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Hindsight is 2020: What We Learned About Leadership in a Crisis

Category: Alliance Blog
A rearview mirror of a vehicle in the desert
This group of museum middle managers had to bridge between senior leadership and early-career employees during the COVID-19 crisis, and learned lessons they hope will follow them throughout their careers. Photo credit: Aiden Frazier on Unsplash

At the height of the pandemic, as so many aspects of our professional and personal lives hung in the balance and emotions fluctuated between despair and hope, effective leadership surfaced as essential. Facing public health restrictions and loss of revenue, leaders needed to make difficult decisions that affected staff’s livelihoods, including having to cut programs, reorganize teams, and pivot projects. Many felt ill-prepared to have these tough conversations during a time when the world was suffering. The need to show transparency and flexibility was evident, but the ability to do this was less so.

As a group of middle managers with leadership responsibilities in museums, we had a unique vantage on this situation. We want to bring this perspective to light, as we believe it can be useful for today’s senior leaders as the field rebuilds, and for ourselves and other middle managers when we take up more senior roles in the future. In this article, we reflect on our individual and common experiences during this period to share what we learned about ourselves as leaders, what we gleaned from staff we supervised, and what we sought from organizational leaders. We do this not to place blame, but to reflect on what we can learn from this crisis.

Below we describe who we are and what makes us a community. We review the types of dispositions we called upon or had to develop to support a team of people feeling isolated, scared, unsure in their workplace, and the types of people management strategies we found useful to address leading during a crisis. Finally, we share what qualities we hope to maintain as we take on more leadership roles within the field.

Reflecting on Practice

As a group, we first met through the NSF-funded Reflecting on Practice (RoP) program (DRL-1612515), in which informal educators based in social science meet to examine their teaching practices through critical video shares and study research on how people learn. This shared experience has informed our perspective on leadership in a crisis. Participating in RoP teaches you to develop trust, peer support, mutual self-help, collaboration, shared authority, and the ability to forefront cultural, historical, and social issues—many of the same elements that are critical for trauma-informed leadership, according to the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

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Even before the pandemic, our facilitation of RoP bled into our leadership practices. During the pandemic, when everyone was struggling to make sense of what was happening in the world, leaning on these established elements helped us survive as team managers. Knowing that our world and the museum field in particular will experience a crisis again, we take this moment to describe the specific strategies that we used so that our future selves can acknowledge and work on deepening these practices.

The Context of Leading in 2020

When the pandemic hit, and it became clear we would need to shut down our physical sites and work from home, most of our institutions put programs on pause for a variety of reasons, whether because they were based physically on site, required use of exhibits that weren’t accessible, or required funding that was unavailable. We all thought the pause would only last a few weeks, but by late spring, it was evident that it would last at least through the summer and possibly into the fall. News reports of staff layoffs and furloughs began to hit inboxes, and a phone call from a supervisor could mean that it was your turn to be furloughed or laid off. Staff felt a range of emotions in this environment, including general anxiety and uncertainty, professional ineffectiveness, distress about job stability and the future of the field, and distrust of their institutions’ ability to handle an unprecedented financial crisis.

Then, in late spring of 2020, the murder of George Floyd brought national attention to the persistent realities of racism that Black people face and how these injustices have been systematized and embedded into our daily lives. Amid the reignited Black Lives Matter movement, every industry was under scrutiny, including our world of museums. Staff were already feeling overwhelmed, undervalued, and lacking in agency due to trauma from the pandemic and the way museums were generally handling furloughs and layoffs. The racial unrest in our country exacerbated the chasm forming between people in leadership positions and those they supervised, as countless informal conversations among museum professionals attested.

Many museums, including our own, were in the midst of addressing diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion (DEAI) issues when the unrest began, taking steps like producing DEAI statements, setting goals to address DEAI issues, hiring dedicated staff to focus on DEAI, and instituting training on DEAI topics like implicit bias, power, privilege, and oppression. But the racial reckoning of 2020, as Bryant et al. put it in a 2021 Museum magazine article, led many museum professionals to reflect on how these conversations “often dodged the broader discussion of systemic white supremacy and how it intersects with every facet of museums” and to consider how they could “push more effectively through…coded language to get at the root source.”

