Leading from Any Position

When I was a library director, one of my employees requested to take a workshop called “Leading from Any Position.” This workshop, which many library associations offer, provides employees with tools and techniques to influence the strategy and direction of the library. The goal is to empower employees, whatever their formal place in the hierarchy. The implicit assumption is that leadership is shared, not vested in one person or a small group of people.

I was thrilled by my employee’s initiative, and happily supported her attendance at the workshop. She was an outlier. If it was up to me everyone would have gone to the same workshop, but this was not the kind of behavior you could force. Most people had no interest in the idea. Nobody else ever asked about attending this workshop, or expressed any interest in shared leadership in general. It was much more common to hear “that’s above my pay grade” than to locate people who wanted to lead from any position.

I thought about this last week, when listening to the latest HBR Ideacast with Sue Ashford. Ashford, a professor at Michigan’s Ross School of Business, is an expert on shared leadership. In the 25 minute interview she notes that leadership sits at the intersection of four qualities: sensitivity, dedication, intelligence, and dynamism. Anyone can exhibit these qualities, whether or not they are in an explicit leadership role. This is a dynamic process, with a changing cast of leaders. Someone emerges to lead one critical project, and someone else comes forth to lead the next one. The anointed leader is there to guide and coordinate the team, not to make all the decisions. Score one for leading from any position

Per Ashford, shared leadership is particularly suitable in certain contexts: “If we’re in a world where things are moving much faster than they did before, things are more complex, things are more ambiguous, and more — work is more interdependent where coordination and cooperation is required, then shared leadership can have a lot of payoff. We don’t have time to wait for everything to go up the chain of command, back down the chain of command; we need people taking leader-like actions in more places so that they can react more quickly, react in a way that allows more voices to be heard to handle some of that complexity and ambiguity.”

Conversely: if the situation is stable and predictable and everyone knows their role, the traditional leadership model should still work.

Which leads me back to my experience in libraries.

When I was a library director I strongly believed that libraries will and must change. People have other means of accessing information today, obviously — even if some of those sources are dubious, they are also tremendously convenient. The idea of trying to lure people into a typical building to offer typical services seemed like a fool’s errand. Even if the library rumbled along indefinitely, it would be as a sideshow to how people obtain and filter information rather than the main event. This was true even in the case of online materials only available because of the library, as most people had little sense of the tremendous amount of work (and cost) involved in making this happen.

So this is what I was thinking about — how to be a vibrant partner with our communities in interpreting information. Obtaining that information and showing people how to search it was fine, but no longer sufficient.

That was just me. Perhaps everyone else on the staff was fine with things as they were — they understood their roles and everything seemed the same to them. All of my grand director talk about the “future of libraries” was entirely irrelevant. Since everyone already knew their part and most tasks were the same day by day, who needed shared leadership? A regular leader would do.

I wish I had known about Sue Ashford back then, because I love the concept of shared leadership and loathe the role of old-fashioned “boss.” Turns out I had the right idea but was in the wrong place. No wonder my people wanted me to chill out.