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Healing Organizational Trauma

Healing Organizational Trauma

This is my current professional obsession: organizational trauma and how organizations heal.

For all the management workshops and institutes and retreats out there, how often does anyone in librarianship talk about organizational trauma, and figure out how to identify it and resolve it? All leadership talk I’ve heard starts from the presumption that entering a new role or a new org is all about starting fresh, setting expectations, building these new relationships that are all full of equal potential. The most I’ve seen is the sort of throwaway admonition to “build trust”. It’s all about looking forward, as if everyone just stepped out of the library factory shiny and brand new and ready to give each other the benefit of the doubt. But the one thing I know so far about organizational trauma is being new doesn’t make it go away.

Organizational trauma won’t go away until we address it and resolve it. So there are plenty of libraries out there with workplaces that are incomprehensibly bonkers, and it’s not clear what’s going wrong or who is causing the problems, and no matter how many new people join the org or how many disgruntled people leave it, the culture remains incomprehensibly bonkers, and it damages everyone who goes near it like a piñata made of knives. That’s organizational trauma, and passes down from generation to generation of library staff.

I’m tired of organizational trauma, and I’m heartbroken at the damage it causes to some of the most amazing people I’ve ever met. I’m frustrated by the lost productivity, the zapped creativity, and the absence of joy and workplace satisfaction that’s so infinitely possible in our daily work. Why should we give up all that? I’m interested in exploring how we can stop ignoring organizational trauma as if that will make it fade and start addressing it so that an organization can heal and move forward in a healthier, happier, and more productive way.

We should know how to do this. There should be a checklist, or something. This work should be bog standard, it should be part of the basic toolkit of anyone entering a leadership role. We should know what the qualities of a leader who is capable of successfully resolving an organization’s trauma are. Can you name those qualities? I can’t. We should recognize the people who do this work successfully and have them keynote, I need to hear from them. Have you ever seen a leadership position that was posted with the goal of finding someone capable of doing the work of healing organizational trauma? Does anyone ask interview questions about experience addressing organizational trauma? Is there a rubric for evaluating a leadership candidate as more or less experienced and capable of this work? If so, please share. I’d love to see it.

I don’t think we hire for these qualities. We often hire for vision, as if bringing in a person with a vision will distract all the traumatized library workers from their past experiences and draw them toward this new light source. Maybe that works sometimes. But I think more often it sets up good people with great ideas about the future of libraries to fail, because it’s impossible to implement grand ideas in organizations that are too full of trauma to act on them.

So I’m reaching out for resources, digging into new disciplines and areas of research, and exploring these questions. I have some ideas about it and experiences to draw from, but I still feel under-educated about this, and that feels like a gaping hole in my knowledge.

What I know so far is that stewarding the healing of organizational trauma requires empathy, enough humility to admit when you’re wrong, respect for the expertise of others in all parts of an organization, the confidence to not be threatened by the brilliance of others, and to hang back and let people who know their work shape our collective direction forward. But I know there’s more to it. I want to know all that. More to come.



One of the things I’ve come to recognize and embrace over time is my love for the (so-called) troublemakers. I know the issue with them is right there in the name, but I can’t deny my soft spot for them.

It’s not that I think a troublemaker is always right. A troublemaker is someone who is willing to put their necks on the line, risk a hit, or lose status because they believe in something strongly enough to speak out. 

A troublemaker has courage and passion. A troublemaker will push back, question any decision, question your grasp on a situation, question your very values or your sanity, demand better answers, and even foment revolution. When they’ve got the facts sideways or in half-measure, or when they value chaos, domination or revenge, they can cause destruction, woe, and havoc. But let’s be honest: any quality worth having is risky. Every strength is a weakness in some context. We can’t hold that against the troublemaker.  Heroes are villains too, when you tell the story from a different perspective.

One of the fundamental lessons I’ve learned about trying to make change, very big or very small, is that indifference is far more difficult to overcome than hostility is. I know many people disagree with me; if you dislike conflict and avoid it wherever possible, indifference must always be preferable to hostile disagreement. But in order to be hostile, you have to care. A lot. If no one cares about what you’e trying to do or change, you have a much tougher task in front of you, and you’re going to be doing it pretty much alone. If someone is fighting you and your work tooth and nail, they have energy, passion, and commitment. All you need to do is change their mind. You need to be absolutely ready to let them change yours. 

