Leaders Must Be Strong Communicators

Communication is as natural as breathing and just as constant in our lives. Unlike breathing, however, there is so much room for error, it needs our focus and attention. Leaders need to be clear in their communication. When people receive a clear message, they are more likely to support, trust, and follow you. Taking time to improve your communication skills makes you a more successful leader.

In a post on SmartBrief, Want Real Leadership Growth? Focus on Strengthening as a Communicator,  Al Petty writes “too often, we ignore the centrality of communication effectiveness to effective leadership”. He goes on to say, “everything important in our careers and working lives takes place in one or more challenging conversations, and every communication encounter is critical if you lead.” There is a direct correlation between your success as a leader and your effectiveness as a communicator.

Petty notes that every failed professional situation in his career was proceeded by problems in communication. Poor communication inevitably has a negative effect on desired outcomes. For example, when a plan isn’t working, before changing the plan, check to see if everyone is clear on what to do, who’s to do it and why it’s being done. On the flip side, good communication produces even greater positive results than expected.

According to Petty you need to put these three tactics into operation to improve your communication skills and avoid the fumbles that detract from your leadership:

Listen Harder – There is almost nothing more powerful you can do to benefit your communication than to be a great listener. Unfortunately, in our eagerness to respond to what someone is saying or to get our point across, we stop listening. Our brain is busy constructing what to say as soon as the other person stops talking. We may think we are paying attention, but in this situation, we are, at best, hearing only the surface information which means we are more likely to miss the core of the message. Petty states, by “focusing intently on the person in front of you, you are projecting empathy, showing respect and gaining critical verbal and nonverbal insights necessary to truly communicate”. All of these increase your ability to be an effective leader.

Slow Down and Respect the Persuasion Cycle – Being eager to get to the end goal, it is easy to keep pushing for a response. When we do, we are apt to be faced with the other personal stonewalling and resisting what we’re suggesting. A good maxim to remember is, “No one wants to be sold. Everyone wants to buy.” The challenge is to make someone want to buy.

Petty explains the “Persuasion Cycle” as moving a person from

  • Resisting to Listening,
  • Listening to Considering,
  • Considering to Doing,
  • Doing to Being Glad They Did.

Knowing what the other person wants and needs helps you frame your message, so they move from resisting to listening. When you actively listen to their response you can elicit their willingness to consider your message. They now are interested in doing.

The final step in the cycle is the important piece. When the person is “Glad They Did” you have a supporter and advocate. The next time you approach them, your conversation is more likely to start at Considering or Doing portion of the cycle.

Design Your Critical Communication Messages – When the message is important, it is worth time and effort to get it exactly right. You don’t want to have any words that detract from it. Each word counts and has weight. Writing, rewriting, and testing it with a mentor or trusted colleagues will help you get it clear.

According to Petty, you need to have “three or four core drivers behind your core message.” The drivers are the foundation for why the message is so important. In the library world, one core driver is the students. They are the emotional tie that brings the most response. Test results are another driver. School and district goals are powerful drivers if you connect to them. Budget can be another.

Illustrate your core drivers so your audience understands them as clearly as possible. Pictures, graphics, and videos are more quickly internalized than text. Use the language your receivers understand. If you are talking with administrators in schools, they know the educational terms but not library terminology. If necessary, change from the terms you use to the ones they do.

If you review your past success and challenges, chances are you will see a correlation with the strength or weakness in communication. Taking the time to work on your communication skills – listening, persuading, designing your message – will exponentially increase your success. The better your ability to communicate, the better your ability to lead.

Social and Emotional Leading

You have become adept at incorporating Social and Emotional Learning into your library program, but you also need to consciously integrate these tools when you are leading. The social aspect is more obvious. We are in a relationship-based business, and you can’t build relationships without social skills. It’s the emotional leading that requires a rethinking.

