Your Leadership Journey

As one year ends and another begins (can I get a cheer?) it’s a good time to look honestly at where you are on your leadership journey and think about where you want to go next. The Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu supposedly said, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Even if it’s only a small step, what matters is that you have begun, and that you continue. Where it will end you cannot foresee, but the farther you go the more lives you will impact and the richer your own experiences will be.

Thinking of the leadership journey takes me back to my August 24. 2020 blog Follow the Yellow Brick Road. The Wizard of Oz has a lot to teach us about growing and learning in a time of stress and ambiguity. You might want to watch it through the perspective of a leadership journey. Much like you in your initial foray into leadership, Dorothy places a tentative first step onto the road.  With encouragement, she moves forward. (NOTE: If you’re starting out – I hope you have a mentor and if you’re further along, I hope you’ll look to be a mentor to those early in their journey.)   Her path begins as a spiral, coming back on itself but getting larger and more distant from the center each time. So it is with leadership. You take on small things. Slowly you move out of your comfort zone, even if it is still close by.

Eventually the path widens and there is a large vista in front of you. Your old comfort zone is behind you, but now the risk of everyone seeing your performance and potentially judging it can inhibit you from continuing the journey. Every leader deals with this, and to bring Lao -Tzu back, you won’t reach the thousand-mile mark unless you keep going forward. The good news is, the steps you’ve already taken will support your success.

As you move onto this larger road, you need to hone the skills you have developed and use them in a focused way. In a post for SmartBrief, Jonathan Dapra offers advice for Navigating the Road from Doer to Leader. The article speaks to the balance of being a manager (doer) while also being a leader.

Dapra proposes these five steps.

  1. Create a Vision and Share It –Managers work to drive their Mission; Leaders move forward to realize a Vision. I hope you have created a big Vision of how you want your library program to be and be perceived. The second half of Dapra’s advice is equally important – share it.  Post it on a wall in your library. Have it on your website. Put it in the signature of your work emails.
  2. Build Mutually Beneficial Relationships – Relationships are our business, and we need to develop them. This takes the concept to a new level. As a manager, you have undoubtedly included collaboration as part of your Mission. As a leader, you want to be more strategic.  Who are the influencers in your building? There are always teachers who are more respected. Is your principal a genuine leader or does s/he only have the title?  Is the secretary the real power?   These are the people with whom you must build relationships.  Note the term “mutually beneficial.”  What do they need? How can you give it to them?
  3. Be a Master of Feedback – Leaders create more leaders. They do so by empowering others and helping them grow. Feedback is an important element of that, but to master feedback you might want to review last week’s blog. Criticism vs. Feedback. Ensure that what you think is a supportive comment is not taken in as criticism.  Although Deprak doesn’t mention it, you also should seek honest feedback about yourself and use it. Leaders put what they learn into action.
  4. Know Your Business – Our profession has long been about rapid changes, which has been accelerating as part of our response to the pandemic. Staying current is challenging, but professional journals such as AASL’s Knowledge Quest and ASCD’s Educational Learning along with the library-related social media will keep you on top of new tech and important issues. You want to be the one people turn to when they need to know something, secure in the knowledge that you can help them or find the help they need.
  5. Walk the Talk – No matter where you are on your leadership journey, be a model of what a great leader is.  Be trustworthy and empathetic. Give help and be strong enough to ask for help.  Dorothy did and look where it led her.

I urge you to look for ways to reach the wider road on your leadership journey.  Get involved in your state school library association. Become active on the national level. Start conversations on library social media sites to contribute to and learn from your peers. When you continuously take one step at a time, you can make that journey of a thousand miles.

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Criticism vs. Feedback

No one wants to hear they did something wrong.  It feels like failure. The first time (and perhaps every time) we have a negative comment on an observation, we want to protest.  Our first reaction is to defend, even if we only do this mentally.  At that point we’ve shut down.  We can’t take in anything beyond the statement that hurt, and sometimes what is offered as feedback is taken as criticism. The reverse can also be true, but it happens less frequently.