Like most of us, I have a long history of being wrong. I always start out assuming I understand a situation and know enough to have a perspective I can act on. And then I learn more, and realize I was wrong. Once in a while, I learn something that causes one of my core perspectives, one I’ve built a lifetime of decisions and actions on top of, to come tumbling down. Usually, it hurts. We weave our perspectives into ourselves so tightly that losing one of them is like coming unravelled, and it can seriously sting. But all learning is pain, and when you’re facing it, you can either cover over the hole and pretend nothing’s changed, or let that learning change you.

Troublemakers give me the hope that there’s a moment like that coming. Listening to their perspective unravels when I know and gives me the tools to knit together something more complicated and more true. So as often as they throw a spanner in the works, I think we’d all be poorer, and less, without them.

Here’s to the troublemakers among us. Never stop causing trouble.

To A Brand New Librarian, On The Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job

To A Brand New Librarian, On The Occasion of Starting Their First Librarian Job

Hello, there! Welcome to Librarianship! Congratulations on finishing your degree, and on landing your very first librarian gig. That’s no small feat, and you should be very proud of yourself.

We’re happy to meet you, and we’re looking forward to learning and growing with you. Year one on the job is a wild ride, and you’re going to feel new for a long time. We know this job can be tricky sometimes, and we know you can’t do it perfectly out of the gate. Heck, we’ve been at it for years and we’re still trying to figure out how to do it perfectly. Forget perfect! Let’s just aim high, do our best, keep pushing ourselves, and have fun with it. Librarianship has a lot of scope for creativity, and the more experimental you get, the more ideas you pour in, the more fun you’re going to have and the more creative you’re going to be. Dive in! Take a risk!

This job is going to teach you a lot, challenge you a lot, and change you; you’re going to have the same effect on your colleagues. We’re happy to be here to teach you, guide you, support you, learn from you, and be transformed by you and what you discover along the way. We’re looking forward to it!

Our work is important, and we are passionate about it, but it doesn’t deserve your tears. You’re new to this wild wooly world of ours, and so far you don’t yet know what’s normal or acceptable to suffer through as a librarian.

We all make mistakes, and we will talk about them. It will be hard sometimes; hard on the ego, hard on the self-confidence, hard on the feet sometimes, too. We will face failure with all the humility we can muster and learn from it. It hurts us to fail because we strive so hard to be good at what we do, but we’re human beings and we will get things wrong. That hurts sometimes. That is normal and acceptable. The pain of reaching for something and missing it is what makes us grow.

If anyone says something to you that hits you in your soul and leaves you feeling sad, hurt, heavy, demoralized, disrespected, humiliated, and lost, that is not normal or acceptable. That is not learning, it’s not growth, and it’s not okay. You are not expected to suffer through abusive, bullying behaviour in librarianship. It won’t be your job to buck up and deal with it; if someone makes you feel low and small like that, talk to someone you trust. Your supervisor, hopefully; if not, someone else in the leadership hierarchy, or a colleague who can hear you and help you. If that feels weird or dangerous but you’re really struggling with something that’s happened, talk to someone outside of your library system for a fresh perspective.

Talking to other professionals about serious challenges you don’t know how to deal with is not gossiping or telling tales. It’s is good professional practice to get advice on how to solve a problem that’s dragging you down, and it’s important. You’re new to this profession; you can’t always gauge what’s normal or what’s way out of line without touching base with someone else.

Sometimes it hurts because being new hurts, or receiving constructive feedback hurts, or getting something wrong hurts. Sometimes it’s genuinely hard to tell the difference, especially when you’re new and learning.  If you hurt, you need some help, and you should get it. That’s what we’re here for. It doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad librarian. It might mean you’re learning; it might be that someone else is behaving in a counterproductive way. One day it will be easy to spot the difference, but until it is, reach out for help.

I’m not telling you this because I think there are bullies around every corner and you should beware. I’m pretty sure you won’t experience anything like that here in our library, but I’m not prepared to risk your experience on my sense of certainty. It doesn’t matter what I think about our organizational culture; I’m in a different place in it. No matter what I think your experience will be, you still need to hear this from me. I’m telling you because every new librarian should hear this from someone in a position of leadership in their organization. They should know that you have permission to talk about these things. Talking about them is the only way through them.

