The digital publication of the Association of Science and Technology Centers (ASTC)

The Practice of Leadership in a Changing Environment

By Julie I. Johnson and Randy C. Roberts
From ASTC Dimensions
November/December 2009

“Leadership is not a job or a position, but a way of influencing others towards ends recognized as valuable and fulfilling.”

—Amanda Sinclair, Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading That Liberates

Who are the leaders in your organization? Close your eyes and think for a moment. Who is the first person that comes to mind? Is it your director/president? Someone from senior management? The coordinator of community outreach? What about the head of security or the ticket taker at the front door? Is it you?

We often think of the words leader and director in the same breath, but this way of thinking sets up a situation where staff members across the institution treat the identified leader with such deference that they abdicate their own power to make a difference in achieving organizational outcomes. Those who are not in positions of assigned authority may tend to wait for vision and direction from “on high,” rather than taking initiative to create positive change.

Today, museums are operating in a climate of change that calls for new ways of thinking about how leaders and followers across the institution take and support initiative in service of creating value. While it may be less stressful for those without positional power to give over responsibility to those with formal authority, the organization thereby ultimately becomes less creative and connected. When all are engaged in the work and take responsibility for direction, then our organizations will achieve alignment and balanced pursuit of goals.

Leading from within

In understanding leadership at all levels of an organization, it is important to recognize the distinction between and overlap of management and leadership. In his 1990 book A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management, John P. Kotter points out that in some ways the function of management (to provide order and consistency) is in direct opposition to the function of leadership (to produce change and movement). Although these two disparate aims can reside in single individuals, their purposes are distinct.

Management emphasizes planning, organizing, and operating efficiently and effectively. Leadership, on the other hand, is not a linear process by which organizational direction is set out for followers, but rather an interactive practice that includes participation across levels of position and power. It is an activity that is available to all who are engaged. Leadership is a dynamic relationship between the fluid roles of leaders and followers.

Rather than understanding leadership in terms of the traits or qualities of a leader, one can understand it as a process. Such a view suggests that leadership is a phenomenon situated in context and available to everyone. Moving away from the heroic, “great man” theory that was prevalent in the 1980s, today’s understanding is more relational—envisioning leadership, as Joyce K. Fletcher notes in a 2004 article as a “multi-directional social process … aimed at collective outcomes.”1 Leaders, then, are not solely those who are assigned to formal positions of authority. Equally important are the emergent leaders who establish informal authority based on how others respond to them in a given situation.

Think systems

How does this relate to museums? Museums cannot be totally understood by simply looking at the units of which they are composed—any more than mayonnaise can be understood by looking at eggs and oil. Museums are complex adaptive systems (CAS), made up of elements (individuals, teams, departments, divisions, etc.) that are interdependent.

CAS emphasizes the relationships and interactions among the elements. Through these interactions—which are based on shared knowledge, goals, previous history, and worldview—new learning, creativity, capabilities, and adaptability surface. It is important to note that what surfaces is the result of the interactions among elements and not the particular actions of an individual or a group. In addition, in CAS, history cannot be revisited (you cannot reset the museum to an earlier period of time), order is emergent (it is created out of the interactions), and the future is typically unpredictable.

Understanding museums in terms of CAS will bring new solutions for current times. Museums are social organisms, and the work in which they engage is exhilarating yet messy. Complexity science is a frame that enables us to embrace the messiness and see the strength and creativity that results when systems connect, collide, and/or coalesce. A CAS perspective supports thinking about leaders and followers as roles that individuals play at different times and in different contexts.2

So what does it mean to lead in complex adaptive systems? Who leads and who follows? The answer is, it depends.

Leading in a complex environment

In his 1989 book Managing as a Performing Art, Peter Vaill describes complex systems as environments of “permanent white water.” Navigating in permanent white water requires an approach to leadership that differs from that exercised in more stable environments and more hierarchical organizations.

Turbulent conditions call for what Ron Heifetz described in 1994, in Leadership Without Easy Answers, as “adaptive leadership.” According to Heifetz, two basic types of issues require steering: “technical challenges” and “adaptive challenges.” When facing technical challenges (those that have been faced and solved before, and for which solutions are clear), management is needed; when facing adaptive challenges (those for which no response has yet been developed or tested), leadership is needed.

Complex challenges frequently traverse barriers of knowledge, skill, and function. The solutions are often murky and may not easily be seen from the corner office. One of the greatest challenges in adaptive leadership is that in times of stress those not in formal positions of authority are often quite willing to give away power to those in assigned positions of authority.

