It Helps To Have Presence

There are many different ways to be a leader in your library or on your campus, and you can lead from any position in the library. Being willing to step up and take responsibility as the idea champion for a project is one way to establish yourself as a library leader. Spotting new trends, connecting the dots and putting it all together to develop an innovative service is another way to express leadership. Seeing things on your campus that need to be accomplished and taking the first step toward getting things done will help establish the library as a campus leader. But no matter what you do or how you do it, it helps to establish presence. But what does it mean to have presence, and how would you go about developing it? Do some people have a natural presence or is it a quality you can learn and acquire?

So how do you know when you’ve achieved this intangible thing we call presence? Chances are you may not know the answer to this question until you encounter your crucible. In the book Crucibles of Leadership, Robert J. Thomas profiles many leaders who were tested by way of experiencing a personal crucible. A crucible is the vessel in which alchemists attempted to turn base metals into gold. Thomas writes:

We can think of a crucible as a transformative experience from which a person extracts his or her gold: a new or altered sense of identity…Crucibles are not life stages…like moving from adolescence to adulthood…Crucibles are more like trials or tests that corner individuals and force them to answer questions about who they are and what is really important to them.

There are dozens of state, regional and national library leadership programs, and they cover many issues that emerging and experienced leaders must know. But I suspect that few offer authentic practice for developing a presence. In Thomas’ book most leaders describe a crisis or catastrophic experience that defined their crucible. Such events cannot easily be manufactured in a seminar setting. Often it is a test of fire that one must prepare for and emerge from successfully. Then you will know you have experienced your crucible.

But a simple test of presence for any leader, is being called upon to speak spontaneously about your library or a library-related issue, such as scholarly communications. For example, at a campus meeting the college president calls upon you, as the representative of the library, to share your vision for a 21st century library, to share your perspective on a recent news item about the changing academic library, or to explain how the library best serves as the heart of campus. Great leaders can speak extemporaneously with great presence so that they inspire others – or at least reassure their colleagues that someone has a command of the situation. How do you prepare for that? Developing presence is a challenge.

According to John Baldoni, presence is not the same as having charisma. In a recent post at his blog he writes:

I define leadership presence as earned authority. You may have a title, but you need to earn the respect and trust of your coworkers. Presence is rooted in fundamental competence, and for anyone who aspires to lead, presence is essential. Developing this is a long process that goes far beyond speaking in public. Some people confuse presence with charisma, but the two are not the same. The former is developed over time; the latter is what you are born with and is a matter of looks, charm, personality, and appeal.

But what guidance does Baldoni provide for those who want to develop and build their leadership presence, particularly when put on the spot to speak publicly – a formidable crucible for many:

Remain calm. Why? Because you are in control! Your stomach may be churning and your palms may be sweaty, but you must realize the microphone is in your hands. This is a little secret that I share with people I coach: people have to listen to you. Whether you croon or wax eloquent, the audience is at your mercy. You are the master of your destiny, or at least the next five minutes. When you keep that thought in mind, you will realize that yes, you can do this. You can speak in front of an audience and you will be okay.

Simple – right? If you seek to establish your presence, a good place to start may be improving your ability to speak like a leader. There are plenty of resources to help with that, such as blogs or organizations like Toastmasters. But even taking time for authentic practice is beneficial; try delivering a short talk on a topic well known to you but do it in front of a mirror. Of course it helps to be well versed on the issues of the day, and to spend time thinking about and crafting your personal vision so that you can quickly articulate it when called upon to do so. Two ideas that may help: (1) be prepared to deliver sound bites and (2) stay on your message.

I learned the first at a prior position when we were required to undergo media training. What is media training? That’s learning how to show grace under pressure when a reporter sticks a microphone in your face and asks for a response to a challenging question (think 60 Minutes confrontations). That rarely happens to a library leader during a crisis, but you never know when a journalist may call you and ask for an on-the-spot opinion about an issue. You need to be ready and long, drawn out explanations won’t cut it. You need to deliver the goods in a concise and coherent way. Sound bite has an unpleasant and superficial tone, but if you want to be quoted correctly and come off sounding like you know your business, it does work. So think in advance and prepare sound bites that you can deliver under pressure and on demand.