Bullying make us less creative, less open to risk, less productive, less collaborative, and less happy. An organization that ignores bullying behaviour isn’t able to perform at its best. We want you to be happy, creative, and kicking butt. That’s how we meet our goals! When you feel respected by your colleagues and confident in your skin, we all benefit.

We are lucky that you chose to join us. We’re very much looking forward to working with you and growing with you. You are going to be amazing, and I can’t wait to watch you bloom!

Lanes and Meadows

Lanes and Meadows

I’ve been in my role at Rochester for just over two years now, and the nature of my portfolio has altered pretty significantly in that time. Initially the team comprised of the department heads for the Humanities and Social Science Librarians (and head of Outreach), the Science and Engineering Libraries, the Art/Music Library, and our public services unit. Now add to that the Directors of the Digital Scholarship Lab, Assessment, Research Initiatives, a terrific data analyst, and I have a connection to the Director of the iZone. It’s a pretty big group with a lot going on, but working with this particular mix of people gives me an opportunity to dive head first into developing and maintaining organizational harmony. Organizational gardening, as it were.

In the first few months of looking at where the obstacles and pain points were within this group, what emerged first was a need to understand lanes. A lane is a scope, where responsibility lies, where the organization is expecting your leadership and innovation. It also helps to define where you’re a consultant, collaborator or partner, a participant, or observer. Understanding your lane, and the lanes of your peers, means you have a good sense of where you can drive your creativity and innovation with wild abandon. It’s the space in which you can always expect to hear “yes”, the space where others will defer to your judgment, because it’s your responsibility and you know it best.

A shared understanding of lanes is critical to good collaboration. Everyone has to have a lane, even when they’re next to each other or merge a little here and there. If someone doesn’t have a lane, how do they understand their role in the organization? How do they derive a sense of the value they’re bringing? How do they know when they should jump in with both feet, or when they should proceed with some caution? How do they know when they’ve done what’s expected of them? How do they deploy their creativity in ways that they, and we, can all celebrate? And how do your collaborators know how to call on you if no one fully understands what lane you’re in?

And critically: if I as the AD for the portfolio don’t know how to articulate the lane someone’s in and how that lane intersects with others in the organization, am I not failing as a leader? Should I have a department or an individual in my portfolio if I don’t understand their lane?

So the first thing we did was look at job descriptions and talk about expectations, roles, and our relationships to each other. How do different units interact? How do we lead a cross-departmental project, how do lanes merge, and what do we do when that happens? How do we communicate across projects and departments? And we keep having those conversations as new projects and complications emerge, departments shift and grow, or as the departmental connections develop and change. What’s been super interesting is seeing how lanes that seemed very far from each other suddenly join up; Art and Data, for instance: data visualization as art is a theme we’re going to be following this year that I am so excited about. Metadata and faculty support, another spectacular one. Entrepreneurship and library service design. Getting good at making unexpected connections is critical for building flexible, responsive services and support to the university population. We need to know how to face ambiguity with confidence, and this is one of the ways we’re learning how to do that.

I wonder if my lanes conversation would be easier if everyone in the portfolio had an exactly equivalent role. We are a mix of department heads, service coordinators, functional experts, and new initiative leaders. Oftentimes, a project leader is directing the work of teams with several different direct supervisors. If everyone were a department head with direct reports, would it be simpler? Is this a situation demanding a re-org to make the lines of work clearer and simpler?

As much as you want to tend your organization to French topiary perfection, you’re pretty much always in the middle of a meadow full of wildflowers and former pet bunny rabbits instead. At a certain point messiness is probably a sign that something isn’t working, but I’m not sure all messiness is that sign. You can tidy the organization up to the point that each unit is completely autonomous and is completely clear about exactly what it needs to do, never needing to negotiate with another group or leader, but is that ideal? It’s cleaner for us, certainly, less confusing, but aren’t we missing some creative friction? If something is less confusing for us, is it more confusing for our patrons?

True collaboration is messy, and defies lanes and boundaries in the end, as it should. But I think you need both. You need a solid understanding of your lane to give you confidence and clarity in your work, to define your voice and your role, and I think you need the possibility of messiness to allow for growth, change, ambiguity, and something new.

