Leaders and Followers and Me

At the risk of having Walt Crawford never link to one of my blog posts again, I’m going to talk about some things that have been bothering me about the Library Leadership Network. No, that’s not quite right. I’m going to talk about some things that bother me about some of the things the LLN links to, so maybe this is more participating in the conversation than criticizing the LLN, and thus Walt might link to me again one day. I’m not uncomfortable with talk of leadership, but there’s something about the idea of "leaders," and especially their concomitant "followers," that sometimes rubs me the wrong way.

At other points I’ve criticized people who conflate leader and manager, thus designating anyone who happens to be in a supervisory role a "leader." This is a category mistake that should be easy to spot, since I’m sure most of us have known supervisors who were neither leaders nor managers, but instead uninspired and incompetent mediocrities. Or maybe I’m the only one who’s known anyone like that. So I contend it’s a mistake to confuse leaders and managers. To judge by the "leadership literature" LLN sometimes links to, this sort of sloppy thinking is endemic to the field. I’m not sure who’s a "leader" and who isn’t, but anyone incapable of disambiguating the various terms that allow even remotely intelligent discussion of the issue isn’t going to get me as a "follower."

But the literature displays more than just a tendency to insufficiently parse terminology. Tonight I’ve been going through some entries in another LLN category: Leaders and Followers, linked from the latest LLN Highlights. One entry I found especially irksome: "What every leader needs to know about followers." (It’s down a way on the page; the link to the original article is broken.) The LLN summary reads: "This article identifies five types of followers–followers being those who ‘are low in the hierarchy and have less power, authority, and influence than their superiors.’" It took me a couple of minutes just to get past that. This sentence, especially the spurious definition of "follower," implies that everyone who is a "superior" in some sort of hierarchy is thus a "leader" (since leaders have followers, while superiors have inferiors), and that anyone below this "superior" "follows." The sloppy language is made more bizarre by the very obvious fact that some of the types discussed don’t "follow" at all. Just read the description of Isolates, Bystanders, Participants, Activists, and Diehards.

This is another example of using language sloppily and conflating terms, but the writers of this leadership literature have surpassed sloppy categorization and moved on to just making words mean whatever they want them to mean. I don’t see what the purpose could be except to aggrandize anyone in any supervisory position and turn everyone who isn’t into some sort of inferior "follower" who waits breathlessly for words of wisdom to fall from Der Fuhrer’s lips. (The unpleasant connotation explains why, as i understand it, the Germans don’t write much about "leadership.") It also makes nonsense of the very obvious truth that if you don’t have any followers, then you’re just not a leader, despite whatever authority and power you might have to energize people or make them miserable at work.

Let’s back away for the moment from the sloppy thinking of some leadership literature and consider another blog post I read today on professionalization at Rory Litwin’s Library Juice. (Perhaps the confluence of events inspired my own thinking.) In that post, Litwin cites an article listing some of the characteristics of a profession, which includes "Autonomy and control of one’s work and how one’s work is performed." Litwin opines that " it is endemic of the period of deprofessionalization that we are in that library managers have begun to say that ‘professionalism’ means performance of ones tasks according to high standards of quality (as judged by them)."

Though I don’t know if he would agree with this, in the context of my discussion, this would mean that "professionalism" is being redefined to mean whatever The Leader says is good, and the good professional is the Good Follower who does what The Leader says. If this is the case–if all "managers" are "leaders" and everyone else is a "follower" kowtowing to the leader–then it does either lead to deprofessionalization or merely indicate that no professionalism is present anyway.

This brings together much of what bothers me about the intellectually sloppy literature on leadership that I’ve read. It’s not that there aren’t organizations that it might apply to (though this might be the case); it’s more that it doesn’t seem to apply to the sort of organization I work for or the sort of work I do, either practically in my case or ideally in anyone’s case. There are jobs in which pleasing the boss is the job, but librarianship shouldn’t be one of those jobs.

Professional academic librarians should look upon such thinking with disdain, just as professional academics should. The key is the concept of "professional." Here are a couple more entries in the definition of profession:

  • Motivation focusing on intrinsic rewards and on the interests of clients – which take precedence over the professional’s self-interests
  • Commitment to the profession as a career and to the service objectives of the organization for which one works
  • Sense of community and feelings of collegiality with others in the profession, and accountability to those colleagues
  • Self-monitoring and regulation by the profession of ethical and professional standards in keeping with a detailed code of ethics

I interpret all this to mean there is a sense of obligation by each professional to shared standards that determine the appropriateness or quality of conduct, rather than the words of wisdom spoken by Der Fuhrer.

We’re told by the leadership gurus that "Good followers actively support good (effective) leaders and oppose bad (ineffective, immoral) leaders." But in an atmosphere of professionalism, good "leaders" may be entirely absent, yet good work may still be done.

This leadership literature all seems to be written for commercial rather than academic organizations. Thus, in addition to the nonprofessional assumptions that people are "followers" there’s the lack of rigor and intellectual standards that makes so much of this writing no different than the typically execrable self-help literature for the ignorant masses. In fact, part of what bothers me about so much of this is the demonstrated inability to think carefully. In academia, thinking carefully and developing articulate arguments are minimal criteria for being taken seriously. To the masses one may be a leader, while to the educated one is merely a demagogue.

