February 16, 2018

Library Superbosses Lead By Creating Careers | Leading from the Library

Steven BellIt makes sense. Great bosses create workplaces where staff want to be. Lousy bosses make staff miserable so they quit and go elsewhere and try to recover. What exactly does a superboss do?

Have you ever known a superboss? A superboss is more than just a good leader who runs the type of library where staff members want to work and community members want to be. A superboss creates a library legacy primarily through two actions: First, there is a unique ability to identify top talent, staff members who exhibit tremendous potential to do great things. Second, there is leader development at a high level that produces a next generation of library leaders who go out and do great things on their own. To be a superboss means putting the future career success of the library’s executive team or unit heads ahead of one’s own selfish desires to keep subordinates under control and in place. The superboss takes pride in knowing she has given staff opportunities for leadership development, and may be sorry to see good people go on to new jobs but does so knowing they deserve their chance to take the reins and deliver on their own library leadership vision.

Finding the Superbosses

Superboss is hardly the term I would have come up with for the type of leader described above. I might go with the familiar “remarkable leader,” but perhaps there needs to be a more distinctive way to describe a leader who is particularly skilled at developing staff, or whose track record demonstrates an ability to produce subordinates who go out and do great things on their own. A good case is made for the superboss in Sydney Finklestein’s article “Jon Stewart, Superboss.” Finkelstein became interested in the track records of leaders who could be linked to the rise of an industry’s top leaders. He did this by examining fields where the top 50 most prominent or influential individuals could be connected back to one or two leaders who had employed a disproportionate share of those 50. He came up with a group of superbosses across industries and found that “although their personalities varied, these bosses all demonstrated an unusual, even legendary ability to develop the best talent in their industries.” These superbosses are a diverse group, from Lorne Michaels and Oprah Winfrey in entertainment, to Ralph Lauren in fashion, and Bill Walsh in professional sports. One individual in particular has a truly impressive track record.

Launching Careers and Loving It

While Jeff Bezos has impressively built Amazon into the world’s most financially valued retailer, he now faces considerable scrutiny for creating what many now perceive as a highly toxic workplace. According to Finklestein, superbosses can have high expectations that staff will work hard, put in long hours when needed, and create workplace intensity, but the superboss seeks to push staff to do their best work rather than burn them out as replaceable commodities. That’s because the superboss invests heavily in talent assessment and professional development. There’s no intent to prep staff to launch their own great career, but that often happens. Such is the case with Jon Stewart, long-time and recently departed host of The Daily Show. Stewart had a reputation for being tough, especially on new staff. His track record suggests that what he does works. Stephen Colbert. Steve Carell. John Oliver. That’s an impressive track record. Stewart may be a tough leader to work for, like Bezos, but unlike Bezos Jon Stewart gained the trust and admiration of all those worked for him. In turn Stewart built a network of talented leaders.

Perspectives on Library Superbosses

When it comes to the library profession, what we read about senior administrators is more often critical than laudatory. Frontline librarians are often less than thrilled with their leaders’ performance. Would having a superboss make a difference? Does the library profession even have superbosses? I’m sure it does, but I thought it might be best to check in with my colleague and friend Richard Dougherty. You can learn more about Dougherty’s distinguished career accomplishments in this column. With his extensive leadership background and professional longevity, I asked Dougherty what he thought about superbosses in the library world. Some might point to Dougherty himself as a superboss because more than a few of his past assistant deans are now or were leaders at major research universities (e.g., Wendy Lougee, Charles Martell, Sharon Hogan).

Dougherty was somewhat dubious about the whole superboss notion. He just thought of himself as a mentor who was fortunate to work with some truly talented librarians. Some had big ambitions and moved on when they felt ready. Others needed a push. Dougherty also cautioned that while seeing mentees take prominent positions is rewarding, he feels equally proud of those who take less prestigious positions but do fine work and are great role models and mentors for their staff. Dougherty mentioned quite a few of his contemporaries that might be recognized as superbosses. Hugh Atkinson is a name that many librarians working today would recognize, but others, like Ralph E. Ellsworth, may be less familiar to today’s librarians.

Achieving Superboss Status

Like Dougherty, I suspect most library leaders with distinguished track records of hiring high performers who then go on to do great work themselves would not think of themselves as superbosses but mentors with good fortune. Finklestein might argue that it takes more than mentoring to accomplish what these superbosses do. If someone conducted Finklestein’s research on libraryland, I suspect that some interesting patterns would emerge in both the academic and public sectors. We know that folks like Susan Nutter at North Carolina State University, Wendy Lougee at University of Minnesota, Jim Neal at Columbia, Betsy Wilson at University of Washington, or Jim Mullins at Purdue have, in addition to establishing admired library programs, created staffing environments that produce many notable and influential academic librarians who themselves go on to become distinguished leaders. Perhaps you’ve worked for a superboss or are on the path to become one yourself. Instead of griping about weak leadership in our libraries, for a change let’s pay more attention to our superbosses and the good work they do in developing the next generation of great library leaders.

Paying It Forward

As Dougherty told me, he didn’t consciously think “I am grooming someone else to ascend to a leadership position.” It was more a case of following in the path of those from whom he learned to do those things to help colleagues who demonstrated potential, initiative, and ambition to take on positions of greater responsibility. I take that to mean Dougherty’s grooming others for success was less an intentional act than one that came naturally as a result of being on the receiving end of another superboss’s attentive mentoring. That may sum up what’s at the core of being a superboss: It’s recognizing that your leadership legacy is much more about the success of those you influence and their accomplishments than anything you might achieve on your own. It’s about being a part of a larger legacy and a link in a chain that bonds together generations of great library leaders. It’s passing on what you received from the previous generation to the one that follows.

No doubt there are things that all of us in leadership positions, at any level, can do to bring a bit—or even a whole lot—of superboss to our leadership. Recommending subordinates for leadership professional development. Creating opportunities for developing leaders to tackle tough tasks with no easy solutions—and allowing them to achieve successful outcomes or acknowledge failure and lessons learned. When the time is right, supporting an emerging leader to pursue that position of greater responsibility. Only a limited number of library workers achieve “remarkable leader” status. Even fewer will become a superboss. Today is a good day to start trying to get there.

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, this profession is filled with too many egos, passive aggressiveness, vindictive and unnecessary backstabbing, racism, white privilege, misogyny, microaggression and insecure people who never planned to be librarians in the first place but rather gave it a second thought, a career change or it came because of a failed experiment like getting a PhD.

    Unfortunately, no one really thinks about “grooming” people as much as other professions. People here (particularly ARL library directors) like to retain as much as power as they can and stay on the top but always feel threatened by those below them. They don’t show promises or interests in grooming and retaining minority librarians; they simply need to find others who they can control or fit into their culture is all that counts, unfortunately. Superposes are hard to come by..