Whoa. Now that was a intellectual reset button hitting if there ever was one.
From July 31 to August 5 I attended the Harvard Graduate School of Education's Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians (LIAL) in Boston. It was a one-week, intensive, immersive course not so much on how to be a leader but how to think like a leader and how to understand a little more about the leadership process.
Not solely aimed academic library leadership per se, but more broadly about leadership situated in an academic environment. In other words, it was about people who happen to be librarians leading academic institutions that happen to be libraries.
I was joined by about 100 fellow library leaders and aspiring library leaders. A fantastic class of people willing to explore and willing to stretch and learn.
First of all, the leadership theory that gave shape to the entire week. It was based on our textbook, Reframing Academic Leadership by Lee G. Bolman and Joan V. Gallos.
It really quite a good book with both practical and theoretical approaches to leadership that I find quite interesting. What's really useful is that is situates the challenges of leadership within the unique environment of collegial academic governance, the demands of research/teaching/service and a tenured professoriat/librarian complement. It's well worth reading. And with the incredible opportunity of having Joan Gallos on the faculty, the ideas really came to life during the Institute.
The basic premise is that there are four views or frames of academic leadership.
- Structural. Really about rational analysis, organizing tasks, making rules and enforcing policies. Being efficient. As you can imagine, a big one among academic library leaders.
- Political. This one is about networking, negotiating, bargaining, advocating, resolving conflicts and allocating resources.
- Human Resource. The main theme here is organization as family. It's about serving, coaching, caring, attending to people, motivation, relationships, needs, skills.
- Symbolic. It's about leading by example. The leaser as thinker, artist, "prophet." The core skills are building faith and shared meaning, seeing possibilities, creating a common vision, meaning-making, identity. What we might call "thought leadership."
I found it very revealing to see my own actions and the actions of those around me in light of those different lenses.
The structure of the Institute on a daily basis was quite straightforward. Each day began with a meeting of our small group of eight fellow participants. After that, we did a session, usually a case study, before lunch and one or two after lunch until the late afternoon. Lunches were catered at a nearby campus restaurant. We also had opportunities for campus tours and of the Widener Library.
- Teaching 1.0. Trust me on this one. No one was absent-mindedly checking their watches or Facebook during this institute. (Or at least not very much 😉
And each and every one of them delivered a wonderful traditional classroom experience. Like I titled this section: Teaching 1.0. Even the session on Education 2.0 was very Teaching 1.0. Curious, ironic, whatever. It worked. Forceful, dynamic professors, engaged students, terrific case study material, well chosen and well paced interactive and group study elements, immersive self-study and homework. That traditional classroom experience worked in many ways because of all the factors above, but I did find it curiously heartening that even in this hyper-connected Internet age there's still a way to make something so traditional so powerful.
Even down to feeling like an undergrad again, getting down to a few hours of homework a night, books open, music blaring, drink by my side. In fact, a curious lesson from all this was reminding myself how people study again. It's not staring at one screen, reading one document. It's multi-document, flipping back and forth, quickly switching from one to another: book, binder, photocopies, laptop/tablet screen not in competition with each other but all complimentary. Which is a lesson to be kept in mind when talking about the death of paper textbooks.
All the faculty were terrific, as I said. But there were also very diverse in their styles. Each unique from Joe Zolner's hilarious ramblings to Joan Gallos' jazzy improvisations to Jim Honan's intensity. I found them inspirational in the sense I could see elements of my own teaching style in each of them and ways to improve what I do. And I imagine most of the other participants had the same experience. In fact, for a while after LIAL I often found myself breaking into Joe Zolner impressions whenever I was explaining things to people.
- Small Groups FTW! Purposefully selected to maximize different axes of diversity, we spent an hour or so at the start of each day talking about what we'd learned, exploring leadership or professional issues, supporting each other and talking about each others various professional and career choices. In other words, a very supportive and nurturing way to start the day. I found this particular aspect of the institute one of the most powerful as it really focused on our relationships with each other, what we can learn from each other and on the relationships that will carry us forward beyond LIAL.
In fact, much of the institute was focused on getting us talking with each other. Virtually every session involved sharing and discussing with one of our neighbours (Hi Tracey, Hi Joy!), working on our individual cases with another small group or getting together at one of our self-organized lunchtime Affinity Groups to talk about various professional issues like open access, outreach, IL or international issues.
