This one is so obvious I almost didn’t think I should include it. But no: I’ll be obvious.
A library leader needs to respect the people who work for her. She needs to respect their knowledge, their efforts, their ideas, and their contributions. She needs to respect their ability to do their own work.
I think there’s a thread of thought about leadership in our profession that suggests that the core of it is about telling people what to do. You set the goal, you tell people how to get there. The background of most people who end up in leadership positions is, after all, getting from point A to point B successfully. People seem to think that their sterling ability to track that route is what got them to where they are, and therefore should be enough to make them a good leader. That’s where they see their own value and skills. But we know that being good at getting from point A to point B isn’t what’s going to make you a good leader. You can’t just tell people what it is they need to do in order to do their job. The organization, with all its creativity and enthusiasm, isn’t an extension of you. Ideally, it’s far more than that. An organization is everyone’s passion and effort.
Taking away decision-making and autonomous action is demoralizing. The role of a leader isn’t to demoralize people. It’s to energize them and engage them toward a common goal. It’s to show them why we want to get to point B, and making sure they have the resources they need to get there. You have to let the how slide. Everyone’s going to do it differently.
Not that you abandon them. Respect them. Respect their perspective, their means of reaching a goal. It doesn’t mean you don’t hold them to the goal. Just don’t tell them how they have to get there.
A successful library doesn’t include a pack of obedient drones doing exactly what they’re told. A successful library has a staff packed with engaged, inspired people who feel empowered to look for problems to solve, find new ways to solve them, and constantly strive to make things better within their purview. Creating an environment like this doesn’t involve just hiring the right kinds of personalities. A library leader needs to leave room for staff to self-actualize. A leader needs to respect her staff enough to let them try things, take risks, learn, grow, and demonstrate the effectiveness of their ideas.
People need to have control over their own work; that’s a key psychological need, to exert some level of control over the things you need to do. We need to know that if we see a problem, we can go ahead and fix it. We can make a suggestion and it will be heard. We need to feel valued, we need to feel that we can have an impact on the things that matter to us. If you don’t respect people enough to listen to their advice, let them take action and make decisions about their work, you’re going to lose their energy and enthusiasm. Ownership is one of the most motivating elements of any kind of work. A leader needs to respect the autonomy of the people in the organization. I think granting people ownership over their work is one of the most important things a leader can do in order to achieve their goals.
I realize that can feel counter-intuitive to some people. We’ve bound up the idea of leadership with the idea of power and control. But this isn’t actually a power and control game, I don’t think. We talk a good game in librarianship about collaboration, but too many seem to believe that leaders get to tell the people they lead to do things their way. That’s a mistake. You have to respect your staff enough to take their well-considered advice on board. You’ve got to respect their knowledge and experience. An organization isn’t just shaped by its leader; it should be a harmonious chorus, not just one voice.
Perhaps it’s rooted in pessimism. Possibly it’s perfectionism (another form of control). But a leader needs to put that aside and respect the ability of the people in the organization to know the specifics of their work better than she does, and to have valid and considered opinions about it. This doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements or compromises. But a leader shouldn’t imagine herself a dictator who gets to insist things be done the way she wants them done. A leader creates the circumstances where everyone can be successful in their own arena. Taking away autonomy in order to seize control over every decision is letting those people down.
A comment I used to hear all the time in my library, from staff at the front desk: “Do you still work here?” It’s a joke, sort of. I don’t work at the front of the house, and sometimes I work extremely long hours up on the third floor. I am faculty-facing, not student-facing, so the front desk staff, who mostly work with students, have very little grasp of what I do or how it fits into the work of the library. One of the front desk staff once told me, with intense conviction, that the only meaningful work of the library was what happened in the learning commons. Everything else could go.
At first I was annoyed by these kinds of comments. His perspective is so limited! I understand that student support is important, but some of us, like me, do work to improve the student experience by making sure their instructors can do what they need to do in the classrooms. That’s important too, isn’t it? But I got over it. Because I realized that we all have a unique perspective on the importance of their own work and are committed to it. A leader needs to respect my work as well as my colleagues, and not short-change one of us. A leader needs to have the wider perspective, and needs to respond to the concerns of all the rest of us with a very narrow focus. That narrow focus is going to make sure services run smoothly, after all. My library needs me to focus exclusively and completely on my own work, and it requires the same of everyone else. A library needs to have priorities, but everyone in the library should feel that their commitment to their own area of work is respected. Likewise, I understand that sometimes library leaders have to do outward-facing work, like fund-raising or liaising with Presidents or Deans or what-have-you. But while they’re doing all that, they need to respect my part of the library’s work, respect that I’m an expert on my own corner of our services, and let me assist in the making of critical decisions about that work in order to reach our collective goals. All the pieces are important, all deserving of respect.