Leadership: the intangible and necessary something

My presentation as the kickoff to our preconference on leadership and management skills is more complex than the two panel talks I just posted. The presentation is up on Slideshare, and I’m including each slide here, as an embedded image, with my speakers’s notes below it. They’re pretty true to what I said that day. Enjoy, judge, and learn as you will.

Slide 1:

When I was a kid, I thought I wanted to be an astronaut. I wanted to go into space, be weightless, do fascinating and science-y things. But I didn’t know how you got to BE an astronaut, so I didn’t ever follow through.

Instead, I’m a librarian. And I’m an administrator, a leader, and a manager, all much younger than anyone expects. I surely didn’t know how you got to BE those things, more than the astronaut gig, and yet here I am.

So how’d I get here? I’m 35, so it’s not that I earned it by slogging through trenches, struggling up ladders, or waiting out my elders, as some conventional wisdoms would ask you to believe. Instead, I just did it.

I recently told a good friend that when people tell me I do great things, I’m usually baffled. I just do my job, choose to be authentically myself, and reach for my goals. Good things happen to me, and bad ones, too. And I don’t think that’s explicitly about leadership skills or traits – I think it’s about understanding your skills and traits, and what it means to lead, good and bad, and knowing who I am in that regard, good and bad.

Slide 2:

But I don’t want to just start by talking about myself — that’s less helpful to you than asking you to think about what you know already and putting it into a new context. So I’d like to ask you do a small exercise — the first in a series of what I promise will be painless ones — to help frame up some of that context with you.  These exercises will all be private, largely — I may ask a few volunteers to share answers, or to have you all do an A or B multiple choice answer thing, but largely these responses are for your use. Don’t worry about being forced to share them and thus feel awkward about answering.

Now, hold on to those. We’ll come back to them.

Slide 3:

Okay. So. Let’s dig in.  Leadership is not management. We will talk about management later — Colleen will discuss change management just after lunch, and we’ll both hit at some of the hard work of personnel management this afternoon.

Leadership is something else entirely.  I can think of no better graphical demonstration than this: JFK is, in this image, giving the famous speech in which he proposed that we put a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Let me read a piece of that speech.

“Finally, if we are to win the battle that is now going on around the world between freedom and tyranny, the dramatic achievements in space which occurred in recent weeks should have made clear to us all, as did the Sputnik in 1957, the impact of this adventure on the minds of men everywhere, who are attempting to make a determination of which road they should take. Since early in my term, our efforts in space have been under review. With the advice of the Vice President, who is Chairman of the National Space Council, we have examined where we are strong and where we are not, where we may succeed and where we may not. Now it is time to take longer strides–time for a great new American enterprise–time for this nation to take a clearly leading role in space achievement, which in many ways may hold the key to our future on earth.     I believe we possess all the resources and talents necessary. But the facts of the matter are that we have never made the national decisions or marshalled the national resources required for such leadership. We have never specified long-range goals on an urgent time schedule, or managed our resources and our time so as to insure their fulfillment.”

He continued,

“I believe we should go to the moon. But I think every citizen of this country as well as the Members of the Congress should consider the matter carefully in making their judgment, to which we have given attention over many weeks and months, because it is a heavy burden, and there is no sense in agreeing or desiring that the United States take an affirmative position in outer space, unless we are prepared to do the work and bear the burdens to make it successful. If we are not, we should decide today and this year.”

Those are the words of a leader. A well-informed man, studying costs, benefits, and potential directions, threats and possibilities, and making a decision on direction, which he recommended in the strongest possible and most compelling terms he could muster, linking his proposal to his arguments and making a case for the future.

Whatever you may think of NASA, we must all recall that it worked, even after his untimely death. We did put a man on the moon.

Now, the gentlemen on the right are the ones who made it happen.  They’re NASA’s project managers.  They took the goals of the Congress and the President, the nation’s funding, the scientific challenges and opportunities, and put astronauts on the moon’s surface.

Their jobs were distinctly different from Kennedy’s. That’s not to say that he didn’t manage details in preparing his speech and presidential agenda. And that’s not to say that the managers at NASA weren’t leaders in their own rights. But the two jobs are fundamentally different.

Slide 4:

Simply defined, “Leadership has been described as the “process of social influence in which one person can enlist the aid and support of others in the accomplishment of a common task”. or, “Leadership is ultimately about creating a way for people to contribute to making something extraordinary happen.”

Management is “the act of getting people together to accomplish desired goals and objectives using available resources efficiently and effectively.” or “Management comprises planning, organizing, staffing, directing, and controlling an effort for the purpose of accomplishing a goal.”

