October 20, 2014

Evolving To Meet Community Needs | Lead The Change

THE MULTNOMAH COUNTY Library District had the honor April 16 of hosting LJ’s leadership event series “Lead the Change! Oregon.” In anticipation of the day, I reflected on the varied leadership roles I’ve assumed over the years—from my days as spaceship commander during first grade recess to choir president in high school to more formal leadership roles. I also reflected on those around me in leadership roles from whom I’ve gleaned so much.

Tidbits of advice that resonate for me:

  • it’s all about relationships
  • listening is your most effective communication tool
  • self-awareness is critical to your success
  • communicate, communicate, communicate
  • surround yourself with people who are different than you are
  • be curious
  • never take yourself too seriously.

The following sage words are two of my guiding ­principles:

I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.—Maya Angelou

A “No” uttered from deepest conviction is better and greater than a “Yes” merely uttered to please, or what is worse, to avoid trouble.—Mahatma Gandhi

I’d love to say that I exemplify these ideals, but, as we all know, we are works in progress. I aspire to them. And I encourage others to do so as well. As library leaders in these exciting times, leading from whatever perch we currently hold, we are a fortunate lot. We have so many opportunities to make a meaningful difference.

Moving forward

We are moving from talking about numbers and data to measuring and communicating impact. We are moving from a focus on collections to a focus on people. We are moving from iconic, easily understood institutions to complex, responsive ones that engage, partner, and lead on behalf of our communities.

All of this requires the most creative thinking. It demands clarity about our fundamental mission and that we pursue the ways in which the public library can continually evolve in order to meet the changing needs of our communities.

A few years back our library did some work to identify the “unique role of value” the library creates that transcends time, technology, and the ways in which our community is changing. We came up with what we call our Three Pillars:

  • Free access for all
  • Trusted guide for learning
  • Leading advocate for reading

These pillars are the foundation on which we build our three-year strategic priorities. While the pillars are immutable, the strategic priorities that rest atop them evolve in response to our community and its needs. Learning to be flexible, adaptable, and resilient is critical to the future of our libraries and requires effective and courageous leaders at all levels of the organization.

It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent, but
the one most adaptable to change. —Charles Darwin

Change is a reality

Too often we talk about change as though it is some discrete package that drops into our life, disappears after causing much disruption, then reappears at some later time or place. Change is as normal and persistent a reality in our lives as oxygen. It generates innovation and opportunity.

The amount, speed, and impact of change in our communities and in our world are, arguably, unprecedented in terms of library service and perceived value. As library leaders we have the privilege and responsibility of ensuring the future relevance of this incredible ­institution.

More than a record of our time and place, the library is a record of us as we embrace or turn away from our challenges. —­David Carr

Thank goodness there are so many people in libraries willing to embrace our challenges.

To those who step up, accept responsibility, challenge the status quo, “stand up and speak…sit down and listen” (Winston Churchill), get that “you can’t always get what you want” (Rolling Stones) but are working for the greater good…. Thank you. Little of this is easy. But a good leader believes “you can do anything you set your mind to” (my dad).


Vailey Oehlke is Director, Multnomah County Library District, Portland, OR

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