ON LIBRARIES: Dealing With Failure

Leaders take risks—and sometimes those risks lead to failure.  What do you do then? I know what you would tell your students, but are you taking your own advice?

As with everything in our world failures come in different sizes.  There are quiet failures and more public ones. A small quiet failure might be you set up a display of popular fiction from years ago – and no one has looked at it.  A more public failure would be you planned a short program for parents during a conference or back-to-school night and only one parent showed up.

It feels awful. If this was one of the first risks you took, no matter the size, you are apt to crawl back into the tried-and-true. Obviously, leadership isn’t for you.  Or you have no business playing “large.”  You are not at that level of leadership and never will be. Fear of failure stops many from becoming leaders.

If you fall back and believe that story, you are depriving yourself of the benefit of failure.  As you tell students, failing is a learning opportunity.  No one reaches success without failure.  And even those who seem to be highly successful leaders will fail at times.

I made several mistakes when working on the plans for a new library wing in one high school. I made several others when I did a renovation at another high school.  I failed at keeping the School Librarian’s Workshop going as an e-newsletter.  And even recently, my proposed program for the upcoming AASL Conference was not accepted.

Does that make me a failure? It depends on what I do next. If I decided, for example, that AASL members were no longer interested in what I had to offer, I could tell myself I’m a failure, but failing is not the same thing as being a failure. That only happens when you quit.

Each time one of your plans or ideas doesn’t succeed, you can use it to grow and be better. For AASL, I didn’t read some of the details on how the final programs would be selected. I needed to reach more of my contacts to ask for support and do so frequently.  I sent something out once and then voted.  Next time I can and will do better.  (That’s also growth mindset.)

Look at how you failed. What caused it? Did you make assumptions that proved erroneous? Should you have built more support before you began the project?  It may be painful initially to look back, but it’s the fastest route to future success.

Everyone, especially leaders, risks failure and the potential for losing confidence in themselves.  And that is the big danger.  When your confidence level slips, it affects every part of your professional (and possibly personal) life. You can’t afford to let that happen.  We are not alone in facing the challenge of coming back from failure and losing confidence in ourselves.

Jesse Sosten offers some compelling advice on How to Regain Your Confidence When It Falters.  He refers to this loss of confidence as “the dip.”  He suggests you “Leverage the Dip.”  By this he means, reframe it so you look at it as a sign you are poised for growth. Accept that “you are a work in progress.” After all, if you are not progressing, you are not growing, and as I’ve written here before, that means you are dying.

Sosten’s next recommendation is to Limit Your Inner Compromise. This is the part where you shut down and hope no one is noticing you and remembering the last idea you had that was a non-starter. Instead, be more aware of your reactions.  When you see yourself wanting to exhibit this kind of behavior, check in with your Mission, Vision, and Philosophy.  What do you stand for?  Speak up as needed.

Confidence is not developed overnight.  But you can lose it all in a moment if you aren’t prepared to deal with the fallout when things go wrong.  The fact is things do go wrong even with the best of planning.  Having a Plan B is a good idea, but even that might not work.   When it doesn’t, don’t be afraid to come up with and move forward on your next new idea.  The best way to have people forget about a plan that didn’t work (and for you to let go of your negative self-talk) is to follow it with successes.

 

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ON LIBRARIES: There is Always Risk

We are not firefighters or astronauts. We don’t put our lives on the line each day. But risk is not only about life or death situations. It is about choices we face daily and the decisions we choose to make.

Leadership is not about preserving the status quo.  Leaders must be willing to take risks.  It’s the only way you will achieve your vision. It may even be necessary to carry out your mission. I have frequently quoted James Conant who allegedly said, “Behold the turtle who only makes progress by sticking his neck out.”  You can’t make changes, stay relevant, or be involved unless you take risks.

I can almost hear some of you saying I don’t understand your situation.  Times are tough for librarians and the safest thing to do is to keep your head down.  That might prove to be the riskiest possible course of action.

Back in the days before the economic crisis of 2008, I used to encourage librarians to develop cooperative or collaborative projects with teachers and find a way to keep their administrators in the loop while knowing their priorities. Elementary librarians would tell me they didn’t need to worry.  They were part of the teachers’ contract.  I reminded them that contracts are changed, but few listened.  And then we had the great recession and elementary librarians suddenly didn’t seem necessary. At first middle and high school teachers thought they were secure.  After all, they taught research skills and kids needed that for college.  When times got tight, administrators in many places decided that with the internet they didn’t need the librarians.

I am not blaming all the librarians who lost their jobs – and the ones who are still at risk. Many excellent, pro-active librarians got swept up as school boards wrestled with severe budget cuts.  But librarians who kept a low profile created the climate that made administrators and teachers believe nothing would be lost by eliminating librarians.

In other words, not risking is a risk.  Naftali Hoff says much the same thing in The Risk of Staying in the Safe Lane.  He uses the highway as an analogy, pointing to two different types of drivers.  Some stay to the right, going at (or below the speed limit), feeling safe and secure in abiding by the rules.  Others drive in the fast lane, pushing past the speed limit and cutting in and out to get one or two car lengths ahead.

