Wednesday, July 13, 2011

What doesn't kill you, makes you a leader

I've been meaning to do a wrap-up post on my ALA and Emerging Leaders experience; the EL day was my main professional development experience at ALA, and I want to share some of my reflections on leadership, but I haven't been feeling very leader-y lately. I've been feeling far more sit-on-the-deck-reading-a-book-y. That feeling is not conducive to writing.

But then someone (I think it was Andy Woodworth) tweeted a link to a post by Jenica Rogers of Attempting Elegance (I'm not going to tell you how to do it), and it got me thinking again.

I remember my first day teaching. I was very lucky in that I'd gotten a job in the same school I'd done my student teaching, and so already knew many of my colleagues. They were very generous with advice and support. However, what I wanted to know more than anything was not what I should say, but what the students' reactions would be. I wanted some book that laid out, "If you say/do this, students will say/do this in response." Because what came next (and next and next) would build off how students responded and how was I supposed to plan if I DIDN'T KNOW AND NO ONE WOULD TELL ME.

I was, it is fair to say, a little anxious.

And this is kind of what leadership is like. I mean, it's in the name. You're leading. As in at the front. If you're doing it right, you're often doing things that haven't been done before, and you have no idea how people will respond, and that can be terrifying. And exhilarating. And, when it works out, awesome. And, when it doesn't, fodder for some great stories over drinks with sympathetic friends--and a some hard-earned knowledge of how to go about things the next time.

And that, too, is the point. The first time out in front as a leader is the hardest. Whether you rock it or fall flat on your face, the next time you take on a leadership role is easier--either because you have confidence from earlier success, or first-hand knowledge that failure will not kill you.

My first day as a teacher I was terrified because I had no idea what came next. Several years later, within my first few days as a school librarian, I was leading a previously unplanned PD session on the library for faculty. I knew it was a new library, I was new to the school, and there were lots of new faculty--and I knew if I didn't get in there early introducing myself and my vision of the library, it would be even harder for me to build what I wanted to. The ink wasn't yet dry on my MLIS, and I barely knew anyone's name. I had very little idea of what the future would hold (and most of the ideas I did have were wrong), but I did know that doing SOMETHING was far better than nothing. I knew that it was unlikely to be a disaster, but that even if it was it wouldn't do irreparable harm.

That, in general, is my leadership style--I like getting in the middle of things and seeing how they work. I plan, too, but at a point I have to stop planning and just *do* something; just as I didn't know what came next in teaching because I didn't know what the students would do, I don't know what comes next in a project until I can see how the first step actually turned out. Think of it as "fire, aim, ready."

But then there's this post that another friend pointed out: Don't Start a Sentence if You Don't Know How it Ends. This is the exact opposite of my problem. It takes me a LONG TIME to formulate a response to things. I tend not to jsut think through the end of the sentence, but sometimes to the end of the paragraph (this happens in my writing, too--I think and think and think about a topic and then whoosh! I've written two pages).

One of my hesitations about taking on formal leadership positions is that I am very, very introverted. And things like networking--which tend to involve small talk--take a lot out of me. And I'm just not very good at it. I could get better, I'm sure, but I really dislike small talk, so I'm not very motivated, to be perfectly honest. I need to feel a connection with someone first, and I'm much better at building deep connections with a few, than large networks of more casual connections. And in some ways that's definitely a strength, but it does make it more difficult to build the large networks necessary for institutional leadership.

(I have, perhaps coincidentally, been finding a lot of great articles on introversion lately, including this one: 10 Myths About Introverts and thinking a lot about how introversion shapes my practice, and how introverts fit in an ever-more-socially-networked world. But, as you might imagine, I'm going to need to think about it a bit more before I share my thinking.)

I'm still figuring out where I want to be in terms of formal leadership positions. I know that I have far too many opinions--and get far too frustrated by inaction--to not take on some sort of leadership role, if only informally.

I know I have areas of weakness I would need to develop in order to take on more visible leadership roles. I also know that some of the strengths I have make me uniquely suited to less visible leadership roles--and the strengths I do have are often areas of weakness for others. Do I have more to offer by sharing my strengths, or developing my weaknesses?

I realize, of course, that this is a false choice. Whether or not I take on visible leadership roles, developing my weaknesses would be a net good--and my strengths are, well, my strengths, and likely to stay that way. I guess, really, the question is whether leadership is more about playing to your strengths or being willing to work on your weaknesses. And I think in order to be a good leader you HAVE to be willing to develop your weaknesses--how can you convince others to try something new if you're not willing to? Even if you focusing on developing your weaknesses doesn't make you stronger, anyone with leadership experience knows that it will, at the very least, not kill you.


  1. So, based on the title of this post, falling off a mossy precipice made me a leader! Come, lemmings!

    But yes, developing your weaknesses is a difficult but gratifying task. I've bested my introversion (to some extent) through Toastmasters, and every night I work on my weakness for ice cream. So far, mmm mmm, so good.

  2. You could market a "one step leadership" program involving falling off a mossy precipice. You'd make millions! Which you'd need for the all the lawsuits.

    I've definitely gotten better with both shyness and introversion (shyness in particular); and while I know being introverted will likely close some doors for me (or make them harder to open), I'm not sure how much I want to work on it, as I don't know if I think of it as necessarily being a weakness.

  3. Every person has his/her own Achilles’ heel. No matter how excellent a person is, at some point, he has something about himself that needs to be improved. In fact, one of the keys to becoming a great leader is to always accept a room of improvement, to never settle for less and to motivate oneself to become better. For as long as the sun rises and sets, everyday is actually a chance for us to strive and make the most of everything.