Vision-Driven Leadership: Now More Than Ever

Emlyn Koster urges the museum sector to combine operational recovery efforts with strategic pathways towards a more holistic societal and environmental future. 

“The very subject of our discussion shows the painful anxiety and uncertainty with which we search for our proper function in the national struggle for a better future.” What sounds like a synopsis of today’s situation was part of a speech during World War II at AAM’s 1942 Annual Meeting by A.E. Parr, then Director of the American Museum of Natural History. Not since comparable crises during the last century has the total responsibility of those appointed Director, Executive Director, or President & CEO — the leadership position ultimately accountable for what goes wrong and/or for what goes well in a museum — been so demanding yet so seldom talked about.

Since the pandemic began, the museum sector’s countless webinars have mainly involved mid-level staff focused on operational efforts, such as online programming and member retention. Airing of strategic considerations by senior leadership, such as the implications of major changes in social norms and business models, has been almost absent. The vital theme of International Museum Day 2021 is “The Future of Museums: Recover and Reimagine”. I fervently hope that “reimagination” features the pursuit of pathways into illuminating the perilous needs of the 21st century. Our ability to be externally meaningful and supportable in profoundly new ways is at stake.

As I switched from geology to museology 32 years ago with my focus shifting from the past to the future and from local to ‘glocal’ (a seamless local and global view), I became interested in the anatomy of leadership. Insights about what institutional relevance entails flowed from multiple sources. These included executive workshops in Toronto and Manhattan while CEO of the Ontario Science Centre and Liberty Science Center, an international workshop for nonprofit CEOs at the Harvard Business School, being a resource to the Getty and Noyce leadership institutes, and a board role at the Institute of Ethical Leadership at the Rutgers Business School. 

Close up of a compass pointing towards the word "leadership."
We need vision-driven leadership now more than ever. Image credit.

My most intense leadership experience was in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks while I was CEO of Liberty Science Center which is located across the Hudson River from the World Trade Center. Flowing from this institution’s innovative experiences in community engagement which was later described in a collection of exemplars of socially responsible museums, it partnered with a trauma psychologist and The Families of September 11. Several years later, I came across a resonant outlook by Jacqueline Gijssen, Vancouver’s cultural planner, in the magazine of the Canadian Museums Association: this imagined a future in which “the museum becomes critical to the long-range health of a place, central to think-tanks, and community transformations… one of those organizations a mayor calls upon when a crisis hits… an institution that others actively seek for guidance and expertise”. An analogous focus on environmental stewardship was highlighted in the conclusion of AAM’s decadal re-accreditation of the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences during my tenure as CEO: ”This institution has forthrightly evolved its interpretative philosophy and strategy to address bigger stories about humans as an inseparable element in the ecosystem of all life, and therefore to be concerned about matters of conservation and sustainability”.

The combination of those experiences and 2020’s existential crises have impelled me to urge an unprecedented paradigm shift in the museum sector (see my forthcoming article, “Paradigm Shift to Illuminate Our Disrupted Planet, in the Spring 2021 issue of Exhibition). In leadership terms, its baseline is a realization that vision then values then mission then strategy is the optimal order of institutional planning considerations. Also, and in integrated ways, the contributions of three thought-leaders known to me for several decades came into sharper focus.

  • In the compass recommended by Stephen Covey, the first three principles of individual effectiveness are be proactive®, begin with the end in mind®, and put first things first®. These underscore why vision and values should be early considerations. He also advised on the need for resilient interpersonal relationships: likening them to bank accounts, deposits must outweigh withdrawals with any overdrafts promptly attended to.
  • Covey also illustrated the conclusion of Peter Drucker that efficiency is doing things right and effectiveness is doing the right things. He likened efficiency to climbing the ladder of success and effectiveness to first determining the strongest wall for the ladder.
  • Burt Nanus used four dimensions to describe a balanced leadership approach for visionary organizations. Axes labeled internal/external and now/future frame the roles of coach (internal/now), change agent (internal/future), spokesperson (external/now), and direction setter (external/future).

When a museum appoints a new chief executive due to the resignation, retirement or termination of her/his predecessor, a new strategic chapter in the institution’s evolution inevitably begins. What is in the ethical, operational and strategic toolkit of experiences and insights that the next leader brings? And what is the probability that this individual will be up to mobilizing resources to respond to the institution’s evolving opportunities and unforeseeable needs? Referring to a ladder of increased abilities, those in leadership roles are ideally aware, both in themselves and in those around them, that unconscious incompetence -> conscious incompetence -> conscious competence -> unconscious competence -> reflective competence are the rungs of intertwined personal and professional growth.

“If you want the same old, same old; the tried and the true; the safe and secure, then visionary leadership is not for you”.

-Anne Ackerson & Joan Baldwin, Leadership Matters: Leading Museums in an Age of Discord

Museums that prioritize popularity over meaningfulness and that launch capital campaigns to become bigger but not more relevant to surrounding needs are, in my view, wrong-headed. I have long advocated for Aristotle’s philosophy that leadership should be about the harmonious pursuit of positive consequences in the world and John Cotton Dana’s viewpoint that a museum should fit itself to the needs of its surroundings. Returning to the subject of my January blog, the most pressing need of the museum sector is to illuminate the surging evidence of environmental and societal perils. The Anthropocene, a transdisciplinary concept which I unravel elsewhere, recognizes humanity as the predominant species which, in a geological nanosecond, has ecologically detached itself from the Earth System, endangering the future of both.

Emlyn Koster, PhD (koster.emlyn@gmail.com) has been the CEO of the Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology, Ontario Science Centre, Liberty Science Center, and NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Combining his geological and museological experiences with a humanistic outlook, he is focused on humanity’s escalating disruption of the Earth System. Current appointments include an ambassador for the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience and adjunct professor in Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences at NC State University.

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