The second comes from a workshop I attended at which the main speaker was the author of a book about developing communication skills for leaders. This technique comes straight out of politics, and it’s used to answer difficult questions for which you are not quite prepared. How well this works for you depends, again, on advance preparation. Staying on message means having a consistent message you want to communicate no matter what the question is. If your goal is to consistently communicate the contribution the library makes to student success or faculty research, then put together a short and easy to remember message that you can recite on demand – and ad lib to as needed. If an administrator or faculty member asks you a tough question about why we still need libraries or what you thought about the Chronicle article on lousy online catalogs, you can bob and weave your way past the first 10 or 15 seconds of response, have your transitional phrasing ready and then get on message. Here’s an example:

I did read that article and I have to agree that academic libraries can do a better job of [INSERT ISSUE/TOPIC] and in our professional association conversations we debate this issue frequently [UP TO THIS POINT YOU’VE REALLY SAID NOTHING OF GREAT SUBSTANCE – NOW GET TO YOUR MESSAGE] but what’s really important is that our library stays focused on doing everything it can to help our students achieve academic success [AT THIS POINT YOU ARE OVER ANY INITIAL NERVOUSNESS ABOUT HOW TO ANSWER THE QUESTION – NOW YOU CRUISE TO THE FINISH LINE] and that’s why we are seriously examining a number of new technology solutions that address the problem discussed in that article. Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me about this challenge our library faces.

Now that wasn’t so hard, was it? Of course it’s easy to write this stuff out when you have plenty of time to think about it – which is where you should probably start. Then when you get asked these questions in committee meetings and at the faculty senate where you’ll have little time to think about it – you’ll be ready to step up and show you’ve got presence.

Impact Factors Adjusted for Reality

An interesting study forthcoming in the September issue of C&RL tackles the question of how our scholarship is evaluated by tenure and promotion committees. As a tenured librarian in a department in which half of the faculty are currently working toward tenure, this question intrigues me. Fortunately, my non-librarian colleagues at my institution do not take a bean-counter approach to assessing scholarship. I’ve served on the committee and have seen first-hand that there’s no talk of “impact factor” and having published a book is not a mechanical substitute for evaluating the significance of a faculty member’s intellectual work and potential for future engagement with ideas.

The authors describe the way Oregon State University has adopted Boyer’s definition of scholarship – which embraces not just discovery of new knowledge, but application, teaching, and integration. After examining what librarians have been doing, they concluded the problem isn’t being productive, it’s explaining the “breadth and impact” of librarians’ scholarly work. This includes not only traditionally-published research, but additional modes of communicating ideas.

Blogs are vehicles to teach and communicate to both broad and specific audiences. Their format precludes them being taken seriously as scholarship in current tenure review processes, but their content often demonstrates engagement and suggests impact in ways rarely seen in the print library journal. This raises questions about the concept of format and vehicle. Expanding acceptance of new forms of communication along with reconsidering what constitutes scholarship will benefit librarianship as a whole. A first step is accepting open-access, peer reviewed journals as outlets of high impact and validity. The next step will be integrating non-traditional peer reviewed work such as blogs that have an active readership and generate comments and commentary.

The outsourcing of faculty evaluation by peers – relying on university presses and journal rankings to determine whether a colleague is worthy or not – has contributed to the problem libraries find themselves in: having to somehow fund access to a bloated body of research, much of which is only produced to gain job security. (Two years ago an MLA survey found a third of institutions required progress toward publishing a second book. This, when libraries’ budgets can’t keep up with bare necessities.)

Maybe in a backhanded way the work we do, documented in a way that people in other disciplines can understand, could provide a model for sanity.

CC-licensed image courtesy of Kristina B.

