Beyond Books and Bullets
One librarian's personal account of learning new leadership skills during a deployment in Iraq with the Army National Guard
Posted Tue, 12/01/2009 - 15:16
The author, George J. Fowler, with his platoon in Iraq.
One day in 2007 I am head of the Systems Department at the University of Arkansas Libraries in Fayetteville. The next, I am two weeks away from a 13-month deployment to Iraq with the Arkansas Army National Guard. It really wasn’t that I thought it couldn’t happen; I just thought it wouldn’t happen at that time and with such short notice. That was my first management lesson from the deployment—opportunities do not always come when you expect them, how you expect them, or with much warning.
Throughout my dual-career professional life, I have noticed that many people in the military world are surprised that I would also be in the library world and vice versa. People seem to think only of the bullets and the books and that the two professions are incompatible. But I consider them both service professions, even if the respective tools they use to serve the public vary greatly.
Now that I’m home and back at work, I consider any challenges that come my way with an entirely different perspective. Coping with and even leading through change is definitely a skill that my deployment to Iraq improved in me. What other tools could I possibly have brought back to librarianship from leading 31 soldiers through a deployment that lasted more than a year?
Well, the first thing I learned was that I was not irreplaceable at work. Not to say that they didn’t miss me, but the library didn’t fall apart without me. The rest of the learning opportunities can be encapsulated by the seven Army Values taught to all soldiers, carried in their wallets, and worn around their necks along with their identification tags: Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage (LDRSHIP). These values have guided me since my return, and I want to share them with you. They help me strive to be the best librarian, supervisor, and employee I can be. Although someone’s life may not literally depend on my performance, their livelihoods and ability to do and enjoy their work may.
You may think that your boss’s idea or plan is not what is best for your library, but being loyal means that you discuss your concerns with your supervisor in private while publicly showing support. Own the idea to your subordinates; do not pass that responsibility to your boss.
While in Iraq, I was responsible for six guard towers along the busiest portion of the perimeter of my base. My commander wanted to modify the towers in such a way as to, in my opinion, be openly aggressive toward the local population. I talked with him in private and explained my concerns, knowing how strongly he felt about it. I didn’t change his mind, but I publicly supported his decision to go ahead with the modifications. I was loyal to my soldiers in fighting for their safety while also being loyal to my commander by not undermining his authority. It was important.
Do what you rightfully have to, regardless of how you feel about it. I did not want to go to Iraq, for many reasons, but I went because it was my duty. It was hard to stay focused on all the good things we were doing, when how we did it and why we did it often seemed bizarre and nonsensical. So I had my soldiers concentrate on their individual drills and routines and daily duties. It was a very political environment; with many “leaders” choosing to please their commanders to further their careers over leading their soldiers. They did it their way, and I did it mine. I fought the stupidity with private conversations with a couple close peers and we commiserated.
As librarians, we may be put in uncomfortable positions regarding our personal beliefs and the values embodied in the Library Bill of Rights. It may be easier to let our values slip, but it is our duty to uphold them.
Punish subordinates, peers, superiors, patrons, and yourself in private; praise in public. When my battalion commander (my boss’s boss) and command sergeant major came to one of my platoon meetings, they publicly praised two of my soldiers for performing their jobs admirably during their shift. That was respect.
My military specialty was finance, so I was tasked with helping an Iraqi transportation regiment resolve their finance problems, which ranged from having to transport $250,000 USD equivalent in cash from Baghdad to their base to not accurately accounting for their soldiers - their numbers were always higher than mine. Almost all of the problems were leadership problems, so I addressed them with their leadership in private and never in front of formations. It was hard enough to get the Iraqi soldiers to show up every day without publicly humiliating them or their leaders and destroying their morale.
Working in the library’s IT department is not a glorious job; most of the attention we get is when something goes wrong. That means it’s critical for me, as the head of the department, to praise my staff in front of their library peers for all the good that they do, while handling any negative issues in private.
Leaders should always have it much harder than their subordinates–and not just by working longer hours.
Not only should leaders have a good understanding of what everyone directly under them does and at least a rough idea of what their second-level subordinates do, but they should also know their boss’s job. It is the leader’s responsibility to make subordinates’ jobs as easy as possible, particularly because the subordinates usually have the dirtier, messier, or less glamorous duties.
Working a minimum of 16 hours a day, every day, for seven months straight gave me the dedication and focus to accomplish so much more than during a short eight-hour day or a five-day work week.
As an officer, I found that many aspects of the job were less than enjoyable-negative counseling, paperwork, taking responsibility for problems with my subordinates- but there was no avoiding them. That is one of the most important aspects of leadership: accepting responsibility for your subordinates’ mistakes and passing the accolades on to them.
My soldiers didn’t always like me, but I always tried to lead by example, living an honorable life. I did my best to exemplify the seven LDRSHIP values, not only to show my soldiers how, but also because I wanted to be able to live with myself at the end of the day.
In the undeniably cushier librarian profession, the path of honor may not be as distinct, but we are all provided countless opportunities daily to be honorable-or not.
Standards and expectations must hold everyone (yourself included) accountable for their actions, particularly when no one is watching. The path of least resistance is rarely the right path to take, and, as leaders, it is our responsibility to determine the right path and lead our subordinates down it. Gossiping, denigrating others, or lowering your standards makes everything worse. At the end of the day, you have to live with yourself.
Courage means doing what you know is right, regardless of the consequences.
You don’t have to be selfrighteous about it, and don’t even have to publicize it. Just do it. Often, doing what is right can mean enforcing unpopular standards, rules, and regulations. It can also mean being yourself when all the pressure is to conform to the majority.
In Iraq, the closest I ever came to real personal danger involved the fact that I slept 300 meters from the guard towers, which were just a main highway away from a busy shopping complex. One morning we actually had a car blown in half in the shopping center. The concussion from that was enough to wake everybody up and rattle the building. There was always the high threat of indirect fire, like mortars. It’s surreal to think about the things we had to face each day.
Do I have any regrets about the way I led my troops in Iraq? Certainly. Highest among them is that I caved in too much to what my commanders wanted instead of sticking up for my soldiers. There were a lot of instances when we would get equipment in the guard towers that wasn’t functional. How can you sit in a tower all night with nightvision goggles that don’t work? I would bring it up, and my superiors would say they were going to address it but they never did. This was about security for my soldiers and the entire base, and the fact that nothing was done about those goggles left a bad feeling with the soldiers-the feeling that nobody cared.
We need to be, and to develop, leaders in libraries at all levels, and it is incumbent on all of us to lead well. I could list numerous examples of poor leadership, especially my own. Examples of great leadership are less abundant, but they are the examples we should concentrate on.
If you look beyond the bullets and the books, we are all here to serve the people. Leaders lead best by example, and I have learned the most effective methods of doing this from the army.
George J. Fowler is the head of the Systems Department at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville. He served four years of active duty in the army from 1991 to 1995 and rejoined the military in 2002, serving in Iraq in 2007-08. He received his MLS from the University of North Texas in 1998.