ON LIBRARIES: Leaders Aren’t Perfect

Over two years ago I blogged about the Stories We Tell Ourselves referring to the things that we believe about ourselves (usually negative) which aren’t really true but keep us from stepping up and becoming the leaders we need to be. I have found yet another story.  One that’s tied to our belief that leaders do things perfectly.

They don’t. Trust me. I have the mistakes and the successes to prove it.

When we envision library leaders at the national or state level we see them, as we do at conferences, addressing a large and rapt audience of librarians at a conference.  Or perhaps we read one of the columns or blog posts they have written.  They appear self-assured, confident, knowledgeable — seemingly perfect.

That’s where the story kicks in.  You may feel confident as you do your job on a daily basis, but you are so far from perfect how can you possibly follow in their illustrious footsteps. You know your many flaws.  There are all those tech sites you haven’t explored.  Your last lesson didn’t work as smoothly as you expected.  And unlike these leaders, you still haven’t convinced many of the teachers to collaborate with you.  In fact, you’re pretty certain some of them still have no idea what you do.

The story is: these leaders have it all under control. They are perfect.  They are completely unlike you and you will never be like them.

Like many of the other stories we tell ourselves, it’s not true – on both sides. It is not true of you (you are a lot like them) and it certainly isn’t true of them (they are not perfect).  Yes, leaders come from a place of confidence and self-assurance.  But confidence doesn’t mean perfection. They, too, have strengths and weaknesses. One difference they may have from you is that they are aware of both.  They work from their strengths and accept and get help for the areas they need it.

In fact, smart leaders let others know where their weaknesses are. They don’t hide them. They admit them and use them as a way to work with their colleagues.  This creates connection and collaboration because if you a leader is perfect, you might choose not to say something when you notice a mistake or when you have a different opinion or perspective. Leaders encourage their colleagues to let them know when they spot something wrong. They want to know what you see.

For example, I am a “big picture” person.  This generally means I have vision and know where I need to go next.  But it means I can miss obvious details.  I repeatedly tell this to the people I am working with and leading, cautioning them even if they are sure I am aware of something but decided for my own reasons to ignore, that they still need to alert me.  I really could have missed it.

Let me give you a specific example which is amusing in hindsight and would have been disastrous had someone not said something. When I was a high school librarian, I led a 3-year renovation project of the library.  I was focused on flexibility, increasing space where walls couldn’t be moved for environmental reasons, and making the library inviting for all students not just the high-performing ones.

We were going to a system which used movable shelves to create that space along with replacing furniture that was blocky and heavy.  Our reference collection (in the days when we had lots of print reference books) was on counter height shelves along the windowed wall and on additional counter height shelves running perpendicular to them.  I wanted to move the reference to the tall moveable shelving and put fiction on counter height shelving. My reasoning was it would encourage casual browsing.  It was a very attractive area of the library with a lovely view of the outside.  Kids gravitated there because of it. It seemed a great place for fiction.

It might have been, but my plan for the reference collection was not a good idea.  I was so focused on that vision of students casually congregating there and seeing displays of inviting titles I missed the obvious.  My co-librarian pointed out that heavy reference books on a high shelf was a recipe for kids getting hit in the head when they reached for one. Ouch.

Obvious to her – not to me. If she had assumed “Hilda knows best. She’s the leader.” someone – possibly me – would have been clunked on the head. Talk about a hard lesson to learn.

If you take the opportunity and the chance, to step up and lead, it’s important to keep in mind that no one expects you to be perfect.  In fact, most leaders have things that they need to learn from the opportunity they have accepted and they expect to make some errors along the way.  Not only should you accept your imperfections and expect errors, particularly in a large project, but you should seek feedback to ensure you are aware of and can correct your mistakes.

And then get ready for your next leadership opportunity.

Advertisements

ON LIBRARIES – Cultivating Curiousity

copyright Margret and H. A. Rey, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Co

For life-long learners and leaders, curiosity is often the inspiration that makes you better and more knowledgeable about everything in your life.  We are one of our students’ role models for lifelong learning and therefore must be continuously curious.  Whether it’s new ideas or technology, we should always be on a quest to discover and learn .  And it doesn’t stop there. Curiosity extends to building our relationships as it helps us to be more knowledgeable about and connected to the people in our lives.