LACUNY Institute Explores The Next Generation Of Library Leadership

Editor’s Note: Here we share a report from the 2009 LACUNY Institute authored by guest poster Sarah Laleman Ward, Outreach Librarian at Hunter College Libraries. We greatly appreciate Sarah’s contribution to ACRLog in which she shares with our readers the highlights from the Institute.

The 2009 LACUNY Institute was held October 23, 2009 in New York. The Institute theme was “Library Leadership: The Next Generation”, and the program included a keynote speaker, two panel discussions, and a poster session. The overarching themes I took away from the institute were those of collaboration, communication, mentoring, and flexibility.

Stanley Wilder delivered the keynote address, entitled: “Demographic change in a turbulent era: technologists and the humble subject liaison.” Wilder is no stranger to the topic of demographic change in libraries, having recently posted on this blog about the prophesied but as yet unfulfilled librarian shortage. Wilder’s most salient points were those related to collaboration, flexibility and willingness to adapt. He referenced Jim Neal’s 2006 Library Journal article, saying that with the increasingly technological needs of libraries, so-called “feral professionals,” who may have different backgrounds and training than traditional or “domesticated” librarians and are less likely to hold an MLS degree, are entering the profession at a higher rate. These new professionals are not necessarily young, but they bring a different set of values and skills to librarianship, and will continue to grow in numbers and influence. Wilder encouraged librarians to view this as an opportunity to stop apologizing and start leveraging ourselves. What he calls the “Holy Grail” for academic libraries is the fact that we are already closely aligned with the core academic mission of our institutions. Wilder suggested we collaborate more with other campus units, such as instructional technologists and computing staff, inviting them to work with us to form a broader network engaged with the institutions core academic mission. His final point was that ultimately, we should not have to choose between librarians and technologists, because both are necessary for the future of libraries.

These themes carried throughout the panel discussions, which were both moderated by Marie Radford. The first panel, “The Graying of the Profession: Intergenerational Collaboration and Succession Planning” was ostensibly composed of two “Gen-X” librarians (Jenna Freedman and Erik Sean Estep) and one “Boomer” (Shelly Warwick). The second panel “Issues in Next Generation Librarianship” included panelists Erin Dorney (a “Millennial”), Emily Drabinski, and Jason Kucsma (both “Gen-X”). I reluctantly use these designations because everyone seemed understandably uncomfortable with generational labels. However, since the panelists were clearly chosen to represent differing generational viewpoints I thought it was appropriate to mention. Several of the panelists agreed that generational labels are artificial and that the real issue is communicating with people as individuals: genuine interpersonal communication can trump the generational divide. Both panels discussed the necessity of mentoring; not just “mentoring down” (veterans to newbies), but “mentoring up” as well. Radford mentioned that often, the trouble comes not from the aging of the older generation but from the marginalization of the younger. The first panel agreed that what they would like to see in newer professionals is a focus on service. The second panel focused on collaboration and flexibility as well as the “next gen” influence on 21st century libraries resulting in organizations with flatter, more team-based structures and cross-institutional collaboration. The newer generation’s willingness to move around and change jobs may be perceived as disloyalty by managers and this way of thinking needs to change, since turnover is vital to keeping organizations alive. Staying in one place for one’s entire career was mentioned as an older (or, “Boomer”) ideal, and that newer professionals will stay in places that respect them and their work. All the panelists emphasized the importance of remaining flexible, adapting, changing and trying new things while respecting professional core values.

My complete notes from the Institute are posted online here, and there is more information about all of the speakers on the 2009 LACUNY Institute website.

Beware Of Overconfidence

I hope you took some time to take a look at the latest ECAR report on undergraduates and their use of and attitudes about technology. In addition to Barbara’s post and some good discussion over at COLLIB-L, I commented (on the discussion list) that I had brought up some of the same issues in my ACRLog post about the 2008 ECAR study, and that not much has seemed to change in two areas: (1) student use of the library website and (2) students self-reporting high levels of research and information evaluation skills.