Those fast drivers are clearly risking getting into an accident. But as Hoff points out, while crashes in the left lane are more serious than those in the slow lane, the right lane has a higher accident rate.

Hoff says those who choose safety over risk in the workplace do so for the following reasons:

  1. Believing nothing surrounding the current circumstances will ever change (for example, my industry, company, and job will always be there)
  2. Believing if so many people in front of us are doing the same thing, they must know what they’re doing.

The first reason overlooks a basic truth.  There is no status quo.  Life is always changing.  As a leader, you must accept that, be alert for changes in the wind, and be ready to get out ahead of them.

Hoff offers these methods to help you be more risk resilient:

  • Acknowledge that our natural state is risk aversion. From that vantage point, it is easier to take notice where we’re hesitating, then take the necessary action to grow and break through.
  • When you’re about to make a decision and you feel afraid, ask yourself: “What is the worst-case scenario?” In most cases, it won’t be so bad after all.

You might one day take a really big risk – job hunting.  I did it to the shock of many after a long time in the same school system.  Few of us in education with tenure do not risk voluntary leaving their jobs. By doing it from a position of strength and on my terms, I found a new position which matched my goals.

Life isn’t safe.  Risks are in an integral part of it.  Thinking you are avoiding risk could easily cause you to lose more than those who are out there trying new things and being a visible presence.  Look at your program and your mission. Look for where you can try one risk this week and see where it takes you.

 

 

ON LIBRARIES – Risk and Reward

Leaders take risks.  You are all aware of that, and that awareness leads to something we don’t like to talk about.  In 2015, I blogged about the Stories We Tell Ourselves. I skipped a big one.

The story we tell ourselves is that if we take a risk we’ll embarrass ourselves so badly we won’t be able to face our colleagues and administrators.  It could even potentially cause us to lose our job. And that story is the secret reason why some librarians avoid taking on the challenge of leadership.

Fear of failure can be crippling.  It keeps you from growing.  Oddly enough, the converse is an equally big barrier—fear of success.  If you are successful, people will expect you to continue to do more.

And just like the other stories, it is only that —a story.  No one is suggesting you suddenly decide to campaign to redesign your library as a learning commons if you have never done anything to make your presence known in your building, but you do need to take some first steps.  You do need to build some “street cred” first.

Start small. Share your knowledge of new web and app resources by sending weekly emails to teachers describing just one, explaining how it could be used, and offering to provide one-on-one help for them to learn it.  Include your principal in the email. You may not get any takers at first, but eventually one will click with a teacher.  Slowly, teachers will begin to recognize the help you can give them.

There is no risk in doing that, but two important little goals have been achieved.  You have stepped out of your comfort zone, and teachers begin to take you into consideration when planning a unit. And those two accomplishments are the first building blocks of that very important “street cred.” Look for other no-risk or minimal risk ideas.

Try a book club.  If you don’t know how to do it, ask your library colleagues on your state association’s listserv or other places where librarians help each other. LM_NET is the big one, but there are many more.  Once you know what you are doing, speak with your administrator before putting it in place. Explain your goal for the program, how you plan to run it, and acknowledge there is no guarantee it will work but is worth a try.

If you launch the club, send updates on activities and accomplishments to your principal. Include videos of the kids discussing the books.  Now you have demonstrated your value to the administration.  And your reputation as a leader begins to grow.

Then it’s time to take a few bigger risks. Gardening projects have proved very successful at the elementary level.  There are connections to STEAM and the produce can be given to the cafeteria, to food banks, or a local shelter depending on what seems best for your community.

Other low- risk projects include starting Hour of Code or a Makerspace. For either of those ideas, you can get all the help you need in organizing it from other librarians. We are an incredibly supportive profession.

These early risks build your confidence and you can begin to look for other possibilities. Are you thinking of genre-fying your collection?  How about a Skype author visit?  What about a joint project with students in another school district—or country? Before long you might even be ready to turn your library into the learning commons that had seemed an impossibility.

Being a building leader is vital.  If you and your program are to thrive you must demonstrate you are invaluable to the entire educational community.  Now that you see that risks don’t result in those disasters you imagined, you can step even further out of your comfort zone.

Take your place among leaders.  There is always room for more.  Choose one of your new successful programs and write a proposal to present it at your state conference.  You may think it’s been done, but there are always librarians who haven’t tried it, and you bring your unique perspective to it. If it’s selected let your principal know.  It will build your reputation even further.

Serve on one of your state association committees.  Better yet volunteer to do the same in AASL or ISTE. Although it’s too late for this year’s AASL Conference IdeaLab, start planning to do it in two years at the next AASL conference.  You would be in a large room with many other librarians all presenting their best ideas. You talk one-on-one with those who stop and want more information.  Totally non-intimidating.

The first step in becoming a leader is deciding to step out of your comfort zone.  Every leader has done so.  I still take on challenges wondering how I am going to do it, but somehow it almost always works.

Have you stepped out of your comfort zone?  What did you do?  What was the result? Where do you need help?