Sorry But You Can’t Have It All

I recently gave a keynote talk at a meeting of a statewide library directors group. I called the talk “The Search for Tomorrow’s Library Leaders in A ‘Dissin’ the Director’ Landscape” and part of the talk referred back to some previous ACRLog posts on leadership and library directors. I mentioned some of the reasons that Gen-X and Gen-Y librarians are disillusioned with library management. With their negative perceptions of library directors these individuals can find few good reasons to aspire to careers as library administators. Why else are nextgens disinterested? Past research indicates they want a better work-life balance and were hesitant to make the necessary sacrifices required to lead libraries from the director’s office. I made that point with a quote that appears in a chapter titled “Preparing the Next Generation of Directors and Leaders” by Nancy Rossiter from a book titled “Making a Difference: Leadership and Academic Libraries” by Peter Hernon and Rossiter:

Rachel Gordon Singer found that Generation X and Generation Y librarians have a negative view of managment…the amount of time a library director devotes to the position is potentially a turn-off; younger librarians do not want to detract from time spent with family and friends..One of Gordon’s respondents stated “There is no amount of money or prestige that would entice us to sacrifice our families, our home lives, and our sanity for the long hours and Sisyphean ordeal of a directorship.”

That led to some interesting discussion and thoughtful reactions, both pro and con. One director said this was all well and good but that the current generation of directors needed to give their nextgen colleagues a dose of reality. Getting the job done, said the director, requires certain personal sacrifices, and that a work-life imbalance, staying late, working weekends, getting emergency calls in the middle of the night, is occasionally necessary. Bottom line: you can’t have it all. But another director expressed concerns about the blurring of work life and personal life in an increasingly 24/7 connected society. This director thought that library administrators needed to be more sensitive to the next generation’s desires for the work-life balance. If the work-life practices and behavior of the current generation of directors establishes a model upon which the next generation forms its attitudes towards library administration then today’s library directors, as part of their effort to recruit and shape the next generation of leaders, needs to live and promote an image that will attract the best and brightest to academic library leadership.

Not unexpectedly, there was no clear resolution on how to best attract the nextgen librarian to the library directorship. What we do know is that perceptions are important. As long as nextgens see the current crop of directors working long hours without a clear sense of the potential rewards, it’s unlikely they’ll be motivated to enter into directorships. The current generation of academic library directors need to better communicate that their jobs do occasionally involve long hours, but that there can be great rewards. Chief among those rewards is fulfilling a vision about how an academic library can best serve the needs of its constituents. Here’s my message to those nextgens who diss their director and whose own vision is in conflict with what they see coming out the contemporary’s academic library director’s office: You may be the best person to become a library director; there’s no better way to fulfill your vision of what an academic library can and should be for your community. And if you can do it while creating a better work-life balance for yourself and your next generation of leaders then go out and create some change.

I finished my talk with a quote to emphasize that today’s library leaders do have a responsibility to the next generation of leaders. It comes from the book Crucibles of Leadership:

As the scholar Noel Tichy argues, leaders must be teachers – and the leaders in this chapter offer precisely what Tichy calls a “teachable point of view.” He argues that leaders’ responsibility is not only to provide direction and judgment in the moment, but to strive continuously to develop leadership in others, now and into the future.

So you could argue that it is incumbent upon the current generation of leaders to help the next generation to learn about leadership. Today’s library directors must think more clearly about how their leadership style and the examples they set send a message of learning to our next generation of leaders.

14 thoughts on “Sorry But You Can’t Have It All”

  1. I have to say (and you knew I would, didn’t you!) that the lack of interest in prestige and money in exchange for your soul, er, your lifestyle has two parts. In terms of the second, I think it’s healthy to want to balance work and life. But in terms of the first, “I don’t want to work as hard as that” is not the issue I hear brought up the most. It’s more often that the prestige and money seems unrelated to the amount or quality of work that comes with the money and prestige.

    I’m trying to think back to the times I’ve heard people say negative things about a director and I have to say it has never been “wow, he works way too hard; that’s so unhealthy.” It’s much more likely to be “he’s never here,” “she has no idea of all the innovations we’re implementing,” or “he gets paid so much and he doesn’t do anything.”

    That could stem from simply not knowing what a hard-working director does all day, which suggests the director needs to consider sharing more authority, making collective decisions not ones from the top, not requiring “permission” from adult professionals to do things they are capable of doing, and making sure the things that take a director out of the library are well understood and valued by everyone who works in the library (while encouraging them to do some of those things outside the library, too). That kind of transparency in itself makes it more tempting to be a director someday. If you’ve never been privy to budget decisions, for example, the idea of managing a complex budget may seem far more daunting and far less fun.

    Sometimes, frankly, the reason being a director doesn’t look fun is that some librarians work with a person who climbed to the top fifteen years ago and run out of steam. They get stuck in an administrative rut and don’t keep up with what’s going on. They are joyless, bored, and sometimes inhibit innovation in their own libraries. That sure isn’t a tempting future!

    I agree that those who seek change should consider making it happen by becoming directors. But for that to seem worthwhile, they have to meet directors who make change, who empower people, who love their work (not just the prestige). Quite often directors seem to belong to a club where they talk to each other more than to librarians who might someday be among them. The next generation needs to feel that the work of leadership is shoulder-to-shoulder, not something to aspire to one day.

    I’m not at all convinced these librarian need to be taught about leadership as much as they need to be allowed to lead in ways that make sense. That doesn’t necessarily mean learning at the feet of the current generation of library directors. Maybe it should go the other way around.

