Sharing My Leadership Moment (And You Can Too!)

Leadership is the theme of the ACRL/LLAMA Presidents’ Program at the 2013 ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. Academic librarians interested in adding leadership qualities to their skill set, or adding to their leadership abilities, will want to attend this program. It features noted author, executive coach and leadership consultant Karol M. Wasylyshyn, and her presentation is “Standing on Marbles: Ensuring Steady Leadership in Unsteady Times.” Experienced leaders, at any level in their library, knows their work occasionally involves uncertainty and that these times of ambiguity do indeed make us feel like we are standing on marbles. Having heard Wasylyshyn speak previously, I believe we can expect a great talk that will help all of us improve the quality of our leadership.

In conjunction with the program, the ACRL/LLAMA Joint President’s Program Committee is sponsoring a creative contest that will provide us with an opportunity to share stories and learn from each other so that we can all improve the quality of our leadership. Any ALA member is eligible to participate. All you need to do is reflect on one of your own memorable leadership moments and share the story about how it provided you with insight into your own leadership style or potential. The twist is that you can refer back to “an example from a book, film, play, TV show, presentation or any other context where a “leadership moment” might be found.” The possibilities, given the number of books, movies and more that offer leadership moments, are nearly endless.

Being a leader means making a commitment to continuous learning. One of the best ways to learn about leadership emerges from leaders when they share their most challenging experiences. We can learn from both the successes and failures encountered in confronting leadership dilemmas. The more memorable those experiences are the more likely we will learn from them. Some of these significant experiences are referred to as crucible moments. Their value is that they make us wiser leaders and give us the confidence we need to succeed in a leadership role.

I am looking forward to learning from your memorable leadership stories. As your ACRL president I plan to refrain from submitting an entry. I’m sure there is something in the small print that specifies my ineligibility.  In the spirit of the contest though, I’d like to share a memorable leadership moment from an inspirational book. I first encountered this book when I was a graduate student in the higher education administration program at the University of Pennsylvania. In a course on educational leadership we were studying decision making approaches in order to improve our own ability to make better decisions. One of the readings for this course was Graham Allison’s The Essence of Decision, the classic book about decision making under uncertainty that explains the Cuban Missile Crisis.

If you’ve read the book or studied the Crisis you know about the gut wrenching process that President John F. Kennedy went through on his way to deciding how to counter the Russians’ decision to place offensive weapons in Cuba. It is a case study of decision making under conditions of extreme ambiguity. For Kennedy and his advisers  the reasoning and rationale behind Russia’s action was murky, so the days leading up to the end of the standoff were much like a game of chess with the ultimate in high stakes. It was also marked by multiple “mini-crises” within the crisis, such as a U-2 spy plane being shot down over Cuba.

The book, along with class discussions, was an excellent lesson in leadership. Kennedy had his failings as president, but the Missile Crisis provided him with an opportunity to redeem past issues by demonstrating top notch leadership. Adding to the complexity of the crisis, Kennedy’s top advisers were split on how to deal with the Russians. One group advocated attacking Russia with nuclear weapons while the other wanted to wait out the Russians to see if they’d just give up. With help from his brother Bobby, President Kennedy used a blend of diplomacy and saber rattling to take control and develop a course of action that resolved the Crisis.

While initially impressed with the book, I have since come to think of Essence of Decision as a leadership manual for decision making under pressure. The big takeaway for me is that great leaders force themselves to avoid settling for the obvious solutions and instead think creatively about ways to develop solutions that are neither option A or option B, but rather a new and previously unimaginable option C. The book and the story of the Cuban Missile Crisis can also help leaders by reminding them that there are going to be dilemmas where there are no easy answers, but that if we maintain our composure, seek the guidance of colleagues and do our best to avoid causing damage, we increase the odds of a successful outcome.

I encourage you to consider composing an entry for this contest. Whether it’s a book, movie, television show, play or other form of expression, I believe that many of us can conjure up a memorable leadership inspiration that is worthy of sharing with others. This will be a learning opportunity for all of us. Many thanks to Valeda Dent and Lila Fredenberg, the 2013 Presidents’ Program co-chairs, and all the members of the committee, for designing a great opportunity for all ALA members to engage with what will surely be a “do not miss this” program in Chicago.