Every Librarian A Leader, But…

There were two comments to my post about this profession needing to do more to develop its future leaders. Intentionally, my post was intended to speak to the need for upper echelon administrators, and the importance of developing our next generation of leaders who will take over those posts. Now perhaps that caused some umbrage among those who see themselves as leaders at their chosen level of service, or I connected with the inner skepticism and general eye-rolling reaction that front liners and middle managers have when someone suggests their administrators are leaders.

Well, like it or not, your library director has a different type of leadership role. Yes, I believe the “every librarian a leader” credo. It’s essential that all staff, professional and support, do their best to take a leadership mentality and apply it to whatever they do. But that’s not quite the same as being in a leadership position where a critical judgment call with enormous cascading consequences for the future, be it immediate or long term, is a regular part of the job. That responsibility lies with your library’s top administrators. That’s not to say those leaders make their decisions in a vacuum. Smart leaders depend on the knowledge, counsel and insight of those who lead from below. That’s the type of leader/administrator to which I referred in my post.

If you need further convincing that there is a difference take a look at some recent research by management experts Warren Bennis and Noel Tichy. Their new book titled Judgment: How Winning Leaders Make Great Calls is the subject of an article in the October 2007 issue of Harvard Business Review (p. 94) and there is an excerpt in the November 19, 2007 issue of BusinessWeek (p. 68). They write that we all make judgment calls throughout our lives and careers – and so do all librarians. But the difference is that our top leaders’ judgment calls are “magnified by their increasing impact on the lives of others.” And unlike the many decisions made by librarians at every level, the administrator’s decisions are long remembered, especially if they turn out badly. Leaders make decisions in three areas that impact on the outcomes and survival of the organization: people; strategy; crisis.

So are all librarians leaders? Let’s just drop the first two; librarians at all levels deal with them although the top administrator tends to have final decision-making authority on those matters. What about the crisis situation? A student is assaulted in the library. Faculty are up in arms about a decision to cancel journals. The provost is on the phone and needs an on-the-spot critical decision. We need leaders who can step up and make the right judgment call in those crisis situations. To do so requires some combination of experience, authentic practice, mentoring and a knowledge of the facts and data. To get back to my original question – is this profession doing enough to identify and prepare our future leaders with the right skills?

So if you are your library’s leader for information literacy or scholarly communications, you’ve got a significant role in shaping future services. But when that critical decision must be made about an important hire in your department, or whether to allocate constrained resources to a new initiative, or any decision that takes the library down a path from which there may be no return, you want a top administrator with the right experience, preparation and leadership skills to get it right. That’s the person that I want to see our profession developing. Those are the people this profession needs to secure a successful future.

12 thoughts on “Every Librarian A Leader, But…”

  1. Different institutions have different takes on this. At Gustavus, we deliberately gave up the idea that one person would make the hard decisions. We made sure everyone got to see all the nitty-gritty of the budget, was privy to all the critical pieces of information, that decisions were made openly and in conversation with those affected, and we elect a chair so that we have a “first among equals” who talks to the dean, goes to meetings, and keeps an eye on deadlines.

    This means that everyone who interviews for a librarian position, however new to the profession, is being evaluated as a future chair. It doesn’t appeal to everyone, but it works for us. And nobody feels as if it’s someone else’s job to make the tough choices. We do it together. And nobody is in the position of saying “I don’t know. You’ll have to ask the boss.”

    Admittedly, we’re small, and we have a great paraprofessional staff who do managerial work done by librarians at many other institutions. But I’ve found it personally a much more rewarding situation than working in a traditional structure, and it seems better adapted to a fast-changing world.

  2. I agree that senior administrators have distinct responsibilities that have a broader and more lasting impact on their libraries. I also agree that it is therefore critically important to do what we can to ensure that the people occupying those positions are competent, creative and committed.

    However, I still strongly disagree that leadership is inherently dependent on, or can be derived from, the mere existence of authority. Making people do stuff is not, in any sense, the same thing as leading them. In fact, it is often the opposite of leading them. Too many people already believe that increasing their managerial control means that they have established themselves as leaders. I would hate to see that dangerous misperception spread any further, even inadvertantly.

    Put another way…I would say “Amen, brother!” if you rephrased your call to action as, “We must do a better job of preparing more librarians to become administrators who use their authority confidently, skillfully, and wisely.” An important part of doing that is being a good leader, to be sure. But what we want is administrators who are leaders, not librarians who believe they have become leaders by assuming an administrative position.

  3. It was my experience that I had no idea what sort of leader I would be until I was given authority in my job. And I certainly learned a few things about how I felt about authority! I was placed into an adminstrative position without much experience, and I’m afraid I did a lot of learning at the expense of my colleagues. It was all a long time ago, and I certainly have more confidence in my abilities now, but this confidence was born of real-life experience.

    I’m curious, Steven: what sorts of things do you think our profession can do to develop leadership? I thoroughly enjoyed the ACRL/Harvard Institute, and I know there are mentor programs now for first-time directors. But what do you think the profession could do to better support the creation of librarians who “make the right judgment call in those crisis situations”?

    And Barbara, I really like the collaborative approach to leadership you describe at Gustavus. Do you do anything to help new hires prepare for the challenges and opportunities of being elected chair?

