Archives For leading from the middle

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.

sneakered feet ascending stairs with text "embracing next-gen librarianship"There has been much talk in the library world and beyond about generations. We are attuned to generational differences when it comes to our patrons, how they learn and use libraries, how they navigate the overloaded information landscape.[1] In the hushes of our faculty meetings and hallways, however, we sometimes talk about millennials and Gen Y with an air of dismay, ambivalence, or even disdain when it comes to their digital, phone-obsessed, tech-loving ways.

So, it comes as little surprise to me that I tend to be met with a certain measure of dismissiveness when I use the term “next-generation librarian” to describe the kind of leaders I want to attract and develop at The Collective (a new kind of professional development event I co-founded with Corey Halaychik) and to see thriving in academic libraries.

First, people often assume that next-generation has to do with youth; age, however, is not a prerequisite for being awesome, embracing change, or thinking forward. Next-generation pertains to the next stage of development or version of our profession; there’s no expiration date on participation save an individuals’ decision to assign themselves one.

Second, there is an unhealthy and prejudicial stereotype that those who embrace technology wholesale do not appreciate the analog or the “traditional” library values. I’m not sure if this comes from a lack of exposure to tech-savvy librarians or a fear-based tactic to defend a Luddite’s value in the institution, but we should celebrate how mad tech skillz and core librarian values are not an either-or. Indeed, we when choose to hire candidates who have both, the rising tide lifts all boats and nobody drowns.

At our best, I have seen how we can celebrate how much next-gen librarians improve our services, creativity, and research outputs. At our worst, we dismiss them as somehow not “real” librarians and stagnate our organizational growth and learning.

So, I’m on a crusade to redefine what we mean by next-generation. The next-generation librarian is a concept that transcends the traditional generational boundary of tabloid research and listicles. Not defined by birth year, next-generation is about a mindset, a disposition, an outlook.

Next-gen librarians are:

Less change averse, more risk embracing

They are not threatened by new ideas or technologies; they are willing to experiment, test, and fail.

Skill developers

They are not afraid of being pushed out of the workforce—they hope to reinvent it—and as such are constantly training up. They may be more mobile and willing to change jobs based on the climate of the workplace.

More likely to be hybrids, blended or feral

They range from advanced career librarians pursuing JDs to better meet user copyright needs to young professionals choosing a career in librarians rather than Silicon Valley.

Impact driven

Citation counts don’t cut it; they want to see their work have meaning in the communities they serve in tangible ways. They believe libraries are curators, creators, and collaborators, not simply service-providers.

Leading from the middle

They are pushing the profession forward by starting programs and initiatives without necessarily being in traditional leadership roles; they create opportunities rather than waiting to be tapped or moved up on the organization chart.

vintage photo of a robot "Librarian 2.0" dispensing books

Future librarian of the past (via Flavorwire)

So, to sum up: next-generation is:

  • An attitude, not an age.
  • A willingness to learn, adapt, and evolve, not a particular skill set.
  • Seeing the librarian’s role as more than service.
  • Asking “How can we try that?” instead of “Why should we do that?”

Given the qualities above, it might seem daunting to attract, develop, and retain next-gen librarians, but it shouldn’t be so. In fact, many of the opportunities that next-gen librarians need and desire are what managers and administrators should be offering anyway if they want to steer a healthy living and learning organization. I would encourage administrators to:

  1. Provide professional development opportunities, internally and externally. It can be expensive, but there are many low cost initiatives, such as THATCamps, Library Juice Academy courses, and subscriptions to….and, whenever possible, create opportunities to attend more expensive options such as HILT, DHSI, etc. Furthermore, use individual skill-building to build towards an overall re-skilling program for the library.
  2. Consider internal working groups or skill-building programs. This is an essential step in cultivating a culture where having a single digital humanities or digital scholarship librarian does not mean others are “off the hook” for using technology to enhance their research and service.
  3. Support from above and below—allow for middle leadership. Create opportunities to lead projects and groups, start initiatives and programs, and build managerial skills through supervising student workers, graduate assistants, and practicum students. Giving leeway with low-level supervision and managing small budgets has the added bonus of grooming a next-generation of qualified managers and administrators who have on-the-job experience.
  4. Acknowledge and reward risk-taking, from good work to good failure. It’s hard to put yourself out there and maintain a next-gen mindset and energy if those individuals feel they will become pariahs for presenting outside-the-box ideas or conducting cutting-edge research.
  5. Create room in your cultural climate for new ideas and viewpoints, including dissent. Sometimes library departments lean towards attracting like-minded, introverted, not rockin’-the-boat types. Remember: civil disagreement and constructive criticism is collegial, too! If there’s no conflict or debate in your faculty meetings, you’re stagnating.
  6. Commit to invisible forms of diversity. We can’t always see difference—be it socio-economic, veteran status, or disabilities. Diversity in thinking and learning styles, thought processes, personality, disposition, and problem-solving is equally an asset to your organization, just like the forms of visible diversity we have come to appreciate and value.

If you’re doing all of the above, I doubt the term next-gen will ruffle any feathers. You’ll have probably already moved on to the next big thing…



[1] See, for instance: Sweeney, Richard T. “Reinventing library buildings and services for the millennial generation.” Library Leadership & Management 19.4 (2005): 165-176.

McDonald, Robert H., and Chuck Thomas. “Disconnects between library culture and millennial generation values.” Educause quarterly 29.4 (2006): 4.

Gardner, Susan, and Susanna Eng. “What students want: Generation Y and the changing function of the academic library.” portal: Libraries and the Academy 5.3 (2005): 405-420.