They are overlapping skills, but they are not the same. For example,

One woman I work with is a great process manager. Another is an awesome project manager. Neither of them are leaders. Neither wants to tackle vision, strategy, or communication, but they can manage details and workflows like the professionals they are.

Some of librarianship’s biggest names are excellent leaders. Some of them are also terrible managers, more interested in the grand idea and futures thinking than the nuts and bolts of implementation, people management, morale management, and sustainability that are the hallmarks of a great manager.

For any project, idea, or organization to succeed, we need both roles to be filled.

Slide 5:

•Do we have enough leaders in librarianship:? Managers? Do we have more of one than the other? (I think In libraries, in my experience, we have both managers and leaders, but not enough of either, and in too many cases, managers have ended up in leadership roles, or leaders are pushing forward without enough management experience. )
•Why do you think that is?

(Discussion ensued)

Slide 6:

In practical terms, strong leadership provides the framework within which library staff can do their jobs. That’s it. That’s all.

Easy, right? Well. The challenges come in when leaders envision a framework that’s HARD. A framework that pushes boundaries, studies challenges and rejects them, and attempts to move things forward toward impossible goals. Like, say, putting a man on the moon. So sometimes leadership means we succeed, and JFK exhorts us to go to the moon, and then we send Sally Ride up on a shuttle and library directors create sustainable and innovative information environments.

But sometimes leadership means that NASA closes down the shuttle program and McMaster’s University Librarian fires most of its librarians and replaces them with postdocs. Leaders move us forward – so you better be sure you like where they’re taking us.

Which is why I’m so glad you’re all here, willing to listen.  Sometimes our leaders speak for us because no one else is speaking. Sometimes people fill leadership roles because no one else will. Sometimes that works out great, but sometimes it’s an overt disaster.  The more that people understand their own power as leaders and their own value as librarians, the more certain we can be that the paths we will all walk down are going to take us somewhere we want to go.

Slide 7:

So, what, exactly, is leadership? “Provides the framework” is totally lame management-speak, I know. So here are the pieces, as I see them.

Coherent approach to personnel: Leaders have to answer the question “Who are we? What do we value in our colleagues, our team, and our approach to organizing our work?”

Strategic vision:  Leaders answer the question “Where are we going? Do we have goals? What are they?”

Change management: “How will we get there? Are we prepared? ”

Decision-making paradigms: “Who will decide? Who gets a say? How much influence does any individual have?”

Morale and attitude management: “How will we feel about it, whatever it is?”

External presentation and representation: “What will everyone else think of us?”

What else? What else to leaders in libraries need to do?

[discussion ensued]

Slide 8:

read instructions.
time to take test
explain scoring methodology
ask to score
small group discussions

Slide 9:

There are more ways to lead than I could possibly cover, and I am in no way an expert on any, let alone all, of them.

I informally surveyed about 30 early and mid career librarians and asked them what they wanted a bunch of people talking about leadership in libraries to know about approaching leadership.  Here’s their list.

Slide 10:

Lead from the middle. Whoever you are, you have power of some kind, because you as a person have skills, values, and abilities that have meaning. You just have to leverage them.

Lead by words. Sharing an enticing vision is, well, enticing. People follow dreams, because we want to believe that Yes We Can.

Lead by doing. If you can provide proof of a concept, you will earn respect. People respect accomplishment.

Lead by supporting others. The leader isn’t always the person with the idea, but often is the person who makes it possible for the ideas of others to be realized. You are your team.

Lead by creating the environment. One framework that matters is a workplace culture that allows for change, growth, and success, and a leader can cultivate and build that.

Lead by recognizing others. Acknowledgement of what people have accomplished, and creating value around accomplishment through your choices of recognition, is leadership.

Most of all, they wanted everyone to realize that leadership can be fierce, or kind, or cooperative, or maverick. Leadership can be collaborative or individual, quiet or soapbox-y. Leadership comes from you, whoever you are.

Slide 11:

And so.  The people I talked to are all right. Leaders can be any of those things, or all of those things, or some of those things. So if you want to lead, I would suggest that your first step is knowing yourself.  Where are you in the spectrum of leaders?

The answer to that doesn’t really matter to the outside world, but it matters in that you have to know your strengths if you’re going to use them well. You also need to know your weaknesses so you can either avoid or bolster them, or, more practically, find a good team to do the parts you suck at.

Slide 12:

So, to that end, we have another assessment for you.

[discussion ensues]

Slide 13:

So, I’ve talked about what leadership is, and what leaders do, and why that matters.

You’ve thought about what you admire, who are are in your organization, and what your leadership strengths are.

Now I want to talk about two intangibles of leadership that I hope are hallmarks for the future of librarianship: Trust and transparency.