- Wet Dog Syndrome. One of the things we were warned about was getting back to our institutions all revved up, eager to get to the leading and changing and transforming and framing everything left right and center. And pissing everyone off all around us with our new-found enthusiasm. The message was definitely to pick our spots and be patient. To look at the long term, to take advantage of and create opportunities for leadership across all the various frames. The best opportunities aren't necessarily the ones that will jump out at you in mid-August. Words to live by.
- The power of a tech holiday. Looking at my twitter account, it seems that I did not tweet one single time between July 31 and August 9. Not even an RT. I also barely read my email or checked in on Friendfeed. And I totally forgot G+ even existed. I was just too damn busy and too damn engrossed.
Was my focus perfect? Not quite. But I did manage pretty well and I have to say I found the experience both enriching and enlightening. I did my readings, focused on and participated in class discussions, engaged my classmates at every opportunity.
- What happens at LIAL stays at LIAL. One of the most important things about an intensive workshop like this one is that the participants feel safe. One of the first things we all agreed to (with a mass thumbs up sign) was that we would respect each other's right to explore, share and learn without fearing that our words would come back to haunt us. As a result, I think people were pretty frank and honest about their experiences, both in the classroom and in the various small group settings.
- Framing what I do. One of the really great aspects of LIAL is that it gets you to really deeply think about what you do. Both what you hope you do well and what you know you can do better.
Luckily there was something I think I'm doing well that I was able to see in a clearer light. Both in my blogging activities and on campus I now realize what I'm attempting to do is much higher level leadership that I was thinking about before. When I organize tweetups or make sure I attend Departmental or Faculty Council meetings or campus social media working groups, what I'm really doing is exercising political frame leadership on my campus. I'm forging networks, creating alliances, making connections that all benefit the work that I do individually, that my department does and that the whole library does. When I go to Science Online or the CEEA conference, when I sit on ebook conference panels with science writers, when I give presentations on social media to various campus constituencies, I'm being a symbolic leader by making a case for what libraries and librarians can do.
And here on this blog, when I advocate for librarians to blog in faculty networks, to go to non-librarian conferences, to be stealthy, well, once again what I'm attempting to do is be a symbolic leader. I'm trying to make a case to librarians that we should be more outward-looking. It's actually kind of cool to see myself as a leader in those frames. And it's something that I know is important both for my organization and my profession. I was a nice feeling and we definitely should all get the occasional little ego boost about the work we do.
- A slight complaint. We were sent the Bolman/Gallos book well in advance of the institute as well as the reading for the first day and a half of the sessions. Which was great. However, when we arrived the first thing they did practically was give us huge binders with the readings and case studies for the next few days.
There was so much of it that to really absorb the articles and especially some quite long case studies could easily be a couple of hours of readings a night. While it was a bit of a (welcome/deserved) shock to the system to feel like a swamped undergrad again, I do feel that the scale of the readings was a bit counter-productive. Solitary readings I can do anywhere. Exchanging ideas and interacting with so many of the best and brightest of the library field? That's priceless. I could definitely feel both in myself and among the others a bit of a hesitancy to socialize too much in the evenings or even during lunch.
Thursday evening after the clambake (yes, the closing event is a clambake) was the only time that I think people felt really free to stay out really late since there were no readings due Friday. And maybe a bit the Wednesday evening "beer affinity group" meeting but even that broke up fairly early.
- And finally. Joe Zolner FTW! As the Educational Chair of LIAL, it was clear that in many ways this was his show. While obviously a truly collaborative effort on the parts of the absolutely stellar staff and all the other faculty, it was pretty clear that it was Joe's really quite amazing leadership on all frames (from structural all the way through to symbolic) that animated the program. He definitely seemed like the type of leader who would rather deflect much the credit onto others, but in the end I think he deserves a lot of the credit for the shape of the program and the family feeling amongst the participants.
And it was no accident that he was at the front of the class both in the first session of the Institute and the very last. His passion, flair and good humour really set the tone from the very first moment. And his earnestness and profound love of the mission of higher education hit the right note at the end, sending all of us out on a mission to change the world of academic libraries.
Whoa. Long post.
To summarize, LIAL was an amazing experience that many, if not most, academic librarians would benefit from at some point in their career. Leadership isn't just about having a title, it's also about leading by example and definitely it's also about creating the connections and building the context your institution needs to thrive in a challenging world.
And anybody can do that.
Update 2011.08.24: I should have mentioned that the dates for the 2012 edition of LIAL have already been set: August 5-10.