March 30, 2011

Not a Leader

My favorite course in library school was The History of the Book. In addition to having a brilliant and thoughtful professor, I had to do several class projects that actually mirrored modern-day workplace collaboration—even when our subject matter was ancient scrolls or movable type. These projects were accompanied by the dreaded reflection and self-assessment that made them less office-like and too touchy-feely for my taste. Nevertheless, it was in writing one of those streams of academic consciousness that I was able to resolve an old crisis of conscience: I am not a leader.

The last time I remember officially being in charge of something other than a discrete project or task was my senior year of college when I was elected President of our chapter of Psi Chi, the national honor society for students of psychology. If memory serves, I ran uncontested, so to say I was ‘elected’ is a bit of a fiction—one that is more telling now than I could have imagined in 1997.

I wouldn’t say that I failed, but rather that as President I accomplished nothing of consequence. I accepted the position because, at the time, I thought no one else wanted it. Fourteen years later I still think no one wanted that leadership position. Not even me.

Late last year I affirmed my long-held suspicion that I am in fact an introvert. This, combined with the deepening influence of Gretchen Rubin on my Embedded Librarianship Project, has helped me to come out as what I really am instead of what I thought I'd be (under the influence of other people’s expectations). Rubin emphasizes time and again that her first and most important commandment is to “Be Gretchen.” She bolsters this point with repeated references to Ray Bradbury’s “Love what YOU love” and W.H. Auden’s “Develop in your natural direction.” I am many things, some of them great, but I am not a leader.

I can hear it now (because I have heard it many times before by people I like and respect)... People think I am having an off day or a self-esteem crash, or in some other way they are comfortable with, they pretend they know me better than I know myself. Cheery voices crying “But you ARE a leader!” do nothing to dissuade me. What they do is reveal a collective assumption that one ought to be a leader.

Our vocabulary is impoverished when it comes to leadership and followership. (And there is a pallor surrounding the word ‘service’ now in the library context. Here is just one strongly-worded example.) This is changing though, in a welcome application of social media nomenclature to others parts of life. Online, people seek out enthusiastic, educated peers or ‘followers’ to mobilize a cause. It’s a kind of followership that’s not blind but illuminated. More street team-like than sheep-like.

People are needed at every level of engagement, and the truth is that some of us are just courageous, principled people with good ideas. That does not make us leaders. And what good are engaged leaders without engaged followers behind them--supporting them--and questioning them? Good followers are more important than ever.


davidshumaker said...

Hmmm, at the risk of being labeled as one of those "cheery voices"...

The post, and many discussions of leadership, assume there are 2 kinds of people in the world, leaders and followers. I think that'a fundamental flaw (as are a lot of binary categorizations). We are, most of us, by turns leaders and followers, as circumstances and our own passions require us to be.

And I can cite situations in which you have led, or are leading. But I have already said too much. I'm truly in danger of being a "cheery voice"!

Eileen Can said...

Thanks, Dave. If I had to choose a pull quote for this entry it would be the bit about, "Our vocabulary is impoverished when it comes to leadership and followership," so I agree that a lot of nuance is lost in the discussion. I also feel that a lost of nuance about leadership that should be appreciated is diminished if people who are simply effective human beings are consistently called leaders, or offered leadership positions. Surely there is more to being a leader than just being an effective person.