In a blog post, Dan Rockwell offers advice on How to Respond to Unfair Critics Without Bloodshed. I appreciate his observation that “criticism is a leadership opportunity.”  Remembering this will help you do a better job at managing your responses. Here are some of his recommendations:

  • Reflect don’t retaliate – Pause and think. The “critic” may be right, in which case there is something important to learn. Focus on the message, not the delivery.Taking a moment to pause will help. What caused the critic to come to that conclusion? How could you have prevented this? Is there something the other person missed or was unaware of?
  • Compliment don’t criticize – By acknowledging the critic, you take the sting out of their words and change the relationship dynamic. You acknowledge the value of what they offered as well as the person offering it. As a result, you may create an ally.
  • Perceive, don’t pontificate – A critic’s words say more about them than they say about you. Instead of responding, you can use this as an opportunity to learn about the critic from the criticism. You may hear what the person is passionate about and that will give you clues to working with them in the future.
  • Fuel up, don’t fall down – Embrace the learning opportunity and move forward. Why give someone the power to make you retreat? You know you’re a leader. Just because a program or a project wasn’t perfect is no reason not to continue.

When you offer a comment on a project, think of how you are being perceived as the sender.  You may believe you are providing feedback, but that might not be what the receiver hears. The results can affect your success as a leader.

Consider what happens when you give feedback to students. Pressed for time, you may not remember to choose your words carefully.  You might say, “Refer back to the directions I gave the class.” You meant for the student to take more time before plunging into the task, but the student heard was criticism that they didn’t read closely enough. Their reaction, whether voiced or unvoiced, maybe anger and resentment or they feel crushed. Whichever it is, you have stalled their learning. Instead, offer a response aimed at support such as, “I love your eagerness. Do you think reviewing the directions again will help you be more successful?”

Angry students want to get back at you for causing them hurt. Crushed students decide they are incapable of learning and retreat.  And while one incident will not create lasting harm, repeated ones will. You may not know what else is going on for a student, but you do have an opportunity to create a supportive dynamic when they work with you.

You need to be equally watchful when speaking with teachers. Although you would never criticize a project they want to implement, if you attempt to suggest too many changes/additions to improve it, they are likely to hear implied criticism.  They won’t be back. The same is true if you become impatient with their struggles with new tech. Stay focused on what they are trying to achieve and where they want your help. Support their needs rather than changing them.

A good leader also asks for feedback. Be careful, however, to be certain you’re not really looking for compliments.  Asking a teacher, “How do you think this lesson went?” sounds like a request for feedback, but if all you want to hear are positive comments, it’s a setup for both of you. Instead, trust yourself and be brave enough to ask, “What do you think I could have done better?” You will get a more honest response.  One that you can use rather than one that makes you feel good.

Feedback is important. We need it to learn and grow. To be a strong leader, be aware enough to give feedback, not criticism, and look for ways to take criticism as feedback.

Practice Positivity

Has anyone else had a moment (or two or three) of wanting to smack the next person who says, “We need to stay positive.”? I’m sure I’m not alone in being frustrated with the phrase, but I also know that it can not only be an important part of leadership, but can be a way to help ourselves and others.  

What is positivity?  Healthy Place cites the Oxford English Dictionary definition as “The practice of being or tendency to be positive or optimistic in attitude.” It’s not what you are born with, although some people are naturally optimistic. Calling it a practice means it is something you can learn.  Somehow, we need to find a path and make choices that give us the strength to push through with an encouraging attitude.  After all, we are leaders and therefore people look to us to lead the way. 

Leaders project confidence.  That is the first step toward positivity. We have seen a number of leaders during the pandemic do this.  They don’t pretend all is well.  They acknowledge problems exist but also highlight what can be done and how there is a way forward. This positivity on their part inspires confidence in others. Suddenly all is not bleak.  It’s not perfect, but we will get through it.

To do the same for the people you lead, reflect on what techniques you used to build your confidence. Recall previous successes. Remind yourself of your areas of expertise, your skill sets, and the leadership qualities you have.  Add anything that helps you.  Putting on makeup and dressing nicely is something I do decades after retiring. It gives my confidence a boost, which helps with whatever I have to do.

In his Edutopia article How to Lead with Positivity Matthew X. Joseph notes, “Positive leadership is not a topic of conversation just because of Covid-19, but the drastic shifts we’re all facing due to the pandemic are reminders of just how important positive leadership strategies are. Shifting from the difficult and challenging to the positive and inspiring brings out the best in ourselves and others, and that’s how things move forward. He goes on to write. “… positive leadership makes a difference in productivity, satisfaction, and happiness at work. Leading with positivity also helps to build trust among colleagues, and it becomes safer to open up to change.” Practicing positivity will not only help us through this difficult time, but it sets us up for future success. We need to come out from this pandemic stronger than before, not only with a seat at the table, but at the head of the table (or close to the one who is). 

