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.