Leaders! ?

What do you think of when you read the word leaders? Odds are librarians is not the first image that comes to mind. The stereotypical image of librarian is still most often the somewhat graying woman saying “shush”, as much as it pains us all to admit it. That image is pretty much antithetical to the image of leader. The leader image is strong, decisive, charismatic, knowledgeable, etc., etc.

So why don’t even librarians think of themselves when it comes to thinking about a leader? There are probably many reasons including the historically clerical and scholarly nature of the profession. Add to that the majority of people who gravitate to librarianship are self-professed introverts who prefer books over people, have a passion for reading more than doing, and like working around others who share their enjoyment of books and reading. All very noble traits, but not generally associated with leadership.

A definition of leader that I have used for many years is;

A person, who by force of example, talents, and/or qualities of character plays a directing role, wields commanding influence or has a following in any sphere of activity or thought.

By contrast, to put leader in better perspective, a definition of a manager is;

A person who conducts, directs or supervises activities, especially the executive functions of planning, organizing, coordinating, directing, controlling and supervising of any business type project or activity with responsibility for results.

In short, a leader “does the right things”, while a manager “does things right” is a rough characterization. That is not to say the two roles are separate or mutually exclusive, because they are very much compatible, and each role generally requires some elements of the other, which is why so many people have a hard time distinguishing real leaders from good managers.

The distinction is in the “person, who by force of example, talents, and/or qualities of character plays a directing role, wields commanding influence or has a following”. Leaders have followers!

I don’t want to get bogged down here in all the nuances of leadership or followership, but the distinction is very important. Having authority over your subordinates makes it easy for you to tell them what to do and how and when to do it, because there are consequences if they fail to accomplish what you direct them to do. You are their Boss! Unless you’re a terrible person, employees will follow the boss.

Genuine leaders make followers among others over whom they have no authority. By “force of example, talents, and/or qualities of character” they play a directing role and wield commanding influence, and have a following. True leaders not only do the right things, they influence others to lend their support to whatever activity the leader pursues.

A real leader of a library makes the organization the best it can possibly be, while influencing the employees, board members, supporters and customers to help the leader’s efforts. It will require real leaders in the librarianship profession to recapture the library’s relevance, and guide it into the uncharted 21st Century future.


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4 responses to “Leaders! ?

  1. Unfortunately, my experience to date with libraries and librarians has led me to believe that the ability to manage tasks and activities is viewed more favorably–admired even–than the ability to “lead” with vision or thoughtful thinking, which is more often scoffed at than not. It seems to raise the “thinking versus doing” argument. I agree that going forward will require real leaders. I just hope that librarians are ready to embrace the merits of real leadership as much as they embrace the practicality of managing day-to-day tasks. As you said, both are important.

    • Thanks for commenting, and I certainly can’t disagree with your observations.
      Personally, during my 16 years in the profession, I’ve only met a handful of individuals whom I consider “leaders”.
      I have no doubt that they brought their leadership qualities into the profession when they entered, which raises a whole set of issues regarding the nature of leadership.

  2. Sally

    Your distinction between leadership and management is spot on. And I also, sadly, agree with the comment from Bringyournoise where library managers are often valued more than leaders.

    In my view it is also (sadly) true that managers are often mistakenly lauded as library leaders and as a result we reinforce the notion that doing things right is more important than doing the right things. Paul Brown has written an excellent article on this topic called “Leadership it ain’t bragging if you can do it”.

    • Thanks for the additional perspective on the subject, and I’m glad somebody else said it – “library managers are often valued more than leaders”.
      A manager will always be managing, whereas a leader will always be out in front leading.

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