The Legible Librarian

The Legible Librarian

One of the challenges I find myself facing is the push and pull between a traditional library hierarchy and the role of the functional expert. Most of my career to date has been in the latter category, which may account for the warmth I feel towards those roles, but I now find myself in the former category, and I can see how decisions at the AUL/AD level can either make the walls close in around a functional expert, or can help them to soar.

It is the role of upper level leadership to ensure that a librarian in a functional expert role (aka “coordinator”) is legible to the rest of the organization.

A functional expert can be utterly amazing in all that they do, with endless potential and skill, but if their peers and the rest of the library don’t see their work slotted into the overall work of the library, if they see them as other or external in some way, there will be an a hard limit on how much they can accomplish.

The usual model for functional expertise, as well as ambiguous, new or rapidly-shifting portfolios (technology librarians of all stripes, assessment librarians, data librarians, digital humanities librarians, entrepreneurship, schol comm too, I presume) is often framed in what I think of as a retainer model: we hire the expertise, and anyone in the organization can call on them when needed. The result more often than not is a supremely qualified and able librarian sitting in their office twiddling their thumbs, or constructing a magnificent portfolio of work driven by their own hands that the rest of the library may admire, but don’t see as related to themselves.

Making a functional expert legible often falls to the functional experts themselves. After being on both sides of this equation, I’ve come to the realization that this is impossible. The functional expert may be as eloquent as they come, but it’s all talk if the organization isn’t shifting to adjust and accept their work. Carving out the paths that allow new expertise to fully join the organization has to be the work of library leadership.

How do you make this happen? We have to accept that it’s not just one conversation, and it’s not just an announcement. We have to address these issues step by step and project by project.

I think the first structural piece is understanding that coordinators/functional experts are peers of department heads, but different from them in important ways. In my experience, it is critical to form a permanent team that includes both. It’s true that department heads have radically different work and issues to face. But to function well, department heads and functional experts need to understand each other as partners and collaborators as well as peers.

We can’t just code a functional expert as an independent department head of a department of one. That’s very isolating and archaic, and I think this is where we tend to get this wrong. If the expectation is that a technology librarian, or data librarian, or schol comm librarian is going to bring expertise that will touch the entire campus, for instance, then they need to team up with the department head(s) for liaison/outreach to bring that expertise into the hands on, on-the-ground work. They can’t recreate a liaison network on their own (well, they can, but that’s just creating internal competition and losing valuable opportunities for the liaison librarians, as well as lessening their own potential impact). If we don’t use the structures we already have, we might as well hand the functional expertise off to another unit altogether, because the effect is about the same.

I know the immediate response to the suggestion that functional experts become leaders in partnership with liaison department heads: liaison librarians are already overwhelmed, too busy, too many projects as it is, etc. We can’t have more bosses, it’s too much, it’s too confusing! Rather than give up in the face of this outcry, we need to reorient how we’re viewing the work of the functional expert, and understand that there are many ways to be a leader.

It’s not separate work, it’s not on top of everything else work; it’s got to be integrated into the work of a department. A department head is focused on the vision, on implementation of work and goals, and on monitoring performance; a functional expert has their eyes on one impactful realm of knowledge. Together, they create the work going forward. As a team, they are dynamite.

But a functional expert will struggle to launch if they aren’t understood by the department heads as a partner rather than a competitor or just as another, disconnected peer. So the AUL/AD needs to be clear about the relationships and dependencies between them so that they can see each other as they are and work together to support the work of the library.

Often, it’s the liaison librarians on whom this kind of campus impact work fundamentally depends. A functional expert might have a key understanding of what faculty need to know/do/think about in order to move forward and meet needs in an area, but it’s the department head who is best placed to shape that idea into real and doable work that supports the mission of the department, and it’s the liaison librarians who make those connections and get it done. That’s how a functional expert can end up leading entire departments and having massive impact fast; with the support of the department heads, who understand how to construct a project that supports the existing mission and work of the department. The department heads continue to monitor performance and shape work even if a functional expert designed the project. They are stronger for working together.

But the task of making a functional expert legible doesn’t end there; it’s also the role of the AUL/AD to ensure that their own peers understand how a new or changing portfolio affects their departments as well, when it does. The amazing thing about a coordinator role is that it’s unhooked from a specific department and can creep into work all over the place; that’s only a good experience if everyone involves sees it coming, understands its purpose, and respects it when it comes. It’s important not to expect a functional expert to be able to carve that path themselves. No matter how good they are, this is beyond their scope.

