May 22, 2018

Sports As a Model for Library Leadership Learning | Leading from the Library

Sports and librarianship rarely come up in the same conversation, but when it comes to learning about leadership there may be common ground between the two.

When people share personal stories about where they learned leadership lessons or describe an admired leader, a sports team coach will invariably get a mention. It’s something I’m personally unable to relate to, owing to a lifelong avoidance of organized sports team participation. Though I played sports year-round, I always preferred the coach-free teams my friends and I organized on our own. Living in a high-density, baby boomer-loaded neighborhood made it easy to do. Even those who avoid organized team sports can find leadership models in their local amateur or professional teams. There are leaders who swear by lessons learned from a Wooden, Jackson, or Staley. Most of our leadership examples, good and bad, come from corporate America, but why not sports for learning more about leadership?

Something About Teams

One reason we tend to gravitate to sports for leadership examples, beyond our routine American sports obsession, is the team nature of most sports. Rarely do we get leadership stories coming out of the more individualized sports like tennis, wrestling, or golf. Even though the data suggests that there is an “I” in team, given that successful sports teams can dominate with a single superstar player (and often do worse with more than one or two), that franchise player often fills the role of team leader—think Michael Jordan or Mia Hamm. What draws many of us to sports is our love of underdog teams that reach the pinnacle of success against all odds. The 1980 U.S. hockey team is perhaps the best-known example, though new Super Bowl champions the Philadelphia Eagles capitalized on their underdog status. As often happens, their coach was widely heralded for demonstrating leadership genius in getting the team to the top despite the loss of their franchise player during the regular season. As much of our academic library work is team based, connecting with sports team leadership makes perfect sense for our occasionally underdog profession.

Leadership Genre

Though inundated with sports leadership quotes (e.g., “Good players inspire themselves while great players inspire others”; “Leadership, like coaching, is getting them to believe in you”), we rarely make the connection to sports as a source of learning about leadership. I thought about it little until a new book titled On Leadership Lessons from Sports caught my attention. Why not? I like sports. I like learning about leadership. In seeking inspiration for better leadership, this book seemed likely to deliver. Curiosity led to additional searching and then numerous articles linking sports and leadership. I discovered a sports genre within the leadership literature. Much of the article-based content attempts to boil sports leadership down to a convenient list of anecdotes and quotes. What’s lacking is depth and context. Sports leadership content is dominated by male sports figures. Surely there must be a few worthwhile leadership lessons involving female athletes. So after delving into the literature of sports leadership, what are some lessons worth taking away?

Lead like An Athlete

What I like about On Leadership Lessons from Sports is the way it puts athletes’ stories into the context of leading organizations and teams. It also allows the reader to come to their own conclusions and avoids attempting to distill leadership lessons down to easy platitudes. Here are some of the takeaways for library leaders:

  • Good leaders practice and prepare. This is a common theme among the chapters. You get better by putting yourself into positions that test your abilities but taking time to prepare, especially mentally, will increase the odds of success. Taking risks or having difficult conversations are examples where leaders who struggle will benefit from this lesson.
  • Physicality is just a foundation. Being physically fit is essential for athletes but there’s much more to sports leadership. It also requires a capacity for emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being to achieve a state of peak performance. Top athletes and coaches know how to recover off the playing field so they do their best when engaged in competition.
  • Seeing to believe it. Top athletes have the ability to visualize what success will look like. They adhere to a mental preparation process so that visualization becomes a routine part of competition. When leaders can visualize, shape, and articulate their vision for the library, staff are better able to grasp it and believe they contribute to its fruition.

Take That Shot

Do library leaders need to be athletic or sports fans to take advantage of sports leadership principles or find leadership inspiration in sports? No more than they need an affinity for any particular field from which leadership lessons may emerge, be it history, government, education, or librarianship. Some may find sports, at the college or professional level, unsavory for a variety of reasons. They can find leadership inspiration elsewhere. For other library leaders, the sports world can offer an alternate landscape to explore leadership lessons. Cathy Engelbert, CEO of Deloitte and an ex-athlete, reminds us that even some old sports clichés can encourage leadership skills such as risk taking. She is fond of “You don’t make any shots you don’t take.” For librarians who want to lead, sometimes you’ve just got to take that shot.

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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Comments

  1. gymlibrarian says:

    As a librarian and a longtime gymnastics coach, none of this was new to me. But that’s because I was an athlete and I was coaching teams long before leading library teams. There are so many great leadership examples in youth and amateur sports. If you aren’t athletically inclined or a fan or college or pro sports, make it a little more personal. Find out what your kids’ coaches are saying and doing to bring out the best in your kids, or your friends’ kids, or your nephews or nieces. The point is, there are great coaches at your fingertips. Just pay attention to what they do and mimic what works best for you.

    Personally, my coaching and leadership philosophy in building a stronger team is getting to know my whole team and figuring out their strengths and weaknesses. Then use all of our strengths while encouraging everyone to develop their weaknesses. It takes real conversations, a little bit of training, and knowing when to get out of the way.

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