization of Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Deaf, Disabled, and LGBTQIA staff, volunteers, and audiences. “The dominant organizational structure of nonprofits,” Mont declares, “is unsustainable.”

In her post, Bryant-Greenwell contends that “our museums reflect our leadership.” If, indeed, our museums reflect these behaviors and this broken model of leadership, then museums are certainly in a heightened moment of crisis and concern—which only feels more urgent when paired with the sweeping impact of the pandemic on these institutions and their staff.

Yet with each and every crisis comes a possibility for change.

In the Center for Cultural Power’s recent guide on cultural activism during the pandemic, co-founder and president Favianna Rodriguez reflects that “in moments of disillusion and fractures, there is also an opportunity to sow ideas for a different kind of future.”

Now, more than ever, is the time for us to upend our conventional ideas about leadership and what it means to be a leader; to rethink what it means to bring people together for a collective purpose and shared vision; and to redefine what values and skills are truly necessary to navigate our current crises and shape the future of museums. It is up to all of us to choose to embrace a “different kind of future.”

Reflecting on Leadership

Since the pandemic began closing museums in March, I have spent quite a bit of time taking a step back to reflect on this idea of ‘leadership’ and what it means for museums specifically. Over the these past few months, I have participated in a reading group on ‘leadership in times of crisis’ facilitated by the Radical Support Collective, I have read through piles of articles and several key books on leadership and organizational structures, and I have spoken with many people who currently hold leadership positions within organizations or whom I would define as leaders in the field of museums (even though their institutions have not recognized them as such).

Leadership is something I have consistently thought about in each and every institution I have worked for, experiencing a wide array of leadership styles while also working to shape my own practice of leadership. I have seen and experienced instances of both courageous and paltry leadership, and I have no doubt been the purveyor of such experiences to those reporting to me over the years. Through all of this, I have regularly asked myself: What does leadership look like? What should leadership look like? External pressures and expectations be damned, what does being a leader mean for me?

Over the past several years, ideas of care, healing, and collective well-being have become core to my own personal practice of being an educator, team member, advocate, change agent, and leader.  In so many ways, these values have been shaped by and with others that I have worked alongside, whether in the same department, across different areas of the same institution, or as part of the amazing groups and individuals around the US and world advocating for workers’ rights, demanding equity, and pushing forward a more community-centered and people-centered vision for museums. So as the pandemic hit and I found myself among the thousands of museum workers being laid off from their institutions, these core values have been like my bedrock, my guiding light, my North Star.

Which is why I was really struck by an article written back in April by Kathleen Osta, Managing Director of the National Equity Project. In her piece entitled “Leading through the Portal to Claim Our Humanity,” she frames the current moment of heightened anxiety and uncertainty as a “once in a lifetime opportunity to increase our global empathy—to practice radical compassion—and to pay attention to our collective well-being.” That has resonated with me in such a strong way, especially in my thinking about how we can use this moment to shift our vision of leadership. Osta writes:

“How might we use this global crisis to re-order our priorities and lives in ways that increase our collective well-being?… How might we organize our lives at the interpersonal level and lead change at the institutional and structural level with the awareness that we belong to each other—that every human being is worthy of our attention and care? What might be possible for ourselves and for future generations if we decide to live and lead with this value?”

Rethinking Leadership

I propose that we utilize this incredibly unique and unprecedented moment to seriously rethink what leadership means, and replace worn out conventional ideas with new possibilities.  For me, among the vast and deep thinking out there about leadership, there are four key principles I would like to explore here:

  1. Leadership is human-centered.
  2. Leadership means standing apart.
  3. Leadership is a collaborative, collective, and shared endeavor.
  4. Leadership is everywhere around us.

While I don’t pretend that any of these ideas are new, I certainly wish I had come across them much earlier in my own career; and I think working for ‘leaders’ who more closely embodied these principles would have significantly changed my work within museums, my ongoing relationship to these institutions, and their overall response to the crises of COVID and racial injustice. I see the powerful role that white supremacy and patriarchy have played in developing the accepted traditions and destructive politics of leadership, and what kinds of leadership traits we have been taught to value and which traits we have been taught to actively devalue. Yet it is past time that we unsettle and challenge these norms, demand change from those who hold positions of power and authority, and build a future that celebrates and centers care, collaboration, belonging, and well-being.

More to Come…

This is the first post in my “Leading Towards a Different Future” series that takes a deeper dive into these ideas about leadership and 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.

The next post in this series, “Leading Means Being More Human,” examines the importance of human-centered leadership and the process of radical self-inquiry. Subsequent 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.

*     *     *

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.

No longer in extremis: A letter of resignation & courage

Reposted with permission from Andrea Montiel de Shuman’s Medium page.  Visit to read more from Andrea.

Written by A. Andrea Montiel de Shuman

I have been told that if we stay quiet and play the system, eventually things will change. But how am I supposed to have hope if at my institution decades of museum education and visitor-centered practices were dismantled in a matter of a few years?  Those practices led to the inclusion of my communities. I remember the first day I visited the DIA and saw myself in art, embraced as part of humanity, by the creative collective memory of the multitude of nations. Those practices that made me feel accepted, no longer an alien, because that day the DIA was speaking directly to me: the immigrant, the Mexican, the woman of color — and it told me that I belonged.

“To accept one’s past — one’s history — is not the same thing as drowning in it; it is learning how to use it.”

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About the Author

ANDREA MONTIEL DE SHUMAN is a digital experience designer that focuses on public-facing digital experiences to help visitors find personal meaning in art. Among other collaborations, Andrea serves as Program Co-Chair for Museum Computer Network, as Committee member of the Tech & Media MUSE Awards, and as an Education Program Advisor for the future Smithsonian Latino Galleries, and she has been involved in a number of reflective digital initiatives with Knight Foundation and AAM, mainly discussing ethic/moral implications of emerging technologies. Currently, she is interested in exploring opportunities to use the power of experience to set traditionally underrepresented audiences, especially indigenous communities.