image via jaqueline-w on Flickr
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?
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.
The Leadership in a Connected Age conference i recently attended was really successful. Ideas and inspiration abounded, so I figured I would share some of the goodness.
One of the keynote speakers Steve Shepard has some really useful ideas about how to lead and create the future for your organization. If you want to learn more about his ideas I would urge you to check out some of his articles (especially the one on The Reverse Engineered Future).
He gave a great quote by Alan Kay. “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” This was primarily the theme of what he was talking about—creating a believable, exciting vision for where your organization. Then it should be easy to get people to follow you and build momentum. The other quote he gave was from the Cheshire cat in Alice in Wonderland. “If you don’t know where you’re going any road will take you there.” It is essential to have a clear vision to be able to innovate and stay relevant.
He also discussed the power of harnessing the crowd. He gave the example of Who Wants to be a Millionaire. You would always want to ask the audience over phoning a friend. Crowds are smarter than individuals. Use this to your advantage, and don’t underestimate the power of crowds.
You don’t always want to be a part of the crowd though. Shephard said, “That warm sensation of everything going well is just the body temperature at the center of the herd.” It is also necessary to get out there and take risks. Create an environment in which failure is welcomed. Failure is the only path to innovation, and without innovation organizations become irrelevant.
There was also a lot of discussing about different social media tools. Cathy Resmer hosted a great session where she outlined a number of tools and best practices. But as Elaine Young a professor here at Champlain college states, “not everyone is using social media.”
This is very true, and it is important to keep in mind when engaging your users. Sure you’ll want to use some social media tools to engage your patrons, but also have some low tech options. Sit down and talk to a group of your patrons. Have conversations where they are. Use all the tools at your disposal, even if that tool is just a phone or you asking someone in person for feedback.