Archives For leading from any position

open book with title: Leading Without Supervising

I’m not a supervisor. Or a manager. Or even the cruel or gentle taskmaster of one student employee. But, in some respects, I feel I’m a leader in my professional life.

From my own experience, and from watching others in action, here are some elements I’d call “leading from within.”

Taking on leadership positions

Want your voice heard on policy decisions? Being an officer on a committee is frequently the path to that goal. In that role you may have a tad more clout in shaping discussions.

Enjoy organizing, hate evaluating? Both ongoing organizational groups, as well as ad hoc projects, need people to create expectations and shape projects. The payoff? Earning significant input into processes and outcomes.


Are you asked for input? Rejoice! Your opinion may be the one that makes something a whole lot more marvelous. (Or it could be ignored. Such is life.) My biggest challenges? I’ve got two. The first is working on only responding when I’ve got something useful to say. The second is responding when the issue seems unimportant to me, but is obviously important to the person asking for input.

Offering a friendly shoulder

Personal life? Professional life? Some elements inevitably intertwine. Fellow employees may seek someone who’s not their boss, and may not even be someone they regularly work with, as a sounding board for issues. Earning this kind of trust feels terrific. And knowing you’ve cultivated the shoulders of others to lean on, as the need arises, is a comfort.

Are there downfalls to choosing the route of subtle leadership? Yes:

Feeling left out?

Yeah, too bad. Designated leaders do earn the inside track on many matters.

Feeling a slight unease

Though I’m too far along in life to feel much true embarrassment for any decisions I make that don’t kill kittens, I have, more than once, endured a sort of squinty look from official leaders, usually accompanied by a questioning tilt of the head, when I say that management was never in the cards for me.

Being a nosy body

When you’re not a leader, but brimming with brilliant (brilliant, I tell you!) ideas, you may be perceived as offering your opinion on (a.k.a. sticking your nose into) too many issues. Which leads to the next point.

Needing to learn patience

I’ve learned to wait longer than I used to before noting a non-urgent perceived problem. Generally, that problem is being addressed somewhere in my organization.


Yeah, there’s that. But other non-monetary rewards may be offered or available if your value is noted.

I do feel there are some specific benefits to leadership without supervision. One is the ability, as even a longtime employee with “high level” expectations from management, to participate in frontline service. Having the experienced and the freshly passionate working together is to everyone’s benefit. Those who’ve been around have great breadth and depth of information. Newer people notice new angles and directions.
Perhaps the leading from within choice best fits a person with dilettante tendencies. Hey! I can’t lead! I think. My mind, which I acknowledge has only so much capacity, overflows with ever-tumbling thoughts and ideas that cry to be examined and acted upon. And I even follow-up on some! I feel certain that daily oversight of others and big picture thinking could make the whole shebang just explode.

hand presenting a lit sparkler with title "Library Lost & Found: Choosing Leadership"

Last month, I visited the Rural Libraries Conference in Alberta, Canada to speak about choosing library leadership. The conference is held every year in Grande Prairie, Alberta, which is the biggest city from Edmonton to Alaska, and the attendees are amazing librarians and library trustees from public and school libraries across northwest Alberta.

The focus of the conference this year was leadership, especially the kind of leadership that you can engage in from any position.

Leadership without hierarchy is particularly important for smaller libraries. A library staff of three may not have much of an official hierarchy – but you better believe each of those library employees can be a leader for positive changes.

At the conference, I shared the story of when I chose library leadership, along with five ways that anyone can choose library leadership in any position. This is a condensed version of the keynote address I shared.

True confession: I did not originally choose library leadership.

My library was rearranging services and my position was going to be eliminated. Because libraries are made up of benevolent, human oriented people, instead of laying me off, they looked for another position within the library for me. The only catch: it was a position supervising other people.

I said “Yes” to that position because I liked getting a paycheck, but I was nervous about supervising for the first time. I found very quickly that I would need to learn a lot in order to be a good supervisor. That was when I made the conscious choice to become a leader.

I believe leadership is a choice you make. You choose to go to work every day and create the best experience possible for everyone who walks in the library doors. You choose to go out in your community and advocate for your library. You choose to help people around you change their lives for the better, through the library and beyond.

I want to share few ways about how you can choose leadership and be a transformative power for good. Each of these is a practice that you can embrace from any position in the library – whether you just started yesterday, or you’ve been a trustee for a decade.

Say Yes!

The very first thing you can do to embrace library leadership is so simple: you can say yes.

