February 17, 2018

Are You “The Man” or “The Mobilizer?” | Leading from the Library

Steven BellLeaders have the power: To make changes. To set direction. To accomplish things. The nature of power is changing. Smart leaders will learn how to make the most of it.

A memorable scene from the movie School of Rock has Jack Black, impersonating a teacher, introducing his class to “The Man.” This mysterious “man” that we all have known at one time or another uses his or her power to know, own, or control resources in order to get his desired outcome. Few people want to work for the man. The man’s approach to power may have gotten results in the past, but contemporary leaders need to understand that the very nature of power, where it resides, and how to achieve progress, is radically changing. Current and aspiring leaders need to understand the difference between “old power” and “new power.”

Leaders Have Power

One of the most difficult things to learn about leadership is how to wield power comfortably and effectively. Librarians in leadership positions are rarely motivated by a desire for ultimate power. That said, we’ve all heard a few “bad boss” stories about a library leader whose power is sadly abused. While it’s good to have a modest aversion to misusing the power of position, it may be problematic when library leaders fail to leverage their power to successfully navigate politically charged situations that require the sensible and diplomatic use of power to achieve desirable resolutions and advance strategic goals. Not using power smartly is just as bad as misusing it to dominate colleagues and subordinates. Using power wisely rarely comes up outside of leadership training programs and it’s hardly the sort of skill you can sharpen by reading leadership literature. Leaders learn from their mistakes, and when it comes to power that is often the case. Whatever or however we learned about power in the past, it may all be changing.

From Hoarding to Sharing

Among the things traditionally taught about power is that it can be categorized by the source that legitimizes a leader’s power. That covers what is sometimes referred to as the five bases of power (coercion or fear, expertise, reward, authority, and referent). These all assume there is a single individual who is able to wield power from any one or some combination of those bases. In the new paradigm of power, the big change is that the locus of power is shifting from the individual to the collective. It is a changing perspective that should be welcomed by library leaders because the nature of power in organizations is becoming much more about openness and sharing, as opposed to something that leaders guard and hoard. It is a climate that fits well with the qualities that great libraries want to bring to their communities.

From the Old to the New

To succeed, 21st century leaders need to grasp how the crowd is causing a fundamental shift in the dynamics of power. In their Harvard Business Review article “Understanding New Power,” Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms explain that there is a growing tension between two distinct forces that they refer to as “old power” and “new power.” Traditional leadership power is what they describe as old power. It is held by few, and once gained it is closely guarded. It is driven by what “people or organizations own, know, or control that no one else does.“ New power is open, participatory and peer-driven. It is enabled by the growing desire people have to participate beyond mere consumption. Participation can encompass actions from simple sharing to shaping to producing and ultimately having co-ownership of power. In this new power environment, what must leaders know to effectively move their organizations forward?

 Where Are You On the Continuum?

What is less likely to change is the nature of power, which is “simply the ability to produce intended effects.” While it might be refreshing to know that power is shifting from ownership and control to sharing and participation, leaders still need to leverage the new power to achieve the old outcome—getting the intended effect. According to Heimans and Timms that means recognizing where others, both individuals and organizations, are on the old–new power spectrum, and adapting leadership strategies to achieve the desired outcome. Are you dealing with an Apple (exclusivity, closed systems) or a Google (open, crowd driven)? The authors recommend a few tasks. Audit your current power model to see where you or your library is on the old–new power continuum. Ask yourself how an Occupy-style movement would react to you or your organization (threat or partner?).

 Develop a Movement Mindset

While libraries are focused on supporting their communities, we may be less sure about how much we can count on our communities to support their library. Let’s say “the man” in charge of local government won’t fund a library’s plan to hire a professional mover to get its books moved to, and reshelved in, a new building. The library director won’t have much success ordering every community member to move a box of books. Leveraging new power though may allow that leader to mobilize the community to stand with the library to achieve the desired outcome. That’s the gist of Heimanns’ and Timms’ advice for leveraging new power. It means abandoning the man and becoming a mobilizer. It only works if new power is accompanied by new, not old, values. You can’t mobilize your community when it’s convenient and then forget them for self-serving ends (e.g., enforcing user unfriendly policies, lobbying for tax increases in hard times, etc.).

Wielding New Power

Enlightened library leaders recognize that to create change, whether it involves staff or community members, old style command-and-control leadership fails to obtain the buy-in, trust, and long-term support needed for success. While it may achieve the intended effects, old power is ultimately undermined by non-engagement from key stakeholders. I am reminded of David Lankes’ admonition that to thrive librarians must tap into the creators in their community, and that to just treat them as consumers to achieve our end is a formula for failure. That captures the essence of new power. Take a look at the “participation scale” chart in Heimans’ and Timms’ article. Consumption is at the low end while co-owning is at the high end. Library leaders would be wise to treat power in a more positive way. Those past aversions to exercising power are associated with old power. No one gets into librarianship in order to turn into the man—but it can happen. Leaders have always had better options. Now there is a more definitive, alternate path to follow. Learning to use new power to harness the energy of our communities is an important lesson for leaders who believe in the power of continuous improvement.

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. Earlier today I was working on some research on changing workplace models and came across something comparing the 1920-1990 workplace with the post 1990 workplace. It makes a similar point, that the notion of leadership has changed. Like so many things in today’s economy leadership is distributed. In becoming accessible to everyone workplace leadership has become everyone’s responsibility.