December 12, 2017

Final Thoughts from the Master of Learning from Leaders | Leading from the Library

Steven BellAdam Bryant has spent considerable time with leaders, primarily chief executives, in his role as the author of the New York Times’ Corner Office column. What can library leaders learn from what Bryant’s shared and the stories he told from his time spent with all those leaders?

I’m a longtime fan of Bryant’s Corner Office column. There are a few I’ve missed over the years, but what I’ve learned from the featured women and men has influenced both my own leadership and a few columns. A particular favorite is Bryant’s frequent question about what these leaders think is important to ask job candidates. A decade’s worth of accumulated knowledge gained from so many leaders would likely be a treasure vault of great advice for those of us learning to be better library leaders. Unfortunately, as with all good things, the end has arrived. The good news is that Bryant devoted his final column to summing up everything he’s learned about what it takes to be a chief executive.

More than business

While most librarians are hardly interested in becoming CEOs, ascending to a dean or director position would be somewhat equivalent in our world. Even if you’re business averse, this was less about business and more about, as Bryant put it, “a rare vantage point for spotting patterns about management, leadership and human behavior.” It could be interesting to learn about the different backgrounds, life situations, and challenges interviewees overcame to establish themselves on the leadership path. And unlike many other business columnists and bloggers, Bryant managed to avoid allowing white male CEOs to dominate his interviews. I admired his ability to be inclusive in featuring women and minority executives, a good reminder to all of us who write about leadership.

What does it take?

One of the Corner Office commonalities is the search to surface those qualities that drive certain individuals to seek and gain leadership positions. Bryant would often ask interviewees about their parents (were they leadership models) and their earliest leadership experiences. Who would think that managing a newspaper route would fire up a future leader? All of this was in pursuit of an answer to those eternal questions: are leaders born or made, and what does it take to be a good leader? Bryant’s columns got past the standard issue qualities we typically see associated with leadership, such as vision, trust, and courage. He sees three qualities that emerge most strongly among his interviewees:

  • They share a habit of mind that is best described as “applied curiosity.” They tend to question everything.
  • CEOs seem to love a challenge. Discomfort is their comfort zone.
  • They focus on doing their current job well, and that earns them promotions. It’s about the job they’re in, not the job they want next.

These observations make great sense. This column has shared the importance of leaders knowing how to ask good questions. Curiosity will drive an aspiring leader to continuous learning about leadership. There’s an acknowledged link between the ability to seek and resolve discomfort and disequilibrium and creativity. Future leaders will learn everything they can and accept leadership responsibilities in their current position to prepare themselves for their next leadership opportunity. These qualities may put you on the track to leadership, according to Bryant, and may even help to land a leadership position, but there’s more to achieving success once in the leader’s chair.

What leaders do well

Throughout his 525 columns, Bryant has struggled with the one question everyone wants answered: “What’s the one thing you need to know?” Given the complexity of leadership, he acknowledges there’s no adequate response to the question. But since aspiring and current leaders want to know the formula for success, Bryant does his best to offer some clues, and leadership as balancing act may best sum it up. Good leaders seek to create some uncertainty and ambiguity to foster creativity, but too much leads to dysfunction. They need to be empathic and caring, but must make tough calls on discipline and terminations. Does Bryant completely overlook those more traditional leadership traits? Not exactly. Rising to the top of the heap are trustworthiness and integrity. They are a repeating theme among those he interviews. Leaders who fail to put their followers above themselves, who squander the trust followers place in them, will soon enough have none at all.

How do you hire?

There are loads of columns and blogs about leadership. Many of them feature interviews with leaders. What made Corner Office different, special in some way? For one thing, it was usually a fun read, not overly serious, yet deeply insightful. It also served as a learning resource because when leaders answer the same question every week, readers see patterns emerge from practices and advice. That’s why one of my favorite questions dealt with hiring. Do leaders have some crystal ball that allows them to accurately predict which candidate will succeed over others? No, they just have a few good questions for candidates who are waiting to be asked about their strengths and weaknesses. One of my favorites asked candidates to choose which one of five animals they’d choose to leave behind. I never used that one in an interview, but I did get a couple of other good questions from Corner Office. If you’re the risk-taking type, you might try asking a candidate what they like best and least about their parents. Bryant thought that was a particularly good one.

It will be missed

You would think that this many CEO interviews would enable us to figure out leadership by now, but no such luck. Despite all the good advice—and some ideas worth avoiding—this column could have gone on for many years to come. It would seem a logical next step for Bryant to share the accumulated knowledge of his columns through a book project. Even in the absence of any suitable successor to Corner Office, these columns will maintain their value for current and future leaders. On the surface they offer leadership advice. Go deeper and there is untold insight and life lessons for all of us in the stories shared by the CEOs. In closing, Bryant wrote, “Perhaps their stories will inspire others to learn how to be better leaders.” That certainly was the case for me, and it will continue to inspire me to share great leadership stories with you.

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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