In a profession where women are in the vast majority, it’s important to remember that, with awareness, emotions can be appropriate and important, rather than avoided or dismissed. Understanding and managing your emotions is the key to successful leadership. Emotion is a neutral term that encompasses an immense range of responses. In Social and Emotional Leading, you need to draw on the positive ones and recognize and reduce the negative ones.

In her blog post, Essential Decision Making Emotions: Are You Using These?, Kate Ness presents five decision-making emotions to incorporate into your leadership and five to manage. Starting with the positives, here are her first five:

  • Showing Respect – Recognize the value of others. You do this when you don’t interrupt work with a student to respond to a question from a teacher. If you must, you explain that you will be back. In our world of text messages, we shouldn’t forget the importance of “please,” and “thanks” becomes a perfunctory “thx.” Be more conscious of the little civilities. They make a difference.
  • Expressing Empathy – Recognize what others are going through. Use your ability to read body language and their tone of voice to reach out to them. Send a quiet note. Offer to be a listening ear if they need one. Do it with all the lives you touch, from students through administrators – and parents.
  • Considering Human Impact – Ness’ post references laying people off. We don’t do that, but we do see it happen to others in our educational community – and too often to us. This pandemic has led to all sorts of losses. In any difficult situation you come across, offer help where you can and empathy where you can’t. Let them know you are there for them at some level.
  • Recognizing and Appreciating Talent and Effort – When you inform your administrator of a successful project, highlight the important contributions of people who were a part of the project. When you’re offered suggestions, acknowledge them, and show you are considering it. When you give this type of respect to students, you give them voice and choice and further make the library a welcome place.
  • Valuing Altruism – Look for ways to give back – and acknowledge ways that others are giving. Suggest and lead projects that help the community or an individual. These are hard times. We need to work together to stay strong.

And the five you want to avoid when building relationships are:

  • Anger: Anger is a valid emotion, but you don’t want to speak or act out of it. Most people don’t think clearly while angry which can undo much of what you have achieved when using positive emotions. Remembering to pause will do much to get you back on track.
  • Panic – Panic also stops you from thinking clearly and leads to poor decisions. Once again, a pause helps along with taking time to breathing more deeply. Slower breathing leads to a slower heart rate and a clearer mind. You will get through it. You always do.
  • One-sided Compassion – Avoid being immersed in one emotion and not letting yourself see where there are other forces at play. Be sure you are seeing the whole picture.
  • Fear of Conflict – Fear of causing anger and disagreement is understandable, particularly in today’s very polarized world. But you can’t lead if you keep stepping back. Use your positive qualities and all your emotional intelligence to look for ways to respond in a non-controversial way.
  • Uncontrolled Passion – Being passionate about your work and your core values is necessary for leadership. However, overwhelming people with it is not. People feel you are battering them and that there is no room for their interests and priorities. Find ways of sharing your values and abilities without it sounding as though you demand to be heard.

Emotions are everywhere and always with us. They are powerful but can work against us when we’re not aware. Recognize and work with your emotions and your leadership skills will improve.

The Ins and Outs of Negotiation

Don’t neglect this important leadership skill which can strengthen your program.

In the education world, where the library is only one small piece of the pie, knowing how and when to negotiate can grow your program and result in your being more valued. If you are like most school librarians, you rarely think consciously of how and when to negotiate. You are likely not to recognize when you have employed it, and as a result may not have achieved your aims. The business world, however, recognizes it a vital skill, and school librarians need to do the same.

One of my most successful negotiations came in the early stages of the tech explosion. I had just been responsible for building a new library wing in our high school, a huge expenditure. Now, I wanted to get the latest digital tool –  a CD-ROM tower. It cost $20,000. Obviously, if I put that in my budget for the next school year, it would be turned down. I knew what I wanted, why I wanted it, and what I could and couldn’t sacrifice to get it. I made an appointment with my Superintendent of Schools during the summer.

