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Ruminating over Leadership

During Holy Week, I am making a short pilgrimage to the ER&L Conference in Austin to participate in a panel on leadership with Bonnie Tijerina and Char Booth. We met last week to explore this panel and review possible questions we’d field.

I think particularly for women, the hardest part of leadership is owning it. This is in part because there are still so many messages in society that men lead and women follow (look at the disproportionate number of men holding high-level library administration positions).

But for all leaders, the more experience we have leading in any role — internal or external to our official organizations — the more nuanced our approach to leadership and the more we are aware of what leadership actually takes. We get smarter, we ask ourselves harder questions, we see more angles to every issue, we want to examine things more closely. We have closets full of “lessons learned.”

And quite often the most powerful leadership is happening invisibly around us, in ways we will never know or understand. There are many moving mountains in ways that will never be officially recognized, and not always out of modesty. Some of the best leadership needs to happen very quietly, tiptoeing in with little cat feet.

Some parts of leadership are simply quite boring. Yes, you heard that: leadership involves doing things that are dull, annoying, even stupid. I think of the public library directors sitting in town meetings year after year, listening to reports about dog bites and minor rezoning requests. Yet they do it to ensure that the library has one more soupcon of visibility.

I think of me, volunteering as secretary to Faculty Senate this year (ONLY this year, I keep reminding them…). Is it leadership to spend my personal time formatting minutes? Yes, because building and maintaining strategic relationships is part of leadership. (This role also ensures that I’m paying attention to what’s going on at Faculty Senate–not a bad idea, as I’m a voting member.)

So I’ll go ahead and claim my situational leadership, both externally (as in my leadership with Internet filtering in the 1990s — which I did without official blessing from any internal or external organization) or internally (with several libraries and library organizations that needed coherent vision and a push forward).

That Certain Someone

When we reviewed the questions we might consider, I particularly liked, “Can you name a person who has had a tremendous impact on you as a leader? Maybe some one who has been a mentor to you? Why and how did this person impact your life?”

It’s interesting that people (and I include myself) always read this in a positive way. I rarely mention my first full-time job, in a juvenile court system, where my boss’s boss staggered in roaring drunk every morning to create havoc in a department that was already frantically busy handling the overnight intake. Or the “leader” of that court system, who I naively visited (I was all of 19) to report the situation, as if he didn’t know it. He sat there in his fancy suit fiddling with his watch band, waiting for me to leave.  After I had moved on, that woman had a heart attack one morning, driving into the court’s parking lot, and before she died at the wheel of her car she injured several people, one badly.

Then there was the captain at the airbase in Germany who sexually harassed two young female airmen every day, leering at them and talking openly of their breasts and so forth. He did this in front of me, knowing that in a corrupt system I had nowhere to go — and by this, I refer not to the military at large, but to the private hell of that sad location. I reported him, and in time he was duly promoted. Your tax dollars at work.

I’ve had other lame jobs, but in comparison, most of those have been silly-lame, not deeply depressing like those positions. I guess it’s a matter of comparison.

But as I’ve said, most of us dwell most of the time on the good. I’ve had two bosses who were there for me in a crucial way during my first decade in LibraryLand. One, Bob, was not really my boss; he was my projector manager when I was a contract librarian at the Region 2 EPA library. I officially reported to a guy several states away whose previous job had been supervising clerks at Toys R Us; I don’t recall meeting with him more than once. But Bob was the one I looked up to.

Bob, it turns out, was a lot like Josephine (Jo, as she goes by), my boss two positions hence. Optimistic, supportive, a person of good ideas and even better questions; a model of integrity, patience, good humor, and openness. Bob managed to provide quality IT services for a federal agency — in retrospect, knowing the agency as I came to understand it during my short time there, quite an accomplishment.

In the same vein, Jo went to ballot four times to get the library she dreamed of approved by the voters, and never stopped being upbeat or forward-looking. She wasn’t naive or oblivious; she just knew what served her better.

Last week I had wonderful news that a small but crucial project I have been striving toward had been recommended for funding. I let myself bask in  it a while, recalling the evolution of this idea and its long, slow foothold in the mind of the right PTBs (powers-that-be). I reflected on the gradual progress from “that’s not how it’s done” to “well, maybe” to “we’re thinking about it” — and onward and upward, always with the support and good advice of my boss.

Along the way I continually tapped my pool of experts in LibraryLand to reassure myself that yes, this is how things are done in the Real World, and continued to maintain my stick-to-it-ness both in my faith that I was right, but more significantly, that the problem was not one of being right or wrong, but of timing, being in the right place, and most of all, my ability to persuade.That’s not a matter of simple case-pleading; it’s a complex matrix of example-setting, seed-planting, stakeholder-building, marketing, and that palate-friendly sauce of patience and impatience that gives me the long view while keeping me on task. There isn’t a sign in our building that I haven’t pondered for its impact on our long-term capacity to grow and lead.

I also tell myself, time and again, that none of this is wasted effort–I’m learning, I’m growing, I’m contributing. I won’t always win the battles, but I’ll know what’s worth winning, and I’ll gain sheer knowledge on the way there. That’s not as fun as winning, but it’s not wasted, either. It’s worth smiling over.

I’m not going to get some shiny LibraryLand badge for my latest “win.” Yawwwwwn I got a facility assessment provisionally approved for funding yawwwnnnnn. Good people get stuff like that done every day, and who knows, others might have succeeded faster and better-er. But I am running the good race on my own terms, and embrace — and own — what I have done so far.

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