As librarians, we often explore new ideas to see if they have merit or are being embraced simply because they are new (Fidget Spinners, anyone?) whether at the request of students and teachers or because of our own interests.  We look to sources outside our field to find out what is being done or discussed and seek to learn whether it might have valuable applications for our students and teachers. The knowledge we gain we bring to our students and share with our teachers.

The more regularly we do this, the more they rely on us to be able to help them.  For students, this means guiding them to the best resources for their assignments or a new book or author to read. For teachers, it means we show them new ways to engage their students in learning and to be more successful in what they are working toward.  We build awareness of our value each time we bring the fruits of our curiosity into our school library.

Many years ago when rubrics were just beginning to be used in education, a teacher came to me for help creating one.  At the time I had never done one, although I was acquainted with what they were.  We sat down together and developed what she needed.  Not wanting to confess to her supervisor that she didn’t know how to design a rubric, she chose me because from our previous interactions she trusted I was both knowledgeable and safe.

If we want our students to be lifelong learners, we need to help them develop their curiosity as well. Children are born curious.  Our brains are designed that way.  It’s how we learn. Anyone who has been around a two-year-old knows they are constantly asking why. Author Arnold Edinborough said, “Curiosity is the very basis of education and if you tell me that curiosity killed the cat, I say only the cat died nobly.”  Learning is not the memorization of facts, it’s using those facts for a purpose.

Unfortunately, the structure of many schools effectively curtails this vital instinct. Albert Einstein is reputed to have said, “It’s a miracle curiosity survives formal education.” This is truer than ever as high-stakes tests have focused teaching energy on correct answers.  It is our job to reach that innate curiosity that is in danger of being lost.

Curiosity propels civilization forward. I have said that knowing the answers only proves one has mastered the content. But that was already learned.  It is when we or our students take that information and ask new questions that don’t have answers yet, that knowledge moves forward.  Bernard Baruch said it better, “Millions saw the apple fall, but Newton asked why.”

We want our students not only to ask “Why?” but also “What if?”  They need to have opportunities to wonder and see where that takes them. Through cooperative or collaborative inquiry-based learning experiences, we can engage students’ curiosity in topics that interest them and lead them to discover answers not in textbooks.  In this way, they become better prepared for whatever the world has in store for them.

In addition to being curious about ideas and things, good leaders are also curious about people. They go beyond the surface mask most people wear in their daily interactions.  They want to know who more about their colleagues, what they care about, and what motivates them.

Curiosity is also a factor in Emotional Intelligence.  While you can perceive the feelings of others with some success based on their outward persona, you will be more successful in using emotions if you know more about the people you are dealing with.  The more you know, and to learn you must be curious enough to ask, the easier it is to build relationships.

When I say we need to be curious about the people in our world, I don’t mean being nosy. It’s about caring about them and their situation.  It’s being empathetic.

I have told the story about seeing a teacher walking through the halls with her shoulders slumped:  her entire body language conveying misery.  While I was perceiving her emotions, I had no clue as to the cause.  Her first answer when I asked what was wrong was to claim she had an argument with her department chair.  I knew her past and her successes – no way was a disagreement with her department chair the occasion for such a reaction.

I invited her into the library to relax and have a cup of coffee and then asked for the real reason she was so unhappy.  She confessed her only child, who had done so well at school, had become a heroin addict.  She feared for his life.  It was not an easy confession to make, but it helped her unburdened.

There was no advice I could give her, but I could be a listening ear.  A confidential one.  While we had a comfortable relationship before, this new connection deepened it.  It led to more collaboration on research projects, but that was not the reason why I reached out to her.

A caring, curiosity was my motivating force in asking this teacher for a deeper truth.  Empathy and curiosity often go hand-in-hand, but they never should be used to manipulate others or you have negated the empathy.

We live so much in a task-filled world, spending our day in “doing,” we devote little time to wondering—being curious.  Embrace your natural curiosity in all things.  Ask more questions. Look for more creative answers. And get to really know the people you work with. Life will be more interesting and you will be a better leader.