  4. Marilyn–

    Personally, I think the answer to the questions you ask Steven and Barbara can be found in your description of your own experience: people learn by doing. (I do hope they provide their own answers, though!)

    I’m the director of a tiny university library. While we haven’t been able to establish a model like Barbara describes at Gustavus, I do insist on collaboration on library-wide issues and significant autonomy on service-specific issues. My intention is for everybody to gain experience in building staff consensus, being responsible and accountable, developing goals and objectives, managing personal and student employee workflows, addressing budget questions, advocating with stakeholders, and keeping up with developments in their field.

    There are times when I have to make an executive decision, and there are times when a crisis balloons out of one person’s scope of responsibility and I need to step in. But for the most part, my staff works through their own successes and their own failures. That’s part of how they learn good judgment: by exercising it.

    The other part of how they learn good judgment is that–within legal, ethical, and university policy constraints–I am transparent with my staff about the reasons for my own administrative decisions. We talk about money and priorities and trade-offs a lot. We also do a fair amount of post-mortems on incidents and initiatives: what worked? what didn’t? what could we have done different?

    All this seems to fall under what Steven identifies as helping people grow through “experience, authentic practice, mentoring and a knowledge of the facts and data.” And I think he is right that we need to be intentional about identifying the people who, shall we say, grow the fastest and bear the most fruit. I think this is done most productively at the local level, myself, which is why I’m not sure what the profession as a whole can or should be doing, other than reducing barriers to participation in the field as much as possible.

  5. We pretty much take Mark’s advice in that we don’t have a formal path for learning to be a chair; but we do make most of our decisions together, so the learning curve is not as steep as it was when we embarked on this model (or in other departments where the work of the chair is less collaborative). Previously, nobody but the director had actually seen the budget and what went on with the administration was all a bit mysterious. Now we’re all familiar with the budget and what’s going on in admin, and we’re essentially able to answer just about any question that comes up about the library and where we’re headed – just as Mark describes in his library. We also are upfront in interviews – if this isn’t what you want to do, you probably don’t want to work at Gustavus.

    It seems to me the one thing the profession could do to foster leadership is to stop using the metric of the number of people you supervise as the measure of a librarian’s relative worth. Supervision is mostly unnecessary, and it annoys new librarians who are, after all, grown-ups.

    A colleague and I gave a paper on our model at ACRL in 2005 – and actually used the phrase “We have nothing to lose but the chains of authority.” My pinko tendencies were getting the better of me :o)

  6. I mentioned in the earlier post that there are some existing programs that are a good start. They can give developing leaders some good ideas and tools. Where they lack is in the authentic practice. I’d certainly like to see more residency programs at libraries of all sizes; the too few current programs are offered mostly at large institutions. That gives potential leaders a year or two to be involved in library managment, to circulate through different units and to observe leaders in action. Owing to the costs involved, few programs are available. Perhaps there is a way our libraries can cooperatively fund more of them or though ACRL identify and obtain grants. Perhaps it is something we can do in our own libraries. Library directors can certainly identify potential leaders in their own organizations, and then help to develop their skills. I don’t have great ideas but we can start to work on generating more of them.

  7. Steven–

    I would be thrilled to see something along the lines of PLA’s Grow Your Own @ Your Library Institutional Scholarship, except have the money go towards making it financially feasible to allow release time for one or more librarians at each selected academic library to “circulate through different units and to observe leaders in action,” as you say.

    I like the idea of residencies, but I worry that such programs select for people in a very specific place in their lives, where they can pick up and go somewhere for a year or two, and then pick up *again* and go someplace else. At least, I haven’t heard of residencies that turn into permanent full-time positions, though I could be misinformed.

  8. Good comments all. I find myself wondering how many librarians enter the profession with the *intention* of becoming directors. Or chairs in a collaborative environment such as Gustavus. I agree with the learning by doing model, both as a teacher and as a librarian! I think Mark has another important aspect of the question nailed when he points out that the jobs we take have to do with many non-job factors, including mobility and flexibility. There’s something else, though, a bit more intangible: how to cultivate a mindset in which individual librarians see themselves as leadership material. It took me a long time to get to that place, with a lot of experiential learning! And I’ve noticed that my most successful leadership ventures have happened when I’m not consciously acting as a leader; I’m just doing my job as I see it. Those times are very sweet!

  9. As a new interim library director, your posting about hits really close to home. I have considered myself a leader for several years in my role as a librarian and also in the role I played as president of the SUNY Librarians Association.

    A library director must deal with things outside of the library while the front line librarian does not have to. I have been going to our college academic council in my new role. I am being asked for input on college wide policies and issues. That is both exhilirating and scary at the same time. As director my perspective must be much broader than just the library.

  10. “A library director must deal with things outside of the library while the front line librarian does not have to.”

    It’s pretty much a must at our shop. We’re faculty, and service to the institution is required. Luckily, it’s also something people want to do. And when everyone’s involved, the library is more integrally part of the campus.

  11. Apparently Librarian should develop and being a leader of his department. But one who having the true leadership skills assist him to manage any kind of adversaries he encounters. Manage and control the difficult situation and circumstances demonstrates the person true leadership capabilities. Absolutely Librarians should cultivate leadership skill to manage their library affairs in effective way and also improve its position from its existing position to next level. Key ingredients of leadership are integrity, excellent oratory skill and understanding the problem and people to handle and lead.

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