Great Leaders Listen, Do You?

It is with great pride I have to announce that I have just been chosen for the Colorado Association of Libraries’ very first Leadership Institute. There were 25 of us chosen from around the state, and this will involve a year’s worth of workshops and mentoring—followed by two years of service within CAL.

Since I am not particularly motivated to participate in the ALA at large—for reasons Emily at “In the Library with the Lead Pipe” laid out much more eloquently than I could—I am very happy to be involved on a local level. I love this state, I am immensely impressed by the personalities and organizations here, and I think there is a lot to get behind.

So, before I write up my thoughts on Internet Librarian, I’d like to take a moment to discuss a few thoughts about leadership in the library world.

Recently, I read a post at “The Medium is a Message” which stated that “Consensus Building Cripples Library Innovation”. As those of you who know me well already know, I come from a background of radical political activism—and this includes methods of non-hierarchical organization and inclusive decision-making such as decision-making by consensus.

However, activists know that decisions by consensus are part of a long tradition stemming from practices of the Quakers and other egalitarian groups, and have worked hard over the years to create ways of making decisions by consensus that don’t stifle every good new idea that comes around. For one thing, because most of these groups explicitly try not to encourage a hierarchy. We don’t allow certain “leaders” to develop such positions of authority that no one wishes to challenge them when they try to suppress new ideas or do little but champion their own.

However, because our library organizations are still largely organized in hierarchical structures and explicitly encourage the development of “experts” through tenure, position, etc. we will continue to have trouble with this problem. What are some possible solutions? Well, perhaps it is time to look more closely at how our libraries are structured. Perhaps we should be looking at more of a network model rather than a tree.

Absent this drastic (although potentially very beneficial) move, we can still do more to allow for this phenomenon to not hinder our organization’s innovation. We can train our people on how to fight. I’ve been listening to “The No Asshole Rule” and it is a great book on management and organizational culture. One of the things he discusses is that great organizations don’t discourage conflict—they encourage it. They just try to make sure that it is done right.

He talks about how at Intel, employees are taught how to argue their ideas and/or criticize them using logic and not allowing it to turn into personal attacks. Further, anyone is allowed to question anyone else in these meetings—without fear of retribution at a later time just because they might have stood up to someone higher up on the org chart. This trust makes for a very engaged and healthy organization. People are happy and feel motivated to contribute. Ask yourself—is this how it feels at your organization?

There are some other things we can learn from the way that horizontalist groups reach consensus. For one thing—not every question has to be an either/or. Perhaps you don’t like an idea. But, in being asked to defend your position, you realize (or it becomes apparent) that the idea itself is not detrimental to the group. When a vote is cast, you may stand aside. You can simply say, “well, I don’t support the idea, but I don’t have any good reason to try and block it”.

Created by grant horwood, aka frymaster, dual licensing was used GFDL and CC 2.5

However, there’s a big problem out in Library land with this idea. I’m going to go ahead and say it. It’s called EGO.

It’s an ugly thing, people. It’s nasty, and it doesn’t serve libraries or our patrons. This is one of those dirty little secrets about being user-centered that I don’t think many of us want to say.

It is not user-centric to be focused on your own power within the organization. It’s not user-centric to be more concerned with achieving status in the ALA or tenure on your campus than with listening to your users and giving them what they want. It’s time to put our money with our mouth is. We claim to be user-centric, but in reality we often are not. We take in user’s ideas and then we decide for ourselves which of them and how to implement them. And we look down our noses at our users far too often. This is not behavior worthy of status and respect. And this old paradigm has got to die.

Those of you who know me personally know that I advocate learning a lot from the marketing world. And I know that this is hard to swallow for some in libraries. But here is something that marketers can teach us and that they do right. We don’t have to adopt all of the marketing field’s practices—and believe me I would never, never want that. But I’m willing to get out of my own way long enough to be open to what they do right. Good is good no matter where it comes from.

If Google has taught us that making search easy serves our users better, then we can stop being jealous and petty and do the same thing. There’s no reason why we can’t be working hard to make a federated search product and easy to use discovery tool work the way our patrons want it to. It’s the information we want to deliver—not a series of hoops to jump through. If there’s anything we should be observing from the rise of the Internet is that our users will become as savvy as they need to, when they need to. That may or may not happen with our assistance. It should be our job to lead the way in showing what available and being ready assist their journey of self-discovery. If our users are not savvy information consumers—then why are there so many participatory web sites out there that befuddle librarians (“information professionals”)?

We hate to admit that we’re not the only experts in town but it’s time we do so. Set up ways to listen to your users and to listen to people from all over your organization and be proud of the fact you do so. If instead you’re wasting your time on petty process and procedure you’ve lost your way. Spending hours deciding on whether it’s okay to allow your staff to have a few flex hours is beneath a librarian. Don’t be that petty. Don’t tell your users they can’t talk to you because they might ask for things that you don’t want to deliver. Don’t pooh-pooh an idea because it didn’t go through channels. The time for this hierarchical self-importance has passed.

Our users are wonderful, amazing, fantastic, fascinating human beings. As Constructivism shows us, we are all in this together, as learning partners, and we can learn from them while offering our own knowledge and that is what makes us professionals. That is what earns us dignity. That is precisely how we should be earning our status—by how well we listen, how empathetic we are, and how responsive we are to the people who depend upon us for our expertise, whether it be our staff or our users.