At the AUL/AD level, we can see where the crossover is about to happen, and that’s when we need to provide the context required for a potential collaborator to be prepared to welcome it.  Project by project, ambiguity by ambiguity, these conversations need to happen not just once, but many times, as they appear, to translate the goals of the functional expert at the earliest stage so that they have the support and collaboration that will make them successful.

I have seen many discussions in the profession about coordinator roles and how hopeless they are; I have been struggling to understand this perspective. In light of that, I have become very aware of day to day work I find myself doing to ensure that the functional experts in my portfolio are able to do their work well and successfully, fully and joyfully integrated into the daily life of the libraries. The skills they are building by designing and implementing projects in their areas of expertise, collaborating closely with department heads and adjusting their ideas to the goals and strengths of the department, pitching ideas and gaining support, leading staff without directly supervising them; these are some of the most valuable and necessary skills for future leadership, and I think it would be a tragedy to have fewer of these opportunities available in the profession because AULs/ADs don’t know how to manage them well.

My goal is to know how. I’m learning.

Leadership, Authority, Hierarchy, and Supervision

Leadership, Authority, Hierarchy, and Supervision

This is what I’ve learned: either you think library leadership roles must always come with direct supervisory responsibilities in order to be successful, or you think these two pieces can be disentangled. I fall into the latter category. I have recently encountered a number of people in the former category, and I am dismayed.

The general feeling seems to be that any “coordinator”-type role without a bunch of direct reports is a sign of bad management and the role is doomed to failure.

I suppose, if you imagine that a leader can only influence, direct, or lead the people they supervise, then sure, a role where a lot of leadership is expected but no dedicated staff might seem like it’s set up for failure. But that’s a very traditional view of library structure and library work, and I think we’ve moved past that. That doesn’t describe every workplace. I believe what must be missing from this picture is an understanding of how a project-based environment works.

In an organization that functions in projects, work is organized not around a supervisor and their team, but by cross-departmental, short-term projects with specific, time-limited goals. The leader of a project team doesn’t need to approve vacation time in order to function as a fully-fledged leader.

It’s true that, without the power of hierarchical authority, convincing your peers and others outside your department that your idea is good can be hard. It’s hard for a reason. Our peers have good ideas of their own, and experiences to drawn on, history with the subject matter, and judgement; if your ideas doesn’t have the legs to convince intelligent library staff to get on board, do you want the weight of authoritarian power to be there for you to silence objections? That feels good, but is it a good idea? Isn’t it healthier to hear the skepticism, take the feedback, and make the idea better? Isn’t that a better way to learn to be a leader? To learn to take feedback, to be collaborative, to develop good, functional ideas?

Leaders who rely on the power of their roles rather than the strength of their vision and their ideas concern me. If you don’t have the skills to manage work without that power, are you really a leader?

What does it mean for the profession if we link up hierarchical, supervisory power with leadership in this way? What kinds of opportunities do new professionals get to even discover if leadership is of interest to them? How do we give staff a safe, lower-risk opportunity in which to learn how to lead, where failure is absolutely an option to learn from?

There are only so many supervisory roles to go around, and not everyone gets one. But everyone in a library can be a leader. I feel strongly about this; why can’t we open up this black box and give other people a chance to put their fingerprint on the organization? This is what it comes down to for me. If we can’t decouple leadership and supervision, we shut down a lot of learning and opportunity. Giving staff project-based leadership is great training and frankly great, fun, effective and sustainable work. The risk is low and the reward is huge.

To me, the real skill-building in leadership is being a leader among your peers, a leader without the power of the performance review to fall back on. Can you construct a viable idea? Can you get buy in? Can you take on feedback make your idea better? Can you get a project off the ground, through planning, through implementation, and into something sustainable? This isn’t easy work, but it doesn’t require anyone to be a supervisor. And it is work you can learn over time. It’s forgiving work that lets you try, fail, and try again.

Project-based work lets you break down silos of your organization. It lets you bring together skills and talent that don’t sit right next to each other. It lets staff have a chance to spread their wings and try something new. It gives hungry staff real, valuable opportunities to show their stuff. How do you know if you want to take a supervisory role if you’ve never had a real chance to lead?

