April 21, 2018

Academic Librarians Are Grassroots Campus Leaders, Too | From the Bell Tower

You are probably familiar with the phrase “Every librarian a leader.” A search on the phrase indicates it’s commonly used to share the idea that in order to propel this profession forward, we need to take the initiative when we see opportunities to create change in our organizations. I’d like to take that concept even further. Not only can every librarian can be a leader within their academic library, but every academic librarian can be a leader on their campus. It’s a matter of listening and observing, being an active participant in the life of the community and ultimately using pattern recognition to identify those services or resources that everyone wants or needs but which no one is currently providing – or perhaps there’s an idea that’s worth sharing, something intangible perhaps ,that can help improve the campus. That’s when we need to be grassroots leaders.

Beyond formal leadership
In the video “The Deep Dive,” a profile of the design firm IDEO, there is a particular passage that resonates with me. David Kelley, one of the leaders of IDEO, tells the interviewer that the boss is not always the person with the best ideas. The organizations that achieve great things are the ones open to ideas from anywhere in the organization. Their leaders empower workers at all levels to share their ideas, and provide the resources needed to implement them.

This passage reminds us that it may be unwise to stand by idly hoping the formal leaders will come up with the right ideas – or provide the leadership where it’s needed. That’s, apparently, the gist of a new book about grass roots leadership on campus. In Enhancing Campus Capacity for Leadership: An Examination of Grassroots Leaders in Higher Education Adrianna J. Kezar of the University of Southern California and Jaime Lester of George Mason University promote the idea that to achieve improvement colleges and universities must identify and nurture those with the potential for leadership.

Encouraging the grassroots leader
I have not yet read the book, but an interview with the authors provides some insight into the qualities of a grassroots leader, and the ways in which he or she can create change on campus. The primary message is that anyone – faculty, students, administrators – can become grassroots leaders. Does that include librarians? No doubt. Anyone can, but not everyone does.

What makes someone a grassroots leader? They work from outside a formal position of authority, their efforts are bottom up, and they typically challenge some institutional status quo. These individuals emerge as leaders for any number of reasons. It could be by observing something broken that needs fixing. Perhaps it’s from responding to a desire to bring a movement tried elsewhere to the campus. For example, a staff member may observe considerable waste of resources and energy, knows of a sustainability initiative implemented successfully elsewhere, and start a bottom up campaign to get formal leaders to take an institutional sustainability pledge. All it takes is someone who recognizes a need to accomplish something significant to which no one else is paying attention. Grassroots leaders see opportunities and take them.

It can happen anywhere
This idea of the grassroots leader is being encouraged in all sorts of industries. I came across it in a Corner Office interview with Terri Ludwig, CEO of a nonprofit housing organization. She said:

Regardless of where you are, regardless of your role within the organization, it is my job to make sure that you feel empowered to lead from your seat. This is about recognizing that within any role in the organization, you can influence change and outcomes, and we all have to do that for us to be truly innovative, to deliver on our mission, to have breakthroughs. Wherever you sit in the organization, you have the ability to influence outcomes, influence direction.

What captured my attention about this quote is the emphasis on the role of the formal leader in providing empowerment to others so they can lead from their seat. Kezar and Lester said that “grassroots leaders stressed the importance of support from their departmental colleagues while staff often referred to supervisors and directors as highly influential in their involvement in the change efforts.” While it’s possible that these leaders will emerge entirely on their own, the organization can do much to stimulate and support it through networks that encourage and empower staff to become leaders no matter where they sit in the organization.

Becoming a leader
It’s great knowing that our institutions can benefit from having grassroots leaders, but how does an academic librarian get started? The interview with the authors identifies some possibilities, such as volunteering to serve on a committee or a community program. A grassroots leader may be the person who is willing to speak out about campus issues, especially controversial matters. He or she demonstrates courage. Like the turtle, you must be willing to stick your neck out in order to go places. Some of us are naturally good at this. The rest of us have to learn. Anyone who wants to lead needs to start by gaining the trust of colleagues, needs to engage in some local networking, and needs to build a reputation as someone others can count on when engaged individuals are needed to support a cause.

If you need some confidence building and know-how, campus leadership programs are a good start. Some campuses have development programs for managers and leaders. If your campus has no such program, look around for other institutions that offer them.

A caveat
While I advocate that all academic librarians can and should endeavor to be leaders on their campus, my primary caution is to be thoughtful about consulting with the library director. Given the right environment and support, individual librarians can take the initiative to lead within the library without necessarily needing a superior’s approval – although sharing one’s ideas for a new service or program is recommended and necessary if it’s going to require funding. When you step beyond the boundaries of the library, however, it’s a good idea to share the plans in advance with the formal library leadership. Failing to do so could make for an awkward situation , particularly if it commits the library to a project it may be unable to support or leads to a political entanglement-to be avoided at all costs. While grassroots leaders may have to act quickly to capitalize on an opportunity, there is nothing to be gained by playing the role of lone maverick. You may not always get the “yes” you seek or the resources you need, but grassroots leaders can always start by planting a seed in the minds of formal leaders.

I look forward to taking a closer look at the book. Those who most need to read it are formal leaders like me. Our libraries and institutions are in constant need of adapting to change, so we must change as well – and rapidly if we are to continue meeting the expectations of our community members. Formal leaders can’t do it all. We need to empower more individuals to be the grassroots leaders who will take personal responsibility for identifying where change is needed, to dream about how to make it happen, and then put the energy into getting it done. Creating a culture that enables all of this is challenging, but I’m hoping the book will offer the advice I and other administrators need to create the new generation of leaders, grassroots and otherwise.

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.