Visionary leaders face their fears

What does a visionary leader look like? Some would look to innovators like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk. Often the term “visionary” is tied to innovation. And when you start digging into it, risk-taking is a key characteristic that leads to innovation. And, we all want to work toward innovation. But what does visionary museum leadership really look like?

It seems like a fairly obvious thing until you get into the weeds. On the surface board members, donors and museum staff would agree that a visionary museum leadership pushing for innovation is a good thing. Some might even argue it is necessary for success.

But, once you start peeling back the layers, you can see why it gets complicated fast. Being a visionary leader requires you to take risks. And risk leads to fear. And you know what happens once fear is in the room.

“Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. And, hate leads to suffering.” – Master Yoda

Seriously, it applies here. Risk implies failure a certain amount of the time. And the results of failure can drum up some pretty ugly things – blame, resentment and over time, risk aversion. When you are working with a tight non-profit budget, failure can be difficult to take – both philosophically and practically.

But risk also allows for discovery and transformation, even when you fail. If failure is seen as a vehicle for improvement, it can become a powerful tool.

Consider this situation:
A visitor services manager pitches a new idea to change a feature of the museum’s membership program. The change is likely to result in a long term increase in overall revenue, but will have a short term negative impact on perceived membership value.

Scenario 1: Risk averse leader
A risk averse leader kills the idea – being unwilling to risk the dip in revenue. Case closed.

Scenario 2: Visionary leader
A visionary leader sees the potential in the new idea and sets some parameters for testing it. He or she empowers the visitor services team to make the change by setting expectations with the other affected departments. Monitoring the impact as the change is implemented allows the team to accelerate or decelerate the change based on results.

Which leader would you prefer to make the decision? Your answer might depend on your role.

  • If you’re the membership manager, you might be annoyed at the risk involved for your program.
  • If you’re the CFO, you might be more likely see the long term benefit.
  • If you’re the visitor services manager, you want to try your idea!

It gets tricky fast! So, what’s the leader to do? A visionary leader will push for innovation while minimizing the risk.

Visionary leaders do 4 things to mitigate risk and push for innovation.

  1. Define boundaries to control the amount of risk. A short test window, limited budget or defined scope are all ways that risk can be mediated.
  2. Set clear expectations for success. Failure could also be a success if everyone’s expectations are clear on the front end of the project.
  3. Trust the team. Visionary leaders hire talented people and empower them. Plain and simple.
  4. Keep the lines of communication open. Risk-taking leaders who want results ask about them. Regularly.

Remember that leadership is not relegated to the C-suite. We all have the ability to embody these traits and push for innovation at our orgs. How do you embody visionary museum leadership in your day-to-day work? Tell us below!