Story 11: Learning to Lead

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Story 11 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

The story I told in the first chapter of Boston Stories about how I spent the first day as director turned out to set the pattern of my management style during the first third of my leadership of The Children's Museum in the 1960s.

Although I made a pretty convincing case to the search committee of what I might do if I got to run the circus (they gave me the job), I hadn't a clue about where to begin.

Up to that moment, my museum and work experiences were all project-based. Give me a project and I could figure out how to get it done. And I really loved doing things that way. Whether it was making a desk in Ted Bolle's wood shop, or designing and building a temporary performance stage for a summer concert series, or researching and installing an exhibit on human reproduction in the Dayton Museum of Natural History, or hanging Judy's two art shows, or renovating the Antioch Biology Department's classrooms, labs, and offices, or doing the visitor research study as a graduate student at the American Museum of Natural History, I was never happier. These projects had clear beginnings and endings. And beyond sharing my vision with a boss, or teacher, or colleague, and getting advice when I got stuck, I usually managed to work pretty much by myself.

But then I was the boss, now what? I had never managed a project team much less a whole organization. I never had to describe the steps of a process to others. I never had to lay out who would be responsible for what tasks. I had never had to detail a budget and schedule.

When I started The Children's Museum's first exhibit, What's Inside?, I took it on as my own. At least I knew what to do first. But since I—or the museum, or the profession—had almost no experience with creating interactive exhibits, I was unable to describe how it would look or work or whether it would hold up. Even in this personal assignment I was flying blind.

A young, inexperienced artist, Wilma Beraducci, was willing to help me with the things I knew I couldn't do (draw); nevertheless I was unable to describe or point to examples of similar experiences (there were none) that would help Wilma understand what my words were trying to convey.

In fact, my biggest failing as an untrained director was that I couldn't really conceptualize what my goals were, especially in enough detail so I could successfully describe to my collaborators how we would all get there.

Thus, in the 1960s I started a string of exhibit, program, and administrative initiatives. We made things happen. They were not so much a part of a grand design for turning The Children's Museum in radical new directions. Instead they were openings that offered themselves to us, and if we had the wit to recognize them, opportunities to push us forward. This opportunistic approach made it possible, in spite of our relative poverty and inexperience, to get a lot of interesting things done.

So in the beginning you will find me telling stories that reflected this largely intuitive leadership that governed our initial thinking and work while I struggled to learn a useful approach to my leadership role. This initial intuitive phase was exciting and productive, but you will also see that it was essentially an unsustainable strategy for the long haul.

The first quarter of this chapter (Part I - Intuitive Leadership) tells stories of the opportunities that were presented to us in the '60s and what we seized on and turned to our will. These are the stories that tell of the multilayered organizational complexities involved in creating what everyone saw—the exhibits, programs, and materials, for kids, families, teachers, communities described in other chapters by other storytellers in Boston Stories.

What happened behind the scenes, away from the public spaces that began to draw all the attention and that eventually made us famous, is equally interesting and instructive. How The Children's Museum evolved in the way it did is critical to understanding why and how the exciting things, activities, and memories made the museum a place to go to, learn from, and take those experiences back home.

But for all the excitement and accomplishments, The Children's Museum in the '60s was an unsustainable enterprise. Unless the problems were identified and a cure found, the museum was in danger of dying or becoming beside the point. The second quarter of the Learning to Lead Chapter (Part II — The Director's Project) tells the story of how these problems were diagnosed, a cure prescribed, and the organization brought back to life.

The third quarter of the chapter (Part III — Distributed Leadership) tells stories of how the turnaround demanded the invention of new tools needed to run a well-managed museum without compromising the values that we agreed were necessary for building and sustaining a viable organizational culture.

Finally, the last chapter quarter (Part IV — Values Tying the Threads Together) shows where the reader can discover, among Boston Stories' entire collection of case studies, how each story illustrates how these cultural values were challenged and maintained (or not) throughout the storyteller's and The Children's Museum experiences.

Next: Learning to Lead