John Glenn went from that hallway onto a spacecraft that, looking back, appears to be made of tin foil and transistors. Hundreds – thousands – of people worked on those craft, made and fixed mistakes, and contribued to the project. They had good managers, and good leaders. And the astronauts trusted that the whole thing was going to fly. And it worked.

Slide 14:

Our libraries also work on trust. Healthy ones, anyway. Because, here’s the thing: Leading only works if people follow you.  People will follow you if they fear you, but punishment is a miserable motivator. People will also follow you if they respect you. And what is respect if not trust that your track record will hold true? Even if you have an acknowledged authority, a proven track record, and a strong believable vision, if the staff isn’t on board, you’re screwed.  And to get them on board you need their trust – either in you, or in the vision.

In short: Don’t be an asshole, and model the behavior you would hope for in your team.

Slide 15:

And so how do people know all those things that allow them to trust you?

Because you show them.

That’s the king and queen of Belgium in the third row up, to the right of the pointing guy, watching one of the apollo launches. I know that conspiracy theorists still say the moon landing was a hoax but by and large the world trusts that we did it. Part of that trust is because we showed people. We invited them to watch. We broadcast it. We made it available.

Why do otherwise professionally?

Slide 16:

In many, and I would argue most, cases we have nothing to lose by sharing. Budgets? Are they a secret? WHY? What part of your process is so secret you can’t share it? Are you ashamed of it? What would happen if you told people how you allocate money? Is it possible that if they understood how you make decisions, they might trust you more?

After the first six months in my current position I told my team that my operating principle is that I will say yes unless I must say no, and that I define “must” by considering our mission, our goals, and our resources. And I’ve been consistent in that.  They trust me. And they expect a yes, but respect a no, because they understand how I make those decisions. Someone, upon hearing that, once asked me if I didn’t think that was a misstep – telling the team. Because now that they knew how I made decisions, they could manipulate the system, and thus me. I just stared at them. If my decision-making process is something I’m proud of, and it’s based on mission, goals, and resources, how precisely would someone manipulate me? If their idea is good, I say yes. If their idea compels me to say no, I say no. Knowing that doesn’t give them some strange power over me, it just makes them more comfortable asking me for things because they know how I will treat them when they do.

Of course, there are some areas where perhaps people don’t need to know.  Legal ones like personnel issues. Things waaaay outside their pay grade that will just confuse the issue. My internal emotional reaction to criers, liars, and time wasters. How often I censor my language. But nearly everything else is fair game.

Slide 17:

But not all worlds are perfect worlds. So let’s open this up to discussion and questions.

[discussion ensues.]

The end.

All images via NASA on the Commons, and JFK’s speech can be found in its entirety here.


  1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on leadership. I’d agree with two of the core messages – have a vision and be good at articulating it to the community; you can’t lead without establishing trust and transparency (what S Covey refers to as the “emotional savings bank”). Another good one to share is “puts others and the organization before self and is humble about it”. Jim Collins research shows that a leader’s hubris is usually their downfall,
    while those who are humble usually get the best results. If you’ve never watched it take a look at this “leader’s biggest mistakes” video at http://vodpod.com/watch/4379673-the-biggest-mistake-a-leader-can-make-video-harvard-business-review

    If you haven’t explored the work of Abraham Zelesnik on managers vs. leaders you might want to check that out http://hbr.org/2004/01/managers-and-leaders/ar/1

    Did you share much video in your workshop – inteviews with leaders; leadership examples, etc. In our pre-conf on “presence” we prepared about 15 videos to demonstrate the concepts – using scenes from real life situations and movies/television as well (some humorous examples included). Folks respond to video really well as discussion starters – and they help break up lecture and slide visuals.

    If your experience was anything like ours we’d like to have a second shot at it to try to improve on it. Perhaps you’ll get to offer it again.


  2. Too bad you don’t know anyone on the ALA Learning Round Table board. As in the group that is full of folks doing training, staff development and leadership development.

    Cause maybe this group could sponsor it.


  3. I really like the section on leading from the middle, in whatever ways your own individual personal/professional strengths may fit. Librarians have always been big on empowering others–our patrons. It is time we looked at empowering our selves and our colleagues, and especially those now entering the profession.

    Would you consider adapting your workshop for a virtual conference? I recently was introduced to this group: Library 2.011, planning a global online conference and taking proposals next week http://www.Library2011.net (I would have also suggested the Handheld Librarian online conference series, but submissions for their next conference closed a few weeks ago.) State library associations would also be open to hosting you in the traditional format. These would all be lower/no cost events which are more accessible to younger professionals, and which also offer them more chances to become leaders and begin to help shape our collective future…


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