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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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7 Comments

  1. Martha Hruska wrote:

    Nice job calling out the *boring* but effective and important ways to lead.

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 1:28 am | Permalink
  2. Keri Cascio wrote:

    Thanks for this, Karen. As a manager I sometimes fought tooth and nail to do what was best for my staff. But I might always be remembered as the manager that finally got that one toilet replaced…

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 9:35 am | Permalink
  3. Bobbi wrote:

    Thank you for this Karen. I JUST had a conversation this week about learning from the bad. I have been fortunate to have some great managers & leaders during my career. Unfortunately I have also seen leaders who are moody, who flip-flop on every issue and play favorites, with a new favorite almost every week and whoa to the recent fallen-from-favor. I have seen leaders allow staff member to insult and berate other other staff publicly, where sniping and snide remarks were encouraged in management team meetings. I learned a lot from those leaders too. Of course those lessons come with a few more scares than the good ones. ;-)

    Tuesday, March 27, 2012 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  4. Keri, I know about those battles. Bobbi, I guess one thing I didn’t make clear is that to me there is a huge gap between the boss who is simply human and the boss who is spectacularly bad (or good). The behavior you describes ranges from the mild (I’m betting you’re moody some days — I’ve had a few of those myself) to the inexcusable (allowing sniping). Though in either case, it’s not really up to par with the abuse of an end-stage alcoholic nobody in power will deal with or the captain exercising absolute power to humiliate young women.

    After decades in the workforce, I’m a lot more tolerant of, and even respectful of, the bosses in the middle… I’m sure I’m there most days myself. Life teaches you that.

    Thursday, March 29, 2012 at 10:24 am | Permalink
  5. Bobbi wrote:

    Karen absolutely. Drinking at work is clearly an extreme I have not experienced.

    Please don’t misunderstand me I have had many middle ground bosses and I am as forgiving of bosses as I am of anyone else. We are all only human and doing the best we can (most of us, most of the time).

    The examples I was giving were extreme and unfortunately that flip-flopping I mentioned had moved way past the point of general moodiness to damaging moral and productivity.

    Friday, March 30, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Permalink
  6. Peg Nelson wrote:

    Appreciated your comments on Bob M. in EPA Region 2. Absolutely concur. He remains a positive influence. Glad to see you are still full of energy and ideas. Keep it up.

    Monday, April 2, 2012 at 10:41 am | Permalink
  7. Louise Hmmm wrote:

    Karen, I like your concluding statement of ‘learn, grow, contribute’ as this really resonates with me too. I’m currently studying information management and it’s a relief to see that the whole ‘community of practice’ is occurring as a personal mission statement (so to speak) and on a professional level in field. I appreciate the ‘like minded peers’ vibe that your blog has….so welcoming!

    Saturday, May 19, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink

2 Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    [...] 3-4, ER&L: As noted last week, whooshing in and out of Austin to participate in a closing [...]

  2. Online Personal Learning Network | BiblioTECH on Sunday, April 29, 2012 at 4:49 pm

    [...] in the “new society,” and the changing library world. The Free Range Librarian ruminates on leadership, while We Are Librarians ponders librarianship in a new age, and shared a study on what is needed [...]

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