Deflating the Hierarchy. Pumping up the Flat.


Forward-thinking librarians have integrated effective business practices to better understand market needs, upgrade customer service, and streamline operations.

As quickly as the world is changing, librarians know they have to be inventive and nimble to keep up. They recognize the importance of adopting new technologies, developing fresh programs, and reallocating space to meet evolving lifestyles and social needs.

This constant state of flux requires teamwork and "participatory leadership"—a shift from the traditional power dynamic where power is largely vested in the personality of the director to a more entrepreneurial paradigm.

In the right hands, top-down leadership can be very effective.

We all know gifted leaders who successfully steer their libraries through thick and thin. At the apex of the hierarchy, they exert strong control over the library's direction. They manage relationships one-on-one with influential stakeholders. They focus on their role as a resource provider. They listen to staff but keep their own counsel on final decisions and delegate responsibility for logistical implementation to middle managers.

Indeed, variations on this style of leadership have transformed the library landscape. Witness Boston Public Library’s David Leonard. Since serving as interim President in 2015, he has articulated a dynamic vision of BPL as cultural nexus. He has been an effective advocate whose fundraising success is a template for other metropolitan systems. Day to day, he must rely on motivated, capable managers doing what was needed at the sidewalk level. 

BPL's leadership is a best-case scenario of personality-driven leadership. At its worst, however, this style can be a nightmare. Directing without explaining, micromanaging without empowering, blaming without listening--bad bosses come in all flavors. And they can still be found lurking in the dark corners of library land. If they have anything in common it is their inability to regulate their own behaviors.

As the profession embraces innovation and customer-centrism, a more collaborative style of "participatory leadership" has emerged.

In the ideal scenario, the director is bolstered by staffers who work from a shared set of assumptions and values. Those closest to implementation have a strong voice. Teams brainstorm and debate. Decisions are transparent. There is a 360° sense that "we're all in this together". Directors who value this brand of collegiality exhibit the self-discipline to trust, the confidence to acknowledge and thank, and the humility to admit error. They can be particularly effective in attracting and retaining millennials who seek opportunities for learning and development and look to their managers for mentorship, guidance, and personal engagement.  

There are pitfalls. As the culture shifts, longer-serving staff may feel underappreciated and alienated. Coming to consensus can be a messy, time consuming, and frustrating process. Managers can be spread too thin. Everybody is in charge; nobody is in charge. It's a fine balancing act between relinquishing control and losing control, between experimentation and chaos.

Most of all, as with all high-level skills, reaping the benefits of participatory leadership takes practice, practice, practice.

Written by Pam Fitzgerald (@PKFitzgerald)


Assessing your library's leadership style

Answer YES or NO to determine where your director is on the spectrum.

  1. Does the director ask the staff to weigh in on major policy decisions?
  2. Do staff members feel their voices are heard?
  3. Do staff members believe policy changes make it easier for them to do a good job?
  4. Does the director trust staff to make good decisions?
  5. Do major decisions appear to be in line with the library's mission?
  6. Do staff members participate directly in strategic planning?
  7. Are staff members provided ample opportunities to advance professionally and learn new skills?
  8. Does the director promote experimentation and innovation?
  9. Does the director have a high tolerance for risk?
  10. Does the director have an "open door" policy?

10 YES answers: Superflat
5-9 YES answers: Deflating
<5 YES answers: Is your library due for a change?


Category: Culture, Libraries
Tags: leadership