March 16, 2018

A Better Ladder: Fostering the Leaders Libraries Need | Editorial

ljx170302editorialRMnew1webThe talent at work in libraries should make anyone optimistic for the future—not only of libraries but of the varied communities they serve. As the latest class of LJ Movers & Shakers demonstrates, the field is rippling with energetic, committed, innovative people addressing issues to create ever better service. It’s important that today’s leaders guarantee an institutional dynamic that will keep up-and-coming visionaries like these happy in libraries, allow them to flourish, and enable the best to step forward into larger roles.

We also need to continue to develop institutional cultures that these high achievers want to be in as they choose where to contribute their time and skills. Look within: Is your library attracting innovators, spurring their success, and offering paths to advancement and new challenges? Building out a setting that attracts and retains innovative thinkers is critical to the future of our libraries.

Succession planning must happen against the org chart, yes, but also against the larger organizational design and the realities people experience on the job. People who have the chops will go where they know they are valued and can make an impact. Look at catastrophic examples from Silicon Valley to consider how distracting and gutting a toxic environment can be to the most brilliant and enthusiastic workforce. Conversely, consider how organizational culture that helps people to thrive fosters growth and dynamism. Building a better work culture could mean reexamining policies or confronting in-house politics to ensure that the environment is healthy and supportive. Ideally, such a culture ensures a nimble institution better positioned to sustain its relevance and influence.

In turn, such proactivity calls for ongoing leadership development. With all the talent in our midst, we should be examining whether we are shaping the leaders of tomorrow’s libraries—institutions that are responsive, inclusive, flexible, and sustainable. We need leaders who will outlast any strategic plan, instead embodying the iterative, ongoing nature of strategic thinking in action. We’ve recently seen a strong desire in the field that librarians lead our organizations—the American Library Association (ALA) executive director search is a case in point. What do we need to do to make sure that there are plenty of librarians in the running when another generation asks the same?

We should weigh the barriers—overt and otherwise—that could impede a potentially great leader from stepping forward. Beyond training, there is internal readiness. I can’t count the numerous strong librarians I know who confess to experiencing Imposter Syndrome. We have introverts and Type Bs, and they may just be the best talent in the pipeline. I’d rather see a thoughtful skilled person who has to overcome Imposter Syndrome take charge than someone with an overblown sense of their ability because they underestimate the challenges and complexity ahead (a cognitive bias often referred to as the Dunning-Kruger effect).

Taking the next step, from frontline librarian to management or from management to top leadership, can be challenging and rewarding, and it helps to have guidance along the way (see some perspectives in “The Next Step: Manager,” “The Next Step: Director,” and “Exit Strategies“). We also need to make sure that those challenges are worth taking on—that prospective managers see firsthand that their work will be valued, both financially and emotionally, and that they will be given the chance to take initiative and make a real difference.

If we want to prevent a “pipeline out” of libraries, as Dorothea Salo puts it, we must support our “tall poppies”—speak up for innovators who can feel isolated in their lone roles or see backlash as perceived self-promoters and fight a narrative that pits their efforts in competition with traditional core services. We must also battle microaggressions and institutional bias, which, however unconscious, spawn an unwelcoming environment for librarians of color.

Libraries will continue to get more complex in terms of what they deliver. No doubt the problems we will be called upon to help our communities face—be they in public, academic, or school settings—will also bring unanticipated tests as our society undergoes evolution and possible radical disruption. We should be engaging in more ambitious succession planning with that in mind, to deliver library leaders who can deliver the libraries our future demands.


This article was published in Library Journal's March 15, 2017 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Rebecca T. Miller About Rebecca T. Miller

Rebecca T. Miller ( is Editorial Director, Library Journal and School Library Journal.

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