Leadership in a Digital Age

Libraries are laboratories for deep learning

April 9, 2013

Maureen Sullivan

The increasingly digital context brings challenges and opportunities for librarians, library staff, archivists, and museum professionals. New roles and the competencies required to perform them are evolving. One overriding role for all of us is that of the leader. The complexity of the changes we experience leads to many unfamiliar situations in which deep learning is necessary to successfully work through the problems and challenges. Scholar Warren Bennis calls these “crucible” experiences.

Libraries today are rich with such experiences. They are laboratories for deep learning. To keep pace with the changing needs and interests of our communities they also need to be workplaces that expect, cultivate, and support innovation. Today’s libraries require each of us to be a leader, whether by position held or by opportunity taken.

In late March, I served as a faculty member for the first Harvard Graduate School of Education Library Leadership in a Digital Age institute. I initiated the institute to address challenges we face as leaders in this new expanding context, and I led a session in which a group of about 100 participants had a lively discussion to identify future competencies. The framework for this discussion consisted of four general competency domains: conceptual or problem solving; specialist competencies; interpersonal skills; and self-management.

The conceptual domain includes such abilities as creativity and critical thinking, while the specialist area includes deep knowledge of a discipline and literacy. The interpersonal skills category includes communication, influence, and collaboration—all key for effective leadership.

Competencies in self-management, a relatively new competency framework, include risk-taking and a commitment to continuous learning and improvement.

To develop your future competencies, start by examining your current and emerging areas of responsibility. Take time to explore what is changing in your work and in your area of practice. Determine the key competencies for this work. Identify your strengths and build upon them. Identify areas for your development. Focus on not more than two or three key areas in which you are ready to commit to developing competence. Prepare and follow a leadership development plan.

Seek colleagues who will provide support, positive reinforcement, and guidance. Seek honest, specific feedback from trusted sources. Listen to this feedback with an open mind. Pay special attention to dissonant information. This can be an important source for new learning. Make a firm and unwavering commitment to learning and developing new areas of competence.

Adopt a practice of affirming your accomplishments. Take time to acknowledge and appreciate your achievements. Do this for others. Contribute to the learning and development of your colleagues. Recognize and take advantage of opportunities to learn and develop in your day-to-day workplace. See the library as your own laboratory for continual learning.

Through its divisions, offices, and chapters, ALA offers many programs in a variety of formats to support professional development. ALA members are often the first to identify and develop programs to address new areas of competence.

This August, ALA will present its first leadership institute, Leading to the Future (Completed applications and required attachments must be submitted electronically by 11:59 p.m. Central time on May 10.) The curriculum will include leading in turbulent times; interpersonal competence; power and influence; the art of convening groups; and creating a culture of inclusion, innovation, and transformation.

The success of the first Library Leadership in a Digital Age institute portends continuation of this program and bodes well for the ALA Leadership Institute as means to help more of us to be ready for the challenges we face.

MAUREEN SULLIVAN is an organization development consultant to libraries and interim dean of the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at Simmons College in Boston. Email: msullivan[at]ala.org.



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