The Accidental Leader

How to survive—and even thrive—after being thrust into a new leadership role

January 22, 2024

Jenny Meslener (right), head of social sciences and Mason Square Library at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, and Ashley Ruby, director of the Learning Commons and academic success at Garrett College in McHenry, Maryland, present at the American Library Association's 2024 LibLearnX conference on January 21.Photo: Rebecca Lomax/American Libraries

Librarian Jenny Meslener remembers her “oh, crab” moment.

Meslener, head of the social sciences team and Mason Square Library at George Mason University in Arlington, Virginia, said it came when she was in a new leadership role and was told to work on the budget—without any training. “‘This is what we did last year,’” she recalled administrators saying. “‘Here you go, have fun.’”

Meslener shared her experiences of being thrust into a leadership position at “Oh, Crab! I’m a Director, Now What?!,” a January 21 session at the American Library Association’s 2024 LibLearnX conference in Baltimore. She copresented with Ashley Ruby, director of the Learning Commons and academic success at Garrett College in McHenry, Maryland.

In the past, Ruby, too, had received an unexpected promotion that required figuring things out on her own. In talking with others at conferences and networking events, the two discovered this was happening to others as well.

So how do you become a good manager or leader when thrown into the role?

First, you have to know yourself, they said. Meslener and Ruby recommended taking a free DISC Personality Test to see if you’re mostly dominant, inspiring, supportive, or cautious (DISC). You may also want people on your team to take it so you can develop an approach that may be most effective for them.

There are plenty of other leadership styles that you may identify with, such as transformational, instructional, emotional, strategic, authoritative, democratic, transactional, and charismatic. And you can be a blend.

“You don’t have to pigeonhole yourself,” Meslener said. “Make sure that you keep your definitions of leadership styles very flexible.”

You may discover, for example, that certain self-development titles and authors draw you in more than others. Brené Brown’s Dare to Lead and Kim Scott’s Radical Candor resonated for Meslener. “These aren’t necessarily scholarly works,” she said, “but they are what helped me as a supervisor and helped me do better.”

The key is to explore your options for self development, she said. Other resources may include webinars, workshops, publications, listservs, educational opportunities, and employee assistance programs that provide supervisory training. You may find that you need extra legal skills or training in human resources, which may be offered as a certificate or post-graduate program that your institution will pay for.

Another key leadership skill is communication, Ruby said. But not all of this is simply verbal. Among the things to keep in mind, she said, is that each communicator may carry with them a physiological context (appearance, body shape, general health), a psychological context (attitudes, beliefs, emotions, ethics, expectations), a cultural context (behaviors, beliefs, lifestyles, values), and a temporal context (things that may be happening politically in the world).

Ruby described four basic communication types: feeler, intuitor, thinker, and sensor. By better understanding your style and someone else’s style, she said, “you can find a greater area of shared meaning.”

Remember to think about the following, the presenters said: What, How, With Whom, and When will you communicate?

Finally, find your people. New leaders should learn from other leaders to help themselves develop into their own definition of a leader, Ruby said. “The single greatest thing you can do in a leadership role,” she said, “is find a mentor. Someone who you can turn to with questions—particularly confidential questions that you may not feel comfortable asking in an open setting.”

Finding leaders in similar positions as yours, or ones in roles you aspire to, can also be beneficial. Ruby recommended having what she called a “personal presidential cabinet,” or people you can turn to about various topics, such as budgeting or strategic planning.

Whatever your path, Ruby said, “empower yourself to develop and lead successfully.”


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