Ep 29 Will the Real Library Leaders Please Stand Up?

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Hello librarians.  Welcome to this week’s episode where I’m going to talk about leaders in the library – they’re not always who you think they are.  As usual, for complete show notes, you can go to masterfullibrarian.com/ep-29.

I like to think, learn, and share about leadership.  It’s really kind of my thing. Becoming a better leader is something that I work at all the time. And since I started my new position, it’s been even more important to me because I have a fairly large team that I lead. And one of my responsibilities is to nurture and develop the people on my team – the leaders on my team – the experienced and the emerging.  So it seemed like a good thing for me to talk about with you.

There are lots of definitions of leadership. Here are just a few:

  1. the one in the charge, the person who convinces other people to follow (https://www.vocabulary.com/dictionary/leader)
  2. a person who influences a group of people towards the achievement of a goal (http://www.vtaide.com/gleanings/leader.html)
  3. someone who can see how things can be improved and who rallies people to move toward that better vision (https://www.chieflearningofficer.com/2020/01/06/what-is-leadership-and-who-is-a-leader/)

I kind of like that last one, but I’m most drawn to this definition from a White Paper by Bal et al.  In  the paper, The Role of Power in Effective Leadership, they define a leader as “someone who has the potential to influence others“. 

True leaders are powerful people and it’s because of this ability to influence.

You could be that leader.

You Don’t Have to Be the Boss to Be a Leader

Maybe you just said something to yourself like  “I’m not a leader! I’m not the boss”.  Or “I’ve never even been a manager or supervisor”. Or maybe “I’m the most junior person in the library, I’m certainly not a leader!”

I’ve got news for you.  You don’t have to be a director, manager or supervisor to be a powerful leader. 

I used to be the director of a small public library. One of my staff members was a young woman who had been in the job only a few months when I arrived. It was her first job in a library and she was absolutely the most junior person on the staff.  She was a Library Assistant I.

A few months into my tenure there, I had to write up a publicity piece.  I don’t even remember now what it was I was writing but I wanted feedback before it was published – because I can always do better and I like for the staff to collaborate. So I sent it out to all staff for comments and suggestions.

Well, this young woman, still wet behind the ears, wrote me back with several comments and suggestions for improvement – both in language and content!

I’m going to be honest, at first, my ego reared up and I was a little taken aback.  I mean, after all, here I was a seasoned librarian, the director, with multiple degrees and decades of experience and here was this newbie telling me how to write better. Well!

And then I told that ego to take a seat and I looked hard at her suggestions. And on several points, she was absolutely right! And I was delighted. Because that was the kind of feedback I was looking for!

I called her in my office, we talked about her suggestions, I told her which I would incorporate and which were off the mark and why, and I thanked her for stepping up and getting involved. She was the only person on the staff who gave me any feedback on that piece.

I loved having this girl on my staff.  After I left, she was hired away by another city department.  In fact, there was a little power struggle who would get her because there were two important positions open in different departments and both of those directors wanted her on their team.

This young woman, as junior and new as she was, stepped up and acted like a leader. She knew she didn’t need a title or position to influence others.  With the right support and mentoring from her current and future supervisors, she’ll go far in life and in her career. I’m excited to see what happens.

Sometimes the most influential people – the best leaders – in the library don’t have any interest at all in supervising others. None at all.  They’re happy to support and inspire the others around them by being good team members and working hard to be the best they can be in their positions and to help others do well, too.

I have had and currently have the pleasure of working with a number of people like that. They’re the unsung heroes and the invisible leaders in great libraries. And you want to  nurture those people.

Or maybe you want to BE one of those people!

So leaders don’t have to be the people with the institutional power. They can lead simply by supporting others, getting involved, and caring about the goals of the institution and the people with whom they work.

Bosses Aren’t Always Leaders

By the same token, you can absolutely be the boss and hold the scepter of power in your institution and not be much of a leader. Or maybe no leader at all.

I’m pretty sure you all know the kinds of people I’m talking about.  No one would voluntarily follow them for all the money in the world.

These are the kinds of people who leverage their authority in a punishing and bullying way. Or they do nothing except hide in their offices and expect their staff members to handle everything while they handle nothing, including personnel problems or other kinds of troubles in the library. 

Sometimes they’re the people who ignore the people who work for them but take all the credit for the team’s accomplishments. Or sometimes they simply behave as if the team and their mission don’t even exist.

I once worked for a manager who never once came into my department or to my office to chat or see how I or my staff were doing  or learn about our daily work.  He never made any effort at all to get to know me or to discover how to best leverage my personal talents, strengths, or interests or those of my staff. The only time I interacted with him was either in a group meeting or in his office when he would give me some kind of a confusing task not at all related to my job and then ask for a deliverable that he couldn’t even define.