Many began to wonder if their institutions were guilty of what Dena Simmons calls “white supremacy with a hug”: stating that DEAI work is important but letting those in power and privilege control the form this discussion and action takes. One example of this—which many of us, including we the authors, have been guilty of—is through “tone policing,” when staff are directed to design and lead DEAI conversations to the comfort level of people in privileged positions, making it difficult or impossible to express hard truths. Another example is “tokenizing,” giving people from marginalized groups nominal roles, such as a DEAI director position or a seat on an advisory group, without the agency, authority, or resources to shape actual changes. In other words, white supremacy with a hug means that institutions claim to be doing the DEAI work, with insidious messaging like, “We have an advisory group composed of diverse people,” “We are working to diversify our board,” and, “We will modify our recruitment and hiring practices to attract diverse candidates,” which are all important steps but avoid meaningfully redistributing power and privilege.

Watching the messages and actions that followed the street protests in summer 2020, many museum staff were concerned their institutions were practicing something like white supremacy with a hug. In our institutions, staff who reported to us were anxious that, while the messages museums were producing were important and timely, they might not be sincere. As middle managers, we ended up in a precarious position. We had to uphold, support, and advocate for the actions our institutions were taking to address DEAI while also listening to, supporting, and addressing the concerns of the staff who felt that these actions were insufficient. We had to find creative ways to exercise the agency we had as middle managers in conveying the feelings from staff to the leadership. Facing this dilemma, we, the authors, came together to support one another in articulating ways we could serve best as middle managers, and identify elements of our leadership styles we could lean on during this time.

In these discussions, we came up with a list of specific practices to lean into: establishing structures, creating trusting relationships, and having clear vision and foundational principles.

Establishing Structures

In the RoP program, we learned the importance of putting specific structures in place that allow for respect, shared vocabulary around pedagogical ideas, shared authority, and an expectation that individual learning and growth are equally important at work as completing tasks. Originally intended only for reflective practice discussions, these structures have become part of departmental practices in the years since.

In ongoing and consistent meetings, whether as part of regular staff meetings or in additional reflective practice meetings, we take time for professional learning, which might take the form of reading and discussing a relevant article or TED Talk, reviewing institutional documents like mission and goal statements, or co-crafting tactics to meet institutional strategy. Borrowing from effective practices on how people learn, people break out into groups of three or four to discuss topics and then bring the results together in a whole-group conversation. Often the facilitation for the meeting is shared, rather than led by the supervisor.

Having a consistency to the meetings and building on lessons over time creates a shared understanding and vocabulary, routines that are respectful, accepted, and productive, and a trust that these meetings spaces are a safe place to bring up issues. Before the pandemic began, these meetings were a place where our teams were able to engage in difficult DEAI-related conversations where everyone could show vulnerability, offer compassion, and listen to and try to understand different viewpoints and life stories. As we ushered our team through the early parts of the pandemic, the stability of the structures helped us to bring people into a virtual room, maintain a sense of belonging even when isolation was reality, engage in difficult conversations, and celebrate the small wins.

Our future selves need to think about what it means to invest in building such structures at a larger scale and with people from different departments in a museum. We need to think about ways to improve on these structures so that they become second-nature and consistent when conducting museum work. We also need to examine aspects of the structures that could be improved because they may still be privileging certain voices.

Creating Trusting Relationships

The ramifications of the pandemic coupled with the explicit attention to systemic racial inequities meant that our museums could no longer ignore the racism of certain historical and current practices. But when leadership tried to address these issues with staff, in emails or Zoom meetings, their messages were often received with concern even though the messages were sincere. There wasn’t a relationship in place between leadership and staff to engage in such conversations. There was fear on both sides of saying the wrong thing, of accidentally offending, and much more. As middle managers, we had to bridge the two sides and advocate for both perspectives. Thankfully, due to our established rapport from the RoP work we had brought to our teams, we felt that staff trusted us to be this bridge. To maintain that trust, we leaned into active listening, explaining perspectives clearly even when they were hard to share, repeating messages as needed to make sure the recipients understood, and sharing our own emotions and vulnerability.

Our future selves need to think creatively about how we develop relationships with staff, especially in larger institutions. What routines and ways of communicating can we put in place that are sustainable so they can be consistently managed, allow for insight into the challenges and successes of the institution, and move towards sharing authority for the success of the museum? How can our future selves feel confident that our staff cares about the success of the institution and draw them into understanding and brainstorming ways to address challenges? Can our future selves embrace showing vulnerability and conveying that we are human, presenting ourselves not as the smartest people in the room but as deft facilitators of critical conversations among large groups of people?

