For 3 years, it ran in the Greeley Tribune. Since then, it has run in various subsidiaries of the Douglas County News Press. I still have most of my columns in digital format.
For many years, I only gave myself one rule: try to work the word "library" into every piece. My intent was to think in public about just what librarianship means at the end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st.
There have been many advantages for me. I found that putting library plans out in front of the public, and getting feedback about them, helped me make better decisions. Sometimes, I found that it was very difficult for me to describe those plans or policies -- the kind of thing that makes me realize that they might not be good ideas after all. The weekly discipline of explaining my profession to the public keeps me more mindful, more honest. It also has provided steady visibility for the library and its issues.
August 18, 2004 - Leadership in the Public Sector
Several weeks ago I wrote a column about decision-making at the library. I'm still thinking about it.
I should have said, in my other column, that I was talking about operational or management decision-making. There's another kind that I didn't mention: leadership.
This is a different level of deciding: picking the big things that the whole organization will focus on. Not operational, but strategic.
Strategic decisions tend not to be made at the lowest level of an organization, but at the highest. Front line staff have the best insights on HOW to do things. Leadership decisions concern the positioning of the organization within a much larger environment: WHAT to do.
Through my years of library leadership I've learned two absolutely contradictory lessons. The first one is that leaders of any public sector organization never have as much power as they think they do. Yes, it's possible to mandate change, to force it down people's throats. But that kind of brute, blunt force tends not to work very well. People fight back.
The second lesson is that leadership matters nonetheless.
What does a leader do? He or she sets both an agenda for change, and a tone. The agenda for change is what most people mean by vision: two or three wonderful opportunities; another two or three things that are really important, that keep re-framing the daily stuff.
People seek meaning, and they need context to find it. When leaders articulate that context, people can more readily fit the random incidents of life into a pattern, into predictable currents. That makes it easier to navigate them.
Leaders also set a tone. I've worked in plenty of places that were out and out toxic emotionally. Everybody bickered and backbit, and withheld information, and scrambled for petty status.
I've worked in other places where the leadership communicated a sense of embattled paranoia.
I've tried, in our library, to set up an environment that avoids both of those, that takes pride in productivity and competence, that finds real pleasure, even humor, in service. I try to be courteous, and I expect other people to be, too. My motto: "he may be wrong, he may be right, but come what may, he'll be polite."
Leadership doesn't just belong to directors, of course. It also belongs to boards and commissions, the folks that oversee the directors, the budgets, and public policies generally. It belongs to legislators, the people who craft our laws. It is the solemn responsibility of all our elected officials.
We have been in the midst of several electoral contests recently, some of which have generated surprisingly strong emotions.
But the issue is important: what do we look for in our leaders? How will they shape the social, economic, and even physical world around us?
However the elections finally come out, it's worthwhile to thank the candidates -- all of them. Stepping into the political fray takes a truly incredible amount of time, money, patience, hard work, and family support. And of course, not every one is going to win. Leadership also entails taking a risk.
The difference between democracy and tyranny is choice. Having candidates who offer real differences is a very good thing. I'm grateful to them.