The Superintendent’s first response to my request was to refuse, as I expected. I briefly summarized the benefits and offered to make cuts elsewhere in my budget. When she suggested eliminating my periodical budget, I explained why that would be a problem, and proposed slashing my book budget. Ultimately, because of my determination, clarity and willingness to negotiate, I got the CD-ROM tower – and didn’t lose anywhere near $20,000 from my budget.

You have more opportunities to negotiate than you think. You can use negotiation to propose a collaborative or cooperative unit with teachers or you can negotiate with your principal to modify your non-library duties so they relate to your program. The idea is to be open to the possibility of changing what is to something better.

To increase this skill, Ed Browdow presents Ten Tips for Negotiating in 2021 that can help you achieve goals you didn’t think possible. Here are his ten with interpretations for school librarians:

  1. Don’t be afraid to ask for what you want – If you don’t ask the answer is always, “No.” Leaders have a vision. Go for yours.
  2. Shut up and listen – Active listening is a must. Don’t rush into counter what is being said and be perceived as pushing your agenda. Pay attention so that you know what is at the root of the resistance.
  3. Do your homework – Know what the other person’s needs are. What is challenging them? How is what you want to do going to help with that? See where you can align with their priorities.
  4. Always be willing to walk away – Know when to stop. If you continue pushing when the other person is firm on their position, you are only going to increase resistance for the future. Not every negotiation ends positively.
  5. Don’t be in a hurry – While this means prolonged negotiations in the business world, for us it can mean not to give up or be upset if an appointment with an administrator is cancelled, a teacher needs to reschedule, or you are told they need time to think it over. Most negotiations are part of a longer process, not a quick yes or no decision.
  6. Aim high and expect the best outcome – Don’t second guess what is achievable. You want to lay out where you want to go. At the same time, this is a negotiation, so be prepared with your Plan B. And your Plan C.
  7. Focus on the other sides’ pressure not yours – This is where doing your homework counts. You want to present why what you are planning is beneficial to the other person whether it’s a principal or a teacher.
  8. Show the other person how their needs will be met – Related to the others sides’ pressure, if you can show where your request/suggestion/need supports them as well, you’re more likely to get the answer you want.  Be ready to be specific as much as possible. The best negotiations end with both sides feeling as though they’ve won.
  9. Don’t give anything away without getting something back – In our case this means being watching out for little landmines. For example, I had to be prepared for my Superintendent to seize on my offer to slash my book budget without giving me the tower. Had she suggested it, I would have pointed out that without the tower I was forced to make do with what I had on hand and so could ill afford my budget to be cut.
  10. Don’t take the other person’s behavior personally –This is about what you are trying to get but is influenced by the pressures and needs of the other person. Listen for the message rather than its delivery. Staying calm is a top tactic in negotiations.

Negotiations happen all the time, making this a great leadership skill to develop. Some are noticeable, others are easy to miss. They are present in your work and your home life. If you are aware of when the opportunity shows up and are prepared, you’ll strengthen your program and getting more of what you need.

Communication – Positives and Pitfalls

Online, in person, via text or via social media, we are always communicating. It is the basic tool we use to form relationships, and relationships are the core of our success. As adults, one would think we would have mastered it by now, but it’s not that simple.

Because our interactions with others consist of multiple levels of communication, there are many opportunities for confusion. Most of the time we successfully send our message in a positive way and that is how it’s received. Other times we are not as successful, and we don’t always know why. What can we do to have conversations that produce the desired results?

What can we do to have conversations that produce the desired results?

