February 17, 2018

Becoming an Open Library Leader | Leading from the Library

Steven BellLibrarians are leaders when they advocate for a culture of openness in their organizations and communities. Whether it’s open source, open access, or open educational resources, we support the principles of openness. What does open leadership look like?

I’m hardly the prime example of a zealous advocate for openness, whether it applies to information resources or systems for content dissemination, but I work towards advancing a culture of openness within my library, our campus, and beyond. To my way of thinking, a “culture of openness” exists when we collectively think and act to promote the value of open sharing of content and create new opportunities to flip from closed to open systems. It may be as simple as committing individually to publishing in resources that are openly shared or as challenging as revolutionizing a community into one that accepts and adopts open over closed when there is a choice to be made. That got me thinking about what openness means for leaders and how the principles of openness should influence the way leaders think, behave, and lead their organizations. If openness can apply to leadership, how exactly does that change the work of library leaders?

Open Everything?

The “open” concept is finding its way into all sorts of new arenas, though what it means tends to differ depending on the context. Open innovation, open office, and open government are quite different animals, but all originate from a set of similar core concepts. Their commonality is bringing a spirit of transparency and collaboration to a system or process. Open innovation encourages organizations to invite in external parties to participate in their discovery process. Open government invites the public to access and contribute to the inner workings of public entities. Open offices facilitate staff’s ability to engage across departmental and hierarchical dividing lines. When we seek openness in any field or practice, we commit to being intentional about widely sharing and collaborating beyond traditional organizational boundaries and breaking down barriers to access. Let’s translate that to leaders who aspire to lead openly and foster a library culture of openness.

Relinquishing Control

As it turns out, there already is a body of leadership literature that explores the evolution of the open leader. In 2010 Charlene Li introduced the terminology in her book Open Leadership. The basic premise is that open leaders are authentic and transparent. Their work is guided by those two primary qualities, yet they retain the organizational control necessary to avoid dysfunction. What does that mean in practice? Leaders are open about their vision, the roadmap to get there, and what defines success. Staff participate to shape the outcome and share responsibility to achieve it. The democratic leadership style is the primary vehicle for giving staff more ownership of organizational decision making. Closed systems, like paywall publications, are about control. The publisher controls who gets access and the author’s right to manage their own content. Open systems give authors the ability to control their own content, widely disseminating it as they choose, leading to the spread of ideas and learning. What if those principles could be harnessed by open leaders, going beyond authenticity and transparency, to achieve open leadership with powerful impact beyond the organization?

Even More Open Leadership

It’s an interesting possibility, but I imagine challenges for leaders who want to integrate the openness movement into their practice. Most leadership styles are situational. Open leadership would be an overarching philosophy to apply in all manner of situations. A leader would be “open-centric,” making decisions based on whether they are more or less compatible with open principles. Setting aside the occasional need to withhold confidential matters, which is sometimes unavoidable, can leaders structure an organization in the spirit of an open course led by an instructor committed to open pedagogy? A model that comes to mind is the holacracy organization currently in use at Zappos. In that totally flat organization, there are no managers or titles. Each employee is a leader and they collectively manage the operations through self-organizing teams. An extreme example perhaps, but library leaders could be more open yet retain minimal degrees of control or hierarchy while increasing employee engagement and self-determination. I believe it can be done.

Commit to Being an Open Leader

As is often the case with great leaders, they model the behaviors they wish for others to emulate. Working to achieve authenticity and transparency as a leader would be a baseline, although I am reminded of Simon Sinek making the point that if you need people to tell you how to be more authentic, there is a problem. Think about the work being done to advance openness in software, scholarship, or learning. It is a shared effort where the work is distributed among the many, not controlled by the few. Projects may originate at one point in the community, but many others can find ways to participate. As needed, those with the necessary skills to complete the project are asked to contribute their expertise. The culture of open systems is hardly a perfect template for a leadership style, but it can provide direction and inspiration to a leader seeking to inject the spirit of the open movement into the organization. First commit to creating a culture of openness within the library and then work collaboratively with colleagues to do the same across the institution. You may be the leader who serves as the influencer for others to discover the virtues of openness.

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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