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.

Are We Doing Enough To Create The Next Generation Of Leaders

It’s not as if there’s no attention paid to developing academic library leaders. There are a few notable programs. ACRL offers a week-long Leadership Institute at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to provide leadership training for academic libray directors. ARL offers an 18-month long program, the Library Leadership Fellows Program, that is designed to shape the future leaders of research libraries. Along with these programs geared to those already in higher level leadership roles, ALA has created the Emerging Leaders Program for those at an early stage of their career. Other individual institutions create fellowships or internships to provide opportunities to those same early career academic librarians who want to gain administrative experience. These programs reach far fewer potential leaders. With our most notable leadership programs designed primarily for those who are already on the leadership track, a question arises. Are we doing enough to generate interest in leadership among the much larger population of academic librarians?

I think there is a subtle difference between refining the leadership skills of those already on the track, and developing programs to entice more academic librarians to get on the track. Ask newer members of the profession if they plan to seek an administrative position and too often the answer is “no”. Are there good models this profession could follow for developing its future leaders? The world of business may offer some possibilities. A recent issue of Fortune featured leadership as its cover story. The article profiles several companies that have distinguished themselves as having generated many leaders, both those who have risen within the corporation and those whose past employees are leaders elsewhere. For example, Procter & Gamble has produced notable leaders such as Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, eBay CEO Meg Whitman, Intuit founder Scott Cook, AOL founder Steve Case, and even General Electric CEO Jeff Immelt. General Electric alumni run scores of companies, such as Boeing , Home Depot and Honeywell.

Do we have academic libraries that are particularly well known for the leaders they turn out? Do we have a program that helps individual libraries to identify prospective future leaders and develop them within the organization? I would certainly be interested to know if there is an academic library that has a particularly strong tradition of preparing and then migrating front-line workers into administrative positions, and then bidding those same individuals farewell as they acquire leadership positions elsewhere. If such organizations exist within our profession then they certainly get little attention for their accomplishments.

So might there be a better approach for this profession? It may be unfair to point to the corporate world as a model for developing future leaders. Few libraries or library organizations have the necessary resources to create the sort of leadership training programs and development centers (like the famous one created by General Electric at Crotonville, NY) found in business. But the Fortune article offers some ideas that may be of interest. For example, identify promising leaders early on. Some companies begin evaluating their employee’s leadership potential on day one. Re-think the way new staff are assigned to positions. We hire new librarians for specific positions, but why not put new librarians into departmental rotations that include time in the administrative suite. Then other suggestions touch on the need to develop leaders in-house, provide mentoring, develop teams and indivdiduals, and make leadership development a part of the organizational culture.

As the article suggests, a good deal of work goes into preparing future leaders. But then again, a great deal is at stake. What more can we do both as individual libraries and in associations to promote the development of our future academic libraries?