On being an administrator

In the last several weeks I’ve had quite a few conversations that, at their core, boil down to this notion:

As an administrator, my  job requires that I make decisions based on the best interests of all the constituents that I serve, and all of their needs must be taken into account when I make those decisions.  Also true is that I make better decisions, and our choices have better outcomes, when I hear from more sides of every story. But my job is to choose the path, to set the agenda, and to move forward in a direction, with intention. So sometimes I hear as many sides as I can access, and I think about the conflicting needs and costs, and I have to make a choice that prioritizes one over another. It’s just the way of it; there aren’t always obvious and easy answers. And so sometimes conversations end with me saying, “We’re both right. And depending on which one of us someone agrees with, we’re both wrong.”

Why am I writing this? Basically this second notion:

If you’re not willing to make decisions without consensus, overt approval from all stakeholders, and a clear and obvious “winning” option, don’t take jobs like mine. Being an administrator means making decisions that consider the broad needs of your organization, and those decisions are often hard ones, fraught with conflicting needs and opposing outcomes. Hard or not, uncomfortable or not, you need to be able to do it, own it, and back it up. If you can’t or won’t do that, you’re doing your library and your users a disservice.


  1. Bravo! When asked about my “leadership style” I always say, “I value input from all parties and transparency in all segments of the process. But I don’t believe in consensus.” This usually gets a lot raised hackles. I also usually add that consensus is like oatmeal. It’s a bland mush that you know is probably good for you, but most people will pass it on by.

    A good library administrator has to be able to make the unpopular decisions, as well as support the good ones. You will never get a 100% happy outcome, but you need to able to direct that outcome to be the most beneficial to then organization.


    • One of the library staff has a parable that essentially goes like this: If you ask everyone where they want to go, in an attempt to be agreeable and reach consensus, they will all eventually agree that going to Schenectady makes the most sense for the organization. Except no one actually wants to go to Schenectady, or knows what they’ll do when they get there, but no one wants to be the one who says that’s the wrong direction to go in.

      It’s my job to make sure we don’t accidentally end up in Schenectady. With no offense to Schenectady intended…


  2. Even if your staff have bought into the organizational vision and values on a personal and professional level, it is hard to hear that your idea is great but will not meet the greater need of the organization. Management, in various positions and scale, usually means disappointing someone for the greater good.


    • “Management, in various positions and scale, usually means disappointing someone for the greater good.”

      Which is precisely why, even though I will honestly tell you I think it’s a great job, this is sometimes such a hard, crappy job.


  3. It’s perfectly fine to disappoint people. If you’re not disappointing anyone, you’re probably not doing anything worthwhile.

    However, I think it’s important to temper decisiveness with humility, which is where Jenica’s exhortation to “back it up” comes into play. There are a lot of styles that work in particular contexts, but I don’t know that any specific management style is going to work in every library context. So we use the tools available to us, and one of those tools is consensus. But then I like oatmeal, so what do I know?


    • Hey, I love oatmeal, and I can pretty confidently say that you and I manage our libraries in very different ways. 🙂

      That said, I fully agree that context, style, and tool sets matter deeply. My style would sink like a lead balloon in some libraries, and fly in others, and there are some approaches that I fail at every time I try because I just don’t have the right skills to do it well. We all have a niche, but I do believe we should be using that uniqueness in service of making the decisions that need making.

      And I prefer my oatmeal with raisins and butter.


      • Once you add the raisins and butter, it’s not just oatmeal! And you’ve alienated your consensus building lactose intolerant staff. 🙂


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