Staff may tend to look to traditional leaders to provide answers they do not have, and traditional leaders may step up to the pressure by falling back on the technical solutions they know. This disables some of the most important personal and collective resources that could be available for accomplishing adaptive work at a time when creativity and divergent solutions are most needed.

Adaptive leadership suggests that solutions to those important challenges that are not routine are best addressed in the context of shared leadership, recognizing that those in authority do not—and should not—be expected to have all the answers. Heifetz identifies five strategic principles of leadership that those in authority can apply to engage the leadership resources within the organization:

  1. identify the adaptive challenge;
  2. keep the level of stress high enough to encourage action, but not so high that the top blows off;
  3. focus attention on issues rather than stress-reducing distractions;
  4. distribute the work at a rate that people can handle; and
  5. protect voices of leadership without authority.

When these principles are applied, emergent leaders and engaged followers are supported in leaving the safe shelter of dependence and deference, which may require sharing risks, costs, and responsibilities. They also share in the rewards of leadership.


The world in which museums operate is exciting and complex. There is constant competition for resources that must be allocated to achieve myriad priorities. The challenges of today are far more intricate than those of 5, 10, or 20 years ago. Understanding and embracing our organizations’ complex natures can provide energy and avenues for greater creativity and innovation. Incorporating a framework of relation-based leadership can open up the process to many—in particular, those who may not see themselves as being in positions of power.

This shift in concepts of power and authority may best be understood in the context of feminist leadership theory. Power within an organization can be granted on the basis of position or be derived from followers. If one continues to accept the traditional perspective of power as a zero-sum commodity, in which power taken by one equals power lost by another, the emplacement of power within an informal leader may seem threatening to management and control.

However, within the context of feminist theory, as Peter G. Northouse explains in Leadership: Theory and Practice, power is defined in terms of energy and strength, “a source of synergy … to be taught and shared.” In this context, power expands as it is distributed, creating more power. When an individual steps up to leadership, there is room for others to step up as well.

Museum professionals come to the field because they are passionate about their craft, their area of interest, and their potential to make a difference. The structures within our institutions can either support or limit the ability to employ creativity and passion in the service of leadership. How can museums fully engage the passions that exist for implementing the organization’s mission? How can museums be better positioned to engage with their communities to create public value?

In a forthcoming book, Richard A. Couto offers the following definition: “Leadership is taking initiative on behalf of shared values.” We propose that museums will best be positioned as leaders in their communities when it is understood that “taking initiative” is not confined only to the most senior levels of management.

The number of managers in a given organization is finite. We are not all managers, nor do we all aspire to be. However, we all can exercise leadership any day and every day in ways big and small. Leadership must be encouraged and supported across all organizational levels. Leaders at all levels must embrace their capacity to lead, and leadership development must be accessible to all who are engaged in the practice of leading. Nurturing and investing in leadership practice within museums will strengthen museums as leaders in their communities.

Julie I. Johnson is the John Roe distinguished chair of museum leadership at the Science Museum of Minnesota, St. Paul, and Randy C. Roberts is deputy director of the Crocker Art Museum, Sacramento, California. Both are in the Ph.D. in Leadership and Change program at Antioch University.


  • Couto, Richard A. (ed.) Political and Civic Leadership: A Reference Handbook. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, in press.
  • Heifetz, Ronald A. Leadership Without Easy Answers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1994.
  • Kotter, John P. A Force for Change: How Leadership Differs from Management. New York: Free Press, 1990.
  • Northouse, Peter G. Leadership: Theory and Practice. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications, 1997.
  • Sinclair, Amanda. Leadership for the Disillusioned: Moving Beyond Myths and Heroes to Leading That Liberates. Australia: Allen & Unwin, 2007.
  • Vaill, Peter. Managing as a Performing Art. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1989.


1. Fletcher, Joyce K. “The Paradox of Postheroic Leadership: An Essay on Gender, Power, and Transformational Change,” Leadership Quarterly, vol. 15, no. 5 (2004).
2. For more on CAS, see Benyamin B. Lichtenstein, Mary Uhl-Bien, Russ Marion, Anson Seers, James Douglas Orton, and Craig Schreiber, “Complexity Leadership Theory: An Interactive Perspective on Leading in Complex Adaptive Systems,” in ECO, vol. 8, no. 4 (2006). Available free online at

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