On Leadership in Libraries

NELLS participants

photo by NELLS participant Kathleen Spahn

This past week I attended the New England Library Leadership Symposium facilitated by Maureen Sullivan in North Andover, MA. She lead a challenging and rewarding program over the course of a week, and as a group we did a lot of sharing and learning.  I wanted to distill down a few lessons that stuck out for me after reflecting on the symposium:

Authenticity is key to leadership and a positive work environment

In order to be successful as a leader you need to be authentic and an open, honest communicator. You need to have a good understanding of yourself. You should not avoid problems or just let them solve themselves. One of the keys to leadership is to foster an environment where you and the whole staff can be their authentic selves and not worry about speaking up or challenging assumptions. If people are constantly walking on eggshells, few new ideas will be presented. One way to do this is by treating people like whole adult human beings as opposed to resources to be managed. You should do things like say thank you or admit mistakes, not because that is what you are “supposed” to do, but because you genuinely respect the other humans that you work with. This will foster trust and allow others to be open, honest, and authentic with you and each other.

You have to manage your own career and happiness

If you are not happy somewhere or are no longer being fulfilled or challenged, you should try to find a way out. In this economy that is not always possible, but if that’s the case you should be looking for other opportunities, even ones that might not be in libraries. Maureen talked about how it would be great if more folks would find work outside of libraries and effect change with libraries in mind. But while you are looking for opportunities, you also need to make sure that you are currently doing work that is fulfilling. This could be serving a state organization, organizing a conference or volunteering in your community. Everyone deserves to be happy and fulfilled in their work. This means you have to take control of your own happiness instead of having it dictated to you.

Leadership exists on a continuum

Leadership is not an either/or position. Everyone has opportunities and the capacity for leadership no matter what they do. One concept Maureen discussed was emergent leadership. This is the idea that leaders can arise out of groups not based on their status but on their abilities. She also called it leading from the middle. Even if you are not in a position of formalized leadership that does not mean you cannot still gain leadership experience. There are a number of programs (ALA’s Emerging Leaders program comes to mind) that offer opportunities to practice leadership skills. There is also no shortage of work to be done in state, regional or national associations. You can take on projects that require project management skills. If you want to learn to lead, the opportunities abound.

The symposium was awesome and I’m likely going to write a few more posts that were inspired by it. I would recommend NELLS or something like it (Tall Texans, Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians) to anyone, no matter what your current position is. There are a lot of changes that need to be made in libraries starting now. We can all effect this change, it just takes some practice.

Andy Burkhardt


  1. Andy, I’m so glad you had a rewarding time at NELLS. I went to the last one and have so much respect for Maureen.
    Best, Mary

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