Killing Fear part 4: Be a leader and do something

[Part one is here. Two is here. And three.]

Right as I initially sat down to begin writing the text that went with this slide, I read a post on Seth Godin’s blog. Seth Godin is the author of Permission Marketing, Tribes, Linchipin, and a bunch of other books – and he’s as much loved by some as he is reviled by others. My kind of thinker, that – you don’t get to be loved and hated in equal measure unless you’re saying something interesting, or at least challenging, and those are the things that spark us to consider, critique, and learn. So. Anyway. I read this post, and thought, “Well, that’s what I was going to say.” So here it is, said by someone more famous than me:

There are a million reasons to say no, but few reasons to stand up and say yes.

No requires just one objection, one defensible reason to avoid change. No has many allies–anyone who fears the future or stands to benefit from the status quo. And no is easy to say, because you actually don’t even need a reason.

No is an easy way to grab power, because with yes comes responsibility, but no is the easy way to block action, to exert the privilege of your position to slow things down.

No comes from fear and greed and, most of all, a shortage of openness and attention. You don’t have to pay attention or do the math or role play the outcomes in order to join the coalition that would rather things stay as they are (because they’ve chosen not to do the hard work of imagining how they might be).

Understand your environment, of course – Know when you MUST say no – but then avoid the coalition of no, and say yes every. other. time. My concrete approach to saying yes is that I just do it. It’s really that easy. I say yes to things. Unless I must say no, I say yes.

My rubric for saying no is simple. I consider one question:

[image source]

Seriously. Ask yourself: what’s the worst that could happen? And then think about that worst case scenario. We’re really good at what’s the best that could happen – we like dreaming. But we’re worse at realistically assessing our fears and concerns.

I write that, but then I think, well, maybe not; I’ve been in plenty of meetings at which the worst is all we can talk about.
The users might do this broken thing,
or they might do this other stupid thing,
or they might expect this horrible thing…
and we talk those to death, and we let them stop us.

And sometime they should, because sometimes… the worst? It’s bad. To quote a recent blog post by librarian Meredith Farkas: “Putting out something (service, technology, etc.) that risks our reputation, credibility, or relationship with our service population requires more than a “let’s try it and see what happens” attitude”. She advocates for an iterative process in library service development of assessing, deciding, acting, assessing, deciding, acting, over and over again.

What I would add that you should start by assessing your consequences: “What’s the worst that could happen?” Once you’ve gone through all those bad, stupid, horrible, scary things that might happen, ask another question: can you handle that? And not “will it be easy to handle it?” but “CAN we handle it?” Those are two different things. And sometimes you have to take the risk that yes, the worst could happen: But we know we could handle it.

If you want to change the world in big or small ways, you have to be brave.

Pretty straightforward.  A friend of mine, a middle manager in libraries with a huge personality and energy to match, has a sign on her door that says “the revolution isn’t over, it’s just begun.” When she was gone for a long series of trips, her team put up this addition.

[image source]

And I say: never postpone the revolution because you’re waiting for a hero. Be your own damn hero.

You think you can’t be a leader. You’re in a position with no inherent power. Your dean is insane. Your coworkers are so change averse that you think it’s possible they died at their desks two years ago and it’s just that no one noticed. You feel isolated and alone in your beliefs. You’re just one librarian, you know?

I do know. I really do. So am I. I understand what you’re feeling. I’ve been there. And I don’t care about your excuses.

No one in our profession is born into power. No one in our profession is ushered into a leadership role. No one knows the perfect and easy road to travel to success. No one thinks leadership is dead simple.

We do it anyway. I had the opportunity to stand on stages and deliver this speech three times this spring, all because once upon a time I decided to write. And then I decided to write in public. And then I decided to write fearlessly. And I decided not to listen to the haters, the cowards, and the easily offended. I decided to persevere. And people started to listen. And I tried harder. Because the thing is that fearless leaders are still afraid – sometimes terrified – but they just lead anyway.

It never gets easy. It never gets comfortable. It just gets more normal. It just starts to feel worth it – more comfortable, more do-able. But the only way to get there is to do it. Be brave. Give it a shot.

I mean, what’s the worst that could happen?


  1. This post reminds me of the chapter in Bossypants, where Tina Fey’s comparing workplace relationships to improv – aptly summarized here (the “yes, and” chapter): Sometimes we spend so much energy outlining why projects and innovations won’t work, rather than encouraging folks with helpful ideas to go forth and prosper and giving them the empowerment and support they need to do so. There seems to be a much greater awareness of this tendency in my library at least, so I’m hopeful we can move it forward more enthusiastically in spite of our fears.


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