Lolly Daskal has advice for business leaders, which applies to all. She minces no words in 9 Dumb Things Smart Leaders Need to Stop Doing Right Now. Here is her list:

  1. Stop talking over people – We strive for active listening, but when we’re excited or concerned we have a tendency to interrupt to get our comments and ideas in. When we don’t listen to others, they stop listening to us. (This is one I need to work on – especially when I’m harried.)
  2. Stop thinking you know best – There are knowledgeable, trustworthy people around you. Just because we know better than anyone how the library works doesn’t mean that others can’t offer something important. Their viewpoint can alert us to something that needs changing. Give them the respect of listening to what they say and the tenor of the conversation changes. You also gain a potential ally. Remember, it’s feedback, not criticism.
  3. Stop creating unattainable goalsWhether working with students or teachers, having a large goal is great, but if the receiver of the message feels it can’t be achieved, they will tune out, you will get annoyed, and your body will communicate that message. Instead, break goals down into smaller ones that do seem attainable. You don’t want your goals to add to anyone’s stress – including yours.
  4. Stop trying to control everythingWhen there is too much to do and not enough time, ironically, we tend not to trust anyone to help. We fall back on “you know best,” and it will take too much time to explain everything. Pause. Breathe. Then figure out how to loosen the reins otherwise you will probably come across as bossy and feel overwhelmed, unappreciated, and tired. When others can help, we inspire new leaders.
  5. Stop taking people for granted Unless we consciously remember to acknowledge people, teachers, administrators and students. When we recognize their worth, they are more apt to recognize ours. Thank people for their time, support, encouragement, and help.
  6. Stop the hypocrisy – Keep your actions aligned with your words. When it comes to the big things, we rarely struggle, but the small things can slip our minds in a stress-filled day. Be aware of the possibility to keep it from happening.
  7. Stop imposing unnecessary rules – Some rules are necessary, but if they are arbitrary and/or make people’s lives more difficult, then they revision – or they need to go. Don’t set rules that make the library less welcoming. Look to create positively stated guidelines that support your Mission and Vision.
  8. Stop criticizing people in public This applies not only to teacher (and administrators) but students as well. Public humiliation is harmful and can have long-term negative effects. Responding too quickly with a negative comment is damaging. Apologize immediately. No matter how well the person appeared to take the comment, the barb stung, and they won’t forget it.
  9. Stop trying to act alone This is most likely to happen when we are guilty of #2 and #4. Daskal quotes the adage, “if you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together.”

We all have fallen into some of these communication pitfalls. Being mindful of them will minimize their occurrences. We need to ensure we send –and receive—messages positively. It builds our relationships and our leadership.

Transforming Your Community

Transformation can be deliberate and powerful, advancing your mission and your library’s status in the community.

Every part of our lives has been transformed by the pandemic, but it is important to remember that not all transformation is beyond our control. There are ways to make deliberate transformations, but you need to be clear and specific about what you want to change and why. On a small level, it could be to change teacher attitudes toward collaboration. On a larger level, it could be an ongoing and deliberate change to the school culture.

Communities are formed by a group of people having a common interest or location. A school qualifies in both senses. But strong communities generally have a central point. In towns it may be Main Street or the “Green.” In more urban areas it might be a park or playground. What is the center of your school community? What would it be like if the library were the center–the heart of the school? Can you imagine how it would feel? How would it look? What would it take to have the library and you be the first place everyone goes when they need help, information, resources, or a good book?

Merriam-Webster defines “Transform” as: to change in composition or structure, to change the outward form or appearance of, to change in character or condition. As applied to your library, the first two could be about redesigning your space. Looking at your library, besides complying with new safety requirements, is there anything further you want to do? To change character or condition applies if you want to change the school culture. What is valued? Is reading at the center? Are (or were) sports the biggest focus? Does it truly feel like a community?  

Plan your change strategically. Start as always with your Mission and/or Vision. How would the transformation promote either or both?

Next define your Goal. Don’t worry about the size. Choose something that you feel strongly about and which will lead to lasting change. For example, you might want to transform your school into a learning/collaborative community. That is a huge project, but your first step could be to create a reading culture.