This means saying yes to a request for help, or saying yes to an idea for a project, or saying, “Yes!!! Way to go team!” It means answering a call for volunteers with a yes. It means saying yes, I am a library leader.

Saying yes has a greater impact than simply agreeing to help out your colleague. Saying yes creates a culture of positivity in your workplace.

I’m a big believer in the power of positivity. I think that the language that we use with each other in our libraries can have an even greater impact than the actual actions that we take.

This practice sounds simple, but simple things can be the hardest. Is there something at your library that you’re saying “No” to lately? Is there any element of it that you can comfortably change to a yes?

Connect to Your Community

The second way to practice leadership is to connect deeply with your community. Of course, libraries are all about community. I’m especially talking about ways to talk about library resources outside the doors of the library.

This isn’t about a marketing campaign or getting on social media – although those are great.  This is about being a personal ambassador for the library just by participating in the community.

Heather Lowe from the Dallas Public Library has a great way of thinking about her role in the community. She says, “Being a public librarian, you are a librarian 24 hours a day. When you go to the coffeeshop, you’re still the face of the library.”

That’s such a great way to think about being a library ambassador in your regular life as a citizen in your community. Just by mentioning what you do in your library, whether you’re a trustee or a library employee, you’re reminding the people you encounter that the library exists and is a vibrant part of your community.

You can connect to your community by joining clubs, volunteering, or simply attending community events – just keep representing the library while you do it.

Is there a community organization that you could join? Is there a way you could build relationships with more people in your town?

Start Something New

Once you’ve connected with your community, you might hear about unmet needs that your library can help with. That’s when you start something new.

I don’t mean that you have to reinvent the library, or radically change things (but if you do, awesome!). This might mean making new improvements to existing programs and services,

Leadership is all about change. If our libraries were completely static and unchanging, we wouldn’t need leaders to help guide us.

Is there a project or idea that’s been in the back of your mind? What could you do to get it going soon?

Be a Mentor

The next library leadership practice that you can embrace is being a mentor. Many of us don’t feel quite ready to be a mentor. Personally, whenever I hear mentoring program, I think, “Great! How can I sign up to be a mentee?”

The truth is, everyone is ready to be a mentor to someone else.

Mentoring is really about encouragement and storytelling. You don’t need to be an expert to be a mentor. All you have to do is give moral support, and share stories about your own successes and failures.

If you’ve had a mentor, you know how important it can be to your career development – not to mention your self confidence.

You can make a huge impact by mentoring one group in particular: library pages. Lots of librarians got their start as a page or shelver. How many of those people do you think envisioned a lifelong career in libraries when they first started their jobs? How many do you think got support and encouragement from a more experienced employee?

Libraries are most effective when their employees reflect the diversity of their communities. You can help make the profession more diverse by hiring and mentoring library employees from diverse backgrounds.

You can start being a mentor by giving support and encouragement to other people especially people newer or more junior than you. If you’re on a board, you can take new board members under your wing. If you’re a long-time staff person, you can give advice to people figuring out what they want to do with their careers. It all starts with being supportive, encouraging, and willing to share.

Is there someone at your library who needs a little encouragement or direction? Can you talk with pages about their careers?

Share What You Do

Mentorship starts with sharing, but library leadership also means sharing more widely.

Libraries of all types are facing transformational possibilities – new ways of delivering collections, changing information needs, and of course – striving to doing more to serve communities while facing the reality of a budget.

Sharing what you do with the wider community of libraries engages you in leadership in the profession.

I want to encourage each of you to find a way to share your own story with a wider audience. Just as with mentoring, you don’t have to be an expert or have all the answers. You just need to be willing to share. Someone else might be going through the same issues. Your story might be about your own personal journey in libraries, or about something cool going on with your library.

Sharing what you do is like mentorship on a wider scale. Your efforts can spark ideas in libraries across the world.

There are many ways you can share what you’re doing. You can write journal articles or blog posts. You can put together posters or speak at conferences. Or, you can connect and share with a wider library community on social media. 

What awesome things are happening in your corner of the library world? What venue could you find to share them in?

These are five practices that anyone can use to choose library leadership, and making that choice is good for your community, for your library, and for you.

We know that our day to day efforts in libraries make our communities a better place. By taking on a leadership role, you can amplify that good in your community. Leadership can lead to new and better services for the people you serve.

Our communities need more voices coming from places like the library – voices that will advocate for service people in need, voices that will talk about investing back in the community, and voices that have a unique view on what’s going on in people’s lives.

