Does this post make me look vulnerable? Vulnerability and Leadership

ACRLog welcomes guest co-author Michelle Millet, Library Director at John Carroll University.

Maura:

As so often happens to me, the idea for this post began with a conversation on Twitter.

When I read Michelle’s tweet my first thought was about a recent conversation I had during a meeting of our Library Appointments Committee. During our appointments meeting I remarked that it can sometimes be challenging for us tenured folks to remember how vulnerable it can feel to be untenured, because we feel so much more secure once tenure’s been granted. I was still untenured when I became a director two and a half years ago; my first year as Chief Librarian was my tenure vote year. I shared with the committee that I too felt vulnerable in my last untenured year. Even though I knew intellectually that my tenure was highly likely, since I’d been appointed Chief Librarian, there was a small but persistent nagging doubt until my tenure was actually approved. I almost surprised myself by sharing that in our committee meeting, but it seemed important to our discussion to remind ourselves how our untenured colleagues might feel, even though I felt somewhat vulnerable to say it.

Michelle:

I feel vulnerable, as a Director, about showing emotions now that I’m a Director. It’s hard when you think you’re doing your best in a job but you don’t think people like you. But, once you’re the Director, you have to assume that people at times will not agree with you or even like you, but you have to get over it. Emotion is something that we’re shamed for. “Don’t be such a girl. Don’t be so emotional,” are things that a lot of women have heard for a long time. So, I hide my emotion at work, lest I seem too vulnerable. Is there a too vulnerable?

If I had to pinpoint a specific time when I felt extremely vulnerable, even with tenure, even with a supportive supervisor, it was when an article about gender and leadership I wrote with a colleague was published. As soon as it “hit” online, I literally become sick to my stomach and thought I would get fired. Nothing in that article was untrue. Gender and leadership is a problem in libraries. Leadership, and assumptions about leaders, are very gendered everywhere. My experiences noted in the article were true, yet vague enough not to embarrass an individual person. Yet they were also real enough to probably cause pause. But, I got through it. Colleagues on campus were positive about it. Most never said a word.

Maura:

As Michelle and I talked more on Twitter and email, we realized that we wanted to explore our thoughts about vulnerability in leadership. It probably speaks volumes to share that it’s taken us a long time from our initial brainstorming (“hey, let’s write a post about this!”) to get to writing and publishing this post. Vulnerability can be challenging and scary.

Michelle:

We probably struggle everyday as leaders who believe that vulnerability is a positive characteristic, but I think very strongly there is value for our colleagues and staff in this. I want my staff to know that I am a real person, with real, complicated emotions and that I feel vulnerable, too. I believe that showing vulnerability is a key to feminist leadership. I am vulnerable, like you, and I see us as all moving towards a collective goal.

But there’s a push-pull. There is always is, for women especially. I want to seem human and show that I’m here to lead us all to work together, but I don’t want that appeal for collaboration and unity to come across as weak. I want to show my vulnerability, but not seem as too soft. I want to be comfortable showing my vulnerabilities, but not have that lead to doing all of the emotional labor at work.

Maura:

I agree that showing our vulnerability as leaders at work can be positive — I hope it makes me more approachable to my colleagues and emphasizes our shared humanity. I also hope it encourages collaboration, especially in a smaller library with a relatively flat organizational structure like where I work, as we all work together towards our common goal of making the library the best it can be for our college community. However, I sometimes feel that it can be difficult to balance confidence and vulnerability. I don’t have all the answers — no one does. And that’s okay. Part of being a leader is encouraging an environment where it feels safe to ask questions, and working together to figure out answers and solutions.

Michelle:

There’s also our work to do outside of the library and this group is one we often feel most vulnerable with. They are other Deans, Assistant Vice Presidents, Provosts, and the like. Do we show them the same vulnerabilities? Or do we have more of a facade and confidence?

Working on this post made me think about how I’ve reacted to other women leaders I know during times when they’ve been extremely vulnerable in front of me. It’s uncomfortable. You don’t know how to react at first. But then you find some empathy.

Maura:

I’ve had similar concerns about being vulnerable as a leader in public. Twitter (the only social media platform I use) is a perfect example. I want to be a real person on Twitter, especially since I interact with friends (and occasionally family) there. But I’m also an experienced professional and scholar, and I want that to be evident as well. I think there’s value in being that real person on Twitter, though in many ways that makes me feel more vulnerable than if I had a strictly professional persona — those typically feel very corporate to me. That said, I absolutely think more about what I tweet than I did before I was a director, and I do consider my vulnerability more than I did before, too.

Michelle:

As an administrator, I feel like I am vulnerable within my librarian community. Am I still a real librarian? I feel vulnerable in my teaching, because I’m not still “in the trenches” as much. I feel vulnerable in leadership positions within my profession because I’m “too real or too honest” and not just some talking head that represents my school.

Maura:

Over the course of writing this post it’s become clear just how meta the topic of vulnerability in leadership can be for library directors. Both Michelle and I struggled with the writing, feeling vulnerable in this act of discussing vulnerability. Ultimately we found many similarities in our individual experiences with vulnerability as leaders, and we both strongly feel that vulnerability is an important part of our leadership roles.

We’re interested to hear about your experiences with vulnerability, both in your own leadership work and in your libraries. Drop us a line in the comments.

One thought on “Does this post make me look vulnerable? Vulnerability and Leadership

  1. I’m now retired and my perspective may be unlike many others. Years ago before I became chief librarian at my college, I chaired our college-wide curriculum committee for several years. Thereby I encountered plentiful opportunities for conflict, for stress, for vulnerability. I was not then a full professor, I was unseasoned, I was naive about faculty politics, and I was not supported in college-wide service by my own chief librarian.

    Later, as chief librarian, similar circumstances prevailed. Although now a full professor, I was often opposed by a cadre of veteran librarians who held me responsible for their promotions. I was blamed for inadequate library funding even as the college dealt with huge budget cuts. Some librarians lobbied to have me removed as chief.

    I could not continue working in these environments. For my own well-being I found it necessary to adopt a “be prepared but don’t take it personally” attitude. I asked others to assume important responsibilities. Some colleagues were invited to work with me–or at times work independently of me–as leaders with committee or department operations. As I was reminded by a mentor, in leadership positions wherein teamwork is imperative, one may be “the first among equals,” but one is not personally responsible for everything that happens.

    Did I think all this through while it was happening? Hardly. Hindsight may be 20-20 but there’s little clarity in the middle of the fray. Somehow I found it best for myself–and for my colleagues–to lighten my personal expectations. Did I always get what I wanted? Hardly. But often our work and our results were the better for it.

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