December 17, 2017

Good Leaders Learn What Not to Do | Leading From the Library

Kouzes and Posner gave us the “ten truths of leadership,” and that’s important to know, but a list of the top things you should avoid doing as a leader can be just as important to your success.

Leadership literature, blogs, and seminars typically focus on telling leaders the right things to do if they want to succeed. That makes sense for most of us. We want seasoned professionals to help us learn from their mistakes and accumulated wisdom. By sharing the most valued aspects of what great leaders do to inspire others, leaders at any level can learn to improve their skills. Those of us seeking advice expect it framed in a positive way. However, there may be other ways to learn leadership—primarily by better understanding how we fail as leaders and how to correct our actions. Skill areas such as athletics, craftsmanship, or the creative arts require educators or coaches to constantly point out what their students are doing wrong and what correction is required. Even a minor flaw in form or technique can lead to overall failure, so understanding what not to do can be  just as important as knowing the right approach.

How not to lead

One example of the negative approach appeared in a recent issue of Library Leadership & Management. In his article “Identifying the Presence of Ineffective Leadership in Libraries,” Steve Staninger focuses on three behaviors that exemplify ineffective leadership, and I think that most leaders and followers would agree with him. Bad leaders, according to Staninger, ignore the golden rule; they do unto their employees as they don’t want done to themselves. They also engage in “moral disengagement” or, put another way, these ineffective leaders fail to even recognize that their actions do fundamental damage to the organization and its workers.

Other experts write about the importance of having self-awareness. Leaders must know their strengths and weaknesses, and have the ability to self-correct by learning from mistakes. The final sin of the ineffective leader is micromanagement, hardly a new observation or one with which we are unfamiliar, but one of which we must be reminded. Additionally, Staninger reminds us that ineffective leaders ignore institutional culture and values, and neglect consulting with other stakeholders who can help improve the quality of the leaders’ decision making. A leader who passed the test in each of these areas would certainly be preferred by library staff, and would be likely to work collaboratively with staff to create a better library, but library leaders need to do more than just meet a baseline for admirable or ethical behavior.

What bad bosses do

Good leaders demonstrate the qualities described by Kouzes and Posner. Their vision for effective leadership, including dynamic vision, powerful communication, and high trust level, goes beyond just being good to staff and taking the moral high road. Those are all those traits we admire in our cherished leaders, and would want to emulate. Knowing how well we do it is certainly a challenge, and it may take evaluative techniques such as the 360 review to surface how effectively we lead as judged by our reports, peers, and superiors. Still, it’s a reasonably good idea to know what bad leaders do, and to make every effort to avoid those behaviors. In their article “Are You Sure You’re Not a Bad Boss,”  Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman provide a reminder that being a bad boss is more about what we fail to do than what we do poorly. They write:

We analyzed the behavior of 30,000 managers, as seen through the eyes of some 300,000 of their peers, direct reports, and bosses on 360-degree evaluations, we found that the sins of the bad boss are far more often those of omission, not commission. That is, bad bosses are defined not so much by any appalling things they do as by certain critical things they don’t do.

From their data, the authors put together a list of the bad boss’s ten fatal flaws. Reviewing them may bring to mind a past leader who failed to inspire you to follow. That’s actually one of qualities of bad leaders. They just don’t inspire you. There’s no passion in their work. You feel their lack of enthusiasm. So at whatever level you lead, make sure the excitement is infectious. Others would fall into a category best described as the opposite of what Kouzes and Posner recommend: lacking a well-articulated vision, actions that fail to live up to the words, resisting new ideas or rejecting the opportunity for change, and poor team building and guidance. A few items on the list relate to job performance, such as settling for mediocre work or poor decision making. Those weaknesses will always result in failure.

Learn from many leaders

Throughout our careers we’ll encounter many leaders and leadership styles. Colleagues will share stories about the bosses they loved and despised. Leadership is often thought of as something we mostly learn from courses, books, case studies, and presentations. Those are all valuable resources for building leadership skills, but some of the best lessons come from the bosses for whom we work—both successful and failed—and hopefully you’ll be exposed to more of the former and few of the latter. Whenever you lead, do so with the intent to provide positive learning opportunities for colleagues. Be a good model. Do that by being well versed on both what to do and what not to do. And if you are a bad boss? Well, hopefully you will find out before it’s too late.

Steven Bell About Steven Bell

Steven Bell, Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA, is the current vice president/president-elect of ACRL. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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  1. The leader’s own passion is not enough. There have often been would-be leaders who nearly had all the right stuff, but never mapped the object of their own passion into the passions of those they would lead. It’s really hard to get inside other people’s heads and answer the (usually unasked) question: why is this important to *me*? (“It’s your job” may be temporarily motivational but is not a complete answer. “It’s coming whether we like it or not” is not responsive and can be DEmotivational.)

  2. The leader’s most important customers are the intended followers, which is most cases is library staff. Unfortunately, the leader often sees the most important customers to be 1) anyone higher up in the food chain and 2) the “public”.