We are inundated with leadership advice, yet academic librarians demonstrate a desire to learn more about it. With a new occasional column, Steven Bell offers his perspectives on what the best leaders need to learn.
When it comes to leadership there are two kinds of academic librarians. The first group is passionate about leadership. They continually seek exposure to leadership books, articles, workshops and absorb whatever else they can get their hands on – and they look for opportunities to lead. The other group wants nothing to do with leadership – and they may make no secret of their disdain for leaders. Even those who steadily learn about leadership must occasionally feel overwhelmed by the tsunami of leadership content that saturates our attention. Still, the interest in leadership among academic librarians ratchets upward. Even those academic librarians who say they want no part of leadership may find themselves taking on that role, whether it is leading a committee or serving as the champion for a new initiative. All these librarians can benefit from the study of leadership as it will enhance their abilities to lead in the workplace and better position the academic library as a campus leader.
A gap to fill
Looking specifically at the library literature, there’s no dearth of material on leadership. There are the occasional articles, blog posts and books, but there is little found in the way of a regular column or essay dedicated to the study of leadership. Perhaps the closest thing is Library Leadership & Management, the journal of ALA’s LLAMA division. It’s freely available and there’s a good mix of articles and columns about leadership. Librarian bloggers may on occasion write about leadership, but it is usually in response to a particular situation or a random observation rather than an ongoing effort to heighten interest in leadership.
All this suggests an opportunity for a regular look at both old and new ideas in leadership – and occasionally management – and how this knowledge could benefit academic librarians. The skills required to lead in an academic library are, of course, different than those in other sectors of librarianship, but they are perhaps less unique overall compared to any organizational leadership position. All good leaders, in any industry, need a set of basic skills that guide and shape their leadership style – such as Kouzes and Posner’s ten truths – and their decision making. I believe there is still much we can all learn and share about leadership, no matter what formal or informal leadership role we play in our library or on our campus.
Born to lead?
It’s rare anyone grows up wanting to be a leader. That is perhaps especially true of academic librarians. Most of us simply want to engage with faculty and students, create distinctive collections, and help community members succeed. Higher education attracts us because it’s an opportunity to educate others while we continually learn and be a part of something bigger than ourselves. Yet some of us, in time, are drawn to the possibilities of leading the academic library. We typically start with a management position or agree to serve as the champion for a major project. What fascinates me is that the librarians who complain most vociferously about leaders, whether those at their own library or national organizations, are the ones who should step forward as leaders. They have the passion and desire to create positive change that make for great leaders. I’ve challenged some of them to do something about their library or the profession if they believe things can be done better. The true leaders accept that challenge.
When it comes to the “are leaders born or made” debate, I tend to go with the “can be made” argument. Some librarians are natural leaders, but I suspect the majority of us discovered our leadership potential during an incident that served as the catalyst to propel us into the ranks of leaders. At some point in our careers, no matter what position we may hold in the workplace, we may experience this sense that greater leadership responsibility is a good and desirable thing. Some people may suppress that desire; they want nothing to do with administrative responsibilities. For others, being a leader presents great challenges and opportunities. If you’re in the latter category, this column is for you – but I hope those in the former group will stick around too.
Over the course of nearly two hundred From the Bell Tower columns I have tended to avoid writing directly about leadership, though I hope many of the columns have offered ideas that either inspired leaders or encouraged potential leaders. I appreciate this new opportunity to dedicate one column a month to a topic that is personally meaningful to me, but which may also help all those who are working to improve themselves as leaders. The intent is not to position myself as some sort of library leadership guru. Quite the opposite. I believe I still have much to learn as a leader. Kouzes and Posner say that the best leaders are the best learners. That’s what Leading from the Library is about – being a student of leadership; being committed to constant learning about being a better leader.
Leadership is ultimately about fulfilling some simple truths: listen to people; build mutual trust; be honest; do what you say you will; give people a vision in which to believe; advocate for just causes; ask good questions; take risks; be ready to learn. However, it is the multitude of challenging situations in which leaders find themselves that require difficult decisions and gut-wrenching actions that add layers of complexity. The great ones are those who can emerge from these crucibles of leadership intact, stronger, and more capable of leading their colleagues. Leading from the Library will tackle these leadership truths, both simple and complex, all with the goal of being the best learner. I hope you will follow along on this journey.