Leadership is good for your library.

Your advocacy can bring in more funding for your library. Your efforts as a leader – including mentoring and sharing – will result in good things for your colleagues.

By demonstrating the possibilities for enacting positive changes, your leadership will have a ripple effect through your library.

Most of all, lead for you.

Leadership opens up career possibilities. For me, embracing lead to more and greater career changes than I ever thought possible. This was in both subtle and direct ways – for instance, during the interview for my most recent job one of the interview questions was, “What’s your approach to leadership?” But the subtle ways included connections I made with people, or projects that I saw through to the finish line.

Finally, leadership feels good. Embracing leadership gives you a sense of self-determination, of influencing your own destiny. Once you choose leadership, you can choose your own direction.

hands holding a lit sparkler with text Lead From Where You Are

Leading from where you are is about about recognizing your individual power and leading from whatever position you’re in.

We go through our entire lives being put into boxes – it’s how we create our identity. This is especially true at work. You get hired and you’re given a piece of paper that tells you what you do. The rest is vaguely described as ‘other duties as assigned.’

Even if you love your job this can feel pretty limiting. I can speak to this as I am a career assistant – my title has been ‘assistant somethingorother’ for about 10 years. Whenever I’ve been asked about my jobs I’ve usually replied, “It’s pretty good but I don’t want to be someone’s assistant for the rest of my life.”

That changed when I started working for Denver Public Library. I am the executive assistant to the city librarian and it was here that I first heard about Lead from Where You Are. I have become activated in my job in a totally new way and now I think maybe I could be someone’s assistant for the rest of my life. It’s not about my title, it’s about how I live my job.

We all have complex inner lives, right? We have desires, dreams, and ambitions. Those goals are usually not even that secret. How many people do you know who are working whatever job they can get while going to school? It’s not even about education. It’s about the fact that most of us want to feel valued. We want to be heard at work and we want to be respected. We are not automatons.

So here’s the big secret about leading from where you are:

You do not have to manage people to lead.

You don’t have to a fancy title. You do not need a spiffy corner office. Everything you need to be a leader comes from within you. No, this is not nonsense. It’s about how you engage with the world. You have to look around you and ask yourself some questions:

  • How do I add value?
  • What do I see that other people don’t?
  • What else can I contribute?

Once you start feeling confident that you are adding value to your organization, leading becomes easier. Realizing your leadership potential means you need to communicate with your team and have relationships built on mutual respect; that includes the people above, below and around you.

Communication and relationship building are skills that require you having a voice and being able to speak up. I know this is difficult for some people and it’s really a whole different topic (which I’ll explore in another blog post!)! I encourage you to practice in any environment that is safe for you.

Employers, you are KEY to helping your staff lead from where they are. This concept requires trust and, as I mentioned above, mutual respect. Employees are much more likely to lead and to make suggestions if you make it safe for them to do so. Help create an environment that fosters collaboration and ideation.

Lead from Where You Are does not mean your workplace is suddenly a wild west free-for-all. People who want to lead, check your ego. We all love to improve other people’s stuff (“Oh hey what you’re doing is terrible!”). Look for things you can control! Remember, you need to communicate and develop your relationships. You can have the greatest idea in the world and it will get shut down if people feel like you don’t respect them.

Bosses, allowing your employees to lead means you must listen with an open mind. Take the suggestions that make sense and USE them. And give credit where credit is due. Lead from Where You Are doesn’t mean you have to do everything someone suggests. That would be crazy.

Lead from Where You Are is a collaborative process. When people at all levels feel engaged and valued, everyone’s individual boxes come together and form a honeycomb. They are a true team. People can move in and out more freely and share ideas. An organization benefits from having a team of people who are all looking to improve the work and the mission.

This isn’t going to be simple. So let’s do some brainstorming. Leave some comments below and we’ll find out where there may be sticking points and how to potentially overcome them. Here are some thoughts to get you going:

  • What does it look like for you to Lead from Where You Are? This will look different for everyone, even people who share the same position.
  • Think about how you already communicate with your team. When have people responded most positively?
  • Think about your current position. What do you see that needs improvement? Who do you need to work with to make that change?

Now, if you’ve read this and are shaking your head, thinking, “That won’t work where I am,” I’ll remind you: you do have to try. You may have to try multiple times and in different ways. Part of leading is taking a leap of faith. If you do try, and it doesn’t work, consider that sometimes leading from where you are means leading yourself somewhere else.