Now create the Action Plan that will get you to your Goal. Keeping with creating a reading culture, to achieve it you will need to make as many people as possible interested in, engaged, and actively reading. There are many ways to move forward, including:

  • Caught Reading:
    • Create a display of a variety of books for students.
    • Take pictures of teachers, students, administrators, reading.  Be sure to include yourself.
    • Post the pictures around the school with the support of the principal – and hopefully a picture of her/him reading. Having the pictures outside the library encourages the idea that reading is for everyone, everywhere. If your school is all remote, look for a way to put it online, using avatars, if necessary, for student pictures (they can design their own – maybe the art teacher has an idea for this!).
  • Buttons
    • Start wearing a button that says “Ask Me What I’m Reading.”
    • Hand out buttons to all who are interested.
    • Carry a book with you wherever you go – including as you begin a class.
    • Have a book in reserve to check out to the “right” reader.
  • Hold a one book-one school event.
    • Check your PLN for ideas on how to run one.
    • Choose a book, possibly with the help of a small committee (great way to get teachers and parents involved).

Complete your Action Plan by identifying who you will need to help you and obtaining any permissions necessary. List the steps in sequence, including a start and an end date, if needed, and then move forward. 

Remember to include interim assessments so you can tweak the steps and timeline as needed. This also gives you an opportunity to send updates to administrators and others. At the conclusion, reflect on what was achieved, what worked and what didn’t. Where will you take it next? Then start developing your next Action Plan that will get you to your Goal and create the transformation you want.

Libraries transform communities. With clarity, focus, and action, you can transform yours. 

Be a Flexible Leader

In these continually uncertain times, I’ve decided we need a new word: Pro-reacting. What does it mean? It’s when you can be proactive and further your library’s mission even when you have to be reactive to the changes coming at you from teachers, administrators and situations you can’t control. It’s important to be responsive, but it’s equally important to be a leader. Pro-reacting is a way to do both.

When you are asked to change directions, take time to think about how you will carry them out. You may discover that what you need to do fits with your goals, even if it’s not the way you originally planned. When you are given non-library tasks and responsibilities, consider how to tie them to the library. How can you demonstrate the connection in what you are now doing?   Be flexible – pro-reactive – and use lateral thinking.

Lateral thinking is defined as taking a creative approach to solving a problem or facing a challenge. It requires not only thinking out of the box, but a growth mindset to discover alternative paths to a goal. You can find techniques (and a very fun video) for breaking out of the box with Success as School’s post Examples of Lateral Thinking Skills. Lateral thinking is a mental version of a physical exercise. You stretch.  You bend sideways. Stretch some more and now you’re able to reach further. Lead the same way and you become more flexible.

Jon Lokhorst suggests another way of being flexible in Take Your Leadership to the Next level: Lead Well in All Directions. Like a compass, he gives four directions where you should lead:

  1. Lead Yourself – You are the first person you lead, but first you must know who you are.  What are your core values? What is your Vision? Your Mission? What are your passions? Your strengths?  What do you see as your weaknesses?  Know what motivates you – and what stops you.

How do you deal with success? How do you deal with failure? When and how do you get sidetracked, and what do you to get back on track? How do other people see you? Is it a fair judgement? If not, what about you is giving them this perception?

  • Lead Up – Stretch your leadership arms straight up. Continue your flexible leadership by leading with your principal.  Successful library leaders have strong relationships with their principals and other administrators. In too many schools, principal began with little or no idea of the benefits a school librarian could bring to them and the school community. You have to lead them to this knowledge.

First, find ways to make the principal look good.  They make reports to the Superintendent. By knowing what is being looked for on the district level, you can supply your principal with information showing her/him to the best advantage. Then move on to the Superintendent who reports to the Board.  Be sure your principal knows what you are doing when sending things further up with leadership.

  • Lead Across – Collaboration is vital to the library program.  How can you lead already stressed teachers to work with you? The answer is by first building a relationship with them.  Make it as personal as possible to develop trust which is the foundation of relationship. We all generally extend ourselves for those we care about.

The second step is to ensure the teachers you have targeted recognize you will do the heavy lifting.  It won’t involve extra work for them. Finally, promote them in the collaborative project when you communicate with your principal.  This combines leading across with leading up.

