Making a Difference: Leadership and Academic Libraries

Derek Law (University of Strathclyde, Glasgow, UK)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 27 June 2008




Law, D. (2008), "Making a Difference: Leadership and Academic Libraries", Library Review, Vol. 57 No. 6, pp. 471-473.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2008, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This is a grand gallimaufry of a book, by turns fascinating and by turns irritating. Although it contains edited contributions, the bulk of the text comes from the two editors who have done a significant service in opening up a fascinating topic. It is not, and perhaps could not be, comprehensive given this fact, and comments made below about gaps simply reflect the fact that the book has stimulated this reviewer's thinking on the topic.

The book can be endearing for several reasons. Firstly the writing – can they really mean this? “Librarians are, as a group, substantially older than those in comparable professions, and they are ageing at a much faster rate”. So time travel is possible. Then the glorious misprints: “… stories about profits, chiefs and kings who were great leaders”. It is politically correct to the nth degree, but like the best gossips, it relates what we must not believe with relish. We must not stereotype and categorize – but if we did we would have:

Baby boomers (1946‐1964); authoritarian but due to retireGeneration Xers (1965‐1979) Lack a commitment to their work; self‐oriented and focused on the short term. Do not read extensively. Service oriented. Want to be heard but not take responsibility. Believe they are undervaluedMillennial generation (1980‐; aka Generation Y, Nexters, entitlement generation) – they expect to receive compensation for attending conferences and are more demanding. Do not read extensively. Lack commitment to their work.

The book is centred in current fashion rather than grounded in universal truths so that emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence and 360 appraisal receive some play. Yet it never really considers whether one element of leadership is the brutal destruction of old cultures to create new ones. (The removal of card catalogues or the ending of out‐of‐hours access for emeritus professors have been known to occasion unfavourable comparisons with Attila the Hun, and required trampling over cherished cultures and emotions).

The book is massively insular in its understanding. The history of librarians begins with the founding of Harvard College in 1636; cultural and minority issues (even in a global sense) appear to relate exclusively to colour, and possibly disability; no mention of class or religion. There is no professional as opposed to institutional focus. There is no exploration of such seminal leadership programmes as the Australian Aurora programme. Most of the authors also quite systematically set out to distinguish between leadership and management; between reaction to changing environments, seeking change systemically and natural change. Much of the writing then confuses these at various points in the argument. This perhaps demonstrates the difficulty of the topic rather than a failure in the writing.

There is a working assumption, which is arguably flawed, that there is an answer to the question of leadership. Perhaps this reflects the fact that the book is centred in the now. Yet different organizations need different leadership skills at different times. And not all organizations need the same leadership styles at the same time. One chapter is an excellent survey of current US academic leaders and shows huge homogeneity of approach (teams, consensus, leadership by example, communication, etc.). But there is no real exploration of why this homogeneity occurs, whether it is “correct” or a passing fad or whether the quotidian needs of stable organizations are different from these where change is a driver and not a task.

Historically it is certainly the case that different styles could exist in the same organization at the same time and both be effective. One need only think of Eisenhower and Patton or Montgomery and Alexander. We are all aware of high risk appointments, of the safe pair of hands, of leaders for change and leaders for stability. One chapter quotes research which says that women leaders tend to be more empathetic (eat your heart out, Margaret Thatcher) and males must be visibly fit (there goes Winston Churchill, and Gordon Brown had better start working out). Most of the authors readily admit that there is no standard set of criteria for leadership and yet the hunt is on to find precisely that. The aim is to somehow normalise the abnormal.

The dogs which do not bark are also interesting. The book focuses exclusively (and it is a loss) on institutional leadership. There is no comment at all on professional leadership. One wonders where professional leaders who do not inhabit academic libraries fit into all of this – a Wilf Saunders or a Beverly Lynch or a Ross Shimmon?

Nor is there any mention of international matters beyond a note that different cultures have different leadership requirements. Arguably some of the greatest triumphs of the last 50 years in any field have been triumphs of librarianship. It would be fascinating to explore how those not at the top of their institutional hierarchies achieved such sweeping triumphs as Henriette Avram's MARC or Maurice Line with universal availability in publication. It least part of the answer lay in leadership.

Many years ago I was interviewed for a post in a US library which had been run quite happily and successfully by a triumvirate of senior staff during an interregnum of some length. When asked how they would face an incomer who could do no more than diminish their roles and why did they want this, I received the memorable answer that they wanted someone “to wrap their mind round the library”. That was and is a great definition of leadership. But ultimately leadership is a philosophy and not a To Do list. Hernon sums it up with a neat quotation at the end of his chapter “A leader is a dealer in hope”. Napoleon of course.

There is much debate over whether leaders can be managers and whether managers can be leaders. The consensus emerges that leaders must be managers but managers may not be leaders. That may be the norm and yet the book is all about abnormality – which leaders almost by definition are. It also tends to look at the leader in isolation. A key leadership skill is choosing subordinates. In particular the relationship between leader and second‐in‐command or chief of staff is absolutely critical. The good leader understands their own flaws and uses that post to compensate for the weaknesses. At its most extreme one dear and now retired colleague was probably the laziest leader I ever knew. But he had an absolute talent for choosing wonderful staff who could do all the work. Much more commonly the ancient job description for a Deputy Librarian was to do all the things the boss was not interested in or good at. The critical role of the Deputy – and indeed other senior staff – is quite neglected in the hunt for the elusive formula.

Ultimately the book fails to offer clear and perceptive solutions. It tends to think of a homogenized product where competences can be defined. It perhaps confuses or fails to differentiate the sort of quotidian leadership which gets by with the grand revolutionary leadership characterized by arrogance and drive. And yet the book is in the end is a success with all its flaws. It is thought‐provoking; it assembles a rich set of references and resources from general leadership theory. It has some extremely thorough and well written chapters and surveys. It is rigorous in its approach and descriptions – even if the target is ultimately unquantifiable. And above all it makes one think.

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