Other organizations and academia are perhaps analogous to dictatorships and republics. Dictatorships operate under the Rule of (One Person’s) Will, but republics under the Rule of Law. A standard definition of a republic is that it is governed by laws, not people. We are professionals precisely because the word of Der Fuhrer doesn’t decide what is right or wrong in our profession. Professionals have shared standards–the rule of law–to which they appeal. Individual supervisors or managers may violate those standards. They may even insist that we violate those standards in order to keep our jobs (or get raises or whatever). But that doesn’t make us wrong for defying them. That makes them unprofessional in their behavior. That’s because, ideally, o
ur profession is one governed by principles and standards and not by the will of The Leader.

Actual leaders rise and attract followers not because they are in a certain place in a hierarchy. They  do worthwhile things and inspire or encourage others to do worthwhile things. Only demagogues are obsessed with whether or not they are leaders. The best leaders in librarianship don’t prattle on about leadership or insist to us that they are "leaders."  They don’t seek followers or the acclaim of shallow praise. Instead, they inspire us to meet the challenges of our own professional principles and standards. They don’t lead by telling people what to do or writing performance evaluations. They lead by making us want to do great things not to please the boss/fuhrer, but to meet shared standards that transcend us all, not to follow their orders, but to do or do better what we should already be doing even if they weren’t around. When those people come along, they don’t need to talk about leadership. We know them for what they are.




3 thoughts on “Leaders and Followers and Me

  1. Or, perhaps, you could write a post like this, one that’s likely to get used (in part) within an LLN article.
    You’re absolutely right about the confusion of terms. It’s one I’ve tried to work on: there’s an essay in LLN on precisely that issue, and you’ll find that some items with “leadership” in the title are flagged as “management” items because that’s what they are. I don’t think the term confusion is quite as endemic within librarianship as it is within business literature, but I could be wrong.
    One source of material for LLN is the business press (as monitored and excerpted by Leslie Dillon), and it’s prone to make that equation. I’ll point that out from time to time, but not every time.
    The misuse of “followers” is different, and frankly, the item you cited may be just old enough that I haven’t looked at it recently… but you’ve added a useful perspective, one that will be, um, used.

  2. Walt, the stuff that I find most irritating is from the business press, not from the librarians. Some of the websites Leslie links to are interesting, but some, like the ones I’m criticizing, don’t make very good distinctions among concepts, which makes discussion harder. Also, I realize there are different types of libraries, and here I’m trying to point out how inappropriate some of the thinking for academic libraries and professional academic librarians.

  3. I just wanted to comment on the business press and its role in building a body of work on leadership. In your last paragraph you give us your definition of what a great leader is, and I think many librarians would agree with you. We want leaders who inspire us, who share a vision worth working towards, and who make us better by giving us the resources and time we need to turn the vision into a reality. Great leaders gain our trust, we know they’ll be honest with us, and we also know they may have to give us bad news or tell us no – but they’ll be up front about it and they’ll still have our respect afterwards. They don’t use their power or access to inside knowledge to gain leverage over us, nor do they use force or the threat of being able to fire us to get us to do what they want. I know that’s the type of leader I’d like to be recognized as.
    The big question is, how do you learn how to do that and to be consistent about it? Do you believe that some people are natural born leaders who have all the great qualities, or do you think it is possible to learn how to be a great leader – and that it is also possible for the person you might describe as a poor leader – who has the negative qualities you discuss – to become a better leader through education and reading the lessons shared by great leaders? I think very few of us are born as great leaders. We may have some natural leadership tendencies (e.g., we’re willing to volunteer to lead a group, we look at the things everyone else looks at but we see something unique, etc.), but the complexities of being a great leader are such that it really requires a commitment to learning how to do it well. Just take something like being a leader in a crisis. Just being humble and inspirational is probably not likely to help you rise to the occasion. You may also need to be quite adept at managing the politics of a higher education organization. You may need to be skilled at negotiation. You may need to have excellent financial and budget skills. There are any number of skills a great leader needs to support the people they lead through all the types of situations with which great leaders must contend.
    I’ve been an assistant director, director, and associate university librarian – positions in which I’ve been expected to be a leader – and in those positions I’ve tried to support others who demonstrated the capacity and desire to be leaders in their own way. I certainly made lots of mistakes along the way,and I’ve probably made the mistake of conflating management and leadership. I have also learned a great deal from reading about great leaders, by attending leadership forums and being mentored by great leaders – and trying to avoid the mistakes of bad leaders. I have found books and articles about leadership to be extremely helpful in my development as a leader, so it may be questionable to generalize about the business press as something to be avoided. Right now I’m reading Jim Collins’ “How the Mighty Fall” and there are some great lessons in there about leaders who took their organizations to the top but then made mistakes and lost it all. If you can avoid the same mistakes as a leader just think of the good you can do for the people you lead. I could give many other examples but I’ll just say that while not everything made available at the LLN is worth my time, I appreciate the effort being made to provide a resource for librarians who want to improve their leadership skills.
    That reminds me, I’ve wanted to summarize a few good leadership books that I’d like to recommend to librarians and post the reviews at the LLN. Maybe you’ll see them there.

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