Visions of Leadership

My dad likes to tell a story about a man he knew who was the head of a college. Every summer, this man would take a weekend to go out to a cabin in the middle of nowhere, all by himself, unconnected and alone. He brought along a blank notepad and a pen. On the top of the first page, he’d write, “Five Years.” He’d flip a few pages in and write “Ten Years” at the top of the page, and then “Twenty Years” a few pages later. He’d spend the weekend jotting down everything he could think of that he wanted the college to do in the next five-to-twenty years.

One summer, his weekend came to an end and he looked at his notepad. He had four or five things written on the “Five Years” page, just a couple things written on the “Ten Years” page, and nothing under “Twenty Years.” When he got back home, he tendered his resignation. He believed that if he didn’t have a vision for the organization, then he wasn’t the right person to lead it anymore.

This story worries me.

I knew librarianship was the right career for me shortly after I started grad school. I was taking one of those Big Picture / Big Idea courses, diving into the vision and mission and theories and values of librarianship. I pictured myself as a director and I knew that’s what I wanted. *

I should probably explain why this is so significant for me.

I started my adult life working in live theater. I did all the backstage technical stuff. I loved it—I loved the work, I loved the people, I loved the schedule and the environment. There are several reasons why I eventually left theater, but the biggest reason was this:

I was past the point in my career when I should have moved up into roles with greater responsibility and I did. not. want to. The thought of being in charge filled me with dread. So I knew my career there was done.

I had this same reaction when I spent several years working for nonprofits—I sort of abhorred the idea of moving up into positions of responsibility.

That I want to be in charge of a library someday, that I actively sought the opportunity to move into a management position recently, that my goal after eight and half years of working in libraries is still to attain a director-level position… That’s a big deal. This is the only thing I’ve ever done where I want to take on the responsibility. That’s how I know this is the right path for me.

I used to joke that I don’t want to be the person in charge—I’d much rather be the person who advises the person in charge.

That’s not true anymore. I want to be in charge and I want really good people to advise me.

I want to be a leader for libraries.

Much like the man my dad knew, I’ve always seen leaders as responsible for setting the vision of the organizations they lead. This is where the problem comes in and here’s why my dad’s story worries me:

I’m not a visionary.

Sit me down with a notepad and ask me to write down my vision for an organization, and I won’t come up with very much.

If this man knew he wasn’t the right leader for his organization because he didn’t have a vision for it anymore—how am I supposed to be a leader for a library if I don’t have a vision? It makes me question whether I should look for leadership roles. Just because I want to be a leader doesn’t mean I’m the right person for the job.

I recently went through a leadership training course which changed my way of thinking about leadership. I no longer believe that a being a visionary is a requirement for being a leader.

Leadership can mean inspiring vision in others. It can be the work of developing, facilitating, and nurturing the collective vision of an organization. A leader doesn’t have to be responsible for coming up with it all on their own. A leader’s job can be to create a culture and an environment that encourages the organization as a whole to be visionary.

That sounds like the kind of leader I want to be.

So I’ve decided to stop talking about my career goals in terms of position or title. Instead, I want to talk about what I want to be able to do:

  • I want to be in a position to say yes to good ideas.
  • I want the authority to assign resources and garner support.
  • I want the power to remove obstacles.

I want to be someone who can open pathways to make other people’s visions happen.

Clearly, I would need to be in a position formally empowered to do these things. But I don’t think it matters to me what my title is or where, exactly, I fit into the hierarchy.

I want to be a leader who helps the people around me flourish. I don’t need to be a visionary to do that.

 

* I also wrestle with the fact that the last thing libraries need right now is yet another white guy in a director-level position. We need to massively diversify our management and leadership across the board. It’s urgent and necessary. I believe this and I want what’s best for libraries. But I’m a white guy and I want to be a director someday, so I’m sure how to process this.

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