Leadership is not optional – it's a job requirement

By Hilda Weisburg

In order to promote libraries as indispensable to the education community, the school library industry needs more leaders. Hilda Weisburg looks at how to step out of your comfort zone and into the leadership role.

A woman presenting to a room full of colleagues

William Shakespeare in Twelfth Night had Malvolio say ‘Some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have greatness thrust upon ‘em’. Change ‘great’ to ‘leaders’ and ‘greatness’ to ‘leadership’ and you have a message for all school librarians. I am well aware our profession has experienced drastic budget cuts and elimination around the world.

Bemoaning the injustice won’t get you anywhere. It’s time to accept the challenge and show politicians, administrators and parents that eliminating school librarians comes with a high price not only to students but to the entire educational community. Leadership is no longer an option for you. It’s a job requirement.

Some of you are already leaders and are well recognised, but we need more. If we are to not only survive but thrive, all of us must be leaders. Tom Peters, an American writer on business management practices, said ‘Leaders don’t create followers, they create leaders’. So for those of you who are leaders, you have a big job to do.

To get librarians out of their comfort zone, it helps to understand why they stay there. And those of you who are not ready to move out, this applies to you.

As librarians we love telling stories. We delight in entrancing primary school students with tales new and old. We work hard connecting students to just the right book, knowing that is how we build lifelong readers. We believe in the power of story.

What we overlook is the power story has over our own lives. We tell ourselves stories about why we do or don’t do certain things and, like the ones we bring to students, these have power. When our stories are positive, it helps us do great things, but most often we cling to our negative stories.

I am most concerned with the stories you have about being a leader. I have spoken with many librarians who recognise the value of being a leader but know they can’t be one themselves. And they all have a story. Are any of these yours?

I don’t have the time

I have a full schedule. I work in two (or more) schools. I barely have time to breathe on the job. I go home to more work. It’s hard enough for me to complete all my responsibilities. When would I find time to be a leader?

I can’t talk in front of a large group

Teaching a class of students is not the same as speaking before my colleagues or parent groups. I am really an introvert. If I have to get up before a group, my palms sweat and my voice gets shaky. I don’t sound like a leader, I sound nervous and scared.

And the most common one:

Leaders are born, not made, and I wasn’t born to be a leader

I can tell you countless stories of how I have never been a leader. I was last picked for teams. I was always the nerdy one. Whenever I did run for an office, I didn’t get elected.

A reality check

Even fairy tales have elements of truth. It’s why we can relate to them, and each of those stories has an element of truth, but like those tales, there is quite a bit of fiction within them. Let’s look more closely and see if it’s all true.

No time

Most of you are very busy, but the fact is in our world no one can find time. You have to make time. Which means look at what you are doing and determine priorities. Yes, you must get your lessons taught, but there is much you do within your school day that does not have as a high a priority. Getting every book into the catalogue as soon as possible. Checking everything in before the end of the day. You have others depending on your job. Yes, they are important, but making your presence known in the building, leading the way with tech integration, and sending visual quarterly reports to your administrator featuring what students are learning in the library are more important in ensuring that your program and you are valued. Pick one and add it to your ‘to-do’ list.

Public speaking

It’s true that in countless surveys people put the fear of public speaking higher than death, but who said leaders must speak in front of large groups? That’s only one aspect of leadership and not everyone needs to do it. Quiet leadership can be equally and sometimes more effective. Be the person who teachers can count on to show them how to use a new tech tool. Help your principal carry out a new administrative directive. When rubrics first erupted on the educational scene, I had a few teachers come to me quietly to ask for help. I had not made one for myself as yet, but they were confident I could help them — and I did. I also worked with the administration when the decision was made to move to block scheduling, getting material for teachers and giving them advice based on my research. That, too, is leadership.

Born leaders

Sure, some people seem to be natural leaders from childhood, but to return to Shakespeare, ‘...some have greatness thrust upon them’. The bottom line is, the need to be a leader has been thrust upon you. You can do it. You have achieved so much in your life by this time, you are more than capable of going those extra steps and taking the risk of stepping out as a leader. Look for a mentor in the field, someone who you see as a leader, and ask for advice and help.

If you had met me in high school, college or even my first few jobs, you would have known I was no leader. I don’t think anyone would say that of me today. What happened? I joined my state association and was on a committee. (Note, I didn’t chair it.) I joined the American Library Association (ALA) and the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) and went to conferences and programs. There I learned the ‘language’ of our profession, meaning I could speak with authority and conviction about topics relating to school libraries and education.

I moved out of my comfort zone. I started saying ‘yes’ when my brain was screaming ‘Are you crazy? You can’t do that’. But I was smart. I got help. I didn’t do it alone. We think we are alone because we usually are the only librarian in our building. But we belong to the most generously supportive profession in the world.

When I had a question, I could get an answer from around my state — and then the country. And at first I needed a telephone for that. Fortunately, we now have many more ways to connect.

I honestly think we have turned a corner on the depletion of librarians and libraries, but it will be a slow climb back and the direction will not always be forward. We must be there to support our colleagues who find leadership a scary thought and have told themselves many stories as to why they can’t be leaders.

So please, be the help that your librarian colleagues need. Make it known you are there for advice and help. We belong to a very old profession that has been important to the progress of civilisation for thousands of years. We can all take it to the next level and ensure that we continue to make our invaluable contributions, for we truly transform our communities and our society. And we are seen as vital and indispensable to our students, faculty and the educational community.

Image credits:

Hilda Weisburg

Hilda Weisburg

Author, editor, speaker

Hilda Weisburg is an author/editor of 15 books, including four for ALA Editions, and her newest book, Leadership for School Librarians. She teaches graduate courses, is a past president of New Jersey Association of School Librarians, serves on many AASL and ALA committees, and is the recipient of AASL’s 2016 Distinguished Service Award. She is proud of her first young adult fantasy novel, Woven through Time, with a sequel in the works.