Sunday, April 20, 2014

Leadership & Privilege

Having just returned from yet another, well-organized BC Library Conference, I am left with many complicated thoughts.  I aspire to share some of them here as a way of encouraging others to reflect on their own experiences in an effort to wrestle with the problems and assumptions that remain hidden in library culture.

I am interested in understanding how we have arrived at certain conditions that seem to be the product of certain forms of leadership and, more importantly, how we discuss it. Despite the difficulty in trying to tease the issues out, it is important to tap into what lies beneath the surface of this profession and, even, the broader social problems that we all face. Doing so, for instance, may help us to better understand  how we might approach our work, our professional development and our education to open up more space for debate, experimentation, and support.

To begin my exploration, I turned to what has been written and what is being discussed both formal and informally at conferences, in the literature and in other web resources.  While there is much "discourse" or discussion about leadership, there is space for delving deeper into what is hidden -- the assumptions that construct the ways in which we make decisions and perform our roles. For example, we need to take a closer look into how relations of power and privilege can position certain people to become leaders*. Furthermore, we need to understand how different kinds of leadership produce certain outcomes that may or may not reflect our inherent values and understanding of our roles in library work.  This can only be done if we first attempt to unpack the concept of leadership.

The lack of consensus on the meaning of leadership makes it an "essentially contested concept" (Dowding, 2011). This means that our understanding of leadership is relative and is likely to shift over time and circumstance.  Recognizing this, enables us to see that approaches that appear in the workplace in addition to the professional and academic literature are merely possible ways of  "seeing" and are not, in any way, definitive.  Some approaches are so common that they take on a kind of power of their own that is discursive and seemingly natural.

As a way of untangling some of the meaning, it is useful to examine the work of Keith Grint, who appreciates the significance of leadership but challenges the notion that it can be universally understood.  He begins his book, Leadership: Limits and Possibilities, with four possible ways of understanding leadership
  • Person: is it WHO 'leaders; are that makes them leaders?
  • Result: is it WHAT 'leaders' achieve that makes them leaders?
  • Position: is it WHERE 'leaders' operate that makes them leaders?
  • Process: is it HOW 'leaders' get things done that makes them leaders? (2005, p.1)
I venture that the general discourse of library leadership is based on ideas of position and, to a lesser degree, results. For example, Peter Hernon (2010) examines the Blackwell Award Program, revealing that not only is leadership tied to program development, applications are focused on management with an underlying assumption that leadership is present.  "Management is concerned with executing routines and maintaining organizational stability - it is essentially concerned with control; leadership is concerned with direction setting, with novelty and is essentially linked to change, movement and persuasion" (Grint, 2005, p. 15). In order to understand when true leadership occurs (and whether it is has assisted us in order to move in the direction of a worthy and desirable future), it is important that we carefully separate the practice of management from leadership.

We can also understand leadership looking at how leaders and leadership are acknowledged and by whom.  Grint asks, "So who says what the context is (it's usually a crisis)?  And who says that - as a consequence of the context - we therefore need leaders of a particular kind (it's usually 'decisive')?  Usually the answer is: the existing leaders" (2005, p. 11).  In other words, leaders decide what the crises are and who is needed to lead through these crises.

How, then, do library folk become leaders?  While many who become organizational "influencers" rise through the ranks of their organization through what seems a natural career progression, others are more carefully groomed.  There are numerous leadership institutes for librarians and their focus is, understandably, on leadership skill development.  A main objective of ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute, for example, is to, "force participants to examine their own leadership styles" (Kalin, 2008, p. 266).  An attendee of the Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute blogs, "NELI helped me to understand more about myself and my strengths as a leader" (Mac, 2012).

What appears to be lacking in the discourse of leadership is a discussion of the social constructs that enable some to rise to positions of leadership that may or may not have anything to do with their demonstrated abilities and/or knowledge.  The matter is made more complex by the fact that the work environments are becoming increasingly "accountable" through technologies that cannot easily incorporate the qualitative elements that are so often the basis of public service.

Our culture has become dominated by the language of austerity. It is increasingly difficult for us to imagine ourselves operating in any other way other than as economic entities. Economic growth trumps social justice. Henry Giroux and Susan Searls Giroux summarize the effects most meaningfully, “As the discourse of neoliberalism seizes the public imagination, there is no vocabulary for political or social transformation, democratically inspired visions, or critical notions of social agency to enlarge the meaning and purpose of democratic public life”(as cited in Ayers, 2005, p. 536).  Consequently, we find ourselves attempting to respond to change from only one perspective.  This relative position is one that does not allow for individuals to influence development and change in a more distributed, democratic fashion.  Doing so invites debate, deliberation and questioning that is simply not welcome in a neoliberal regime.