  • Lead Down – How do you lead those for whom you are responsible?  The most common situation is with your students. Having them become engaged, critical thinkers requires you to lead in a way that guides but does not direct them. 

Making those you lead feel valued, worthy, and successful is the best way to lead. Make them feel welcome, heard, and understood. You become a role model to them for leadership. If you understand how you do it with students, you will be more able to do the same when you are leading across and up.

In addition, think about how you lead parents. This group is either across or up, depending on the situation. With the pandemic, you are likely to have more opportunities to reach out to them.  Lead them in discovering how they can help their children, and they will become advocates for the library.

To stay in shape as a leader, flexibility is a requirement.  Start stretching. We need the library in all parts of our lives.   Find the opportunity when you’re asked to make a change, be pro-reactive, and you can advance the library program no matter what situations you face.

Finding New Approaches to Effective Leadership

Leaders have go to responses that support their success in projects, challenges, and interactions, but with all that has been happening in the last several months, you may find that what worked in the past isn’t getting the results you want. If you’re experiencing this, the solution may be to try an opposite but equally effective approach.

A post on the District Administration site by Michael Moore, Rethinking Leadership, Plus 6 Tips to Improve Effectiveness, asks us to consider what he refers to as the “polarities” in leadership styles.  If what you’ve done isn’t working, he suggests being ready to move to the opposite pole. It will be unfamiliar at first, but the results will be worth it.

Consider these six polarities among the nine he offers:

  • Act – Plan – In a new situation, do you go into action mode first? Or do you wait and take time to plan? Both have advantages and if one is what you always do, considering trying the other and seeing what results you get.  
  • Think- Feel – It’s easier to respond to people’s ideas, but it’s important to be able to identify their underlying feelings.  Which is your go-to style and can a switch give you a better result?
  • Confident -Modest – Leaders need to be confident, but children and adults respond well when you let then know about your failures and challenges.  If you are too confident, no one will see a need to help, and you may find yourself doing everything.
  • Just-Compassionate – Is there flexibility in your structure? When there are library guidelines instead of rules, then changes can be made based on equity and unexpected circumstances. It can make decisions less clear-cut, but ultimately you will take better care of people that way.
  • Answer -Ask – Notice how you respond when people come to you with questions. Do you need to have an answer? Are you willing ask more questions or say you don’t know? (related to Confident-Modest)
  • Solution – Problem – Similar to the Act-Plan polarity, do you move quickly to find a solution or take time to explore the roots of the problem and learn if there is something deeper creating the situation? Sometimes the problem can tell you more.

After explaining the polarities and how a switch can support your success, Moore offers six tips for becoming a more effective leader.

  1. Tell People Why – Transparency in decision-making gives others a chance to contribute. Their input may sometimes save you from a serious error, and their involvement builds relationships.
  2. Be Clear About Specific Behaviors You Want – This applies most often to your dealings with students, but it could include teachers with whom you collaborate. When explaining what you want, include the why so your audience better understands your decisions. You can also consider giving them a chance to discuss how they see it working.
  3. Build Networks of Support – I have long recommended you use your PLNs but also build support with others in your school and district as well, particularly your principal. This will help when faced with sudden changes or unexpected absences.
  4. Lighten the Load – Collaboration and delegation are the secret to effectiveness.  I once worked in a school where each teacher in a grade level created the unit in a specific subject area (ELA, social studies, science, math, health).  They would then exchange their work across the grade level. Look for ways you can do this. If there are other librarians in your district, reach out and get creative.
  5. Measure and Track Results – Incorporate informative assessments into projects so you can accurately tell whether you are achieving your goals or need to change something. Be willing to make changes as necessary and celebrate successes.
  6. Vary Your Pace –You can’t be effective if you are overwhelmed and exhausted. Build in time-outs so that if a crisis comes, you have more energy. Those who exercise or weight lift are advised to change up their pace.  It is strengthening.  You will get more done. 

