March 21, 2018

Learning to Lead Others to Change | Leading From the Library

Great leaders have a way of inspiring followers to believe in a cause that makes them want to change. Actually doing this is a tremendous challenge. What does it take to be that kind of leader?

As I travel to conferences and libraries, I hear one particular complaint more often than others. It’s from academic librarians frustrated by colleagues who turn a deaf ear to a call for change. It can be worse yet if co-workers denigrate their colleague’s vision for change. Many librarians have no aspiration to manage others, but they would be thrilled to lead a change that could make a difference for their community members. Is it asking too much to want to inspire your colleagues to believe in a new idea so that they will be motivated to change?

We want others to share our vision, big or small, and follow as we lead them on new paths to a better library. At its essence, that is what much of leadership is about—articulating a clear vision and inspiring others to follow it. But why should they care? That’s often my response when confronted with the “Why are they so resistant to my ideas for change?” question. Why do you think any of your library colleagues should latch on to your idea? Because you think it’s the right thing to do? What about all the extra work it’s going to involve or getting people out of their comfort zone or requiring them to learn new skills—or even harder—change the way they think. How can you develop the skill to lead and inspire others to accept that change is either desirable or inevitable? As with much of leadership, learning it is possible though practicing it can be difficult.

Trust lays the foundation

Leaders who succeed at both inspiring others to change and actually leading that change, know it requires more than just sharing an idea and anticipating immediate acceptance. Based on my studies and experience I think it comes down to a few basic conditions, the most critical being an established trust. Workers who trust their leader have faith in their ideas and will risk giving them a try. In their book The Truth About Leadership, leadership gurus Kouzes and Posner identify trust as their sixth truth.  They write “Trust rules just about everything you do,” and without building a trusting relationship there’s little hope of increasing one’s influence. To gain trust, Kouzes and Posner, leaders must be predictable, consistent, able to articulate the vision, and honest, and they must fulfill promises. Simon Sinek speaks frequently about the importance of trust to being an inspirational leader. Referencing our origin as social animals, Sinek points to our human need to bond with others for survival. In order for that to happen, we have to be authentic. We have to say what we believe and do what we say we will. When we gain our colleagues trust, Sinek says, they’ll be much more likely to support their leader’s ideas for change, and be supportive even when failures happen.

Creating Change on Campus

It’s possible that academic librarians already have a strike against them when trying to lead others to change. Higher education institutions are known for serious change resistance baggage. Our colleges are often said to have changed little since the Middle Ages. An old joke goes, “How many faculty does it take to change a light bulb?,” to which the response is “Change. Who said anything about change?” Despite innumerable adoptions of change, especially in the area of technology, colleges and universities still harbor the image that fundamental change will be bitterly resisted. To some extent, in pockets across campus, it’s an experience with which we are all familiar. Perhaps no one has it tougher than a new president who is expected by the trustees to make change happen.

In her essay “Setting an Agenda” Susan Resneck Pierce explains why some presidents manage change successfully, while other fail miserably. While Pierce acknowledges there are multiple factors that impact leading successful change, trust building is essential. Her experience shows those who succeed took time to establish the vision, effectively communicate it, gain the support of others by reaching out and listening, and then identifying partners and empowering them to lead the change. In short, the successful presidents followed the advice of Kouzes and Posner. Another president, Joan Hinde Stewart, in an essay simply titled “Change,” says she believes that the wise course of action “is for presidents to begin by identifying what they do not want to change—for example, their institutions’ core values and the commitments that flow from them.” Successful academic leaders avoid change for the sake of just changing things, and intuitively know what is better off as-is. Despite the power they yield, presidents, like most of us, are unable to just will change to happen, and when they do it usually ends badly.

Another battle zone from which we may draw lessons on how—or how not—to introduce change is the academic department. How is it that some are incubators for innovative teaching practices, while others languish in the fifties’ classroom? In her essay “Rewarding Teaching Innovation,” Elizabeth Simmons shares ideas for building a culture that is more open to change. It results from a combination of top-down support (e.g., create incentives for adopting change) and grassroots empowerment (e.g., peer discussions and support). While I think that Simmons ignores the value of a visionary leader or idea champion, she too suggests that change is built on a foundation of trust in which colleagues believe there is a safe environment where their ideas are listened to, fairly vented, and openly attempted.

Selling your ideas

So how might an academic librarian frustrated by his or her inability to inspire and lead organizational change adopt a different strategy? Building trust is critical, but you also need to learn how to become effective at selling your ideas. When presenting them, do you bring your passion for this new idea to the table? A laidback or even blasé approach may leave colleagues feeling unexcited, unenthusiastic, and uncaring. If all that’s being heard is the what and how, but not the why, there’s a problem. The person can articulately explain what the new idea is and what it accomplishes, and he or she can tell me how it’s going to work, but where they miss the mark entirely is in influencing my thinking about why we need to make this change or adopt this idea. In his book Start With Why, Simon Sinek explains that much of our decision making originates in the limbic brain which happens to respond more to feelings, such as trust, loyalty, and passion, than to rational-analytic reasoning. Sinek drives home the importance of getting your colleagues emotionally connected to your ideas when he says, “People don’t buy what we sell, they buy why we sell it”. If you can communicate the why behind your idea, and inspire others to believe what you believe, you will stand a much better chance of gaining their support.

It’s worth the effort

Building trust through authentic action helps lay the foundation upon which leaders can sell their vision for change. Achieving a state of authenticity and trustworthiness is an inherent quality that you can’t simply turn on and off. If you try to fake it in order to get people to do something for you, it might work the first time, but eventually they’ll see through it. Stephen Covey spoke of the emotional bank account. In time, if you gain people’s trust by doing what you say you’ll do, by being transparent and honest, you’ll have built up the account sufficiently so that if you do fail, as all humans eventually will, a withdrawal won’t bankrupt your account with those you lead. However, try to take advantage one too many times and eventually the trust evaporates, and so does the ability to lead.

If you want to create change in your library, I hope some of these ideas will help you to motivate your colleagues to work collaboratively to make it happen. To my way of thinking that’s perhaps the most satisfying outcome for library leaders—creating change that improves our libraries and makes a difference for our community members—and empowering colleagues to feel excited and enthusiastic about the successes we achieve together. The next time I’m on the road, I hope to hear a few less complaints and a few more success stories.

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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  1. Steve, this article was very helpful to me as I begin the new academic year. I am feeling motivated to read Start With Why, and glean some ideas for motivating my staff! Thanks for a thought-provoking piece.

    • Hi Maureen. Thanks for your feedback – I’m glad the article was of help to you. I do think you’ll enjoy the book, and if you want to share some of the ideas with your staff, watching Sinek’s TED talk may be a good way to get folks engaged in a discussion – what’s the WHY of our library?

  2. Sherry Rhodes says:

    I enjoyed reading this, especially as I’m in the finishing stages of editing a book on SUNY-Geneseo’s leadership program. I’ll be sharing this article w/the program’s head!

    • Introducing the new Sustainability Round Table (SustainRT) a ala ALA. Fertile ground for leadership opportunities centered on this very thing – change within our profession (and beyond).