Alchemical Thoughts

An article note and some more thoughts on leadership

Posted on: May 9, 2008

Well that is a bit pretentious title for a blog post: thoughts on leadership, as if I knew much about the topic. Sure, I have had a thought or two now and then.But I am certainly nowhere in the league of the folks at ACRL or certain high level library directors who write on the topic but likely have not walked among the troops recently. Once in a while the topic of leadership comes up in the librarian sector of the blogosphere, then it winds down, then comes back up again. It's one of those things you can count on. I have some interest in the topic, but since I know no one in their right mind would name me to direct their library, and I would not want to anyhow, I don't do more than give it some cursory thinking now and then. At any rate, I came across this little editorial in my readings:

McMenemy, David. "'Or you got it or you ain't': the nature of leadership in libraries." Library Review 57.4 (2008): 265-268.

Read via Emerald.

The thrust of the article is that the author believes that when it comes to leadership, you either have it, or you don't. At least that is the philosophy he agrees with. His point is that the notion of books and workshops to teach leadership skills is flawed. I agree to an extent. You either have the nature to be a leader, or you don't. However, you are not born with the skills, which means you have to do some learning, and those parts can be learned. Personally I think they can be learned by reading more of the classics and less of the leadership trendy books we find today. I think what Professor McMenemy is trying to say is that we should not equate leadership with management, which is something I would agree to as well. But I think when it comes to developing leadership the truth is somewhere in the middle. You need to have some of it in your nature, but the rest you can certainly train and polish.

McMenemy also says that experience is crucial, and this is true. Unfortunately the fact is that librarianship as a whole is very reluctant or short sighted when it comes to providing experiences for leaders to be groomed and to grow. This has also been written about in the librarian sector of the blogosphere, but other than getting written about, it does not look like the old guard have any interest or inclination in truly training leaders for the future. Succession planning is not exactly high on their radar, which not only means a lack of future leadership. It also means a possible loss of institutional memories if the experiences, information, and knowledge of those senior leaders is not passed down.

Here are some of the ideas from McMenemy's article:

  • "Furthermore, I feel the discourse around leadership to be potentially troublesome, since the basis by which assumptions are made about leadership being something that can be taught lead to it being seen as just another management skill that can be acquired; the reality is that it is far more important than that, and such views trivialise something that is of vital importance in our profession" (265). Here is the key point in the article.
  • One concern, and it is one we seem to be missing in the profession: "Thus positions that in the past were defined as professional librarians change their focus to become overtly management roles. The irony is that such positions were always so, but with a change in emphasis and discourse comes legitimacy in the eyes of other managers. Rather than being merely a librarian, one can say they are a manager, with all the potential this has for career development!" (266). Notice the use of the phrase "merely a librarian." If that does not raise an eyebrow or two, I am not sure what will.
  • The eternal reminder. This is what I wish a few of those honchos in places like ACRL and a good number of the big research campuses would get through their skulls when they pontificate yet again about leadership: "Undoubtedly, while leaders may manage, managers do not necessarily lead. Leadership being interpreted as solely being about performance measures and achieve strategic objectives is a sad indictment of our professional discourse, yet it remains a cliche" (266).
  • On certain leadership programs. I am sure to a savvy reader or two, they may be reminded of certain programs the national professional organization puts up: "Yet they [the programs] work on the basis of plucking a handful of people from the relative obscurity of their library to be chosen as future leaders; in essence a Pop Idol for librarians. My major concern with such initiatives relates to the criteria for selection and the danger that candidates can be chosen because they are young, are potentially good managers, and say the right things, which equates good leadership in the mindsets of some" (266-267). I don' think I can add much more to that. Then again, I am just a librarian in the field. I just happen to believe a lot of true leadership happens quietly in the front lines; those folks will never be plucked for some fancy program.
  • "In our profession's leaders, we must seek more than a good manager or someone who has attended the correct courses; we must seek experience, vision, integrity, and an understanding of the potential of the organisation and the people within it. Just as importantly, we need leaders who wish to take their place as part of the profession, not see their roles as merely caretakers of a service" (267).
  • Another concern that many so called "library leaders" seem to be missing: "The movement towards bringing people from outside of the profession to lead is dangerous because it presupposes that the notion of the leader as manager supersedes the experienced professional librarian as leader, and this is dangerous to the long-term viability of the profession" (267). The fact that our profession is willing to tolerate, and even endorse in some cases, bringing some non-librarian to run our facilities is, at best, disrespectful, at worse, a clear example of devaluing our profession.

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