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The local county bar association is doing a leadership academy. It is a 6 month, one-day-per-month program (different from AALL’s more concentrated approach). In past years, the bar association held it in their own space but they are moving buildings this year and needed a home at short notice. Our law library has hosted them for all of the weekend dates so far. We now have a pretty simple routine and, once they arrive, I leave them to their activities. I went back to my office and got down to my tasks. As I was constructing a standing desk for our reading room, my mind wandered to what my own leadership style is.

If you have ever interviewed for a management role, you have probably been asked what your leadership style is. I have an answer for that but, in reality, it is a foundation-setting question and you can’t really condense your leadership style down to a blurb unless it is “I’m not an asshole.” I haven’t tried that answer in an interview.

As you may have noticed on this blog, I think about leadership a lot. As a director, it’s a primary purpose. I approach it like I do most things: practice will improve a skill, being deliberate will ensure you’re practicing the right things, being realistic will ensure you are not just doing the things that are easy or that you’re good at.

A Word on Leadership Training

A library director is both a leader and a manager, although I think the ideal environment sees that management role—which focuses on directive, repetitive work until staff are more autonomous and engaged—take up as small a proportion as possible. This will largely depend on how large or deep your organization is, and how much of the management is delegated. Let’s say you have a crew of student part-time workers whose job is to staff a circulation desk or to shelve books. Those are roles that will be managed, as there is little scope for autonomy in those roles (“I’ll shelve these by color” or “I’ll come in tonight instead of during my shift”) and, while there might be minor progression (“I can file a looseleaf’s contents instead of just putting books on shelves”), there’s not a broad scope to expand beyond that work.

Let me drop in here the reflection that anyone, in any role, can identify better ways to serve our customers. Just because a role is repetitive and may not have a lot of scope for growth doesn’t mean it isn’t contributing to the overall service delivery. It doesn’t mean the people in those roles can’t see how other roles or services could be more aligned with the work. The manager for those roles still has substantial responsibility to ensure that those people are engaged and given the opportunity to provide input and insight.

Here’s what some folks at the Harvard Business School say about leadership and management:

I doubt they mean there to be a bright line between those two columns. A leader needs problem solving skills. A manager seeks to achieve change. Those are not two different people.

Soon after I started at my role in Canada, I had the opportunity to participate in two leadership training activities. The first was a corporate training similar to the county bar. Staff went to the local university’s business school in cohorts that were cross-departmental. We went once a month or so. It was largely ineffectual and could mostly have been communicated by giving us a text book.

There is an unfortunate crevasse that has to be acknowledged: some roles do not offer much beyond “personal” leadership thinking. Some leaders, in trying to inspire, will encourage these restricted roles to “create their own role” to try to enable that self-actualization, sometimes including faux management or supervisory hierarchies. But I think this can be risky in creating a role the organization doesn’t need or creating unachievable expectations for the person in the role. It is easy for a well-meaning leader to fall into this hole and it will be hard to get out once staff become accustomed to having personal missions that may be out of alignment with the organization’s mission.

The thing that was missing is what I found in a leadership training I took later that was condensed into a few days and whose participants were all librarians. The condensed approach seems better at breaking down the barriers to communication. Also, having people with a shared conception of a role, whether current or aspirational, seemed to encourage better learning as we shared a context: leadership in a library.

These discussions were doubly a challenge in a corporate environment where communication was often viewed as criticism, and where managers exhibited punitive behavior when discussions became uncomfortable for them. But there is also a huge difference between a library—full of mostly autonomous knowledge workers—and departments that are largely prescriptive, working to quotas and where staff have practically no autonomy (call centers, for example, where people read from scripts). It is very hard to talk as a group about autonomy when someone keeps saying, “that won’t work in my team.”

I have significant doubts whether training lawyers to be leaders can be effective. Someone who is trained to think like a lawyer has been taught many things that are counter to what a leader needs to do. For example, being persuasive in an advocacy role is not the same as motivating and inspiring people. I had a good ADR prof but lawyers tend to be zealous about winning not about success. Additionally, few will ever be in a position to hold a professional leadership position.

That’s not to say that lawyers can’t be leaders. But I think it will reflect the personality and mindset of an individual rather than the availability of training. And there are so few opportunities to practice those skills, even if there is an opportunity for training.

The legal profession is not different from other work environments and is thus not immune to the Peter principle, where we promote experts out of their expertise and into their incompetence. Libraries are the same and we have not yet found a way to compensate staff without them having to take on management roles. People lead organizations almost without consideration of whether they will be good leaders or not. Most lawyers are in solo and small law firms, where seniority and executive roles are occupied by people who have simply been at the bar longer.

Law libraries are not law firms. I think leadership is possible for more people who have chosen to work in libraries. Leadership training can provide the dedicated time for someone who has been trained to not be a leader to overcome some of that pre-conditioning and rethink their life. It is an opportunity for insights. It is an opportunity to think not only about the concepts but also their application to you as an individual, which is what counts most. There is no leader construct; each of us has to lead in our own authentic way.

