Making a Positive Impact as a Library Leader: A Qualitative Study of Past and Future Library Leaders
Friday 12 April 1:40 pm – 2:10 pm, Hurlington Convention Center of Cleveland, room 25C
This paper borrows from the article Martin, Jason. 2018. “What do academic librarians value in a leader? Reflections on past positive library leaders and a consideration of future library leaders.” College & Research Libraries 79 (6): 799–821.
Leadership studies focus on a leader and the traits, skills, and abilities that leader needs to inspire, motivate, create change, and transform organizations. These studies consider followers – if they are considered at all – as inert objects. But followers are far from inert. They are active forces that may determine more than any other skill, ability, or trait the actual success of an organization and its leadership. Followers must choose to follow or not follow, be active or passive, or support a leader’s vision or thwart it. Followers are attracted to leaders who possess the kinds of traits they value in a leader. Organizational members need leaders to act in a specific way and according to certain criteria in order to acknowledge and respond to their leadership. While some will never respond to leadership, many will when they encounter a leader who possess the kinds of skills and abilities they value in a leader. The values that guide this response and connection are different for each person, but typically like-minded people – such as those in a profession or organization – will respond to similar traits in a leader.
The aim of this study was to understand what perceived leadership traits had a positive effect on an academic librarian’s work life and what leadership traits academic librarians think future library leaders will need in order to have a positive effect on the daily work lives of librarians, not to support or substantiate a pre-existing theory. Instead of asking respondents to rank a list of pre-defined leadership traits – traits that the researcher finds important and that may not reflect the experiences of respondents – they were asked to think of a leader with whom they have worked that had a positive impact on their daily work life and then use their own words to describe that leader. They were then asked to name the traits they think future library leaders will need in order to have a positive impact on the lives of academic librarians. A total of 318 academic librarians responded to the survey, and of those respondents, 260 were women (82%), 62 were men (19.5%), and 6 either did not specify a gender or self-identified as transgender or non-binary (2%). According to ALA’s “Diversity Counts,” the respondents’ gender closely resembles the profession as a whole. The average age of the respondents was 47 ½ years old.
Using constant comparative analysis, responses from these 318 academic librarians were analyzed. Their responses were grouped into seven leadership themes for past positive leaders: emotional intelligence, empowering, visionary thinker, communicator, librarian/manager, trustworthy, and a catalyst for change; and six themes for future library leaders: people first, visionary, change agent, experienced librarian, role model, and communicator. The leadership themes of past positive and future library leaders overlap on five themes: inter and intrapersonal skills, visioning, communicating, change agent, and competent and experienced librarian.
Inter and Intrapersonal Skills
Above all, a good library leader needs to be able to understand, care about, and have relationships with everyone in the library. This means being able to use empathy to understand the culture and politics of the library, having compassion to help those in the library become better, and using self-awareness to understand their strengths and weaknesses. Library leaders with strong inter and intrapersonal skills know when to push forward and when to ease back.
A library needs to be moving forward, toward the future, not stuck in the present and looking back at the past. A visionary leader thinks about the present and plans for the future, anticipates future needs, and knows not only where the library is in the big picture but how to successfully maneuver the library into a more advantageous position.
A good communicator listens well and listens first and communicates, both verbally and written, often and honestly. People want to feel they are being heard and their thoughts matter. They also want to be in the know about the current and projected future state of the library.
It is a cliché at this point, but constant change is the new normal for libraries. A library leader must be able to facilitate change, which goes well beyond project management. A good change agent always puts people first. They are able to sell the people in the library on the needed change, take into account their mindset – Are they ready for more change? – celebrate the work done, and support people’s transitions into the unknown work that change brings.
Competent and Experienced Librarian
A good library leader needs to know the work of the library. Competence in an area of librarianship does not translate to good leadership, but all good library leaders need to know the work of their library in order to understand what the library does and how all the parts work together. Being a competent librarian also helps a leader from outside the library become more quickly accepted into the culture.
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