Story 11: Learning to Lead

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Written by Mike Spock

The changes in the museum were dramatic. The new structure worked smoothly and, with only small adjustments, was stable for the next fifteen years. Rather than stifling creativity and innovation, the more predictable structure seemed to free up everyone to concentrate on their real work, less distracted about who was doing what to whom and how. Clarity was increased exponentially, and staff and managers generally felt recognized and rewarded. A repeat of the original staff survey two years after I came back on the scene revealed that the organizational climate had improved with the toughest problems getting better and staff expectations of the way things should be becoming more realistic.

Even in the toughest economic times, deficits were virtually things of the past.

As my role shifted from manager to leader—the keeper of the flame—I could see that the tools we needed to run a more coherent but still non-hierarchical organization had to be found or invented. If all of us could let go of the reins

My life was changing too. I found that I actually didn't mind not being key to every detail of the museum's plans and operations. My fantasy was that if I gave away the power of managing the museum there would not be very much left for me to do. In fact there was plenty for me to do just paying attention to my job as the museum's leader. And as I had suspected, it turned out I wasn't much good as a day-to-day manager anyway.

Although I eventually got better at the few things I could not give away, my colleagues at the divisional and departmental levels were much better at managing than I was.

The museum eventually renovated a handsome old warehouse on the Boston waterfront and moved downtown from the suburban edge of the city. Attendance and income doubled again. After we stabilized our operations and finances and completed the final move in, I could take to time to think about where I could be in the next ten years, when I might be ready to retire, and what to do in the meantime. I had been director for more than twenty years and thought better of having to stay until I might retire at the end of the next. Looking back on this experience in Boston, it seemed suspiciously like another example of digging out of a hole by learning to manage myself, and the world, and the museum. Although differing in details, it felt like finally learning to read at Fieldston, becoming a swimmer in high school, figuring out how to get a college education, and getting my head straightened out through hours of therapy. With the help of David Berlew and Steve Rhinesmith, two gifted coaches, a lot of hard work by my managerial colleagues, and a willingness to look at ourselves realistically and honestly, the museum and I had survived a shaky early marriage and came out the other side stronger, wiser, and happier. We got a lot done and had a lot of fun too.

Next: Part III: 1970s: Distributed Leadership: Inventing the Tools to Make It Work