Learning From Satan’s Example

I never set out to become a librarian. It was the late 1990s, and I had just returned from living in the UK for a couple of years with my husband and two kids and I had been doing the mom thing so long, I wasn’t sure I was even employable. I did have my super cool 80s power suit (complete with shoulder pads) ready to go as well as some super current DOS and Lotus 123 skills.  For reasons that still escape me, a library willingly hired me as a clerk.  I was sure this would all be temporary. As soon as I got my skill set updated, I was headed for bigger and better things. However, a couple of people crossed my path early in my career. They made such an impression, that I have often wondered if these people hadn’t been there, would I even be a librarian today?

My first introduction to world of library service was Patti. I have never seen anyone since then train as patiently as Patti did. She was systematic and supportive.  I think Patti knew every single patron in the library personally. She knew everyone’s book tastes, favorites and was always paying attention to the small details that customers loved. My entire philosophy of customer service is based on Patti’s attitude toward her clientele and her own personal standard of service. After being trained by her, my mantra became “What would Patti do?”.

However, if I am truly honest, Patti wasn’t the real driving force for developing a vision. She was the model of a hard working, reliable employee with high standards.  I still didn’t quite “get it”. Enter my co-worker, Satan*.  Satan was having a difficult day helping a “difficult” patron on the computer.  To the surprise of no one, Satan was getting frustrated. Satan had about a two question threshold for frustration. In my opinion, Satan would have found Mother Theresa difficult and needy. Satan’s customer service solution was tossing a computer manual to the patron and saying “Figure it out.  It’s not the job of the library to teach you.” In one instant, my vision of library service was crystal clear.

Satan is my example of an “anti-leader”. I would be willing to bet there are more Satans running around library world (and sadly very few Pattis). I  would have to say that “anti-leaders” have actually been more influential in shaping my philosophy.  These people are not just bad managers, horrible co-workers and slackers. It’s more than that.  When I was learning the ropes and struggling to find my way, these people, with their abysmal attitudes and customer hating philosophies helped me develop my inner Patti and pointed me toward something positive.

More often than not we have difficult people around us in library service and I don’t mean just the patrons. These folks have just as much to teach us about leadership and customer service as any Patti can and often more. Saying to yourself “I don’t want to be that” is powerful and can actually tell you more about yourself than you might think.

*not really his/her name, just a bit of hyperbole.

Learn & Lead


When I interviewed for my current job, the library board asked me to describe my leadership style. I thought that this was a tough question, because I don’t think anyone has just one style of leadership. I think that the best leaders have elements of all of the styles, and are able to adjust their style for different circumstances. There are lots of leadership styles, but these are the biggies that came to my mind at the interview:

  1. Sometimes I am a mediator, such as when two departments with equal stakes in a project each have different ideas on how to handle it, so I help them negotiate a mutual solution.
  2. Sometimes I am a dictator, making people do things that they don’t want to do–the “Because I said so” situations.
  3. I am also a delegator, which can lead to perceptions that I give away my authority or responsibility–I prefer to think of it as empowering my staff, but I get that others may see it differently.
  4. I can be collaborative, and I think that I am most collaborative with my managers in situations where we are brainstorming and building consensus toward a decision.
  5. For my final answer, I settled on the way I (think I) am most of the time, which is a consultative leader–I recognize that I have employees with different expertise and different insights, so I solicit their opinions to inform my decisions.

I think consultative leadership gives people a sense of buy-in to the process, fosters communication, and puts the focus on what is the best decision for the library, which is where the focus belongs. My staff tell me things I didn’t know, confirm things I did know, and come up with solutions that I never would have thought of. It’s a fantastic reality check. This is not delegative leadership or collaborative leadership, however, and that is a key difference of consultative leadership–the leader consults with others but still makes the final decision and takes responsibility for it.

Having a good interview answer is not necessarily the way it would play out in the real world, and luckily for you Library Lost & Found readers, I got to test my ideas in the real world fairly quickly.

The board hired me in 2008–pretty much right when the recession started, and I changed my leadership style to steer the library through a tough couple (or four, or five) years. When it came down to prioritizing expenditures and deciding on cuts, I worked with the board on large-scale priorities and implemented them. In this top-down approach, I was a dictator more often than not, and because we were just getting to know each other, staff thought being a dictator was my true style.

As our cuts have leveled off and we’ve achieved the board’s goals, I have been able to slide down the leadership continuum from the dictatorial style to the consultative style that is more accurately “me.” I do not regret the choices and decisions I made, but because “dictator” is not my natural leadership style, I am now more comfortable and relaxed at work. I hope that my staff notice a difference, although there’s really no way for me to know–it’s not like anyone comes up to me and says, “Hey, director, I like your style a lot more now than I did a few years ago.”

Looking back, I am glad to see that my initial thoughts and final answer on my leadership style have held up. I don’t think that I am the Best Director Ever (though I am working on it!), but I know that I can adjust my leadership style to fit different situations if I need to.