There are several “why’s” behind the importance of practicing positivity. Keeping them in mind gives you additional motivation to continue. The optimism in positivity is contagious.  You lift people up, and they lift up others. Another benefit is knowing when you are optimistic, your resilience increases. (See my November 30th blog.)

Joseph also notes that optimism promotes problem-solving for individuals and groups.  In the word of the old truism, “If you think you can, or you think you cannot, you are right.”  By bringing your positivity to the various teams you work on, you improve their attitude and their ability to solve problems.  This in turn makes you a valued member of the team.

As an additional contributor to an upbeat mood, remember to celebrate all wins, big and small, personal and professional.  We need all the celebrations we can get. Celebrations make people smile, and we definitely need more smiles.  Even when we are masked, the eyes are smiling, and the happiness is there.  Celebrations increase optimism, which increases problem-solving resulting in more celebrations.

Be confident and courageous. Your teachers, students, and administrators need what you bring. You have done it before.   You are a leader who is becoming a bigger leader.  And the positivity you bring and encourage today will lead to even greater benefits as we head into the future.

ON LIBRARIES – What is Leadership?

I was recently asked this question by the president-elect of my state school library association. With all that I have written over the years, it should be easy for me to answer, and yet I didn’t have a ready response.  How would I define leadership?

After much thinking, I decided that leadership is the ability to move people and programs in a specifically chosen direction with a goal in mind. The answer is as simple as the question but raises additional and more complex questions. What are the behaviors and skills needed to move people in that new direction?

Visionary – If you are going to move people and programs in a new direction, you must know where you want to go.  In the words of the immortal philosopher, Yogi Berra, “if you don’t know where you are going, you’re going to arrive at someplace else.”  You can’t be a leader unless you are a Visionary.

Hopefully, you have a Vision Statement for your library in addition to a Mission Statement.  That will always be a guide for you in planning.  While this sounds like it must be huge, you are the one who has the Vision, and it can be any size that meets your needs. It’s the Vision – and your commitment to it – that matters.

Communicator – To accomplish your Vision, you need to get others to support it. Whether it’s an administrator’s approval or getting people to work with you (or both of these), you must convince and inspire them to see the value of your Vison. How well you frame your message, to whom and how you send it, depends on your skill as a Communicator.

This starts with knowing the preferred communication method of the receiver of your message. Show how your concept will fit into their wants, needs, and possibly their vision. Have your plan ready to go.  Consider what supporting information you will need, but don’t inundate the receiver until you get agreement.

Relationship BuilderYou can’t lead if no one follows. Unless you give orders based on your position – such as a principal – people follow those with whom they have a relationship.  Leaders reach out to others regularly. Trust and empathy are integral to their behavior.  They hone it as a skill, knowing its value.

Library leaders recognize the importance of cultivating relationships across disciplines.  The broader the range of people with whom they have relationships, the easier it is to launch a project and get support. Those taking part know their work will be appreciated and acknowledged.

Flexible – Leaders are planners, but they are also flexible.  They recognize that the larger the project, the more chances there are for things to not go as expected. The vision they are holding is about the outcome, not necessarily how it specifically will look during the process.

I have worked on two library renovation projects and was expected to lead the way on the design and implementation.  Neither of them looked the way I had expected when it was completed, but both functioned as I had intended.  They met my Vision.

Courageous – Good leaders lead from the front.  It means everyone is watching you in some way, and yes, that feels risky. There is no guarantee of success.  In fact, you are bound to fail sometimes.  Whether in small parts which flexibility can fix, or with a project that doesn’t materialize, a leader takes responsibility for the consequences.

But leaders are also aware that the only failure is quitting.  How you react to setbacks is an indicator of your commitment to leadership. You clean things up as best you can. Commend the work of any participants.  Assess what went wrong and what you learned. And after taking some quiet time to lick your wounds, you try again.

Leadership can be scary, but it’s far better than having others direct your path. These behaviors and skills can be mastered in slow stages and grown over time.  Start small and build. You will learn as you go. Find mentors. Ask for help. The most important first step is making a commitment to being a leader and then following through.