Story 11: Learning to LeadStory | Print | eMail | Related Media | Archives
Written by Mike Spock
Probably they could be traced back to my dyslexia, my struggle to come to grips with this disability, my sympathetic education at Fieldston School and Antioch College, and my parent's model of progressive activism. Later, at The Children's Museum during the ferment of the 1960s and 1970s, this model fit both me and the times. I guess my values, disabilities, and training wouldn't allow me to do otherwise.
The idea of being a client-centered organization made sense when I finally realized that children's museums are for somebody (i.e. kids and their care-gives) rather than about something. (i.e. science, art, history, or even about the lives of children.) The closest we came to the second—and more traditional—museum M.O. was in the Ruth Harmony Green Hall that included displays of dolls and doll houses, toys and games, or Lito, the Shoe Shine Boy exhibit.
For all my reputation for being an adventurous leader in exploring new territories, I was quite conservative and mainline in some of my decisions. We thought of The Children's Museum as a real museum with real collections. We invested a great deal in maintaining and improving collection care and record-keeping.
When we applied for accreditation with the American Association of Museums—successfully—the visiting committee made a point of noting that the museum had a great collection and took excellent care of these items. I was not about to mess with my deep commitment that TCM was a museum, even as we went full bore in the direction of hands-on learning.
We had a high tolerance for experimentation, for trying things out to see if they worked. But we tried to be honest when things didn't work, and tough on ourselves if we didn't pay attention to the contrary evidence.
We prided ourselves in seeking out and adopting the findings of current research, the newest technologies, better ways of doing things. Working on the edge sometimes got us into trouble when we exceeded our capacities and had to wait for the world to catch up with our ambitions.
Our collaborators were our clients: kids, teachers, parents, caregivers, the schools, neighborhoods, ethnic communities, other cultural organizations—and of course our staff, managers, board, and volunteers who where all avid collaborators. We thought of collaboration as one of the ways we could multiply our impact.
But collaborations took time. Collaborators had to learn each other's concerns and languages. The usual three-year grant always seemed too short. Our best collaborations lasted for years. Funders were in love with the idea of collaboration. But we thought they were unrealistic about how hard and expensive collaboration really was.
"It just doesn't feel like us!" sounded like a strange criteria until we realized that this one sentence helped us communicate among ourselves and others about an opportunity we should pass up. We began to use it when everyone agreed it was an accurate reflection of our values, and that saying "no" was not an arbitrary but a value-laden decision. It was meant to be taken seriously.
We came to treasure taking time to share our feelings with each other. When we discovered unaddressed needs we tried to put them at the top of our agenda. This happened especially when we came face to face with important issues such as illness, death, and personal problems. We encouraged surfacing these issues when one of us was feeling overwhelmed, unappreciated, or hurt. When we were too preoccupied to deal these challenges—as in the non-stop drive to open Museum Wharf—feelings simmered anyway and eventually had to be addressed.
When an idea was about to become a decision we had to ask: Who is missing? Who are the other stakeholders? It wasn't that everyone had to be in on every decision. It was only that all the stakeholders had to be heard from before the final decision was made.
Admitting to ourselves that we were in trouble—even to the board or funders—was always a comforting idea. It built trust and brought others into working on the problem with us. Denying we were in trouble could hang over these relationships like a dark cloud.
Visiting professionals were usually fooled by the playful feeling of the hands-on exhibits, programs, and classroom materials into thinking of the museum not as a place of serious learning, but just a playground.
Although we thought of play as a necessary stage of early learning, this misperception deflected visiting firemen from really understanding how sophisticated and grownup we had become in managing the behind-the-scenes activities of the museum.
Although the board and managers always recognized each other as colleagues working together on shared problems, we respected each other's distinct roles.
We were well prepared for board meetings, but decisions were not worked out or rehearsed ahead of time. Everyone spoke frankly. We learned a lot from each other. Both staff and board agreed that they looked forward to these collegial meetings. Board meetings were fun!
In a model that depended on decentralized leadership, responsibilities were delegated broadly by inventing financial tools that empowered each leader to build and track their own department and project budgets so that division managers could oversee their work and correct things when they were getting into trouble.
Another example of shared leadership was reconstituting the Personnel Policy Committee in our collective meltdown after the Museum Wharf opening. We created a lot of policy, and everyone became a lot smarter about the tradeoffs in a way that accommodated almost everyone's feelings and needs. Elected in staggered terms by each department, the committee became a training ground for staff about how policy could be discussed and decided.
The ways in which we managed everything evolved from the reality of limitations: 1) we had very little money to spare and were always trying to do more than was allowed by our limited resources; 2) administration, PR, and development were always understaffed; we spent most of what we had on programs and services for our clients; 3) the museum delegated many responsibilities down the line in a way that built leadership skills and confidence throughout the organization. The cumulative result was that as the years went by, we grew ever more confident in the reliability of our systems, more familiar with our shared culture and in the sustainability of our organization.