Terror Management and Neo-Confederates

This past weekend, a Neo-Confederate group called “The Hiwaymen” paid a visit to the Valentine Museum and the American Civil War Museum. This group actively protests red flag laws, and they were present at the deadly rally in Charlottesville two years ago. Following the racially-charged mass shootings of the previous week, the museum was on high alert. Thankfully, the weekend passed without incident, and the visitors were apparently courteous, even if they weren’t totally satisfied with the more progressive content of the museums. Of course, steps were immediately put in place to ensure everyone’s safety this weekend, and our CEO, Christy Coleman, noted that the protocol and training will have to be updated in the future. 


Though this situation turned out to be nothing out of the ordinary, it still provided the museum with an opportunity to prepare for a worst case scenario. This weekend was a great example of Christy’s use of terror management, even if the situation turned out to be nothing close to a crisis. Cohen, Solomon, Maxfield, Pyszczynski, and Greenberg describe terror management as “a dual-component anxiety buffer consisting of a cultural worldview and self-esteem,” which manages the terror humans feel in the face of imminent or inevitable death (846). Again, thankfully this situation did not result in anything close to what could have happened, but in preparations for the worst case, Christy effectively employed many of the principles outlined in TMT. Of course, the Visitor Engagement team practiced their existing safety training, reviewing evacuation and silent alarm procedures in case the group tried to bring their guns inside the museum (which is privately owned, and therefore has the right to decide if visitors can carry a concealed weapon, regardless of Virginia’s gun laws). The museums worked closely with local law enforcement and another security company to ensure all staff and visitors remained safe. By all practical accounts, the management team handled everything swiftly, seriously, and appropriately. 


Given the physical precautions put in place by our CEO and management team, the true terror management came with the Christy’s support, gratitude, and graciousness with the rest of the museum’s staff. She kept everyone, from the management team to the interns, updated throughout the day, and all of her emails had a confident and calm tone that had the effect of swaying any concerns. She thanked everyone in almost every email update she sent. Once the museum closed on Saturday evening, she sent an email individually thanking everyone who played a part in making the day so successful, including the Valentine’s staff, our own staff, and the police officers who were on hand throughout the day. This sort of graciousness can boost the self-esteem of those she thanked, which is in line with TMT. Self-esteem can give life and work value, and her communications throughout the weekend certainly gave value to everyone’s work. She inspires confidence in her team from not only a practical, physical safety standpoint, but in a personal way that can only be achieved with the level of respect and encouragement she exhibits. 


Half of leadership, it seems, is giving followers the direction, protection, and order they need to succeed, in line with Heifetz’s understanding of adaptive work. Christy was incredibly effective in finding practical solutions to the issue and giving each team member the appropriate tasks which they could handle, especially in what could have been a scary situation. Heifetz’s final principle is to protect and make space for those who may not already have authority. Her gracious final update elicited a response from one of the new Visitor Engagement Associates, who thanked the Christy for how she handled everything. Christy’s gracious treatment of every single member of the museum’s staff gave confidence, direction, protection, AND a voice to every person at the museum that day. Unfortunately, these examples of fine leadership often come out in unfortunate circumstances. However, Christy has been nothing but gracious with all staff at all times. Two weeks ago, the development office held a pizza lunch to celebrate our work as interns. Christy stopped by for a cupcake and complemented Carter and I on our work with the membership program this summer, even if she was almost never directly involved, before returning to her own busy day. Whatever the circumstances, Christy Coleman shows exemplary leadership through her decisiveness, confidence, and graciousness.