Having Clear Vision and Foundational Principles of Program Design and Audience

When museums cut or paused programs, many staff perceived this as leaders not valuing the work of the people who ran them, many of whom were among the lowest-paid in the museum. As middle managers, we had to remind staff that the value of their work came not from the specific programs which had to be cancelled, but from the underlying vision and mission behind them. We led our teams in thinking more broadly about their work: What are our high-level goals as a museum? How was the original program addressing that goal—what elements worked in that design and what were problematic?

An Alliance Blog article by Jennifer Martin provided us with useful strategies for reviewing the goals of the department, assuring our teams that their work was important, fostering dialogue about what was personally meaningful to them in their work, helping them feel they could depend on each other, and providing space for their psychological safety. However, incorporating these strategies for the first time during a crisis can create anxiety for both the managers and the staff. Ideally, they should already be in place before the crisis, so that your team is used to weighing the goals of a given program against changing constraints and opportunities. Instead of just filing away the mission, vision, goals, and strategies statements you write, you should be revisiting and reviewing them annually with staff so that the ideas are front and center. That way, they become a beacon for guiding your work—especially during hard times.

A museum education team at one of our sites discovered this firsthand. They found that they were uniquely equipped to roll with the changing landscape that the pandemic brought because they had spent the previous three years examining and reflecting on their own work processes, creating collaboration norms, and identifying core values and design principles so that they could center their programmatic decisions around community needs. By centering community, not curriculum, at the heart of what they did, they were able to navigate through the messiness of the year to redesign how they did what they did. Additionally, by spending time focused on professional learning around DEAI, they had already built the habit of having hard conversations with one another so that they could push each other’s thinking and create a shared power structure built on trust in each other’s abilities.

Therefore, when the pandemic hit, the team members were able to quickly identify how the constraints of the new school year of remote learning would impact their goals of inclusive and equitable access to the museum’s programs. Then, they enacted a collaborative educational design process developed with local teachers to figure out how to prioritize individualized access to the classrooms with the highest needs (e.g., those which were not taught in English or Spanish, consisted mostly of students who had immigrated newly to the country, were special education or inclusion classes, or had little at home adult support). By prioritizing design around the 20 percent of classes hardest hit in the pandemic, they were able to figure out how to better enact their DEAI values, and still offer learning opportunities to all of the other elementary school classes in their city. All of this occurred despite a 15 percent staffing reduction due to financial constraints. It was made possible because of a shared values system within the team, and a nimble staffing structure that sought to give shared power to all members on the team, whether they were educators or reservations coordinators. Their reflective work will continue into the next phase of educational programming, whatever that may be.

Our future selves need to figure out how we will build into our existing structures an annual review of mission, vision, goals, and strategies. How will we develop structures to review the ways we operationalize those strategies and what factors influence our decisions? How will we develop a mindset in our staff that their value is not tied to the program they implement or lead, but to their contributions to the mission?

Sticky Notes to Our Future Selves

As middle managers, we have a lot to learn from senior leadership. We recognize the hard work they must do and applaud the small wins from the past year that are due to their leadership. We also recognize those we supervise and the wins that we have all experienced because of their hard work, tenacity, dedication.

What does it mean to do “leadership work” going forward? We ask our future selves to:

  • Be vigilant that our actions and mindsets do not perpetuate white supremacy.
  • Remain humble and teachable both to those in more senior positions and those who report to us.
  • Bring together different kinds of talents and listen to and trust them, instead of trying to be the smartest person in the room.
  • Maintain the compassion that we have shown even when we are no longer in crisis mode, and acknowledge trauma and make space for the ramifications of when staff experience it.
  • Create structures for dialogue and trust-building that are nimble and responsive to the ever-changing landscape.
  • Be conscious of power and privilege, and the ways those constructs affect small and big decisions as we develop and deepen the sense of belonging among staff.

We acknowledge and remind our readers that leadership is hard work. Yet there isn’t room for complacency. Using strategies for self-care are critical to fuel ourselves and support others while on the journey. For now, we leave our future selves with these final words: revisit this list of sticky notes often, maintain your humility, make sure you are part of communities like RoP, and be aware of falling into the trap where your leadership is upholding white supremacy with a hug.



This work was made possible by support from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1612515). Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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