So I could never deliver what he wanted because he didn’t seem to actually know.

This person is not a true leader.

Please don’t be a director or supervisor like that.

Leadership Can Be Learned and Developed

You may be thinking to yourself now that you’re not a leader because you don’t have any natural talent for leadership. I mean we’re always talking about “natural born leaders”, right? Those people who just instinctively know how to inspire and influence others?

Well, here’s the good news.  You can learn to be a strong leader, right here where you are, right now, today.

How, you ask? 

Well, if you’re fortunate enough to work with one or more true leaders, start paying close attention to what they do and how they interact with those around them. Ask questions and be so bold as to ask them to mentor you. I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t appreciate another person asking for guidance and mentorship.

If you don’t currently have someone in your life like that, take some classes and read some books.  I’ve learned probably most of what I know about great leadership from workshops, blogs, videos, and books.  That said, I have had some amazing leaders that I’ve worked with and I’ve learned from that, but a lot of what I practice has been learned through investigation.

In previous episodes, I’ve talked about some of my favorite leaders. Here are a couple.

  • Simon Sinek – I’m a big Simon Sinek fan. Simon has numerous books and a whole lot of workshops online for the person aspiring to be a new or a better leader. In my Episode 3, Why Are You A Librarian, I talked a little about Simon Sinek and the concept of your why. If you haven’t listened to that episode, you can find it at masterfullibrarian.com/ep-3. And to find all his resources, just go to simonsinek.com.
  • Kim Scott – Kim wrote the book Radical Candor, first published in 2017.  I might almost call this book my handbook on how to be a good leader.  The subtitle is “How to Be a Kick-ass Boss Without Losing Your Humanity”.  What else is there to say about why I love this? I love the strategies and advice she gives in this book, and I refer to it often.
  • Ed Morrison and the group at the Agile Strategy Lab. Ed and his group wrote the book Strategic Doing.  Although it’s not precisely a leadership text, there is so much good advice and so many solid leadership strategies in the book, that I consider it that way.  To check out the Strategic Doing approach, go to strategicdoing.net

Traits of a Good Leader

For the now, here are some characteristics and behaviors that I consider to be evidence of a good leader.  I work daily to embody and integrate more of them in all that I do. Because I’m not just leading others in my work, I’m leading in my life with everyone I encounter. And quite honestly, I’m leading myself in every inner dialog I have – and that’s critical. We have the power to influence ourselves more than anyone else.

So here are some traits that I value in leaders. These are not in any particular order of importance.

  1. Be present and attentive to those around you, especially your employees, if you have them. This is a heavy lift being present and attentive all the time and requires constant vigilance, but it’s a worthy goal that reaps huge rewards. And it’s very important to stay present with yourself, as well.
  2. Be patient. Everyone works and functions at a different pace.  Don’t expect everyone on your team to perform in lock step and don’t rush creativity. Give people and developments time.
  3. Care personally – this is straight from Kim Scott and Radical Candor. This is one of her recommendations and her term.  Care Personally. Your employees and team members are people with lives outside of work.  You’re a person with a life outside of work. Find out who your team members are and establish relationships by sharing common interests. Share something beyond your work self with your team. Get to know them and let them get to know you.
  4. Build trust by taking an active interest in others. This is closely related to number 3, but it’s vital.  People will follow you out of fear, but only until they think they can get away.  It’s so much better if you can gain trust by making others feel safe and by showing you’re truly interested in them as human beings – not just as someone that can get something done toward a goal that you have.
  5. Put People First.  Meeting the library’s mission, reaching goals and objectives, and staying in the black financially are all critical to the library’s success – there’s no question. But none of those are going to happen if you don’t put people first. Everything we do in libraries requires people.  If you don’t put people first – your team, your users, yourself, even –  we’re heading for the ditch. Put people first.
  6. Know how to follow. The best leaders know when it’s time to lead and when it’s time to walk behind.  They also know when to let others critique their work and give honest feedback – even if it isn’t positive. Let your newbie librarian edit your work and make suggestions for better content. Let your team members give you honest and authentic feedback on the work that you’re doing.  And if you are a supervisor or a director, please encourage honest appraisals of how you’re doing so that you can better serve the people who are working with you.

We need leaders in libraries.  We need leaders in all departments and at all levels.  We need those with the institutional power due to their positions to be strong, positive leaders.

But more importantly, we need those people like you, those leaders interwoven throughout our entire organization.

Be that leader today.

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