Students reporting they have outstanding research skills is nothing particularly new, and it certainly shouldn’t surprise us because having an exaggerated sense of your own capabilities is just one more innate human failing. I recall a small study I performed for a research methods course I was taking in 1993 or so. At the time I was working at a library where we allowed students to search Dialog using the classroom instruction program. Now you would probably agree that searching Dialog is just a bit more difficult than searching the Web. But in a survey of students who used Dialog at least once a week, approximately 90% reported that their search skills were as good as or better than those of professional librarians. They either had a highly inflated sense of their own skills or they severely underestimated just how skilled the librarians were at searching Dialog. As part of the research project I had the students and librarians conduct the same searches, and the students came not even remotely close to doing as well as the librarians. But in their minds, the students thought they were just as good or better.

Part of the problem that afflicts all of us is a bad case of overconfidence. Maybe, just maybe, do you think that the economic collapse of 2008 may have been caused by a slight case of some financial gurus being overconfident in their ability to maintain control over a complex mix of investment and economic risks, as well as totally unpredictable human behavior. In fact, some recent research indicates that many high-profile disasters (think world wars, Vietnam, Hurricane Katrina, etc.) can be blamed on human overconfidence. You probably see this all the time. In almost any survey in which people judge their abilities, say on a scale of 1 to 10, everyone is above average. At a presentation I attended some years ago, the speaker shared the results of studies that suggested you could predict in advance that anytime people were asked to rate themselves on anything (e.g., how well do you drive) the mean would be 7.7 – and that it was statistically impossible for that many people to be above average. If we’re all above average drivers who is that person making a right-hand turn from the left lane?

But here’s the funny thing about overconfidence. Despite the inherent risks of overestimating your abilities at just about anything – and when students overestimate the quality of their research skills they can turn in a pretty dismal final product – the researchers who studied overconfidence believe there is a clear advantage to being overconfident. Not surprisingly you’ll find others who don’t see it this way, such as this NYT op-ed columnist who points out that government overconfidence is to blame for misguided thinking in the current handling of the executive compensation mess. Overconfident individuals, suggest the researchers, are likely to have a clear competitive advantage over ordinary individuals. “Overconfidence boosts ambition, resolve, morale and persistence…and the greater the risk the more overconfident individuals become.” That doesn’t sound like such a good thing to me.

Despite what the researchers have to say, I’m going to come down on the side of advocating we should beware of overconfidence, both in ourselves and our students. I don’t know to what extent it might be helpful to share the ECAR study’s relevant results with our students. Perhaps it never helps to try to warn someone of the dangers of being overconfident; we just can ‘t seem to help ourselves. But I do think it would benefit us professionally to be mindful of our own flaws when it comes to being overconfident. In Jim Collins’ latest book, How the Mighty Fall, he profiles companies that were at the top of their industries but subsequently went through the five stages of decline. Some were able to recover before becoming completely obsolete. In nearly all the cases the decline begins with overconfidence, too much risk taking, resting on one’s past accomplishments and thinking they could do nothing wrong. Did we academic librarians become overconfident about the ongoing loyalty of our user community? Did our overconfidence blind us to the almost certain likelihood that our users would become more enamored with search engines than what we had to offer them? Looking back at how academic libraries transformed from having a near monopoly on providing access to information for their communities to a state where we are now just one possible resource among many, and quite possibly not even the most valued resource, we may have allowed our overconfidence to lead us into thinking that our user community members would always be loyal to us and value our resources over all others. That’s not how it turned out and we paid the price. At one time few academic administrators or faculty would have questioned the need for an academic library. Now we find ourselves having to justify our right to exist.

So the next time you are asked to rate yourself on anything, or to rate your library’s importance to the user community be mindful of the dangers of overconfidence. Should you ask your students to rate themselves as information researchers – be prepared for some exaggeration. But as savvy academic librarians, I think we will find a way to turn it into a teachable moment.