When I was at a session on leadership at the Rhode Island Library Association conference, someone in the audience raised a question that I’ve thought a lot about myself: “How can I bring about change when I am not in charge and don’t have power or authority?” I’ve heard this question echoed other places. It’s a concern shared by many librarians hungry for change. Margaret J. Wheatley gives a more unorthodox definition of leadership. She says that “a leader is anyone who wants to help at this time.” I agree.
Leadership does not mean calling all the shots or having a big office, it means wanting to help and doing what you can to bring about change. Coming back to the original question, “how can I enact change when I’m not in charge,” there are strategies that I’ve found that allow you to start leading whatever your position:
- Start acting like a leader - To be a leader you have to play the part. You can’t sit silently at meetings or complain that you have too much work if you want change. Leaders don’t complain, they put forward positive visions and solutions. Leaders may plan, but not endlessly. They don’t sit around wishing or waiting for change. They take action. They also value everyone on the team and try to empower them. Leaders are dedicated and set an example for those around them. By acting like a leader people will see you as one and start looking to you for ideas and opportunities to collaborate.
- Ask good questions – Real leaders do not simply accept the status quo. They are constantly evaluating their organizations. They look for ways to improve their organizations, not just keep them afloat. To this end, they ask questions about decisions and about things that are taken for granted. “Why do we still subscribe to this resource?” “Why do we still have a print reference collection?” Leaders also ask good focusing questions. Questions focus us and “human systems grow in the direction of what they persistently ask questions about.” By crafting positive questions that direct us towards shared goals and visions we lay the groundwork for change.
- Take on responsibility – If you want change you have to be willing to work for it. If you put forward an idea that you think is really great, be willing to take responsibility for seeing it through. You can get people to help you, but you can’t simply propose endless ideas that others should implement. Be willing to accept responsibility, take on projects and actually “be the change you want to see.”
- Understand your influence - Just because you do not have formal power or a fancy title does’nt mean you have no power. Everyone has and can increase their ability to influence others. Your influence comes in a number of ways whether it’s personal abilities, structural and organizational abilities, or social connections that you’ve developed. A great resource I’ve read about understaning influence is the book Influencer: The Power to Change Anything.
- Find a partner (or two) - No leader is an island. Change cannot come from just one person (especially not just one person at the top). Change comes from a small group of committed individuals. Find people within your organization as well as people outside your organization who want to bring about change. By partnering on projects and inviting others to come along on the change ride you create more groundswell and support for whatever initiative you are trying to realize.
Leadership is not a position, it’s an attitude. Everyone in an organization has the ability to bring about change. The first step is recognizing that.
What are some strategies that you use to bring about change in your organization without formal power?