A project-based environment asks a lot of an organization. It requires libraries to give staff the opportunity to be on a diverse project team, to get to know staff they don’t work with every day, to see a idea take form and participate in its formation, to see things go wrong in a safe place that anticipates things going wrong. It gives staff a chance to chair a meeting without their supervisor in the room, to have a deadline and a responsibility of their own, to have their own team. Any member of staff can be the one who updates library leadership on the status of a project. Project-based work is a forgiving structure in which staff at any level can have the opportunity to learn how to lead.

As someone who writes job ads and chairs search committees, I think it’s important that we learn to recognize leadership outside of direct supervision and respect it for what it is. It’s not only the department heads who lead.

This is particularly important to me because I leapt into senior leadership without ever having been a department head. There are other paths, and if we don’t provide these opportunities, and understand what this kind of leadership means on a CV, we’re going to overlook people with really great skills who can be an asset to our organizations.

At my library, a position with leadership but no staff means a position that will lead all staff at one point or another. It means a project-based role that works with the hierarchy to set expectations for the entire organization. It means collaborating with supervisors and partnering with them in managing staff. It means leading across the organization. It means breaking barriers and doing conference-worthy work, and finding talent where we didn’t know it existed. It means experimentation and taking chances.

I think we need this. I think it’s important. Non-supervisory leadership is also leadership, and it has value.

#libraryleader: Respect

#libraryleader: Respect

This one is so obvious I almost didn’t think I should include it. But no: I’ll be obvious.

A library leader needs to respect the people who work for her. She needs to respect their knowledge, their efforts, their ideas, and their contributions. She needs to respect their ability to do their own work.

I think there’s a thread of thought about leadership in our profession that suggests that the core of it is about telling people what to do. You set the goal, you tell people how to get there. The background of most people who end up in leadership positions is, after all, getting from point A to point B successfully. People seem to think that their sterling ability to track that route is what got them to where they are, and therefore should be enough to make them a good leader. That’s where they see their own value and  skills. But we know that being good at getting from point A to point B isn’t what’s going to make you a good leader. You can’t just tell people what it is they need to do in order to do their job. The organization, with all its creativity and enthusiasm, isn’t an extension of you. Ideally, it’s far more than that. An organization is everyone’s passion and effort.

Taking away decision-making and autonomous action is demoralizing. The role of a leader isn’t to demoralize people. It’s to energize them and engage them toward a common goal. It’s to show them why we want to get to point B, and making sure they have the resources they need to get there. You have to let the how slide. Everyone’s going to do it differently.

Not that you abandon them. Respect them. Respect their perspective, their means of reaching a goal. It doesn’t mean you don’t hold them to the goal. Just don’t tell them how they have to get there.

A successful library doesn’t include a pack of obedient drones doing exactly what they’re told. A successful library has a staff packed with engaged, inspired people who feel empowered to look for problems to solve, find new ways to solve them, and constantly strive to make things better within their purview. Creating an environment like this doesn’t involve just hiring the right kinds of personalities. A library leader needs to leave room for staff to self-actualize. A leader needs to respect her staff enough to let them try things, take risks, learn, grow, and demonstrate the effectiveness of their ideas.

People need to have control over their own work; that’s a key psychological need, to exert some level of control over the things you need to do. We need to know that if we see a problem, we can go ahead and fix it. We can make a suggestion and it will be heard. We need to feel valued, we need to feel that we can have an impact on the things that matter to us. If you don’t respect people enough to listen to their advice, let them take action and make decisions about their work, you’re going to lose their energy and enthusiasm. Ownership is one of the most motivating elements of any kind of work. A leader needs to respect the autonomy of the people in the organization. I think granting people ownership over their work is one of the most important things a leader can do in order to achieve their goals.

I realize that can feel counter-intuitive to some people.  We’ve bound up the idea of leadership with the idea of power and control. But this isn’t actually a power and control game, I don’t think. We talk a good game in librarianship about collaboration, but too many seem to believe that leaders get to tell the people they lead to do things their way. That’s a mistake. You have to respect your staff enough to take their well-considered advice on board. You’ve got to respect their knowledge and experience. An organization isn’t just shaped by its leader; it should be a harmonious chorus, not just one voice.

