April 22, 2018

Learning to Lead in a Cynical World | Leading From the Library

Those seeking more formal leadership roles will inevitably encounter cynicism. We live in cynical times, and there is distrust of those in leadership positions. If you anticipate it and have strategies for coping with it, leaders can learn to turn the cynics into believers.

There’s a powerful scene in this season’s Mad Men. The main character, Don Draper, is finally caught in an act of marital infidelity by his teenage daughter. Leading up to that, Draper performs a noble act: He helps a neighbor’s son escape being sent to the Vietnam War by manipulating an office competitor to pull strings to get the unfortunate lad into the much safer Air National Guard. The viewers are left to question whether Draper actually cared about the boy’s plight, or if he simply saw it as an opportunity to earn the gratitude of the boy’s mother, with whom he had had a prior affair—now ended, but which he longed to rekindle. In fact, his altruistic act of caring allows him to rekindle it, intentionally or not, thus leading to his daughter’s feelings of betrayal. In the pivotal moment, his neighbor and friend Arnold comes with the son to formally thank Draper—a scene witnessed by the daughter, who only hours earlier saw her father cuckold this man. Arnold, in an emotional moment, heaps compliments on Draper, testifying to the greatness of his supposedly selfless act. Unable to bear it any longer, Draper’s daughter Sally cries out, “You make me sick,” while everyone else looks on in shock and bewilderment.

The Dilbert Phenomenon

By those with whom he works, Don Draper, the ad executive and firm partner, is perceived as a leader. He inspires others to do their best work. In a crisis, others look to him for an answer. He’s decisive, creative, and successful. Yet much of his fictional existence reflects society’s cynical attitude toward leaders. In the end, as the scene suggests, those we look to for leadership are not authentic, nor can they be trusted. They are only out for themselves, and if they happen to hurt, deceive, or humiliate others as they strive to get what they want, so be it. In a world so cynical about its leaders, what can leaders do to regain trust? Leadership cynics are particularly abundant in higher education. Rather than become cynics themselves, good leaders will strive to learn new skills that may help them to overcome what two leadership experts, James Kouzes and Barry Posner, referred to as the Dilbert Phenomenon. They used the vastly popular comic strip as a metaphor for workplace cynicism, noting that “Dilbert is nothing if not your quintessential cynic when it comes to today’s workplace and management.” Reflecting the persisting challenge of the Dilbert Phenomenon, Kouzes and Posner (K&P) first shared their ideas nearly 10 years ago. That speaks volumes about the growth and continuance of societal cynicism about leaders.

Relationship Crisis

There’s no telling exactly what turns people into leadership cynics, but a troublesome relationship with a bad boss is an often-cited factor. A boss who treats employees badly can do serious damage by forever changing their relationship with leaders, and it’s the relationship that makes the difference. K & P believe that leadership, at its most fundamental level, is a relationship between a leader and followers. If leaders fail to deliver on his or her  followers’ expectations, the relationship fails to develop. Workplace cynics primary focus becomes keeping their jobs in order to collect a paycheck—or figuring out ways to avoid doing their work. The boss becomes a target for ridicule, anger, and disrespect. Then leaders wonder why they lack the ability to motivate these staff. K & P’s research led them to identify a set of expectations leaders needed to fulfill to gain followers’ trust and loyalty—the antidote to the Dilbert Phenomenon.  Be honest, forward looking, and inspiring. Together these qualities give leaders the essential credibility needed for real relationships. While it’s a good start, K & P believed that there was more to overcoming the cynicism that resulted from exposure to bad leadership and a damaged trust.

Reversing Leadership Cynicism

Since they likened workplace cynicism to a quickly spreading virus, K & P offered their six-step system leaders could use to cure the cynics.

  • Who are you? : A key to credibility is knowing who you are and what you stand for. It gets back to the fundamentals of having a set of values that guides your behavior. Be consistent in communicating your beliefs and values. Mixed messages and signals weaken credibility.
  • Do What You Say You Will Do: This is the bedrock of trust, and leaders are frequently reminded to have consistent words and actions.
  • Listen: It always sound easy, yet is hard to do. It’s the key to having insights into followers and understanding their needs. Engage in a conversation where you learn what others value.
  • Build a Community: To avoid the spread of cynicism in the workplace, leaders must work to get everyone working towards the same vision. Leaders are an integral part of the community.  When they stand outside of it or, even worse, seeking to control it, it weakens their credibility.
  • Enable others: Credible leaders are open to sharing authority with others and allowing them to be part of the change process. By inviting their followers to take on leadership roles, confident leaders give everyone a stake in the success or failure of projects.
  • Learn continuously: Here’s another reason why leaders need to always be learning—to demonstrate their awareness of what all staff are going through, and to offer compassion when needed. We’re all going to fail at some point. Leaders need to be a part of it, and to do what they can to right the wrongs—and to learn from the mistakes and improve.

Realize the Limitations

Most librarians who take on leadership roles, particularly as administrators, are glad to do so. They enjoy their work, and believe their vision will make a difference for their organizations and community members. Realizing some staff may doubt your sincerity and intentions can be discouraging. Not taking it personally is a challenge, but know that some individuals simply have, for whatever reason, no tolerance for administrators. Successful leaders gain skill at working with the cynics, and may win over a few. These same leaders realize the limitations of the situation, and set their expectations and strategies for change accordingly. K & P’s six-step system is a good start as a cure for workplace cynicism, but it will likely take more than that. Library leaders need to discover what works best for them to honestly communicate their passion, and hopefully infect the organization with an enthusiasm for positive change that can win over even the most cynical of library workers. Just know that it takes time. K & P said it best: “The credibility foundation is built brick by brick, stone by stone. And as each new fragment is secured, the support on which we can erect the hopes and dreams of the future is gradually built.” It’s up to each library leader to build the foundation.

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. No surprise: poor leadership produces leadership cynicism. When someone is given power that he is not fit to wield, every day that person will earn the cynicism of his subordinates.

    People accept leaders because those leaders give their followers valuable coordination, direction, insight, and protection. Do that and you will be recognized a leader, whatever your position in the organization. People *want* good leadership and will give a lot to get it.

    Often problems arise when we confuse position with leadership. They’re not at all the same.

    One particular problem area impinges on “do what you say you will do.” There is sometimes misunderstanding about what the leader said he would do, because leader and followers are not speaking the same language. To be accepted and supported, leaders need to learn to speak to the audience, not to themselves. (Well, that goes for all of us.)

    • Joneser says:

      And if you have no followers, then the leader is at fault and must figure out what is wrong. Few holding leadership positions do this.

  2. pigbitinmad says:

    As an ex Temple Library employee, the management was the poster child for giving out promotions based on favoritism to far less senior employees (how conveniently they forgot the consistently great performance reviews I received until a new favorite waltzed in the door). This after promising to do what ever was possible to rectify the obscenely low pay, having the promotion go go to a temp who had only worked there for six months was more than I could take. And any request to switch to a better job classification treated dismissively as if I were some sort of leper. The moment the new person walked through the door, my performance went straight from excellent to poor, because of course you can’t have two good employees at the same time.

    And people wonder why there are workplace cynics. I left because I was told to my face that I would never be considered for a raise/promotion even though I went to grad school and got a degree in Library Science. That’s more than most of my coworkers did. (Oh, and the favorite who skipped to the head of the raise line? He quit a few months after I left for similar reasons).


    Still pissed after all these years.