I still remember very clearly an interaction with one of the University of Toronto faculty. I had struggled on arriving in Canada, experiencing unexpected resistance from some of my staff. A red flag for me, in hindsight, should have been that the senior management interviewed and hired me without including anyone from the library. But there was also an unexpected cultural challenge to overcome. I was at sea: were Canadian law librarians that different from American ones? I discussed this with the faculty member and it became clear that the answer was no, but that the librarians I was working with were very different from any I had ever experienced.

Leadership Style, Dissected

This is hard because I’m not sure where to start. There are also so many little things that make up leadership. There is a hard truth to admit to as well: what I aspire my leadership style to be and how it actually manifests itself and is experienced may be two different things. The people who have worked for me over the years will be better judges of my leadership style than I am, and it has changed substantially over the years. I’ll try to gather some thoughts in general categories.


For most of the last decade or more, I have been very focused on transparency. Or as one librarian I respect said, “every time you communicate, make a list of who needs to know, because it’s probably more people than originally occur to you.” I find this becomes habitual. I worry sometimes that I overcommunicate but the truth is you never know all of the circumstances that may be important for someone to know something. So long as you are still courteous of their attention and clear about when something requires action and when it’s just for background, more seems to be better.

This is important for so many reasons. People want to know what they’re doing. People want to know why they’re doing things. People want to know what changes are happening, especially if they might be affected. Lack of communication creates uncertainty. Uneven communication (telling one person and not another) can create division or knowledge gaps. None of us have unlimited people: what happens if someone gets injured or sick or leaves? Communication can build resilience because more people know why decisions are being made or how processes work.

No surprises, especially in HR.

I leave my door open unless I’m in a meeting or on a call that requires it to be closed. It’s proverbial but it’s also a bellwether. When staff really come and use your open door, you know they’re comfortable interacting with you. I would prefer to work in a hybrid mode but I think being in my office is important because being available is more important than being efficient and productive for a director’s role. CEOs demanding return-to-office may be doing so because they realize that they are more effective there, and they confuse their effectiveness with everyone else’s.

My communication preference is asynchronous. I’m as likely to leave something on a Teams channel for staff as to send an email. It will last longer and be more accessible there than being in my sent folder for my eventual successor.

I make lots of mistakes in my communications. Sometimes I forget to include someone. Sometimes I struggle with tone. I had a meeting recently with a couple of our librarians and was careless. As they made their pitch to me with an idea, I jumped to the end and didn’t give them a full listening. I ended up rescheduling with them to have them give me the pitch again but letting them know I’d shut up and listen properly this time. We ended up going a different direction from my initial decision because of this conversation.

There are leaders that bring their entire selves to work. That’s not me, really. Authenticity is hugely important to me but I’m also extremely private. I don’t keep photos of family or much personal items in my office. It means I may be overly incurious about my staff’s personal lives, as I forget sometimes that not everyone is as private as I am. I struggle with that balance, of showing interest in other people while not being comfortable sharing much myself.


Staff at the lawyer regulator didn’t call me “Mr. No” for nothing. I can make quick deliberate decisions. And I can take an agonizingly long time to make them too.

My biggest challenge is that I have “negative first reaction” so I try not to react immediately to any situation. This is useful when someone is being combative, as I default to giving them some space to vent. I have a couple of decades in leadership roles, though, so it is usually obvious when a decision needs to be made quickly or where there are limited options.

One thing I try to do is to be the last person to speak about a decision. I will also spitball some left field ideas, things that are pushing the edges of our mission or our resources, to be sure we’re exploring our potential service space as much as possible. The director is in the best position to air edge cases, because they have the lowest cultural risk. It’s another bellwether when your staff tell you no or why something won’t work or why it’s not consistent with the mission. A leader who is always told they’re right, or whose staff do things without questioning, is in serious trouble.

Hard decisions can be hard not because the decision itself is difficult. They can be hard because of the repercussions: how staff feel when a person is fired, how customers respond when you shut a branch location or go to single source databases. This is one area I am confident in now, because (a) with practice making these decisions and (b) with navigating the repercussions enough, you get used to it. The anxiety level lowers because you can anticipate outcomes.

Be a firewall against stupid.

More than in my early career, I now own my expertise space more. I was leading a web development team and was told by my manager that the CEO wanted this link added to the website’s home page. I was responsible for website navigation and I said no. The response was, “shouldn’t the CEO get to decide?” And I have always been grateful to that manager that they went back to the CEO and explained what I said: no, the CEO shouldn’t get to decide. They hire experts like me—librarians, web developers, records managers, archivists, leaders—for our expertise. If they’re going to ignore that expertise, what am I even doing here?

The director is the only person who can shield their staff from unaligned demands from above or that are external to the organization. This firewall role requires a director to be confident in their own abilities, have a high degree of awareness of resources, and to walk that fine line about what the library can or can’t do. There’s a middle ground between being a door mat, which will burn out your resources and your staff, and being an obstacle, which will sideline your library.

