February 17, 2018

There’s No Such Thing as Library Leadership | Leading From the Library

steven-bell-newswireThere’s leadership. Then there’s library leadership. Or is there? Is being a leader in a library so different that it is a leadership entity unique unto itself? A library leader is ultimately, a leader who performs their work in a library, but what makes him or her a leader is not unique to the library setting.

In mid-August, I delivered a webinar for Library Leadership & Management Association (LLAMA) on leadership styles. The framework I used to present my content was based on this question: “It may have worked for Steven Jobs, but will it work for you?” Through an examination of what made Jobs’ leadership style unique—and looking at what library leaders could take away from a study of Jobs as leader—I recommended that library leaders develop their own unique style and draw on a number of existing models such as situational leadership or flexible leadership. And yes, we should avoid trying to lead like Jobs, because it may have worked for him, but the research shows it won’t work for the rest of us.

In reviewing the attendee evaluations, I came across some feedback that got me thinking. One attendee said they found the webinar valuable, but would have liked it better if I had focused more on library leadership. This was supplemented by the statement, “There is a big difference between running Apple and a library.” Really?

Leadership is leadership

That there are many different aspects between running corporations and non-profit organizations is obvious. Apple has to contend with coordinating a supply chain, competing with Samsung, and figuring out how to best leverage U.S. tax law to protect their profits. Libraries need to develop services that benefit their community members, establish routines for acquiring and making new content accessible, and all the other things you know quite well. It would be ludicrous to suggest that companies like Apple and our libraries are in the same business. But when it comes to being a leader, there are surely many more similarities than differences. Here’s one example.

Studying Steve Jobs’ leadership style points to the importance of focus in making decisions and offering products. Jobs’ claimed that he was more proud of what he said “no” to than what he approved, because that allowed Apple to focus on making its limited products industry leaders. We often hear this message in the context of libraries as we attempt to do too much, cling to legacy operations that are no longer optimal, and seek to please every segment of the community To be effective leaders, we are instructed to focus on what’s most important and to make tough decisions to eliminate services or resources that are holding us back. As a library leader, you might need to make the same type of leadership choice that Larry Page did when he decided that Google should stop supporting Reader. So even though you may not be leading Apple or Google, there are times when leadership is leadership—no matter the setting in which it is happening.

Leading in the library

Can you really talk about library leadership as a unique entity? Is leading in a library inherently different from leading in a museum, a school, or a retail store? Certainly there are technical differences. The decisions museum and library leader make involve different resources and constituencies, but is there something unique about the library leader’s decision-making process? I would argue no. You still need to have a process to make the decisions that establish your priorities as a leader. If you manage people, is there some special management skill that applies in a library that doesn’t apply elsewhere? You still need to apply management theory. Open any book whose title claims it is about library leadership and you’ll find chapters about human resources, strategic planning, budgeting, motivating staff, organizational structure and change, organizing teams, or any of the other myriad tasks associated with leadership. What you are less likely to find is a good definition of library leadership beyond the types of advice we give about leading in a library. Still, the comment I received is a good one, and worth thinking about. How might we go about defining what is special or unique about library leadership so that we may do a better job of helping others learn to excel?

Advice from the experts

In my search for an answer, I sought insights from two colleagues who have made careers out of educating librarians about leadership: Maureen Sullivan and David Bendekovic. Sullivan is currently leading ALA’s Leadership Institute, and Bendekovic travels the country conducting Library Journal’s “Lead the Change” workshops. I put the question to both of them, and they agreed with my observation that library leadership is more a label than a vocation. No form of leadership exists that is applicable only to the practice of librarianship. In responding, both gave much the same answer, and what they offered helps me to understand what my attendee meant.

While some pure form of library leadership may not exist, conversations about leadership with librarians require the ability to put leadership theory and practice into context. Sullivan said that is why she has “taken to identifying the models, theories, best practices from research and the general literature that I believe have the best potential for application to libraries” that “can be grounded with library examples to most help those in our field connect the concepts to practice.” Bendekovic emphasized that in his workshops he focuses on leadership principles rather than business practices. If he does incorporate a principle based on an example from a company like Apple, he says “that I always have an example of how a library is doing the same thing.”

Make it relevant to librarians

While there is some agreement that there’s no such thing as a unique entity we’d call library leadership, it’s clear that those learning to be leaders in libraries need an approach that successfully blends leadership principles with on-the-ground examples of library leaders who apply those principles. What my attendee was likely telling me with the comment was that more examples from libraries would have helped—and I get that. Take my Jobs’ anecdote about the importance of focus. Examples from libraries that eliminated services in order to concentrate on a limited number of focus areas would help to reinforce the principle and demonstrate that business practices are relevant to libraries. Wherever you may land on the issue of whether there is such a thing as library leadership, there is probably one thing upon which we can all agree. If you want to be a good library leader, you need to be a good leader who works in a library.

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. Good afternoon, Steven, and thank you for this article questioning the legitimacy of library leadership as a unique entity. I would agree with the perspectives of Maureen and David, that library leadership is, in essence, leadership in a library setting, not very distinguishable from leadership in any given setting. But I would like to add a couple of thoughts to the discussion.

    I coordinate a leadership development program for Southern Ontario Library Service, an Agency of the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, Culture and Sport. The program – the APLL Institute – is a two-year certificate program, which includes 12 online courses and 4 two-day classroom sessions over the two years, at the end of which participants receive a certificate in public library leadership.

    An important aspect of the curriculum is that in year two we focus extensively on the municipal environment. We look at the responsibilities and pressures of municipal leaders, we study strategic financial management in the municipal environment, and we explore best practices for cultivating collaborative relationships between public libraries and their municipal councils and managers. We do so because this is an aspect of library leadership that I believe to be quite crucial to the public library’s continued ability to survive, even thrive. This is a little different than Apple, it seems to me. Jobs and his ilk do not have that larger entity with whom they are affiliated (and upon whom dependent) and with whom they have to build legitimacy, credibility and value. Gone are the days when libraries can be applauded as a public good worthy of public money in and of themselves, without proving value and benefit to their mother institutions – whether that be municipalities in the case of public libraries or colleges and universities in the case of academic libraries. So – what am I saying? I think I’m saying leadership is leadership and, at the same time, understanding context is a crucial part of leadership and the specifics of the context do not translate from context to context.

    The other thing I need to say is, I’m not so sure it’s a good thing to give into the continuous demands for library examples. Surely, one of the skills of a capable leader is to make connections between disparate ideas from foreign contexts and mine the examples/stories offered for transferable strategies and actions. Are we doing our emerging leaders any favours to always do that work for them?

  2. This popped up when I made a typo at the Royal Society of Arts but raises the matter of organisation in South Africa in the 1960s, I think there was library leadership. #StrikingAgainstApartheid and it makes a worthwhile study the sorts of leadership provided.

    Now there is the matter of print, paper, ink on dead trees, and the role of the internet, web, google, so at least two threads to follow.