Top Ten Traits of Great Library Leaders

As we approach the end of 2012, I thought I’d get back to my theme for the year – Library Leadership. In order to be a great leader, a person must possess and demonstrate certain characteristics, or traits of leadership. Here are 10 that should be at the top of anyone’s list who is striving to become a great library leader.

I have written before about library leaders needing to be visionary (Being “The Library” Again, Many 21st Century Library Directors Are NOT Librarians, and Go Big or Go Home!). That point can not be over emphasized. In today’s environment of constant change causing an ambiguous future, leaders must be able to create a vision and then share that vision with every member of their library. They must be able to persuade, teach, mentor, coach and “by force of example, talents, and/or qualities of character” play the primary directing role in the library while enlisting followers to make the dream a reality.

10. Great Leaders Do Not Do It Alone
Whenever someone thinks one member of the team is a super star, it’s best to remember that EVERY true leader requires followers, and not just followers, but individuals who can and will comprise a team. The most heavy lifting is done by a team. The best work is accomplished by a team that believes in the library and owns the vision. I suspect that life has shown us all that although we like to think we’re indispensable, once we’ve left an organization, life goes on and work continues in whatever new direction it will, doing quite well without us.

“There is no indispensable man.” Franklin D. Roosevelt

9. Great Leaders Express Gratitude
A great leader will never miss the opportunity to show appreciation for someone’s efforts, and successes. The power of appreciation is strong, and as noted below, can be a strong motivator. Studies have shown that the number one reason why people leave an organization is lack of appreciation. It’s not money, it’s failure on the part of the leader to make the employee feel valued and recognized for the work they do. Criticism seems to be the easiest thing in the world to give, but encouragement is something a great leader does not have to work at doing.

“Flatter me, and I may not believe you. Criticize me, and I may not like you. Ignore me, and I may not forgive you. Encourage me, and I will not forget you.” William Arthur Ward

8. Great Leaders Understand Motivation
What motivates you? Probably many things, including a belief in what you do as something worth doing. Money? Sociologists suggest that money is not a motivator, but lack of it can be a de-motivator. Praise? Everyone likes praise, unless they believe it is given without sincerity. Hope? Concerning working in a library, the best motivation is the intrinsic value of the work itself. Great leaders recognize each employee’s motivators and tries to ensure that they fulfill those for all employees. Motivation takes many forms.

People work well when they believe they are good at what they do. Unknown

7. Great Leaders Delegate and Empower
Delegation is not the same as empowerment. Delegating authority to accomplish a job is routine and generally pertains to the specifics of that job. Empowerment means giving employees the authority to step outside their specific job duties to enable them to accomplish other tasks that are at the core of the organization’s values. For example, it would not be considered normal for a cataloger to be empowered to take steps to ensure the highest quality customer service. That is generally reserved to reference staff and youth services librarians and others who deal directly with the customer. But why shouldn’t every employee of the library be empowered to ensure that every customer is totally satisfied with their experience at the library in every respect? Great leaders not only delegate, but empower everyone to make the library more than it can ever be without their contributions.

“As we look ahead into the next century, leaders will be those who empower others.” Bill Gates

6. Great Leaders Are Learners
It has been relatively recent, maybe 20 years at most, that business and most other public endeavors have encouraged life-long learning as an important factor of success in today’s society. With the proliferation of technology our society has transitioned to a ‘trial and error’ method of learning. We learn to use technology by playing with it, using it to do whatever we think it will do, and learning how to make it work. However, the great leader is an active learner, seeking professional development opportunities, listening to people, especially employees, and assimilating knowledge for the purpose of becoming a better decision maker, and a better leader.

“Tomorrow’s illiterate will not be the man who can’t read; he will be the man who has not learned how to learn.” Alvin Toffler

5. Great Leaders Are Problem Solvers
Understanding the problem is essential to solving the problem. Identifying the problem correctly helps one narrow it to the point of being able to solve it, because we can usually see the solution if we can grasp the problem. How often have we heard something like – ‘That’s great, but you solved the wrong problem.’ – whether it was regarding a school math question, or taking care of business? Understanding the problem correctly is the key to solving any problem. And, here we see again, one of the qualities of leadership is solving problems before they get totally out of hand. Combine responsibility with problem solving and great leaders get things done!

“One of the tests of leadership is the ability to recognize a problem before it becomes an emergency.” Arnold H. Glasow

4. Great Leaders Are Decision Makers
How often have you been faced with a problem that needed solving, but you either weren’t sure how to tackle it, or didn’t think you had time to tackle it right then, or for whatever reason just put it off. What usually happens? The problem gets worse. It never fails. Problems do not fix themselves, regardless of what some people say. It is true that ‘No decision is a decision.’ If you put something off long enough circumstances will decide for you, and often times that decision is not a desirable one. Life’s experience has shown most of us to address problems as soon as they are recognized, to prevent them from becoming much bigger, and to solve them sooner rather than later. Great leaders just do it!

“To reach port we must sail, sometimes with the wind and sometimes against it – but we must sail, not drift or lie at anchor.” Oliver Wendell Holmes

3. Great Leaders Take Responsibility
Responsibility is a fundamental human trait that allows organizations to function. Individuals who recognize a responsibility to do their best, as well as see what needs to be done and take responsibility to get it done, are the life’s blood of any library. Having a sense of responsibility motivates people to do the right things, it is the cause of much of the world’s successes, and lack of it the cause of much of the world’s problems. A great leader takes responsibility for everything his/her library does, or fails to do. No IF’s, AND’s or BUT’s about it. The buck stops at the library director’s desk.

