Category Archives: #libraryleader

#libraryleader: Respect


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.

#libraryleader: Honesty


It’s beyond trite to say that honesty is an important characteristic, both for leaders of organizations or human beings in general, but when I thought about what it was I wanted to convey as the first and most basic quality of a library leader, everything seemed to boil down to it. Active, committed honesty is, I think, at the root of good leadership.

Everyone thinks of themselves as honest, for the most part; people don’t (as a general rule) go out of their way to lie to people just for the fun of it. Almost everyone, I imagine, considers themselves to be honest at heart. But I mean something beyond a warm feeling and a good intention.

Extremely early in my career I got what is perhaps the most shaping piece of advice I’ve ever received. It was from Mary Ann Mavrinac, and what she told me was this: “do what you say you’re going to do.” So simple, so basic, but critical. If you tell someone you’re going to do something, be known as the person who follows through. Don’t be known as the person who fails to. I thought it was a lesson in introductory professionalism.

But it’s more than that. Consistently following through, being competent, putting a priority on being organized enough to keep track of all the commitments you make has farther-reaching implications. It builds your reputation as a reliable, trustworthy person. Because when you say something’s going to happen, it happens. People can rely on you doing your part, and thus can build their own plans on the foundation of your promise.

When I first started working with faculty I vowed to take on a policy of what I called radical honesty. When something went wrong and I knew it would have an impact on faculty, I was committed to being honest and telling the truth about it, even if it wasn’t flattering. Even if it was my fault. I did that as a means of squaring my own work for myself; I just don’t like hiding things and sticking my head in the sand over problems or obstacles that cause people trouble. I’d rather be upfront about it and find feasible workarounds. It helps me sleep at night. I didn’t realize what my radical honesty policy would mean for my work over time: being honest, even about ugly things, reduces fear and increases trust. I didn’t realize that faculty would feel more comfortable using the tools and technology I support when they know that, should anything go wrong, I would always tell them about it in a timely fashion, and I would always find them a solution. Many people feared that my honesty would undercut faith in our systems (because everyone would know how many times things go terribly wrong). But in reality, the opposite happened. Knowing what’s going on has a calming effect. Everyone feels better with insider knowledge. They feel like they know where they stand, and who’s got their back. Honesty is the best weapon in the war against fear.

I made the decision to behave this way for personal reasons, but as time goes on and I observe all my amazing role models in the library world, I realize that they’re approaching their responsibilities in much the same way on a grander scale. A leader isn’t just honest when asked direct questions; a leader makes conveying the truth an active priority.  When a leader says something’s going to happen, we have to be able to believe it. We have to never question it. A library leader does what she says she’s going to do. The rest of us rely on that in order to get on with our work.

Academia is the home of what I like to call the shame spiral. I think it starts in graduate school; you’re supposed to be doing something, but you get distracted, and you haven’t done it, so you do your best to hide the fact that you haven’t done it and hope you can just make it through the seminar without it becoming obvious. With no set hours, academics tend to feel like they should always be working, so guilt and shame over taking a few days off (or a few weeks off) is constant and universal. It’s just the way things go; we don’t admit when we make mistakes, or fail to finish something. We just try to brush it under the rug. We build up an intense bog of shame that we never ever talk about. We live in terror that someone will find it, and we will be unmasked as the frauds we are. This is a garden-variety shame spiral: I see about 12 of them a day.

My (now former) supervisor Susan Senese came to our academic library after a number of years in the corporate world, and of the many wonderful things she brought with her, the most critical is this: declare. She created an environment where shame has no place. If something didn’t happen, or we estimated something wrong, if we failed to anticipate a risk, or made a mistake, or missed a meeting, we just declare it. Put it on the table, say it. No one gets mad, no one gets into trouble or looked at sideways. We just put the facts on the table and move on from there. Susan understood that honesty is critical to getting work done well, and being honest is an active process, not a passive one. A great leader declares issues and problems, remembers her promises and tends to them, and goes out of her way to make sure all stakeholders know when obstacles appear or circumstances change. She does this because she is committed to her own success and to the success of everyone in the library as well as everyone who depends on the library, and she does what she says she’s going to do.

An honest leader doesn’t say she’ll do something when she knows she can’t, or make promises that sound good in the moment but aren’t workable behind the scenes. A good leader can’t hope that difficult promises will be forgotten. Libraries must become not just useful, but indispensable to their communities if they are to survive and thrive. In order to be indispensable, staff need to trust and rely on their leaders, and the community must be allowed to build their own goals with unshakeable faith in the resources and services of the library. I considered framing this quality as reliability or trustworthiness. But when I work it through to the core, i think both come down to an active commitment to behaving honestly, in declaring reality as it stands, even when it hurts.

#libraryleader: Thoughts on Library Leadership


I’ve been lucky enough to attend some amazing workshops and conferences of late that had me focusing on what it looks like to be an excellent leader in librarianship; in one case I spent several days focusing very specifically on library management skills and leadership, while in other cases I was treated to a variety of demonstrations of what good library leadership looks like and what it can accomplish. I have been especially inspired in the last few weeks by Sue Considine from the Fayetteville Free Library, Susan Downs from Innisfil Public Library, Kristin Antelman from North Carolina State Libraries, Bessie Sullivan from Haliburton Country libraries, Mary Ann Mavrinac (as always) from University of Rochester libraries, Susan Senese, Director of Information and Instructional Technology at University of Toronto Mississauga, Matt Ratto from the iSchool at the University of Toronto, and Nate Hill from Chattanooga Public Library. It’s been a good few weeks of institutes, workshops and conferences, obviously!

In light of these recent experiences, I’ve decided to capture some observations on the subject in a series of blog posts. I’m working on a list of five qualities that I have come to believe are crucial for good leadership in libraries facing a pressing need to grow and change.

Here’s my list as it stands now:

  1. Honesty
  2. Respect
  3. Confidence
  4. Vision
  5. Salesmanship

I’ve distilled a lot of ideas into these five themes; I’m not sure I’ve picked the right words to capture what I mean to convey, but I’ve done my best. My plan is to write about each of these qualities in detail, explain what I mean by them, and articulate why I think these are the critical qualities in an effective library leader.

I know many people make a distinction between leadership and management. I refuse to make that distinction. I’m not sure why the distinction even exists; it’s as if someone thought there was something distasteful about working with people and helping them accomplish the best work they can that makes it less lofty and important work than the nebulous concept of leadership. I’m not one of those people. I think taking care of a team working toward a common goal is a critical part of being a good leader, so I won’t divide my list by what I consider to be a false division.

I know others have different perspectives on this subject, and mine are still forming and shifting. I’ve invited my colleague Lauren DiMonte to join me in writing about the top five qualities in a library leader from her perspective as a current library school student. We’ll post our thoughts on our respective blogs and on Twitter using the hashtag #libraryleader. You’re more than welcome to join us; I hope I can learn your thoughts and perspectives too!