Thursday, February 28, 2008

Conversational Leadership, Poor Library Leadership, and What I Learned from Cesar Chavez and Carl Hayden

I recently attended one of the PLA trainings for the Certified Public Library Administrator certificate in Phoenix last week. We talked about strategic planning and building advocacy for libraries. The program was presented by George Needham and James Peak. It was a great discussion over the role of libraries today and how libraries need to change. More librarians need to take leadership roles in their communities. However, too many are reluctant and others don't seem to approach their advocacy efforts in the most effective means. This past week I listened to two great podcasts on leadership, one from Uncontrolled Vocabulary and the other from the infopeople podcasts, both of which were discussing the same issue on leadership. There is either a distinct lack of leadership or bad leadership and there are others afraid to take chances and lead their organization.

The Infopeople Podcast with George Needham and Joan Frye Williams discussed library leadership. Near the end of the podcast they discussed a training in which librarians agreed to change the way they do things and begin to lead. They talked about how they weren't going to be afraid to try new things. George when on to say that it is good to fall on your keister. However, no one wants to do that publicly (for example, you don't want to see your doctor do that.) One of the funniest parts of the discussion talked about how many librarians are "A" students in school, but that mindset leads to a perfection mindset. If a project or plan isn't perfect, it doesn't go forth. I was certainly not an "A" student in school and I don't mind making mistakes. I know that I cannot be perfect, so I don't try to be. What is better is to aim for something that is really good and be open to feedback and criticism. That way, a really good idea can come to fruition, but then I can adjust it to make it better. If I roll something out and declare its perfection, I won't be very receptive to making it better.

There have been many demonstrations of poor library leadership in the last few weeks. A lock-out in Victoria indicates that the library board doesn't care about the library. The demotion of several librarians to save money. The nepotism at many library systems where head librarians are being replaced by people close to the Mayor with no library experience. A Boston Public Library director is forced out and the mayor wants the library to submit all invoices to the city instead of providing a lump sum (essentially taking over the trust for the Boston Public Library).

All these moves were recently lamented by John Berry and Kathleen De la Cook the fact that libraries are changing into faceless community centers and by promoting automation and self-service we are losing our support base. Kathleen compared it to art and education and how it has been decimated in much the same way. She even laments this in her own library system.

The scary trends are the precise reason why librarians need to get involved in their communities (This isn't to suggest they aren't, but these are lessons to be learned.) We cannot just sit around and take what happens to us. We need to be proactive to our key community members and demonstrate library ubiquity. It takes a conversation with people one at a time. When I ran through my strategic plan, I was able to identify the key movers and shakers in the community and then demonstrate how the library can serve each of them. That continuous proactive conversation is key to sustain advocacy.

Reading about great leaders we can learn how, through overwhelming odds, people were able to succeed. These people saw a problem and moved to solve it. In one case, Cesar Chavez saw people taken advantage of and decided to do something about it. In another, Carl Hayden realized the problem in Arizona is lack of water and helped build the greatest water diversion project in the history of this country.

Leadership is very simple. It really just involves talking to people to get them motivated for a common cause. Once asked how he gathered so much support for his cause, Cesar Chavez said "I talk to one person, then I talk to another." The student asked again, "no really, how do you do it." To which the reply, "I talk to one person then I talk to another." Gaining library advocacy or getting a project going is the same. When it comes to leadership, people who lead don't have to be in any type of administrative role. They can get people motivated for a cause by persuasion. One doesn't need to be in administration to make that change if you talk to enough people. An open compelling conversation can be enough.

On the other end, conversation can also help diffuse a situation. You can never ignore something. If you don't talk about it or confront it, it will come back to haunt you. I picked up this little tip from Carl Hayden (This is from the book by Stephen Shaddegg: Arizona Politics: The struggle to end one party rule.) He was running for re-election in 1952, Stephen Shadegg was his campaign manager. He had two democratic contenders. They both did not have a chance to beat Hayden as he had been the Senator from Arizona for many years. (He would be the longest serving senator to ever serve, but Strom Thurmond broke that record.) Shadegg sent him on trips to keep him away from his two rivals, thinking that is what he wanted. However, without his knowledge, the Senator met with both gentleman much to the surprise of Shadegg. The reason:

"Never give your enemies any more reason than they already have to go on hating you."

People often get riled up for no reason and a conversation, often face to face, is the best one to have. It lets people know that you are human and sincere. Many people fall into this trap in their communities and online. If people knew more about you and who you are, they are less likely to be your enemy. In fact, the more they talk to you, the more the two of you will see eye to eye. It diffuses problems, but in a proactive setting, avoids them altogether.

I liked this article from PLN (you will need to register to read it), here is the snippet:
Citizens, engage! Jamie LaRue Speaks

But civic engagement means more than politics and voting. It means taking actions, together, that result in a community worth living in, in which many can and do thrive.

That engagement will involve, on occasion, some conflict. There are competing visions of the future, and sometimes they have to be argued out.

The point, however, is not conflict. It is, finally, about cooperation, about processes of analysis and action to effect useful change.

What kind of community do you want to live in? And what will it take to craft that community, together? Isn't it time that you joined the conversation?


I am not trying to improve my library, but the community through the library. When workforce development came up as a community need, I needed to find out who to talk to and set up meetings with them. It takes persistence to the right people and get their attention. In the Infopeople Podcast, Joan Frye Williams stated that leadership is the ability to galvanize people into a group. This is what I was able to do when I spoke with the local college, the chamber of commerce, the Department of Economic Security. They are all moving in the direction of doing something, but not coordinating with each other. All I did was speak to each of them, see what they were doing, and then talk to the other groups. They had no idea what the other was doing.

The same thing happened when I tackled adult literacy. I spoke with local businesses regarding problems with their employees and they each knew others I could speak to in order to tackle this problem. Over time, I became the contact person for both literacy and workforce development because I formed the groups and made the contact. Now I know who to contact to move to make things happen. I don't have to talk about libraries, I talk about the community need. This is the key way we advocate, by talking to our community members and creating a library that fits the need of the community. The more we do this, the less people will see libraries as just books, but as a service that can do virtually anything. Once that is accomplished, libraries will be valued and insulated from some of the things that are happening around the nation.

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