March 18, 2018

Leadership Is Not Command | Blatant Berry

John Berry IIIIt took me decades TRULY to understand the qualities that make for great leadership. I finally learned what they are but only after observing more models, mentors, and lessons than I can count. I am still surprised at how slowly I realized that the key strengths of great leaders are not command, control, or management skills, as so many top administrators misleadingly “teach” us. Part of the problem is that while it is easy to state what makes a great leader, it is very difficult and even risky to practice great leadership.

A great leader must have the ability to spot and hire excellent people; build a passionate, committed team; liberate everyone on that team; and then trust them with the autonomy and authority to make decisions, innovate, and test their inspirations and ideas in practice.

The leader brings a vision and broad outline of services and programs to a library and supplies the environment, the culture, and the attitudes through which the services are offered. But members of the team will come up with most of the ideas and often make the decisions and strategies to execute them. It takes a carefully supportive and wide-open mentality on the part of the administration to stimulate staff to enlist and participate in the process. Too few library leaders possess the willingness to trade command and control for participation, creativity, and innovation.

Crucial to the great leader’s success is building an institutional philosophy that ensures that no one on the staff is afraid to make those decisions at any time and without prior approval. “The staff are just getting comfortable with making decisions,” LJ 2014 Librarian of the Year Corinne Hill told me, after two years as executive director of the Chattanooga Public Library. She is working to build a new institutional tradition free of fear. I was totally convinced she was a great leader when I heard how she told her new colleague Nate Hill to make an entire floor of that library into a place for creativity for the city.

At the retirement party for my wife, Louise, dozens of Connecticut’s Darien Library staffers told of overcoming that apprehension after her 35 years of encouraging a fear-free environment there.

One was Melissa Yurechko, former head of children’s services at Darien and now director of the Rowayton Library, CT. She recalled her qualms when she told Louise that Darien would need 100 more copies of the first Harry Potter book to meet demand created by their highly publicized children’s event to welcome the book. Every copy the library had was reserved. “Buy them,” was the response.

My own mentor and leader, Eric Moon, urged all of the LJ editors to “make your mistakes in print.” There was no penalty for the many mistakes I made, except for a lot of embarrassing published corrections.

It takes a lot of practice for staff who have not had the autonomy and authority to make decisions to become comfortable doing it. It takes a leader who is willing to give staff the support for those options, no matter the outcome.

My career as a librarian is in its sixth decade. It took more than two-thirds of that time for me to get the message. I finally learned that although all the processes, rules, and administrative approaches in the library manager’s toolbox have their usefulness, they are not what make the director an effective leader.

The toughest lesson for too many library directors to learn is that all the good ideas don’t emanate from the director’s office. The best way to spur innovation, foster staff confidence and the willingness to take risks, and create a dynamic library loved by the community is to hire great people and get out of their way.

John Berry

This article was published in Library Journal's April 1, 2014 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

John N. Berry III About John N. Berry III

John N. Berry III ( is Editor-at-Large, LJ. Berry joined the magazine in 1964 as Assistant Editor, becoming editor-in-Chief in 1969 and serving in that role until 2006.



  1. James M. Matarazzo says:

    There are few things that make me uncomfortable when giving a presentation. One of the select are former LIS faculty members in the audience. So, there I was at an Special Libraries Association Conference preparing to present the results of a study, CORPORATE LIBRARY EXCELLENCE
    Special Library Association, 1990, when I noticed Editor Berry in the first row, first seat with eye fixed on me. I went down and said”what are you doing here?” He replied, “I wanted top learn more about corporate libraries, so I signed up for this course.”.

    Berry was one of my instructor’s at Simmons. He was tall, clean shaven and had a very full head of
    blond hair. I paid attention and took notes. He, on the other hand,he took my, class but must have lost the notes when I taught him. Otherwise, he cold have written this editorial 14 years ago. The heads of the thirteen libraries in my study had all of the characteristics in his piece that I describe 14 years ago. Of course, this is the April 1st issue of LJ…maybe he was just fooling us about the number years it took to learn the lessons.

  2. Fileted in Filadelphia says:

    “Too few library leaders possess the willingness to trade command and control for participation, creativity, and innovation.”

