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The practice of leadership

A couple of days ago I attended the retirement party of my friend and colleague Rochelle Logan. Rochelle was one of my associate directors at Douglas County Libraries for 14 years, and wow, she was a good one.

After I left (in January of 2014, after 24 years there!), I entered the world of writing, speaking and consulting. Much of the time, that meant talking about leadership. And it turns out I was not alone. A lot of people make a living talking about leadership.

But I was surprised by some of the people who wanted to hire me.  Often, they had their own talkers - university professors and professional speakers. Why didn't they just use their in-house talent? The reason, it turned out, is that although those people could talk about it, they hadn't actually done it. 

At Rochelle's party, I found myself thinking about the practice of leadership.  Before and during our time together, we built and grew a team (many teams, really). We made plans, saw them through, then built on them. We forged, had conflicts with, and resolved hundreds of relationships with our authorizing environment: citizens, elected officials, vendors, leaders, and followers from everywhere. We secured resources (we exploded our budget from about $688,000 to over $20 million annually), and managed them thoughtfully. By the end of my tenure, DCL moved from one of the lowest ranked libraries in the state to one of the top 1% in the world. (I'm talking about such output measures as circulation per capita, visits per capita, and so on, about which Rochelle was unusually knowledgeable.) We built or renovated seven modern, green, busy, highly functional libraries - and all without a dime of debt.  We launched innovative and game-changing initiatives, like our ebook platform and what we called "community reference." We saw many of our staff move on to their own positions of successful leadership, a matter of particular pride for me.

Not only that, we made major improvements to the lives of those around us. We aided in academic accomplishment, we helped establish businesses, we strengthened a host of civic projects. We connected people around ideas and stories. We made our community stronger and smarter.

As a child of the sixties and seventies, I was inclined to distrust authority, and, yes, anybody over 30. But it turns out that experience makes a difference. We got better over time, with practice and mutual support. And we did big things.

It's kind of like when your parents tell you to practice the piano if you want to get good. Talent is very nice indeed, a gift worth celebrating. But it's practice that leads to achievement.

So I learned two big things from my time as director. First, public institutions are not evil, despite the relentless harping on that destructive theme over the past decade. They can, and in the case of well-run libraries, usually do make real and positive contributions to the lives of individuals, families, businesses, and communities of all kinds. Second, experience matters, especially when disciplined by honest feedback, mindfulness based on values, and the will to improve.

I mention all this because, as a candidate for the presidency of the American Library Association, I've been responding to a lot of written and oral interviews lately that eventually ask, "so why should we vote for you?" It occurred to me yesterday that my answer, in part, is that I not only know how to talk about leadership, I have real practice in it, in making change for the better, not only for libraries, but for the wider world around us. In fact (with a little help my friends), I'm pretty good at it.