March 16, 2018

Skills for Leading Libraries of the Future | Leading From the Library

As higher education transforms and evolves in new ways in the years ahead, what are the appropriate skills for library leaders? Out of five skill areas identified as those leaders will need for 2020, librarians are well-suited for a few, but will need to gain expertise in others.

Academic librarianship lost one of its outstanding leaders on December 30, 2012, when Joseph Branin passed away. Branin held several positions of leadership in higher education. He was the first director of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Library in Saudi Arabia, and, prior to that, he led the libraries at Ohio State University for many years. Many academic librarians knew Branin in his role as the editor of College & Research Libraries. One of the issues Branin was clearly concerned about was the future leadership for the profession, and its capacity to develop the next generation of leaders. In a memorable editorial, he questioned why C&RL received so few manuscripts about leadership. He reflects on some of the more memorable pieces of leadership literature he had published, sharing his observations on the critical skills required of leaders, such as “building a shared vision for the library, managing and shaping change, functioning in a political environment, developing a campus visibility, and building consensus in carrying out strategic directions.” Branin’s greatest leadership concern was whether the current generation of baby-boom leaders was doing a good enough job of preparing the next generation that would replace them.

Leadership skills for the future

Branin was correct to question whether we do enough to prepare our future library leaders for the challenging work that awaits them. To do it well, we’d want to have a good sense of what skills would be most valuable in the years ahead. Five skills in particular were identified in a piece originally published under the title “5 new skills needed for leadership in 2020.” In an essay in Inside Higher Ed, W. Kent Barnds applied these 5 new skills to the work of college leaders. It’s a collection worthy of applying to the work of library leaders as well. The five included (1) having a collaborative mindset; (2) putting together teams; (3) tech savvy; (4) globally focused and culturally attuned; (5) future-focused. While the five skills are framed for business leaders, Barnds effectively adapts them to the work of college administrators. To my way of thinking, they are also applicable for those planning to lead libraries into the future. Though differing somewhat from the skill set Branin envisioned, I think he’d find these five skills equally important.

A challenge to library leaders?

In examining these skills more closely, they would all seem to mesh well with the environment in which librarians must already demonstrate leadership capability. Consider the first one, collaborative mindset. Our profession has a tradition of engaging in collaborative partnerships with both internal and external stakeholders. We know that our success depends on working together with our faculty and fellow academic support colleagues. Moving into the future, library leaders will need to demonstrate the ability to form radical collaborations with other libraries, for the sharing of both physical and human resources. The original article indicated that successful leaders would collaborate internally by seeking input from all staff. Developing the ability to consult employees throughout the library organization is something good leaders can always learn to do better.

We could always improve

Those other four skill areas also present some familiar territory to library leaders. Tech savvy? Without that skill, you can hardly lead anywhere in a library. The next generation of library leaders is more advanced in this area than the current generation, but technology advances so rapidly that even tech savvy librarians must be adept at knowing when they need help—and are comfortable asking others for support. We might be mildly challenged in these other areas, such as building teams, getting globally and culturally attuned, or being future focused, but I suspect these are areas where librarian leaders already demonstrate skill. The hard part of learning to be a better leader is knowing exactly what your weaknesses are—or at least admitting to yourself that you need improvement.

Additional skills to consider

While the list of five future skills for 2020 is of value to all types of leaders, there are others to add for those who want to lead libraries. All aspiring library leaders should take time to look outside librarianship for inspiration and ideas. Others may call this “noticing,” paying attention to things outside your immediate sphere of operation. Whether it’s business, computing, design or some other field, aspiring leaders need to create some space in their keeping up regimen for exploring new territory—a well-recognized strategy for enhanced generative thinking. Academic librarians who want to lead should have a firm understanding of higher education, from the fundamentals to the latest trends. Doing so better positions them to be a part of the conversation outside the library, and it demonstrates the ability to lead beyond the library in ways that serve the institution. Perhaps the most important skill is one identified by both Branin and Barnds. While Branin refers to it as vision building and Barnds notes it as future-focused, having the ability to look ahead, to see the patterns, to connect the dots, and to make sense out of disparate matter, is the most important skill that future leaders will need.

How do we get there?

To prepare for future leadership, there are new skills we can all learn to improve the quality of our leadership. Whether they are the ones that Branin believed were most critical, those identified as the relevant skills for leading in 2020, or the ones you believe are those most likely to contribute to your leadership success, it’s important to make a commitment to acquiring those skills and helping others to do so. The good news is that our profession offers multiple pathways to obtaining them, and a growing number of options allow for self-education. Librarians can participate in leadership development programs, usually offered by professional associations. They can sign up for webinars to build targeted skills, such as decision making. They can develop a relationship with a mentor, or connect with a leadership network. Leadership books and articles are in great supply and can supplement individual efforts to boost skills. However, none of them will help unless we think back to those concerns Joe Branin had about the future of library leadership. If we fail to learn more about leadership through research studies, if we neglect our responsibility to turn our leadership weaknesses into strengths, or if we lack support for leadership development within our profession, our next generation will be poorly positioned to lead in 2020 and beyond.

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. This isn’t a new skill, but it’s one that shouldn’t be overlooked: communication. Library leaders and managers need to be able to communicate well and respectfully with those with whom they work and the librarians whom are their direct reports.

  2. For those developing these lists I imagine that communication is so fundamental to good leadership – both listening and sharing information – that it is a given. You need it today. You will need it tomorrow. Perhaps what we do need to learn for the future is how to communicate as effectively in virtual environments where the dynamic of F2F communication is missing (at least for now).
    Thanks for your comment.