Pygmalion in Library Leadership

George Bernard Shaw wrote Pygmalion – a play in five acts – in 1913. It is the origin of the better known 1964 Oscar winning film “My Fair Lady.” [There were many other earlier adaptations on stage and screen.] Eliza Doolittle states;

You see, really and truly, apart from the things anyone can pick up, the dressing and the proper way of speaking, and so on, the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves, but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins, because he always treats me as a flower girl, and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you [Colonel Pickering], because you always treat me as a lady, and always will.

Pygmalion was a sculptor in Greek mythology who sculpted a statue of a woman that he then fell in love with, and as a result the statue came to life. [Yes, that’s where the Pinocchio story came from too.] Shaw took the story line and created his play about a linguistics professor who created a British society lady from a Cockney flower girl, at first on a bet, but then eventually fell in love with her. Eliza didn’t think Higgins could ever see her as anything more than a low-class flower girl, and he almost didn’t. But, the story had a happy ending, and everybody lived happily ever after.

So what? Expectations! Management experiments over many decades in many fields have shown that whatever the expectations of the leadership, subordinates are likely to perform at that level. Where leaders are perceived as being highly effective leaders and their subordinates are expected to be high-performing employees, the resulting outcomes are indeed higher. Where leaders are perceived as being ineffective and employees are not expected to be high-performers, performance tends to support those expectations. However, there are anomalies in some cases where subordinates don’t see themselves as marginal or low performers, and leaders/managers don’t see themselves as marginal or low performers.

THAT is when the Pygmalion Affect [not a recognized management term] takes over and people accomplish things that others did not think they were capable of accomplishing. THAT is what is needed in librarianship in the 21st Century.

People who have low expectations of themselves, their subordinates and others around them are likely to achieve just that – low performance. It becomes extremely difficult for employees to break out of that low self-image which results in a low self-esteem, professionally. But, librarians who believe they can accomplish great things, and expect excellent performance from their employees and their entire team, CAN accomplish exceptional things. It essentially becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. You will accomplish whatever you think you are capable of – low or high – it’s up to you!

Performance is largely dependent on how people are treated. Like Eliza, the Colonel treated her like a lady and she felt like one and acted like one. Professor Higgins treated her like a flower girl, and he made her feel like one, which to her – compared to feeling like a lady – was a terrible feeling. Do you treat your employees like they are more than just librarians, or do you treat them like something less?

In my last Post about the PLA president advocating leadership in the profession, I cited her quote that;

I fear that many key staff members in public libraries are reluctant to interact and work with local government administrators and other community leaders, at a time when it is absolutely crucial to relate how the library finds solutions to meet the needs and priorities of the communities we serve.

I would go further and assert that the reason “key staff members are reluctant to interact and work with local government administrators and other community leaders” is because they perceive themselves as – JUST LIBRARIANS.

Being JUST A LIBRARIAN is fine if that’s what a person wants to be. But the times and circumstances require library leaders in this uncertain 21st Century to be more. That is how JUST LIBRARIANS change the profession, and change the perception of their library within their community.

In almost every situation, the library director is considered an executive and on the same level as department heads and other “directors” within the community governmental agency. The library director should never be intimidated by other heads or leaders. Your job responsibility is every bit as large and important as any other branch of government, and you have a legitimate role to play within the community – more directly so than some other agencies. Lack of pot-holes is nice, but a great community library is so much better.

When ALL librarians recognize their rightful importance in their community – whether it is a town, city, county, school, collage, university, military installation, private industry, or library of any type – others will begin to recognize it as well. You deserve a voice in the community! You deserve a seat at the table! Do not be reluctant to take your rightful place in your community! Others will treat you the way you perceive yourself – as more than just a librarian.

[Adapted from “Pygmalian in management” by J. Sterling Livingston, Harvard Business Review, July-August 1969.]


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5 responses to “Pygmalion in Library Leadership

  1. Anonymous

    I experience the similar situation in my working place. Before I moved to my current working place, my previous place is really appreciate the librarian, giving full support to my jobs and trust to create activities. The support makes me confident and always makes me want to do something more for the library. Compare to my current place, at first we get the same support but later after they change the principal, the new management treat me like “just librarian”, a storage person more likely. At first I did a lot thing, acquisition, teaching library lesson, doing international book club, setting up the library, develop library software together with IT staff, and book fair. But now days, the management decide to handling the acquisition by themselves, and only want me to make a list of order (I used to do all, selecting, and ordering), and decide not to the book club anymore, and even the book fair are handling by the teaching staff.. (the book week are handle by the teaching staff, and more like a teacher event instead of library event, even we’re not invited in meeting).
    It’s so different, only by the person changing, the working environment also change… (I know that every person have a different style of leadership, but it’s just so affecting the work)

  2. Bob Farwell

    These are highly resonant comments Steve. The profession is not equated with assertiveness, and sometimes I think assertiveness is confused, inappropriately, with rudeness and incivility. In fact, those qualities that help make good librarians are equally salient in assuming more expansive community roles. Patience, a willingness to listen to and establish dialogues with constituents/residents/peers are essential, as are good analytical skills. Where we fall short is in using these skills to articulate a public case or message. Either we are too self-effacing, i.e. “I am only a librarian” or reticent because we fear our opinions will be criticized. Unfortunately, excessive modesty and over sensitivity to criticism are luxuries that are unaffordable. We do deserve a place at the table, if we are willing and brave enough to earn it.

  3. This is one reason I often advocate for library employers to look more closely at soft skills when hiring rather than just looking at boilerplate requirements that have been around for decades. Libraries and librarians serve people–that is the number one priority, whether those people are from the community, students, faculty, etc. We need people in this profession who have people skills. Those are just as (more?) important than having the expected library experience or job skills in my opinion.

    • Anonymous

      Very true! The skill requirements are changing and while core skills related to librarianship are important (and evolving) there are many ancillary skills that need to be redefined as essential. Perhaps “assertiveness training for librarians” needs to be part of the new core?

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