Thoughts on the Leadership Institute for Academic Library Managers at Siena College

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to attend the Leadership Institute for Academic Library Managers at Siena College, featuring sessions on emotional intelligence, strategic thinking, communicating effectively, leading change, leadership style, and developing teams taught by Paul Thurston, David Liebschutz, Melinda Costello, and Erik Eddy. I found this to be an incredibly valuable experience where I learned far more than I have space for here. But I wanted to at least reflect on a few key points, things that I learned not only about leadership but also about myself.

Attending as an aspiring manager

A few weeks before the institute took place, all of the attendees were sent a getting-to-know-you type survey. One of the first items on the survey was about how many people you manage. There was a list of options, with the lowest option being something like 1-5.

Here’s the thing.

I manage zero people. There was no option to pick zero.(1)

This is understandable, considering this is an institute for the library managers but I immediately suffered a fit of impostor syndrome that haunted me up until the first day or so of the conference. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to participate meaningfully in conference activities that relied heavily on examples from personal experience and that the information I learned wouldn’t be relevant to me. I was also scared that the people I attended with would see me as out of my depth. I assumed I would have to hide my status as a non-manager from everyone else there.

So of course, I immediately spilled the beans to another attendee at the opening reception, who pointed out that even as a non-manager, I was likely to have relevant experience. It also occurred to me that my own institution would not have sent me to the conference if they didn’t think it would be valuable to do so, for them or for me.

Then on the first day of the conference, Paul Thurston made the point that you don’t have to be a manager in order to be a leader. Later, a fellow attendee pointed out that what we were learning was much more about leadership than it was about management. The fact that there was a difference kind of blew my mind.

Because of this approach, everything I learned at the institute was stuff I could immediately start to apply in my current position. In fact, applying it now may help prepare me for when I actually do become a manager.


Complaint-free world

One of the first sessions of the conference introduced us to emotional intelligence. After explaining emotional intelligence and having us apply some of the ideas to ourselves, we were shown a series of videos featuring Gary Bowen, the author of A Complaint-Free World who started the Complaint Free Challenge where you have to try to go 21 days without complaining. At the end of the session, we were given the purple bracelets that go with the challenge. The idea is that if you find yourself complaining, you have to switch the bracelet to the other wrist and start over. According to the website, it generally takes people 4-8 months to reach the goal of 21 consecutive days without having to switch the bracelet.

This was something I had some mixed feelings about when it was first introduced. My mind immediately went to the saying that “she wouldn’t complain if her hair was on fire.” For women, not complaining is often seen as a virtue, one that signals that it’s okay for the people in your life to take advantage of you. It got my hackles raised a little.

It helped to learn that Bowen isn’t encouraging people to passively accept the bad things that happen to them or to let others take advantage of them. It’s more about flipping your thinking and your behavior. In the parlance of emotional intelligence, it’s about creating better self-awareness and self-regulation.

I didn’t wear the purple bracelet the whole week but the lesson did get me to think a lot about the role the complaining plays in my life. Complaints are my best conversation starters! I don’t even know if I know how to start a conversation without a complaint! How weird is that?

So now I have the purple bracelet on. I don’t know if I’ll ever reach 21 days but if nothing else, it’s useful as a kind of mindfulness exercise.  We’ll see where it goes.


The symptoms versus the underlying issue

A lesson I found particularly valuable was one on leading change where we had to think through a problem we were currently facing at work. During this lesson, Erik Eddy made the point that when we make change, we are often focusing on symptoms rather than the actual underlying problem. He likened this to a doctor who treats a gushing wound with a bandage without taking the time to try to understand what the cause of the wound might be.

This made me think about librarians’ propensity for popular, industry-standard surveys that help us understand what our users value about us and point to places where we could be doing better. When we implemented such a survey at my former institution, the result was essentially that we had to identify from the feedback that we were given all of the problems our users had told us about and then try to fix each of those problems, one-by-one. So if one respondent said they didn’t like where the printers were located, we suddenly had to rethink the entire layout of the library.

Basically, we were focusing on the symptoms. What we should have done instead (other than not trying to address every single thing that came up) was to think through whether there were any underlying issues that these symptoms we’d found were pointing to and focus on those instead. It would have taken longer but it would have been more productive than playing Whack-a-Mole with all the little things that came up as part of the survey.


Learning from non-librarians

At the dinner on the last night of the conference, the organizers and instructors stopped to ask everyone for feedback on their experience up to that point. One thing that came up a lot was everyone’s feelings about the fact that the institute was taught by Siena College’s business faculty rather than by actual library managers. Many had been skeptical at first but eventually came around and saw it as a chief advantage of the program.

I don’t know at what point I realized we were going to be taught by business faculty rather than librarians. It may not have happened until everyone did their introductions the first night and even then I don’t think it sunk in until much later. But if I had thought about it at all, I think that, like some of my fellow attendees, it might have put me on the defensive. In my experience, non-library faculty tend to be a bit condescending toward librarians, even when they don’t mean to be. Even if they think what librarians do is valuable, they tend to treat us as less-than.

If I had been worried about this, I think it would have been clear to me early on that the faculty at the institute were not going to be like this. They treated us as the experts in what we do but had clearly developed enough of an understanding of how libraries and librarians work to be able to converse with us knowledgeably and apply their own expertise in relevant and interesting ways. While they did have occasional minor slip-ups (“literacy” was often used interchangeably with “information literacy”), I felt more understood and respected  by this group than I ever have by non-librarian faculty on my own campus. This was probably the aspect of the conference that impressed me most.

It’s also worth noting that there was a lot of value in getting the non-librarian perspective on these topics. While I’m sure there are librarians out there with business backgrounds who can speak to the subjects we were learning about incredibly well, hearing from non-librarians was a valuable way to break out of the library echo chamber that we all know exists.


The reading list

I love walking away from a learning experience with more to explore and holy crap do I have a long reading list thanks to this particular conference. Here are some of the books that were recommended by our instructors which I’ll be checking out in the next few months, in case you’re interested:

The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

How to Have a Good Day by Caroline Webb

Leadership in Organizations by Gary Yukl

Leading Change by John P. Kotter

Strategic Thinking by Bill Birnbaum

Thanks for the Feedback by Douglas Stone and Sheila Heen


(1) I mentioned this in my feedback to the organizers. They said they would look into changing it next year. Complaint-free world!

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