Perhaps it’s rooted in pessimism. Possibly it’s perfectionism (another form of control). But a leader needs to put that aside and respect the ability of the people in the organization to know the specifics of their work better than she does, and to have valid and considered opinions about it. This doesn’t mean there aren’t disagreements or compromises. But a leader shouldn’t imagine herself a dictator who gets to insist things be done the way she wants them done. A leader creates the circumstances where everyone can be successful in their own arena. Taking away autonomy in order to seize control over every decision is letting those people down.

A comment I used to hear all the time in my library, from staff at the front desk: “Do you still work here?” It’s a joke, sort of. I don’t work at the front of the house, and sometimes I work extremely long hours up on the third floor. I am faculty-facing, not student-facing, so the front desk staff, who mostly work with students, have very little grasp of what I do or how it fits into the work of the library. One of the front desk staff once told me, with intense conviction, that the only meaningful work of the library was what happened in the learning commons. Everything else could go.

At first I was annoyed by these kinds of comments. His perspective is so limited!  I understand that student support is important, but some of us, like me, do work to improve the student experience by making sure their instructors can do what they need to do in the classrooms. That’s important too, isn’t it? But I got over it. Because I realized that we all have a unique perspective on the importance of their own work and are committed to it. A leader needs to respect my work as well as my colleagues, and not short-change one of us. A leader needs to have the wider perspective, and needs to respond to the concerns of all the rest of us with a very narrow focus. That narrow focus is going to make sure services run smoothly, after all. My library needs me to focus exclusively and completely on my own work, and it requires the same of everyone else. A library needs to have priorities, but everyone in the library should feel that their commitment to their own area of work is respected. Likewise, I understand that sometimes library leaders have to do outward-facing work, like fund-raising or liaising with Presidents or Deans or what-have-you. But while they’re doing all that, they need to respect my part of the library’s work, respect that I’m an expert on my own corner of our services, and let me assist in the making of critical decisions about that work in order to reach our collective goals. All the pieces are important, all deserving of respect.

#libraryleader: Honesty

#libraryleader: Honesty

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.

#libraryleader: Thoughts on Library Leadership

#libraryleader: Thoughts on Library Leadership

I’ve been lucky enough to attend some amazing workshops and conferences of late that had me focusing on what it looks like to be an excellent leader in librarianship; in one case I spent several days focusing very specifically on library management skills and leadership, while in other cases I was treated to a variety of demonstrations of what good library leadership looks like and what it can accomplish. I have been especially inspired in the last few weeks by Sue Considine from the Fayetteville Free Library, Susan Downs from Innisfil Public Library, Kristin Antelman from North Carolina State Libraries, Bessie Sullivan from Haliburton Country libraries, Mary Ann Mavrinac (as always) from University of Rochester libraries, Susan Senese, Director of Information and Instructional Technology at University of Toronto Mississauga, Matt Ratto from the iSchool at the University of Toronto, and Nate Hill from Chattanooga Public Library. It’s been a good few weeks of institutes, workshops and conferences, obviously!

In light of these recent experiences, I’ve decided to capture some observations on the subject in a series of blog posts. I’m working on a list of five qualities that I have come to believe are crucial for good leadership in libraries facing a pressing need to grow and change.

Here’s my list as it stands now:

  1. Honesty
  2. Respect
  3. Confidence
  4. Vision
  5. Salesmanship

I’ve distilled a lot of ideas into these five themes; I’m not sure I’ve picked the right words to capture what I mean to convey, but I’ve done my best. My plan is to write about each of these qualities in detail, explain what I mean by them, and articulate why I think these are the critical qualities in an effective library leader.

I know many people make a distinction between leadership and management. I refuse to make that distinction. I’m not sure why the distinction even exists; it’s as if someone thought there was something distasteful about working with people and helping them accomplish the best work they can that makes it less lofty and important work than the nebulous concept of leadership. I’m not one of those people. I think taking care of a team working toward a common goal is a critical part of being a good leader, so I won’t divide my list by what I consider to be a false division.

I know others have different perspectives on this subject, and mine are still forming and shifting. I’ve invited my colleague Lauren DiMonte to join me in writing about the top five qualities in a library leader from her perspective as a current library school student. We’ll post our thoughts on our respective blogs and on Twitter using the hashtag #libraryleader. You’re more than welcome to join us; I hope I can learn your thoughts and perspectives too!