Sunday, February 7, 2016

Leadership: definition and challenge

I spoke over brunch last Saturday with Peggy Sullivan (American library luminary and a fascinating, insightful conversationalist) about the definition of leadership.

Based on comments one of Peggy's bosses once made (and I'm paraphrasing), here it is:
  • figure out where you want to go
  • do stuff that gets you there

Any questions?

The more I think about it, the more powerful it gets.

In so many libraries - in so many organizations of any kind, public or private - we have "leaders" who don't lead. "Where do you want to go?" is usually some variant of "where do we want to go?" That is, direction is not just the independent judgement of the putative boss. Ideally, it's the best thinking of an informed and thoughtful staff, facilitated by (and contributed to, certainly, by) the leader. If that staff and leader have any smarts at all, direction is grounded in user (customer/member) needs or aspirations. To reverse that flow: who do we serve, what have we learned about how best to serve them, and what are the key directions that matter?

The point: leaders should be able to say, succinctly, based on thoughtful analysis, "here's where we're going."

"Does this take us there?" is equally important. Every institution has legacy programs and activities. We get invested in them, both financially and emotionally. But do those programs and activities move us in the direction we need to go? And if not, will we have the honesty and courage to let them go? Will we have the creativity to spin out new ones? And will we hold ourselves accountable to the vision of powerful and effective service?

If leaders can't answer those questions, and with answers that assert our agency (here defined as the ability and will to act on our own behalf), they're not leading.

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