No matter how much you accomplish, there will always be more – the next project, a new challenge or a change in administrators.  Before automatically using the same techniques, take time to see what’s effective and what’s not working as well, then decide what you can do to support your success. Leaders are willing to try new approaches.

Your Self-View Lights the Way

It is a new year, but has anything changed? If you are back in school, whether in-person, hybrid, or virtual, and are still frustrated and tired, it’s time to take a fresh look at yourself.  Unless you change yourself, you won’t be able to change anything else.

This isn’t about self-care. It’s about your self-view.  There are some important questions to ask to check in about this:

  • How do you see yourself in relation to your colleagues? 
  • How do you believe they see you?
  • Is your Vision still alive or out of reach?
  • Do you feel no one recognizes your value as you are constantly being given tasks outside the scope of librarianship?
  • Does the thought of last week’s blog, “Your Leadership Journey” and following the Yellow Brick Road seem beyond your capabilities? 

Although the Christmas season is now past, I give you a new mentor.  To help with your self-view, instead of Dorothy, emulate Rudolph. Skip Prichard presents 5 Success Lessons You Can Learn from Rudolph. The success inherent in these lessons starts with changing how you approach the world. When you change that, you can lead the change to much more.

Here are his lessons (with my interpretations):

  1. Don’t Let Someone Else Define Your Value – Rudolph’s worthiness wasn’t seen initially, and certainly not by the other reindeer (co-workers?). You know what you do and what you can do to contribute to the school community. All too often we let other people’s assessment of the value of a school librarian affect how we react to others – and think of ourselves. 

Look at it the way you would a non-reader.  It’s just someone who hasn’t found the right book.  The person making disparaging or ignoring comments about librarians hasn’t been given the opportunity to see what we can do – yet. 

  • Be a Light to Others, Even If They Hurt You – Rudolph never struck back at his detractors.  It’s not worth the effort, and it won’t change their mind.  Actions like being kind and reaching out stand a better chance of turning someone’s opinion around. This is not to suggest being a doormat because you don’t let them define your value.

As a librarian, part of your job responsibility is to have at least a professional relationship with everyone.  You can’t shut your door. When in a challenging situation, consider what that person likes, what might be putting them in a bad mood, or whether they may have been offering feedback rather than criticism (see Criticism vs. Feedback). Identify and respond to their needs, and you begin to develop a relationship.

  • Your Uniqueness Is Your Gift to the World–Rudolph’s red nose, the object of scorn, saved Christmas.  You have unique abilities. In addition to the ones you have as a librarian, you have other abilities and interests that make you the person you are.  Share them.

Some of you are crafters, whether it’s quilting or jewelry design, you make wonderful creations. What hobbies are you passionate about?  Photography?  Gaming?  Are you into yoga? These all contribute to your uniqueness.  If you incorporate them into your work world, it will help you reach people you wouldn’t have otherwise. You never know when the PTO might want to host a Craft Fair or if the teachers would want to come in early for some yoga stretches.

  • Find Someone Who Believes in You – Although it took a while, Santa recognized what Rudolph could do and had him lead the sleigh.  Mentors are great, but be sure yours believes in you all the way. Self-doubt is natural. We all have moments–sometimes very long moments—when we are filled with it. Having someone who believes in you reminds you of your value and worth, keeping you motivated and moving forward.
  • Difficulties Are Always Opportunities in Disguise – If it weren’t for that “very foggy Christmas Eve,” Rudolph might never have had the opportunity to show how special he was. It’s easy to be disheartened and overwhelmed by difficulties.  Life will always hand them to you.  How you react is what matters.

The Corona virus has been far more than a “difficulty,” but the opportunity it presents is equally large.  Teachers, administrators, students, and parents are all searching for how to get through the new landscape.  You are a leader.  You have unique abilities. Show your community how you can make their lives easier.

Mentors and lessons are everywhere. Today, consider using the steps that enabled Rudolph to take his place at the head of the pack.  Let your light shine and blaze a trail in the new year.

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.

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.