Humility Is A Form Of Presence Too

Management and leadership issues, while of interest to a good many academic librarians, are just one of many topics we cover here at ACRLog. We do so mostly when it applies to some issue of the day or a debate within higher education. In the past we’ve talked about being an “involved library administrator“, creating the next generation of leaders, reflections on leadership, decision making, and most recently discussed the value of having presence as a form of expressing leadership qualities. Yet I received some e-mail requests that ACRLog should continue to offer occasional posts about management and leadership topics, since many academic librarians are new to positions requiring these skills or want to learn more about them. To those folks I suggested subscribing the the Lyrasis Library Leadership Network, but we appreciate receiving the suggestion and ACRLog will continue to offer posts about management and leadership topics from time to time.

Where else can aspiring leaders look for advice on how to acquire the skills needed to do the job? I’ve become a regular reader of “Corner Office”, published in every Sunday issue of the New York Times, and authored by Adam Bryant. Corner Office features an interview with a different CEO, business leader or start up specialist each week (you can subscribe to the RSS feed). The quality can be a bit uneven but in general I always find something fascinating in any column. I’ve picked up new ideas about interviewing job candidates, strategies for getting things accomplished when there’s too much to do and being sensible when taking risks. Just recently there was an interview with Andrew Cosslett, CEO of InterContinental Hotels Group. I was quite impressed with the InterContinental I visited in Chicago this past July during ALA. So I wanted to see what Cosslett had to say. He came off sounding quite confident in himself, to the point that I might say he sounds like the type of leader who has presence – and I’m sure he does. But in a good way?

I suppose that was the question op-ed columnist David Brooks had in mind when he wrote the column “The Humble Hound.” Referring back to the interview with Cosslett, Brooks makes a point that extremely self-confidant and charismatic leaders can produce volatile results. I won’t try to repeat what Brooks says here, but he too gives some quite poignant advice for would be leaders:

The humble hound leader thinks less about her mental strengths than about her weaknesses. She knows her performance slips when she has to handle more than one problem at a time, so she turns off her phone and e-mail while making decisions. She knows she has a bias for caution, so she writes a memo advocating the more daring option before writing another advocating the most safe…Because of her limitations, she tries to construct thinking teams…She tries not to fall for the seductions that Collins says mark failing organizations: the belief that one magic move will change everything; the faith in perpetual restructuring; the tendency to replace questions with statements at meetings.

The message: be humble, be persistent and be patient. Brooks paints a rather different picture of a leader, but in my view it’s one in which there is still a great presence – just in a different way.

So what’s a future leader to do, especially if going out on interviews for leadership positions? On one hand it’s important to demonstrate self confidence; who wants a wishy-washy leader? Be clear about your vision and values. Show what you believe in and how your behavior supports your beliefs. Do so with an assurance that demonstrates inner strength and faith in yourself. All of that needs to be balanced with humility, an appreciation for the support of colleagues and co-workers, and the good that inspired teams can achieve. There are different ways to demonstrate presence. An accomplished leader is able to express the right type of presence when and where it’s needed.

5 thoughts on “Humility Is A Form Of Presence Too”

  1. “The important things are the communal work, the contribution to the whole production and the esprit de corps.”

    I agree with Brooks (which I don’t, more often than not) – the “great leader” transformational visionary whose confidence is as powerful as “the secret” that so many people bought like a lucky lottery ticket (“if I just close my eyes and pretend I will be rich and ignore my credit card bills, I’ll have a fantastic life!!!”) is a crock. Getting things done takes a group of people who share the power to do it and the willingness to take risks and a shared agreement to put energy into getting good things done instead of self-aggrandizement or turf warfare or competition. I call this “good sense” rather than humility. And I think it’s a hell of a lot more fun than being bullied by visionaries or held back by caution or team-built lethargy. There’s a good C&RL preprint on models that librarians should read. I totally am behind the “adhocracy” style and I don’t know why it’s not the norm in libraries.

    You can read it here.

  2. Steven,
    The reasoning in your last paragraph reminds me of Aristotle’s idea that virtue is a mean between extremes. Aristotle thought that excess humility was a defect, as was the extreme in the other direction which he called vanity. The mean between these extremes is pride, and the proud man “claims what is in accordance with his merits, while the others go to excess or fall short.”

    Perhaps this is a useful way to think about presence as well, in fact Aristotle goes on to say, “a slow step is thought proper to the proud man, a deep voice, and a level utterance…”

  3. Timely post. I’d add that what we need in higher ed, at every level, is leadership as opposed to traditional (19th century factory model) management. We need leaders who can inspire with a vision and values, and who can attract and support people to reach big goals. I’ve been influenced by the R.O.W.E. (results only work environment), and the organizations that have made this work so well. A book I’d recommend is The New American Workplace by James O’Toole.

  4. It’s easier said than done. A good leader must find the perfect balance between being “wishy-washy” as you say, and being too confident and arrogant. In the first case, his employees will step all over him, and in the second case, they will hate his guts.
    I’ve dealt with both types of leaders, and I must say that neither of them make the “good times roll” in the company.

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