At my high school, prefects and the head girl and boy were voted into their positions by classmates. When I was called into the headmaster’s office and told that I’d been chosen to be head girl for 2006, I was deeply shocked to be chosen. I don’t say this to humble brag (because really, who cares about a high school ‘position’ 10 years later? Not me) but because it was my first experience of being a leader, and opened my eyes to the fact that perhaps this quite traditional form of leadership wasn’t for me. As I’ve moved from that position at high school, into university study and now into professional museum work, that feeling of uncertainty around leadership and my own relationship to the concept has developed somewhat. I have moved into thinking that I am better placed to support and champion museum leaders, doing the best work I can and contributing to a team and institutional culture that demands excellence and innovation in museum practice.
Working in New Zealand museums today is an exciting, challenging and changing experience. Traditional methods of imparting knowledge are being transformed into creating community partnerships, and with pressure to be socially responsible (and responsive) in a rapidly changing world, museums are spaces of massive change. This change is not only in the engagement of museums with audiences, but also in the approach to leadership within museums. While I still feel like there’s plenty of room for improvement in many New Zealand museums, there are signs that our institutions are starting to disseminate traditional leadership actions amongst staff, rather than adopting the traditional ‘top down’ approach. I believe good leadership at the top of staff structures is essential to the success of museums and their activities, but there is scope for staff who might not be in traditional positions of leadership to work with museum leaders to create amazing teams and workplaces. As Jasper Visser notes, “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.”
So how does this relate to my ‘epiphany’ of sorts about not being a leader, but being a supporter of leaders? Having had a few positions in different areas of museum work, I am finding more and more that my strengths, and what makes me an effective museum professional, is finding ways to effectively support leaders both within my workplace and within my wider network. For me, what makes me tick at work is completing tasks, getting exhibitions off the ground, organising meaningful meetings (it is hard for me to articulate how much I hate meetings without a point) and generally getting things done. Where I see my strengths intersecting with that of organisational leaders is by supporting their plans, providing feedback and constructive criticism, and progressing plans and ideas into reality. Where my strengths lie in supporting leaders outside my immediate employ, I see wine. I joke – but I think it’s essential to nurture relationships with our networks, and a glass of wine and a chat about challenges and solutions in our practice as museum professionals can be so useful. In an industry that can feel challenging for developing female leaders, for leadership by people of colour and leadership by younger professionals, supporting and fostering relationships with colleagues on a leadership trajectory can help us to clarify ideas and make potentially radical decisions as we build support networks, bounce ideas and decompress over a Pinot Noir on a rainy Wednesday night.
I’m heartened by the ways collegial support is developing in museums. With the rise of online forums such as Tusk, museum professionals who are active on Twitter or Facebook can share opinions and seek assistance from other professionals of many levels. In person, the regional Emerging Museum Professionals can be a great way to meet others nearby and seek support and advice. I’ve also felt inspired and grateful to have worked with some exceptional leaders within museums, such as Siren Deluxe at Auckland Museum. Siren is a young leader working within the institution, rather than at the top. She makes change from within, inspiring and guiding her team and ensuring best practice standards are upheld, while also balancing being a mother to two young children outside of work. Supporting her work so as a team we could be effective and create change was, to me, a great way of seeing leadership across teams in action, rather than leadership only occurring at the top of the structure.
Not everyone in museums needs to be on a trajectory to being a director, or a manager, or a head of a department, just like not everyone needs to be on a trajectory to be a curator or collection manager – there’s so many ways we as professionals can create cultures of good leadership through support and empowerment. I don’t feel like a directorship or management position is a path for me any time soon, but I do see myself as supporting and enabling good leadership in my workplace and amongst my museum networks. How we go about supporting our future leaders, and creating space for people of colour, women and youth to be leaders in our museums is something I’m still grappling with. But I know I want to work on doing what I can to make our museums effective, responsive, brave and supportive places to work. I may not have been a comfortable Head Girl all those years ago (although I did like the blazer), but I feel like supporting our current and future museum leaders, and ensuring teams I am involved with are strong and effective, is something I can definitely get behind.