  2. There’s some interesting overlap here with a post on Signal vs. Noise on work-life balance and running a business startup. The basic idea is that people with families and other important non-work priorities set better, more realistic goals for what they can accomplish in the time that’s available for work. And also that consistently working 18-hour days is a sign that something’s broken.

  3. Current “success” wisdom is that you must have a “passion” for what you do. Maybe I’m too shaped by my GenXness, but I always suspected this is just a big scam to get people to work their asses off. Also, you can’t choose what you’re passionate about.

    And hey, can’t we say Library Deans and Directors? Some of us still think we’re part of academia.

  4. Eight or nine years ago, the Association of Academic Health Sciences Libraries (AAHSL) started taking the issue of leadership development very seriously, and I think we’ve been somewhat successful. Details of the various programs that have been developed can be found here:

    Barbara’s points are very well taken. Directors need to be visible and engaged and need to be very involved in mentoring in both formal and informal ways.

    The other point that I always make in regard to work/life balance is that although I work a lot of hours and that includes some evenings and weekends, the technology we now have at our disposal allows me tremendous freedom as well. I don’t feel that I have to be in the library every day, and when I’m traveling I always try to work in a bit of sightseeing. I am passionate about what I do and I think I do a pretty good job, but I also have a rich and varied non-library life.

  5. I was at that conference and thoroughly enjoyed the talk. I agree entirely with this quote from your post:

    “Here’s my message to those nextgens who diss their director and whose own vision is in conflict with what they see coming out the contemporary’s academic library director’s office: You may be the best person to become a library director; there’s no better way to fulfill your vision of what an academic library can and should be for your community. And if you can do it while creating a better work-life balance for yourself and your next generation of leaders then go out and create some change.”

    Change the status quo. Just because directors in my generation can not make a better balance out of does not mean that nextgen shouldn’t at least try.

  6. I am irritated by this post. Many generalizations are made about Gen X and Gen Y (none are favorable). I am Gen Y, and I have a Gen X library director (and she is GREAT).

    My last library position was working full-time at a circulation desk at a law school library until MIDNIGHT each weeknight while getting my MLIS. Sacrifices? YES. Work-life balance? No!

    I think this is just another stab at Gen X and Y.. which has gotten a lot of press lately. I wrote a response in my blog:

  7. Barbara, you make a good point here: “[q]uite often directors seem to belong to a club where they talk to each other more than to librarians who might someday be among them.”

    During my first position as a resident librarian, I recall my library dean (and other administrators) often dropping by to say a few words. Sometimes these visits were related to my job, but often he would stop to just say hello.

    As a new librarian, and a new member of the academy, I was simply honored that he would take a few moments out of his busy day to drop in. Perhaps, in addition to the requisite management skills, library leadership should make a proactive effort to reduce the formalities which can create real (or imagined) barriers between administration and younger faculty.

  8. I have been I Librarian for about six years now and have been a library manager and I still get asked “Do you get paid for being a librarian?” and “Do you need a degree?” I believe part of the reason that people in general do not wish to move up the corporate ladder is the lack of pay, conditions and general respect that ‘Librarians’ are given by the community. Why would we be a library manager or director if we get little more pay and conditions that an assistant would and a great deal more responsibility.

    AND don’t get me started on library ‘directors’ who were put into the position with qualifications in business or another completely unrelated area and then have no idea what it is a library actually does and tries to run it like a business.

  9. I’ve got to agree with Barbara and Amy on this one. The blog post definitely plays up negative stereotypes and the stated “problems” that gen X and Y have with library directors seems fairly straw-man to me (“oh, they’re so afraid of hard work and an occasional extra bit of work every now and then”).

    Our library director does a pretty good job, and though she’s an older generation and works a few extra hours now and again, I think she manages to maintain a decent quality of life and DOESN’T embody the typical dinosaur administrator values. Some people just don’t particularly want to be administrators, and like many of my generation, the word “administrator” usually makes me think of people who are out-of-touch, scheming, very political who endlessly attend meetings while having no actual clue about anything that actually matters to anyone (except for budgets). Our director is an exception to the general rule–much to her credit.

    When GenX and GenY think of these people as essentially kiss-up, apple-polishers who don’t have an original thought and are constrained to a stultifying career for a few extra shekels and some prestige, then why would they bother to aspire to that?

    We know the older generation because they were our parents and teachers and others like them. The values of extreme “commitment” and “loyalty” might have made sense 50 years ago when the organization gave the same kind of commitment in return to those who worked for them. But that’s not the case, is it? Employees are disposable to many organizations, yet they they don’t want employees to think of their organization as disposable in return. Sorry “leaders,” you don’t get to play it both ways. If you want rock-solid commitment from your employees then you’ve got to give rock-solid commitment to your employees in return. It’s a two way street.

    In today’s world the talk about these “values” is often just a way to try more out of workers for free. We understand these euphemisms for what they are. Also, “a few extra hours” that you speak of are not alien to our generation. We’re plenty willing to do it if there is a reason, but we’ve learned from experience, too. We got suckered into all of that in the .com startups and know it’s often a euphemism for 80-hour work weeks with no payoff. Been there, done that. We’re not getting burned on that score again.

    To get a little cynical, I bet Enron had some good pep rallies with their workers about loyalty and commitment just before they siphoned off all the hard-earned retirement money. When your generation has set such a spectacular example in its “leadership,” is it any wonder that many of a younger generation aren’t all that interested in following in your footsteps or doing things the same way and accepting all your ready-made answers?

    I hope you get a payoff on that stuff and I’m sure on your deathbeds you’ll heartily regret not spending a lot more hours at work.

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