It’s beyond trite to say that honesty is an important characteristic, both for leaders of organizations or human beings in general, but when I thought about what it was I wanted to convey as the first and most basic quality of a library leader, everything seemed to boil down to it. Active, committed honesty is, I think, at the root of good leadership.
Everyone thinks of themselves as honest, for the most part; people don’t (as a general rule) go out of their way to lie to people just for the fun of it. Almost everyone, I imagine, considers themselves to be honest at heart. But I mean something beyond a warm feeling and a good intention.
Extremely early in my career I got what is perhaps the most shaping piece of advice I’ve ever received. It was from Mary Ann Mavrinac, and what she told me was this: “do what you say you’re going to do.” So simple, so basic, but critical. If you tell someone you’re going to do something, be known as the person who follows through. Don’t be known as the person who fails to. I thought it was a lesson in introductory professionalism.
But it’s more than that. Consistently following through, being competent, putting a priority on being organized enough to keep track of all the commitments you make has farther-reaching implications. It builds your reputation as a reliable, trustworthy person. Because when you say something’s going to happen, it happens. People can rely on you doing your part, and thus can build their own plans on the foundation of your promise.
When I first started working with faculty I vowed to take on a policy of what I called radical honesty. When something went wrong and I knew it would have an impact on faculty, I was committed to being honest and telling the truth about it, even if it wasn’t flattering. Even if it was my fault. I did that as a means of squaring my own work for myself; I just don’t like hiding things and sticking my head in the sand over problems or obstacles that cause people trouble. I’d rather be upfront about it and find feasible workarounds. It helps me sleep at night. I didn’t realize what my radical honesty policy would mean for my work over time: being honest, even about ugly things, reduces fear and increases trust. I didn’t realize that faculty would feel more comfortable using the tools and technology I support when they know that, should anything go wrong, I would always tell them about it in a timely fashion, and I would always find them a solution. Many people feared that my honesty would undercut faith in our systems (because everyone would know how many times things go terribly wrong). But in reality, the opposite happened. Knowing what’s going on has a calming effect. Everyone feels better with insider knowledge. They feel like they know where they stand, and who’s got their back. Honesty is the best weapon in the war against fear.
I made the decision to behave this way for personal reasons, but as time goes on and I observe all my amazing role models in the library world, I realize that they’re approaching their responsibilities in much the same way on a grander scale. A leader isn’t just honest when asked direct questions; a leader makes conveying the truth an active priority. When a leader says something’s going to happen, we have to be able to believe it. We have to never question it. A library leader does what she says she’s going to do. The rest of us rely on that in order to get on with our work.
Academia is the home of what I like to call the shame spiral. I think it starts in graduate school; you’re supposed to be doing something, but you get distracted, and you haven’t done it, so you do your best to hide the fact that you haven’t done it and hope you can just make it through the seminar without it becoming obvious. With no set hours, academics tend to feel like they should always be working, so guilt and shame over taking a few days off (or a few weeks off) is constant and universal. It’s just the way things go; we don’t admit when we make mistakes, or fail to finish something. We just try to brush it under the rug. We build up an intense bog of shame that we never ever talk about. We live in terror that someone will find it, and we will be unmasked as the frauds we are. This is a garden-variety shame spiral: I see about 12 of them a day.
My (now former) supervisor Susan Senese came to our academic library after a number of years in the corporate world, and of the many wonderful things she brought with her, the most critical is this: declare. She created an environment where shame has no place. If something didn’t happen, or we estimated something wrong, if we failed to anticipate a risk, or made a mistake, or missed a meeting, we just declare it. Put it on the table, say it. No one gets mad, no one gets into trouble or looked at sideways. We just put the facts on the table and move on from there. Susan understood that honesty is critical to getting work done well, and being honest is an active process, not a passive one. A great leader declares issues and problems, remembers her promises and tends to them, and goes out of her way to make sure all stakeholders know when obstacles appear or circumstances change. She does this because she is committed to her own success and to the success of everyone in the library as well as everyone who depends on the library, and she does what she says she’s going to do.
An honest leader doesn’t say she’ll do something when she knows she can’t, or make promises that sound good in the moment but aren’t workable behind the scenes. A good leader can’t hope that difficult promises will be forgotten. Libraries must become not just useful, but indispensable to their communities if they are to survive and thrive. In order to be indispensable, staff need to trust and rely on their leaders, and the community must be allowed to build their own goals with unshakeable faith in the resources and services of the library. I considered framing this quality as reliability or trustworthiness. But when I work it through to the core, i think both come down to an active commitment to behaving honestly, in declaring reality as it stands, even when it hurts.