February 17, 2018

Life Lessons in Library Leadership | Backtalk

Library leaders at all levels are, and will be, in great demand in the coming days and years. Our profession is caught in the societal turbulence that grips us all. Budgets are tight, debts are huge, and technology is forcing change in all facets of society. These challenges will demand energetic and wise leadership if our profession is to prosper. What qualities will best enable our leaders to lead successfully for themselves, their libraries, and the profession?

Many writers on the subject of leadership agree that most successful leaders exhibit an uncommon amount of common decency and common sense. They are also excellent listeners. It was beliefs such as these that made a recent series of nine lectures presented by James Kennedy, the former Director of the NASA Kennedy Space Center, so meaningful to me. Kennedy’s NASA experiences spanned the era from the days of the Mercury astronauts through the Space Shuttle program and the International Space Station. During his career, he was able to rejoice at the great achievements of John Glenn and Neil Armstrong and experience the pain caused by the flash fire in Apollo I that killed three astronauts, and the Shuttle disasters that ended the lives of the crews of Challenger and Columbia.

The final two lectures of Kennedy’s series were devoted to stories based on his personal and professional experiences entitled “Lessons in Life and Leadership inspired by stories of Space Exploration.” He presented 52 tips in the form of aphorisms. His tips included such values as “act with integrity,” “be considerate of others,” “commit to be fit,” “when things go wrong—stay cool,” and “teamwork makes the team work.” What made his presentations so entertaining and inspiring were his stories drawn from the world of NASA, and from his own life.

As I listened to Kennedy talk, I found myself wondering how these lessons in life and leadership related to my own career. What were my successes and failures? Did I score well on his list of tips? Was I satisfied with what I had accomplished? Could I have been better? (Listening to nine hours of talks gives one plenty of time to contemplate one’s past.)

I was also struck by the number of lessons I thought were still relevant to today’s library leaders. NASA, since its formation during the JFK administration, has enjoyed the talents of many aspiring leaders, geniuses, and risk-takers, and according to Kennedy, NASA was also a super-competitive environment. Obviously the risks and rewards associated with manned space travel are vastly greater than the environments in which librarians labor; nonetheless, there are many common threads in Kennedy’s lessons which can apply to us.

Let’s begin with leaders need plans, and if they are smart they will also have a back-up plan in mind. Planning should exploit one’s intellectual curiosity. And, whenever possible, leaders will seek and listen to second opinions when a key decision must be made. The complexity of today’s organizations is one reason for a team approach to problem solving.

This advice was particularly relevant to our efforts at the University of Michigan Library to adopt a campus-wide computer catalog in 1986. The campus administration and the Regents expected a plan, along with our fall back positions if we failed to achieve our objectives. The project was so complex that it was really an all-staff team effort. The project was complicated by campus and faculty politics, as a few faculty opinion leaders were intensely opposed to a computer-based catalog. (Remember the Warren Bennis book Managing People is like Herding Cats? I quickly discovered that working with faculty could make herding cats seem pretty simple.)

One back-up plan was a staff-inspired education program that reached out to key faculty. While few faculty objectors ever embraced the project, most were willing to drop their active opposition, at least for the time being. In today’s world, developing plans and fallback positions is still vitally important as the role of libraries in society changes.

Without question, the complexity of tasks that today’s leaders will face almost guarantee that there will be ups and downs. Kennedy reminds us to enjoy the ride, and try to keep a sense of humor. Considering the complexity and challenge of issues facing today’s library community, it is inevitable that ups and downs will occur. Those who are best able to enjoy and endure the ride will be among those most likely to retain their sanity and sense of humor. And to the extent possible through the ups and down, strive to have fun.

While complex issues and projects are increasingly common in libraries, as with most organizations, it is important not to get overwhelmed by complexity. Whenever possible, try to break down complex problems into a series of more manageable steps. So Kennedy suggests that we don’t forget the KISS system of problem solving, i.e., keep it simple, stupid. The KISS analogy has been around for years, but it is still meaningful, relevant, and too often forgotten.

Most everyone in our profession understands that change is inevitable. Kennedy makes the point that change is NOT a bad thing, and while I agree that leaders must not shy away from change, not all change takes one in the right direction. In fact, managing change will continue to be one of the greatest challenges that library leaders will face. It is also inevitable that in a rapidly changing organizational environment there will be those who will stubbornly refuse to budge. As Kennedy reminds us, “sometimes you just gotta ‘Kick a little Asteroid’.”

Once goals and objectives are set, a leader doesn’t stop until they have been achieved. Such focus often requires one to take risks, be willing to fail, and have the courage of one’s convictions. Kennedy advises that leaders should always be willing to reach for the moon.

