September 18, 2014

Lessons in Enduring Recognition | Leading from the Library

There’s nothing wrong with wanting recognition for your professional work. Thoughtful leaders reflect on the kind of recognition they want to achieve in their careers, and what it means for themselves and their organizations. Will it be fleeting or enduring?

Great leaders would, ideally, care little for personal recognition. The desire to lead should blossom from an internal awareness of what you can do to bring your vision to fruition. The work of leading should create a better library for your community members, a better workplace for the library staff, and a contribution to the library profession, and perhaps the world, that makes a difference that’s bigger than yourself and your library.

But we’re only human. We have egos, and it’s natural to want people to appreciate and visibly cheer on our accomplishments. Whether it’s awards, requests to do speaking engagements—or even an invitation to write a regular column for a library publication—recognition is a welcome career outcome. The danger for leaders is allowing the pursuit of external recognition to emerge as a primary motivator and indicator of one’s self worth. The best recognition is a self-awareness of accomplishment generated by an intrinsic motivation to do good work, regardless of the tangible rewards.

Richard who?

Librarians under the age of 40 may have no idea who Richard Dougherty is. Here are a few facts: He was the library director at institutions like the University of Michigan and UC Berkeley. Not too shabby. He was a professor at the University of Michigan School of Information and served as the Interim Dean at one point. He’s a former president of the American Library Association (ALA). He was instrumental in starting the Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) conferences. He received the Hugh Atkinson award for risk taking and leadership, as well as the Joseph Lippincott award for lifetime service to ALA. He is a recipient of ACRL’s Academic and Research Librarian of the Year award. He was the editor of College & Research Libraries, and after that he founded another journal you might have heard of—The Journal of Academic Librarianship. Dougherty no doubt earned his detractors along the way, but leaders make tough decisions and someone will be unhappy.

Not a rock star

That’s a fairly amazing record for one person, and what’s more incredible is that the library profession has produced many similar stories. Now, we hardly even know who these people are. Dougherty never wrote a blog post, although he’s written dozens of research articles, essays and a couple of thoughtful books. He never organized an unconference, although he’s keynoted numerous times and started a library teleconference series on leadership and library issues that ran for many years. He’s never been a Mover and Shaker, although he’s played a major role in moving the profession forward and shaking up the establishment with his words and actions. And I’m quite sure no one ever referred to him as a librarian-rock star. You may never have heard of Dougherty, but chances are you benefit from one of his past accomplishments or participate in something that exists now thanks to his vision and persistence.

Call them “Champions”

Long before the Internet allowed us to leverage social networks to rally people behind a cause, Dougherty faced a challenge as ALA president. Legislators began cutting funds for public libraries. He decided that the situation called for a wide-reaching advocacy initiative that would take the issues right to Congress. There was just one barrier—but it was a big one. ALA had insufficient funds for the undertaking. It was a perfect excuse to say “Well, we tried, but there’s no funding,” but Dougherty persisted. He decided to rally the library vendor community to support the initiative. To gain support, Dougherty collaborated with Patricia Glass Schuman, his successor as ALA president. Together they organized the Rallies. Another colleague, Linda Wallace, suggested calling the donors “Library Champions,” and the name stuck.

Library Champions has raised millions of dollars over the years for worthwhile library causes, and now there are even corporate sponsors who become Champions. Dougherty did all this with no technology. No blogging or tweeting. No online petitions. Just hard work, putting himself out there, taking risks and selling his ideas with a story and passion. As new generations of librarians read about Library Champions, they may have no knowledge of Dougherty (or Schuman)—and that’s just fine with him. He’s proud of what Library Champions has accomplished, and now in retirement, it’s an enduring legacy. Think of it as “slow recognition”, a type that builds over a longer time frame, and that originates with an intrinsic motivation to do good for the community and world.

Falling into the trap

I suspect some readers are thinking that it’s easy for me to give this advice to a new generation of leaders, unknown and lacking recognition, when I already have my share. I’m the one with an LJ column. It’s a valid criticism. But there was a time when I was motivated by “fast recognition”. In 2000 I advocated the importance of keeping up. I published an article about it in a library journal. I did a few presentations based on the concept and practices. I developed a website to promote the ideas and resources. It was my brand. Then a relatively unknown librarian started a blog based on the same premise, and promoted similar ideas.

You can guess what happened. The blogger quickly gained the recognition I thought would come my way. What I wanted was “fast recognition”, clearly a more extrinsic motivation that would feel good in the short term. Now, in retrospect, I realize that type of recognition fades quickly with little left to show in the long run. My reaction made me a worse person, professionally and personally. It was a crucible moment that helped me learn to be a better leader, the type who seeks to achieve an enduring accomplishment that brings slow recognition—or perhaps none at all. What’s more important is that I should benefit my community or profession, and help colleagues do the same, rather than seeing them as my competitors in the race for recognition. Failures to consistently do so have come along the way, but it is all part of the process of learning the lessons that make us better leaders.

Try Self Awareness

Rather than blame someone else for co-opting what I thought was my recognition opportunity, or questioning the profession for failing to understand how important my accomplishments were, what actions could I have taken to reflect and focus my energies on slow recognition? How could I emerge as a better leader who understands the value of enduring accomplishments? One way is to meet and learn from humble leaders who provide good aspirational examples, and I’ve been fortunate to have that experience—but also to recognize the importance of learning from these opportunities.

What I also needed to do was be more self-aware. In the article “Secret Ingredient for Success” the author shares stories about highly successful people who all had one thing in common. Despite their hard work and talent, success was elusive and there was no recognition. But rather than look for short term paths to getting noticed or blaming others, each engaged in a process of deep self-examination that lead to a reinvention of personal goals and how to achieve them. They then set out to be different, to create change, and give people something of value. In one case, superchef Michael Chang described as “kind of ridiculous” the raves his restaurants piled up and the attention he received. He just wanted people to have an amazing dining experience they would long remember. The resulting recognition? It was totally unexpected.

Why am I doing this?

When the idea of forming a community for Blended Librarianship first evolved I needed support to get the idea off the ground. To do that, I sought out the help of a senior and wise colleague with a number of significant accomplishments in higher education—the slow recognition type. After I explained the concept and what I hoped to accomplish, he asked me one question. “Are you doing this to get your name out there or because you really want to help people and create something worth accomplishing?” That was another crucible moment, because it forced me to undergo self-examination, to understand my own motivations and what I really wanted to get out of the project. I have no illusions that the Blended Librarian project will be a lasting accomplishment, but in the years since that conversation it’s been rewarding to know that by focusing on engaging interested colleagues for their advancement, and perhaps creating even a minor shift in how we think about our work, there are a few good examples of how it has inspired others to take a certain career path or create something worthy for their community. If our names are ultimately relegated to the dustbin of library history anyway, no matter how significant our accomplishments, enduring recognition should be foremost in the mind of the thoughtful leader.

This article was featured in Library Journal's Academic Newswire enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to your inbox for free.

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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