    This is spot-on. Since a great leader must should also have “the ability to spot and hire excellent people”, however, it becomes all too easy for a leader to attribute their lack of support of Subordinate X to a disheartening realization that Subordinate X isn’t, alas, an excellent person. How many people in leadership positions would actually own up to valuing open participation, creativity, and innovation amongst their staff? All of them, including those that subvert these grander goals with acts of micro-aggression and dismissiveness. Whether those that act dishonorably realize their transgressions are not hardly matters when they truly believe they fully embrace those lofty ideals stated above. It’s rationalized away, justified by either the presence of those other ideals or by the evidence of other select subordinates they do support. They’re good to someone, so they must be good.

    Less-supportive behavior usually does not occur in large groups or staff meetings. It occurs behind closed doors, in one-on-on interactions (or with one other person). Leaders will embrace their higher-guruness in the big meetings, and there, other staff may observe, in bits, the complacency and/or hesitancy of Subordinate X and Y… but there is your real fear-factor. That is the hurtful truth not addressed in enough leadership articles – the real, actual impact of dismissiveness and micro-aggression – that low-level stifling and control – has severe impacts on people’s lives.

    When you take on a leadership role, you are accepting a higher responsibility that you cannot ignore or rationalize into some lesser form: you have the power to affect their lives, to reduce their paycheck, to limit or allow the project attributions that pile on their vitae. It is not a slate of equality; you absolutely must act ethically and thoughtfully. You agreed to do this without fail when you accepted your leadership position.

    Mr. Berry, thank you for writing about this. Your article discusses something that leaders should read and reflect on. The only risk is that they would consider the leadership qualities you suggest to be add-ons, or non-opposing, complimentary ideas… food for thought… something to ponder. No.

    Leaders, please understand: these are not “tools for the toolbox”.

    An environment that lacks these qualities is truly, fundamentally toxic.

    • Joneser says:

      Thank you. After too many years of enduring leadership like this, I’m not sure I would recognize positive, supportive leadership anymore. And then people wonder why others turn into “dead wood”.

    • Stephanie says:

      Be your own leader then. You have options. If you don’t exercise your options and play victim, then are others’ perceptions about you correct? I have left organizations in which the boss played favorites and stifled the creativity and ideas of myself and others based upon her perferences and prejudices. Maybe this wasn’t fair, but life isn’t fair. What helped me make that decision was to think of all the people I respected. Would they have stayed in this situation? No. Once I realized that, I began looking for another job.

  3. Over the past thirty years in the library profession, I have come to realize that the people who inspire are the ones who allow others to shine. When I became a director of a rural public library in 1997, I had no idea what my philosophy of management would be. I had never been in a “hiring” position. So, I had to think about the types of folks I would want on my team.

    Being a creative person myself, I wanted to make sure I hired people who were creative and could think outside the box. And, I wanted them to be driven because I certainly did not want to micro-manage. Candidates for employment had to exude a sense excitement and enthusiasm – I would ask them during their interview about their priorities in life and passions.

    For almost seventeen years I have hired team members with creativity, initiative, great personalities and those who had a tendency to march to a different drummer. I knew I could teach them library skills. The results have been phenomenal. We have a team that consistently surprises me with innovative programs and unsurpassed customer service. Our rural library system serves a total population of less than 20,000 – yet 80% of our population have library cards. Over 8,600 people attended programs in 2013. We offered programs that not only inspired (Forgive but Never Forget: The Last Known Holocaust Survivor in Indiana), but also entertain (Return to Neverland). We have three vibrant branches and one Bookmobile in addition to our historic Carnegie library.

    Our Bookmobile program is only three years old, but our creative and innovate team has already provided leadership by speaking at the National Bookmobile Conference. Our team members have won awards at our regional library conference for the past three years.

    So, thank you for stating something that I have known for years: hire friendly, passionate, enthusiastic, and talented people; give them the training and tools to do their jobs; and get out of their way!

  4. Joneser says:

    The leader must also supply the RESOURCES to do these tasks. Too many “leaders” issue unfunded mandates to already-stretched staff, and too many “staff” are afraid to say anything about it.