The moon metaphor took me back to my days as a navy recruit at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. I still remember my company commander ordering the company to stand in place and jump for the moon. He kept saying “higher and higher.” His lesson was simple. He wanted us to always have high aspirations. I’ve always remembered that and tried to live up to it.

Kennedy’s first lesson was “treat everyone with dignity and respect.” This was a lesson I’m afraid I had to learn the hard way. One of my challenges was to keep my temper in check; as time passed I got better, but, as friends and family occasionally remind me, I’ve never achieved perfection. I did learn early in my career the consequences of not treating subordinate staff with respect. At a university where I worked, we had a recently appointed graduate school dean who liked to flaunt his authority when dealing with the secretaries of the Academic and Finance V.P.s. As time passed, he couldn’t understand why he had such a difficult time getting face time with the officers when my boss, the library director, seemed to have such easy access. (My boss told him, but he didn’t listen.)

He was forced to resign when he became embroiled in a controversy and discovered that he had very few friends in either high or low places. This dean hadn’t followed Kennedy’s lesson to “Invest in friendships; they have a great ROI.” I like to think that I have always treated my secretaries and administrative assistants with respect. I may have driven them crazy at times and been very demanding, and I know they were happy when I left town, but a number of them I still consider friends, 40 years later.

Also high on Kennedy’s list of lessons is “praise in public, criticize in private.” Makes sense to me, but easier said than done. I’ve overhead numerous managers chastise a subordinate in public. It is so easy to do when one is upset because someone has fallen down on the job. I’m not proud to say that I violated this principle more than once, and more than once found it necessary to apologize. In my first professional job, a person I supervised, who was more than twice my age, took me aside after I had chastised a student assistant. She asked me whether I expected staff to show initiative when a public reprimand was likely when a mistake was made? She advised that an apology was in order—in front of the same group who had overheard my criticism.

It wasn’t easy, but I called a meeting and said I was wrong. It was one of wisest decisions I ever made, because that staff was full of ideas, and they were then willing to share them with a relatively young, ambitious middle manager. And since then, if I’ve had to criticize someone, I’ve done in the privacy of my office—often with a box of Kleenex on hand. It’s never easy.

This job was also the first time I found myself interacting with smart workers who were really younger than I was. On this subject Kennedy says, “get inspired by a young person.” Once I got over the reality that the next generation was really smart, if not smarter than I was, it became easier to listen to, and seriously consider, if not implement, their ideas.

Take time to mentor; it’s not a trivial pursuit, urges Kennedy. You bet! Once again, I was extremely fortunate to be blessed with several mentors early in my career. These included Roger Greer, Paul Dunkin, Ralph Shaw, Jerry Orne, and especially Ralph Ellsworth. Mentoring pays huge dividends for both the mentor and mentee. Many of those I’ve mentored paid me back many times over in friendship, advice, and ideas. When I entered the profession, mentoring didn’t really have a name. I’m happy to say that there are currently numerous mentoring programs in our profession.

Kennedy also reminds us to take pride in our organization, to pause to celebrate our accomplishments, and that it is okay to have some heroes. Yes, it is worth repeating that we ought to take pride in our libraries. Libraries have made substantial contributions to our society and will continue to do so. We too often hide our “light under a bucket.” We need to speak out more forcibly and tell our stories. When I think of the American Library Association for example, three words come to mind: Reading. Learning. Succeeding. What success stories can you tell your community about your library?

It was indeed easy for Kennedy to find heroes in the space program. We librarians aren’t astronauts, but I believe most of us have our heroes too. I know I’ve had many heroes during my life. I can start with my father, who I admired in many ways. He and my mother introduced me to my first childhood hero, Franklin D. Roosevelt. There are also library heroes. What about the library assistant, Mary Ann Jacob, in the Sandy Hook Elementary School who herded 18 fourth graders into a storage space, locked the door, and barricaded it with a filing cabinet? To my mind, she is a genuine heroine.

When all is said and done, Kennedy reminds us that we can make a difference. Whether an astronaut or a librarian, each of us can make a difference. I became a reference librarian while a student assistant at Purdue believing that I could make a difference. Three librarians who made a difference during my professional lifetime were Fred Kilgour, Hugh Atkinson, and Judy Krug. There were also many others. I’m sure that we can all identify librarians who have made a difference in our lives and in the lives of others.

These are only a sampling of Kennedy’s lessons of life and leadership, but as I have reflected on his message, I’ve found myself feeling good about our future prospects because of the many young librarians I’ve met recently who reflect the qualities that Kennedy found so important in his world of space exploration.

His heroes explored space. Maybe in our world, it is reasonable to believe that library heroes improve the quality of life and lives of people in their communities.



  1. It’s dumbfounding how many so-called leaders treat people differently according to where they fall on the food chain. You can hear completely different stories from people who worked for someone, as opposed to people who worked WITH that someone.