November 21, 2017

Get Into Learning Mode for Better Library Leadership | Leading from the Library

Steven BellTelling library leaders that leadership is a constant process of learning is good advice but of minimal help to busy leaders with little time for learning, whether formal or informal. That is why a commitment to a growth mindset may be a leader’s best strategy for continuous improvement.

A foundational premise of Leading From the Library is that good leadership results from a commitment to constant learning. Whether you think leaders are born or made, the job involves a degree of complexity that requires constant attention to progress and adaptation to a rapidly changing workplace. This column has explored multiple vehicles for leadership education, from leadership development programs to studying lessons of great (and flawed) leaders. I hope that Leading From the Library is one of your go-to resources for learning about leadership, but there are dozens of good leadership blogs, newsletters, and Twitter feeds at your disposal. That there are so many good but competing resources points to the big challenge: Where do leaders find the time to develop their leadership skills and how do they develop a smart strategy for keeping up, one that allows for maximum learning in minimal time? The best are able to rigorously motivate themselves to pursue continuous learning despite time and distraction obstacles.

Learning Unites Leaders

What works best for each leader depends on their level of experience. When it comes to building leadership skills, there’s a vast ocean between the frontline librarian chairing their first committee and the seasoned library administrator who’s weathered many leadership challenges. Both can hone their skills by taking time to learn more from the lessons of great leadership, but the scope of the approach and methods used could vary significantly. Leadership workshops and academies, guidance from mentors, and even formal leadership courses all help new leaders to create a solid foundation upon which to grow. Senior leaders are more likely to benefit from advanced executive development or conversations within leadership peer groups. Common ground for both is establishing a regular learning regimen that reflects a growth mindset, meaning that neither one has a fixed mental position on what it means to lead. New or experienced, what sets these leaders apart is that they are always in learning mode.

Acknowledging the Need to Learn

While leadership workshops and development programs are useful, according to research conducted by Peter Heslin and Lauren Keating (link requires a Science Direct subscription), leaders excel when they adopt a mindset that allows them to learn from their own experience and regular exposure to leadership information. Heslin and Keating summarize their findings in “Good Leaders Are Good Learners”. They describe three phases of the learning cycle: First, leaders need to be honest with themselves about their weaknesses and where they need to develop new skills. That is best expressed in the form of a “I need to learn how…” statement that sets a learning goal, be it conducting difficult conversations or facilitating staff empowerment. Second, leaders need to experiment with new strategies targeting that specific learning goal. For difficult conversations, that means first learning how to strategize in advance of a meeting and then having the actual experience. Third, leaders reflect on the experience to understand what worked and where they need to improve further. Reflection guides leaders to sense what they need to learn and do next on their continuous path of improvement. In this way, leadership skills are “systematically learned and practiced.”

Strategies for Learning Leaders

For leaders wanting to get into learning mode, according to Heslin and Keating, it may be as simple as asking “Am I in learning mode right now?” Think of it as a cycle of learning where a goal is set, an experience happens, and the reflective feedback loop helps shape the next step. As a leader, having set your intention to learn a new skill or improve on an existing one, are you having a learning experience? How is it advancing your progress? What is reflection suggesting as a next step? Then act to move in the right direction towards skill building and achievement. This can happen with actions as simple as reading a new leadership blog post or journal article, but leaders need to be intentional about positioning themselves to learn.

A simple starting point is being strategic about leadership learning. That means deciding what resources to follow or programs to attend, establishing time for reading or participation, and then finding experience opportunities to put learning into practice. Whatever your stage of leadership, consider adopting a growth mindset. Think about what you need to learn and determine how to get that experience. If you believe that good leaders are good learners, then get yourself into learning mode and identify what you need to learn next.

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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