Alchemical Thoughts

Quick notes on Sullivan leadership interview

Posted on: June 25, 2010

I picked this up pretty much because our boss made us read it in preparation for a webinar that Maureen Sullivan was going to present. For good or ill, I got stuck covering the reference desk at the time,  but if the interview in this article is anything to go by, then I don't think I missed a whole lot. Overall, the article is like others dealing with the topic of leadership in libraries. This type of article usually boils down platitudes, positive thinking, and theoretical stuff that more often than not will not work in the trenches of the real world. I debated whether to blog about it or not, since more often than not, when you disagree with the establishment, someone from that establishment may well get offended or testy. I don't have enough in here to make a full blown essay I could include in The Gypsy Librarian, but I have enough to jot down, so it's in this scratch pad.

Anyhow, here are some quick ideas from the article, with my responses.

  • We get the spiel about the need to establish trust in an organization. This is necessary so people can be open and frank in the organization without worrying about retribution. The thing is that retribution often will follow if you are too frank, and I did find Ms. Sullivan's attitude about the idea of retribution a little dismissive. She refers to "the myth of retribution, because most people who talk about it really can't cite specific examples of where it's actually happened" (12). I wonder if it has occurred to her that maybe some people might not want to cite specific examples for fear of said retribution. However, the deal is that often retribution is nothing blunt or extreme. You may not get fired for something you do or say, but there are hundreds of little ways that your superiors can make your life impossible if you get uppity. And those are not so easy to document or prove, so I would not be so dismissive as to call it a myth. Many of us often remain quiet just to make sure we can keep working another day.
  • Sullivan brings up the idea that leaders need to tell their stories. This is something that interests me as I wonder what is our library's story. If we were asked, what would we say?
  • She brings up the constant complaint of the younger (and I use that label with some caution) professionals who just want to jump in, change what they think needs to be changed, and how they find life difficult because their organization may not be ready or willing to go along. I always find this a reason to be skeptical because the organization usually ends up painted as the bad guy, as the place that will be stale and antiquated unless the new hot shot's ideas are implemented right away regardless of consequences. The reality of this is that often the new folks are a little impatient. They are often unwilling to learn their organization's full history, wanting to simply do what sounds hip and neat without thinking of the consequences. The mantra of "we've always done it this way" is pretty much the smokescreen. More often than not, X or Y may not have been done already for a reason that, had the new guys actually bothered to ask around, is likely practical or makes sense. Or something was tried already, and it failed already. What is that saying about beating dead horses? You know, at the end of the day, those who have a little more experience and have been around the block once or twice once in a while actually know what they are talking about. So, new guys, save the aggravation, learn the ropes, think a little, then and only then, go argue for your changes and ideas. Will it take time? Yes, it will, but things well done usually do.
  • Sullivan mentions the Emerging Leaders of ALA. I have had a couple of thoughts on the subject (here and here), so I am not going to expound more than necessary on the topic. Only thing I will say on this and on the whole "you need to be involved in the profession" mantra is that it works nicely if both your library and your campus (for academic librarians) actually support such participation and are committed to helping you grow as a professional. You can't seize opportunities (or some opportunities at least) unless you can actually afford to do so. No funding, no travel. It's pure and simple, and it is something that the higher ups and the professional organizations' elites consistently and constantly miss (or more likely choose to ignore since if they did not, they would have to then at least discuss it). In addition, Sullivan herself has to concede this when she writes, "and sometimes, there isn't the kind of support that a lot of these folks need from their managerial leaders" (15). Certain people can say all they want that librarians need to be gung ho and take their professional development in their hands. Well, again, if I lack access to certain opportunities, is that really a fair playing field?
  • A question that is never answered by the article, but it was the one that stuck with me the most was that of power. The interviewer argued that librarians, as a whole, want power (as part of the ability to make decisions affecting their organizations and destinies). But what happens when you DO NOT want power? For one, leadership and power are two very different things. Two, some of us just do not care for management in any way, shape or form. I am an instruction and reference librarian. It's what I do, and it is what I do very well. More importantly, I am sure the powers that be would not want me as a manager. Unlike most library directors, I am NOT conflict-averse. If I have to tell someone off, I have no problem doing it. If I have to make a decision, I stick by it (unlike a good number of managers I have known who have more waffles than a Waffle House). My problem as a manager would likely be that I would be too honest and blunt, traits not welcome in library management. Leadership? That is a whole other question. I tend to prefer the leading by example and by stewardship style, which means having some discretion. And it involves simply asking what can I do to help, then actually doing it.

There are a couple other things I could say, but these notes are getting long already. Maybe some things are  better left unsaid. Or maybe I still need to think a couple more things over. Or maybe, I just want to move on. Anyhow, there it is, for what it may be worth.

The article's citation (in case anyone wishes to read it):

"An Interview with Maureen Sullivan: Leadership in Academic Libraries." Texas Library Journal (Spring 2010): 12-16.


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June 2010
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