“I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every possession, a duty.” John D. Rockefeller, Jr.

2. Great Leaders Are Visionary
We all know that Jules Vern was a highly imaginative guy. But my bet is he took a few ideas from Leonardo De Vinci – the guy who envisioned the helicopter and parachute – in the middle ages. I think Walt Disney must have taken after them to create his magical kingdoms, and so many others must have also had vision to be able to create monumental dams and bridges, space ships, computers, artificial limbs, and medical marvels of all kinds. I suspect Vern was hoping that someone would achieve and make real what he only dreamed, and they did. A great leader has the vision that, with his/her leadership ability, will influence others to make real.

“Anything one man can imagine, other men can make real.” Jules Verne

1. Great Leaders Have High Character
Think about a situation in which you knew you could do something and no one would EVER know about it if you didn’t tell. Good or bad, doesn’t matter, your actions would never be found out. There would be no evidence of your actions linked to you. There would be no repercussions to you or anyone you knew. That’s not to say that your actions would have no impact on anyone, actions always have impact on someone or something, just no one you know who could trace your actions back to you. What would you do? The answer to this question is what constitutes a person’s character.

“The measure of a man’s real character is what he would do if he knew he would never be found out.” Thomas Macaulay

Library leaders should be striving to be “great” leaders. It’s what the profession needs to flourish in the ambiguous future and regain the library’s relevance in the community. It is what’s needed for survival.


The idea for this post was taken from an article by New York Times and Wall Street Journal Bestselling Author Shep Hyken.


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16 responses to “Top Ten Traits of Great Library Leaders

  1. Hello Dr. Steve,
    You forgot to mention taking time out to reinforce these traits, which you have done. Having owned my own business then selling it, I see everyone would benefit from this artcle. I feel and see that there is stewardship lacking in promoting these ideas as many are only interested in preserving the hierarchy rather than bring more into the fold and create a wider base or team. This is again another great argument for bringing in a B.S. for entry level jobs. Not doing so is a major flaw with the vision of its leadership. You hate to keep beating a drum but in terms of motivation some armies won’t march without it.
    Excellent message, have a great and safe holiday season to all!

    • It struck me that I’ve never come right out and stated that librarianship is so tied to academia that it, to a great degree, is unable to shed that elitist hierarchy mentality so inherent in education. I think you may be correct in that additional advantage to beginning the career with a BS, like most every other profession, would begin to diminish that mindset. We’ll just have to stick to our beliefs and keep beating the drum – no matter who gets a headache. 🙂
      Happy Holidays to you too Frank.

  2. The challenge of course is how to teach and learn these skills. I find that making the leap to putting good leadership in practice is at times as hard as remembering that I really don’t need another piece of chocolate.

    • Thanks for that observation. I think those particular traits are mostly breed into an individual, at least the higher level ones like character and vision. Certainly gratitude and decision making can be mentored, which is the best way to learn these skills. Unquestionably, practicing great leadership is WAY HARDER than resisting that next piece of chocolate – but not always as satisfying. 😉

  3. Sarah

    Why SHOULDN’T a cataloger be “empowered to take steps to ensure the highest quality customer service”?? Define customer – internal or external? Why wouldn’t a cataloger be interested in making sure that fellow librarians have the best possible database for obtaining what they need? Why wouldn’t a cataloger be interested in designing the best possible access tool so that all sorts of users can find what they want (or perhaps what they may not know they want)? Let’s be visionary here and not fall into stereotypes.

    But here’s my take on great leaders – they treat everyone the same, no matter where they are on the food chain, and people don’t have varying opinions of them depending on how they have been treated, wherever they are. Too often I see different groups see certain “leaders” differently because they have been treated differently. Sooner or later it shows.

    • Thanks for your perspective. I agree wholeheartedly, great leaders should treat everyone in the organization as though they have the most important job – BECAUSE THEY DO! Everyone should be empowered to ensure the highest quality customer service, which was also my point.

  4. StevenB

    That’s a fine list. I don’t think anyone could argue with it because someone who does all these things should be an admired leader. I would add one more quality that I think transcends all those listed. Great leaders are trusted. If a leader fails to earn the trust of colleagues some of these other things will not happen or if they do there won’t be support. A great leader is someone who still is supported by followers even when he or she fails or makes a mistake. That’s all right because followers believe in this person and have compassion because the relationship is built on trust. More on this at:

    And, yes, great leaders have the confidence to make decisions, but that may not be enough. Make a couple of bad decisions and you might not be around much longer.

    • Sarah

      If there isn’t a “sell job”, then there can’t be “buy in”. And people who aren’t trusted can’t close the deal.

    • Thanks Steven. I agree, but I’m not sure I would go as far as saying trust transcends everything else on the list. I think trust is built by practicing and displaying those other traits on the list. A great leader builds trust among others by engendering motivation, empowering others, helping solve problems, demonstrating responsibility and displaying high character. Hopefully, people will understand that the individual traits listed in this manner is only a feeble effort to identify them individually even though they ALL MUST work in concert to make a great leader.

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  6. Sarah, you point is well taken customers whether internal or external deserve an empowered, educated, and motivated service provider. That provider must have the leadership and trust to achieve those goals. This is what is lacking with the ALA not coming forward and supporting a BS in Library Science yet allows someone with a high school diploma to have an entry level job while not being trained and educated. That logic not only confuses the issue it discredits the trust and reasoning of the leadership, which lowers morale. There is a degree of snobbery in them saying well I had to pay for for my MLS, whether right or wrong you have to pay for yours. And when we can cheat the process lets hire high school diplomas.Thats not leadership.

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