A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

It’s Easy to be Above Average

by Marcia Warner on April 29, 2013

Okay, okay, let’s just get it out there. I love libraries, my family, sometimes running and biking; but my passion over the years slowly has become leadership development and coaching. I have used myself as a guinea pig and have tried out the techniques of hundreds of self-help and business books over my three-decade-long career. The end result is a quirky mix of library values and business excellence meets pseudo-psychology. And to take a quote from Tom Cruise in Top Gun, “It’s looking good so far.”

People that knew me in elementary school would have described me as a crybaby introvert. Today on a bad day I would be described as blunt, tough, and to the point; on a good day, confident, intense, and willing to make difficult decisions. What happened between then and now is personal growth, leadership development, and coaching. You may not have noticed, but libraries, as do other institutions, take on the persona of their directors over time. Directors who are vibrant, outgoing, and excited run vibrant, exciting libraries. Librarians who are hard-working and steady run libraries that get things accomplished and are viewed by their communities as valuable resources. Directors who like to fly under the radar usually find that their libraries do as well.

A persona is the appearance one presents to the world. A persona is not who you are in your heart of hearts, but what you present to the community to get your library where you want it to be. Very early in my career I attended a library conference in my state. I am a natural introvert, and I didn’t know a soul in the profession, but I introduced myself to the executive director of the association. She gave me a big hug and told me she was thrilled to have me in libraries and hoped I would actively participate in the association. I was so grateful for the welcome, I would have been her slave for life.

Long story short, I found that being active in an association was as easy as volunteering and doing a bit of real work that usually comes in fits and starts. Every time I sat on a committee, I learned from others their philosophy, their verbiage, their arguments for libraries. I mimicked what I liked and believed in and threw out the rest. Working with associations has educated me, not all at once, but brick-by-brick, all to the benefit of my library and my community. I think of this pillar of my lifelong education as “It’s so easy to be above average.”

The point of all this is not that we all look alike, but that we find the people in libraries whom we admire, and that we emulate the things that are good for our libraries and that fit who we are or want to be. How great would it be if we practiced what we preach by constantly learning skills that changed our libraries enough for the community to see that we are learning organizations and lifelong learners? The simple fact that you are reading this journal puts you far ahead of many of your colleagues in the profession.

I agree that today it is more difficult to keep up with library learning. Each day we are confronted with the need to balance job pressures and, yes, everyday life, and it can squeeze out thinking, learning, and growing. But that’s the part that makes being above average so easy: Everyone in your department, building, or institution isn’t going to do it.

I am not recommending a flavor-of-the-month approach to library management. We all know the chaos, confusion, and broken promises that method creates. I am talking about personal improvement and change that when tried, tested, and assimilated makes you a more successful person and, by association, improves your work and workplace.

Opportunities abound in the Public Library Association for training and learning, but let’s not stop there. Pick up a book that you would not ordinarily be drawn to, or take a class that you think might be beyond your capabilities—better yet, take one you think you don’t need and be open to what you might not have seen before. I took a Dale Carnegie course in my late forties and was by far the oldest person in the class; I am still stunned at how much I learned (that I thought I already knew).

One final thought that is critical to the success of this self-guided personal improvement program: genuine humility. If you are afraid to fail, opposed to looking stupid, or are unwilling to apologize when you screw something up, just forget it now. You can read all you want, but won’t really internalize or try anything new until you embrace risk and ambiguity and can find a way to celebrate failure. Just as exercise builds muscle, practicing new skills or trying on a new idea builds character. We add to our repertoire of responses, creativity, and maybe even solutions. So while reading Tongue Fu! How to Deflect, Disarm, and Defuse Any Verbal Conflict by Sam Horn (St. Martin’s, 1997), I got a new technique for dealing with a difficult person at work. I also used it six months later during a phone conversation with my husband, and weeks after that I recommended the same technique to a colleague who was having a problem at church. Now real learning has occurred.

A few months ago, the executive team at our library read together The Five Dysfunctions of a Team: A Leadership Fable by Patrick Lencioni (Jossey-Bass, 2002). One of our team members led us through a particularly uncomfortable series of exercises. The difference it has made in our working relationships has been nothing short of remarkable. It is hard to say whether it is the library or the individuals who have benefited most.

In the end, it doesn’t matter. Better is better.