Leading from All Sides

What makes an effective leader? Sometimes it’s not what you think

April 8, 2014

Joseph Janes

I’m in a meeting as I write this. (It happens; don’t tell anybody I work with, okay?) Don’t get the wrong idea … all of our meetings are vital and gripping, and everybody looks forward to them. Just like yours, right? In all seriousness, though, as I sit here, I’m struck by the various roles people play within our organization and particularly the different ways in which my colleagues lead and follow.

The March/April issue celebrates the newest crop of Emerging Leaders. I want to congratulate them all and wish them the best as they make their way in a profession that always benefits from the ideas, the ­energy, the optimism, and occasionally the ignorance of our newest colleagues.

We’ve all experienced many kinds of leaders, from the jumping-on-tables, man-the-barricades style to the quiet inspirer to the lead-by-example type. All of which can work (or not—living through the regime of an ineffective leader, while painful and cringe-inducing, can also be a valuable learning experience), and finding one’s own style is an essential aspect of developing a “leaderly” approach.

It’s widely acknowledged that there are multiple modes of leadership, and typically when we think of “leaders,” we think of somebody … leading. At the top, out in front, waving the banner.

But let me offer an alternative idea: leading from the middle. I’ve seen this happen more than once; the person who isn’t chairing a committee or overseeing an organization or initiative, yet who is exerting substantial influence on its direction or activities.

Wait, I hear you saying, “Isn’t that just the same thing as being a good committee member or participant?” Not really. This is more than just showing up, paying attention, doing your homework, checking the box, and fulfilling your expectations and responsibilities. Nor do I mean a palace coup or popular revolution, though when all else fails, those can work too. Been there, done that.

What I mean is someone who is guiding and shaping, moving things forward, articulating a vision and marshaling support for it, creating and innovating, doing something that likely otherwise wouldn’t be done. And from the ranks, without the benefit of—or need for—a title or position from which to accomplish that. It’s not necessarily subversive or diversionary, but it’s tricky since you don’t have the benefit of the machinery of office to turn your ideas into reality.

This style of leadership is more subtle, less overt, and dependent on the power of ideas and the ability to present and advocate for those ideas. You must persuade and sway rather than cudgel or mandate. It’s also more interpersonal, more relationship-driven, and, when done well, often barely noticed.

I’ve seen it done. I was on our school’s working group a few years ago to write our vision statements. This can be hard, deadly work. We spun around for a few weeks until somebody, who had been sitting in the corner seemingly detached, started pouring out ideas he had been quietly gleaning from the ongoing discussion. In beautifully crafted prose, this wallflower articulated what we’d been trying to say all along.

Our newest Emerging Leaders now take their places, in a line that stretches back decades, of women and men who have dedicated their professional lives to making librarianship and libraries stronger and more vital to their communities and clienteles. I hope they also embrace the enticing opportunity to remake our profession—and perhaps some of its cherished ideas and institutions—for the times and challenges to come. I can’t wait to see how well they do … but that’s another story.

JOSEPH JANES is associate professor and chair of the Information School at the University of Washington.