As my own role has required executive decision-making, I try to be extra careful not to get into the weeds of my own experts’ subject matter. It can drive me bananas when I’m working with IT teams because, boy howdy, do I have my own ideas. But if you’re going to be the head of reference AND head of cataloging AND head of IT, then fire those people. If you aren’t going to do all of that work, then stay out of their way. Trust that they know what they’re doing, hold them accountable for their decisions, and focus on your own expertise: leadership … plus stuff.

Strategic Minimalism

Strategy is one of the most enjoyable parts of being a director. The operational library world splits into two parts: strategy, which is figuring out how our boat gets to its next port, and tactics, which is how we power the boat and keep it seaworthy. I like being strategic but it can make me impatient because it can take a long time for strategy to play out.

My approach is minimalist in that I do not favor strategic plans. I guess maybe I’ve read too much Soviet history. But strategic plans, often charted over a 5 year period (I blame cults), tend to be more work than they’re worth. A case in point are all the strategic plans that were developed in 2019 before the pandemic began and the lockdown, and reopening, changed how we do so much of our work. But even without world-changing events, 5 years is a long time even to try to anticipate where we will be with any specificity.

But if you don’t know where you’re going, how will you get there? This might make sense for a widget-based industry that needs revenue targets or one undergoing rapid change or for a startup. Libraries? I don’t think so. Our fundamental mission doesn’t change for centuries, let alone the lifetime of a strategic plan. It’s our tactics that need to adapt and we can be more agile without setting them into profound documents.

As a general rule, I like to have a simple mission for the law library that everyone can agree on. Then we just apply our work to that rule. New idea? How does it align with the mission? Current service? How does it continue to align with the mission? Only once we know something is in alignment do we then drop down to the tactical decisions: it’s in alignment but do we have the resources? Does it make sense? How is it prioritized against other tactics to get us where we want to go?

I see my role as providing the constancy of that mission. If I get an external request to divert from our course, I will say no (sometimes more or less politely). If staff think we are drifting and ask me for priorities, I help to keep the alignment. I had one staff person who would check in every 2 to 3 weeks, saying that another department had asked them to add X or Y to their work list. What should they do? And I would help them re-prioritize, and sometimes contact those departments to explain why we couldn’t do X or Y yet or ever.

I have worked at two organizations—the Law Society and the ABA—where there was a culture of not saying no to executives. In both cases, it manifested itself with an IT project list that, given resources, would take 10 years to complete. But there were always new items and there was never a way to prioritize. One day, the ABA senior staff (maybe 30 or 40 people) got in a room to try to hammer out a decade-long project list and failed. It takes an executive to say no, to prioritize, to provide leadership.

When your organization is sick, it has symptoms. In the case of the long IT list, (a) the IT leader was not seen as the expert, (b) was not given the authority to say no, and (c) was not given support when they said no. The list was merely the excretion from the sick patient.

I have often wondered whether people who worked for me thought there was more to it! But it’s really very much like how I hike. See that mountain top? See that tree? That’s where we’re heading. I have no idea where the trail goes between here and there. But you know what? We’ll manage. In reality, I would hike with a map and could see a river or a gully, but there is no map for the future. I don’t let it stress me. I try not to stress folks who work with me.

The Basics

Lastly, for this blog post at least, are the basics. Treat people the way you want to be treated. Kindness and compassion are so easy that they should be the default in any organization. Say thank you so much it becomes a habit and an example for everyone you work with.

Be quiet and listen. Be open to ideas and critiques that make you uncomfortable. Treat your people with the importance they have, which is that they’re the only reason your library operates, fulfills its mission, and needs a director. Invest in them, cut them slack when they make mistakes, recognize their successes and struggles.

One thing I particularly focus on is elitism, which may be somewhat unique to working closely with the legal profession. I had been at my current law library about a month when we held an event out of normal hours. Our building was locked, so I hung out at the front door to let people in. One attendee asked, “Isn’t there someone else who could do this” or words to that effect. The idea was that door keeping was below a director. The answer is simple: sure, there is, but why should they? Why not set an example by doing any job that needs doing, especially when it also gives you an opportunity to meet each new person?

It was one reason that I staffed the local bar’s leadership academy. We’re not open on a weekend. If anyone should be asked to give up their weekends for this sort of arrangement, it should be the director.

And it’s not being a martyr or the hero. That’s exactly not the lens to use. I worked 5 weekend days and I learned things about our law library that I would never have known otherwise. Problems with our A/V systems, problems with how our weekend lighting worked. I met people I would never meet normally, including future bar leaders. It was a once-in-a-blue-moon opportunity. I would have declined to host if it meant that any of my staff needed to work a weekend (is it aligned with our mission? what is the resource impact?).

But I have a simple rule about a lot of situations: either you will have a great experience or you will have a terrible one. Either way, you will have a story to tell and to learn from. For me, that learning is the only way to get better.