All of this leads to my observation that inequalities prevail in all sectors and at all levels.  Some benefit from privilege while others suffer as the other. While such problems extend outside of the library field, it is essential that some attempts are made to understand where privilege may not only disadvantage some but may also inhibit our collective ability to grow and adapt to changing societal habits, values, and circumstances. Inequality in the workplace is powerful, sometimes subtle and certainly something to be examined and challenged. Pease (2010) attempts to unravel the complexities of inequality by revealing that an examination of unearned advantage (privilege) can help us to understand why some social problems persist. He eloquently states
This belief in the naturalness of inequality leads most people to accept and live with existing inequalities in the same way we live within the laws of gravity.   It is only when we understand that social inequalities are human creations designed to benefit a few that we can see the possibilities for challenging inequality (p. 14)
This relates directly to the discussion of library leadership because the institution that is the "library" is increasingly influenced by economic and political ideologies that are unraveling what it means to be democratic, accessible, intellectually free, and diverse - values articulated in the ALA Core Values of Librarianship.  The present condition of Library and Archives Canada  (LAC), the process of program reviews in education, the penetration of private companies that seek to "aid" libraries in becoming more efficient through "de"-selection, automating services and, most recently, the outsourcing of our national bibliographic holdings are only some of the more obvious examples.  It is very, very difficult to have an open and candid discussion about why it is that some of the actions taken by government, library workers, and management teams may be problematic. Despite the fact that the profession needs to exercise its voice by challenging problems, most in the field feel limited in how they may speak and act.

It should be noted that while librarians are understood to be a class of "professionals", in most cases, they are also paid servants of the state.  Pease notes "that professionals have a range of privileges connected to their relative job security and control over their labour process and the work of others (A. Ferguson 1979). So, their material interests are connected to the status quo" (2010, p.75).  This creates a strong tension when the ideology of how libraries must organize themselves and define their value shifts. Today, this transformation is part of pervasive and powerful claims that all aspects of education, training and public service must operate to support the interests of business and industry.  Many of us know that questioning the very powerful discourse of rationality, austerity, and  productivity  puts us in very vulnerable positions.

So while many are frustrated by the ebbing away of what it is that we value as a profession, they feel absolutely powerless.  This is precisely why we must understand how leadership does and does not work. One of the limits of leadership is that it continues to operate in the library field in a hierarchical fashion that is often position-based.  These positions are political and reflect power structures within organizations that structure who is able to speak, what they are able to share and do, as well as when and where.  If we are to understand strengthening leadership as a way of facing the future with some degree of success, we are well-served to heed the words of Bob Pease (2010)
members of privileged groups need to be aware of the ways in which their speaking positions can be oppressive and dangerous and, at the same time, not retreat from political work that is contentious.  After all, what could be more privileged than positioning oneself in a way that is beyond criticism? (p. 31)
It is difficult for us to think our way outside of this box unless we consider leadership as something less binary (leader/follower, powerful/powerless, control/resistance, etc.) and something more interdependent and fluid. Collinson suggests that such an approach, "recognizes that leaders exercise considerable control and that their power can also have contradictory outcomes which leaders either do not always understand or of which they are unaware" (2005, p. 1435).  Doing so can reveal that deploying other forms of leadership (like distributed or participatory) may, in fact present new opportunities for dealing with very large and difficult problems.

Distributed leadership acknowledges a collective responsibility and collective flexibility and helps us to see expertise in new areas within the field.  Being less individual-driven, this form of leadership has the potential to re-invoke what it means to be socially responsible (Grint, 2005).  This possibility could be one way in which the community of library workers, from all levels, can become more involved and empowered to address the real problems the field must face.

While leadership may remain an "essentially contested concept", we can better position ourselves to understand its varied and contextual role if we are to to continue to provide communities with access to diverse resources and aid in the navigation of a complex information-centric society.   The problems we face cannot be solved by individual "heroes" who have had the benefit of elite educational and training opportunities.  There is simply more force to defend democracy and intellectual freedom if the profession is able to call upon the diverse knowledge, interest and expertise of all of its members.  Without it, we are not much of a profession at all.

* However, a good place to start is the Progressive Librarian Guild's journal Progessive Librarian: A Journal for Critical Studies and Progressive Politics in Librarianship.

Ayers, D. (2005). Neoliberal ideology in community college mission statements: A critical discourse analysis. The Review of Higher Education, 28(4), 527-549). 

Collinson, D. (2005). Dialectics of leadership. Human Relations58(11), 1419-1442.

Dowding, K. (Ed.). (2011). Essentially contested concept.  In the Encyclopedia of Power. doi:

Grint, K. (2005) . Leadership: Limits and Possibilities. New YorkPalgrave Macmillon.

Hernon, P. (Ed.). (2010). Shaping the future: Ldvancing the understanding of leadership. Santa Barbara: Libraries Unlimited. 

Kalin, S. (2008). Reframing leadership: The ACRL/Harvard Leadership Institute for Academic Librarians. Journal of Business and Finance Librarianship, 13(3), 261-270.

Mac, L. (2012, Mar. 17) TSLIS execs strengthen their skills at the 2012 Northern Exposure to Leadership Institute. [blog post]. Retrieved from:

Pease, B. (2010). Undoing priviledge: Unearned advantage in a divided world. London: Zed Books.