March 29, 2017

From Good to Great, as a Leader | Leading from the Library

Steven BellThere’s a difference between being a good leader and a great leader, but it’s not what we might think. Greatness is not just being better than good. It’s about having force and channeling it for a purpose.

When you hear the phrase “good to great,” like many leaders you probably think about Jim Collins’s classic business book. It describes the qualities of great companies and advises leaders on how to model their behavior to help their organizations excel. One of the memorable images from the book is the bus analogy. Leaders need to get the right people on the bus and they need to get the bus moving in the right direction. Fifteen years later that advice still resonates with many leaders, and those who try to adopt Collins’s lessons learn it’s no easy task. They may get the direction right, but they fail to find the right people or motivate them to so the bus arrives at the destination. Other times the bus has what it needs to go the distance, but the leader fails to get it on the right road. To get from good to great, leaders need to put two things together, direction and force.

What “Good” Misses

Another thing we tend to associate with going from good to great is that it is a natural progression of sorts. That is, if we do the right things and receive the right support it is possible to advance from being good to achieving leadership greatness. What if going from good to great requires more than just doing the right things in a way that gets good results, but does little to transform the organization and its workers? Good and great could be two considerably different states that require completely different levels of leadership behavior. That’s a position taken by James R. Bailey, a professor of leadership at George Washington University. In his article, “The Difference Between Good Leaders and Great Ones” Bailey states that “great leadership and good leadership have distinctly different characteristics and paths. Leadership is not one-dimensional.” For Bailey, great leadership is on a completely different plane than good leadership. Leadership is good when the organization works and is well managed, but Bailey believes it takes great leadership to achieve something special.

Quadrant Not Continuum

The missing ingredient could best be described as passion. Bailey refers to it as “force,” but it’s that hard-to-define quality characterized by a dynamic presence. We know a leader has it when their enthusiasm and commitment stimulates and energizes us in a call to action. When our leader takes us on a worthwhile journey we feel more engaged with work and we want to support our leader’s success. Workers in sync with their leader believe their library has the capacity to achieve something transformative and amazing. There may be some uncertainty as to how things will turn out, but we accept the ambiguity. Staff are excited to see what happens next. Bailey visualized leadership ability as a quadrant. Direction and force are on two axis lines. Leaders with both direction and force are referred to as “vital.” This reinforces the point that good and great are more than just two different positions on a leadership continuum. It takes both, in that good leaders may have direction or force, but the great ones have command of both. Imagine a good leader whose vision has direction, but lacks the force to get there—or one with plenty of force but no sense of where to head. Either of those two scenarios is problematic but the absence of both leads to organizational dysfunction.

Do I Have the Right Stuff?

Librarians who have yet to fill a leadership position may wonder if they can bring both direction and force to the organization. Is it a natural gift, or can aspiring leaders learn how to harness both? Being an introvert, for example, may discourage librarians from seeking leadership opportunities, fearing they lack the qualities ascribed to those exuberant, forceful leaders who often get the attention, if not the results. Potential leaders should worry less about lacking superficial qualities like extroversion or self-promotion. In a study based on psychometric profiles of 200 global CEOs, researchers gained insight into what separates the best leaders from the average ones, and it tends to reinforce Bailey’s leadership observations. In addition to direction (visualizing a future for the organization) and force (drive, resilience, motivating others to act), the study identified two other key traits: embracing appropriate risks and capitalizing on the opportunities. In this study, the best performing CEOs “show a greater sense of purpose and mission and demonstrate passion and urgency” to get desired results.

Be Better Than Good

That sounds more like a case of what’s on the inside counts. At the start of our leadership path few of us may have what it takes to close the gap between being good and being great. We may have yet to discover that we do have that unique quality inside. Coursework, academies, and other training may help to sharpen the qualities that contribute to good leadership. Studying the lessons of other leaders may reinforce what we learn or offer potential models for emulation. These strategies can help new leaders tap into and build the inner qualities required for success and greatness. Bailey’s leadership quadrant offers some guidance, but I suspect each leader must find their way to the point where direction and force come together. But that’s where the path to great leadership usually begins, where passion is focused in the pursuit of a cause. That brings us full circle back to Collins. He believed the greatest leaders were humble and toiled for the good of the organization and those it served. Whatever your inner purpose is as a leader, aspire to make the leap from good to great.

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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