Friday, May 07, 2010

Article Note: On shared leadership in libraries

Citation for the article:

Cawthorne, Jon E., "Leading from the Middle of the Organization: An Examination of Shared Leadership in Academic Libraries." The Journal of Academic Librarianship 36.2 (March 2010): 151-157.

Read via ScienceDirect.

I had some serious mixed feelings when I read this article because, to be honest, a lot of the ideas it presents fall under the "that's nice in theory" rubric. When it comes to the idea of shared leadership, the idea is a bit separate from reality. In simple terms, shared leadership is when the top manager involves the subordinates in the decision-making process. Given that more often than not, said manager already has a decision made when he/she pretends to involve the subordinates, I take the idea with a big grain of salt. In fact, the author of the article noted that at least one respondent commented that "even in the context of shared leadership, the top leader already made a decision" (155). So as you see, it is not just me who thinks this is often the case. In fact, the commenter goes on to say:

"'In general, there is little correlation between what we say we want to do and what we actually do. Also, when we meet to make decisions, sometimes the dean has already made one (the decision) and he sees our job as that of supporting his decision, no matter how much it diverges from our mission, stated goals, previous plans, or benefit to the patron'" (155).

I think that statement speaks volumes, and I don't think I can add much more to it other than to say I agree since I have been in such situations with a fairly high degree of frequency.

The article basically looks at middle managers. I am just going to make some brief notes to remind myself that I read it because if I write too much, it's probably going to come across as a bit too skeptical (to put it mildly).

  • "Clearly, it is critical that libraries meet the key individual developmental challenges such as recognizing that middle managers are in positions of leadership in academic libraries" (151). I don't think we can argue with that. Seems pretty self-evident, even if it does not always work that way.
  • "As academic libraries address change management through team building and strategic planning, there is a need to understand the extent to which middle managers believe they share decision making as leaders who implement the vision set by senior management" (151). Again, not much to argue with here. Sounds nice. I just ask if those middle managers are really positioned to influence decision making.
Cawthorne cites the work of Sandra Jackson in terms of components of shared leadership. The components are as follows (see page 152, italics in the original):

  1. "Accountability, which consists of owning the consequences that are inherent in one's role, internally defined, and cannot be delegated." This sounds simple enough.
  2. "Equity, which includes mutual recognition of the unique contributions of each individual." This sounds very good in theory, but I wonder how often we have cases of the left hand not knowing what the right hand does.
  3. "Partnership, which involves a mutually respectful and trusting relationship among individuals who share a common goal. Partnership is based on honest communication." I will say that honest communication should be the key concept in that idea.
  4. "Ownership, which centers on a personal commitment that an individual makes to work outcomes of their work and to the mission of the organization."
However, there are often obstacles and problems. Jackson "identifies a number of structural and political characteristics that may comprise barriers to shared leadership. These include team attitudes, turf battles, individual career goals, manager versus leader roles, corporate culture, change quotient, risk, current and future performance, and current and future external environment" (qtd. in 152). I could say quite a bit about some of these, but I will refrain in the interest of maintaining the professional tone in this blog. If you are really curious, let's meet at a bar for some drinks, and I will tell (maybe).

The method: 22 academic libraries in the study population with a final tally of 115 middle manager respondents. Of the 115, only 77 responded. Survey done via Survey Monkey. By the way, I am starting to notice Survey Monkey is becoming a tool of choice for a lot of LIS surveys as of late.

  • A bit of insight or a realization: ". . .senior leaders may not possess sufficient and relevant information to make highly effective decisions in a fast-changing and complex world. In reality, middle managers may be more highly informed and in far better position to provide leadership and influence the accomplishment of organizational goals" (155). This may be because middle managers still keep a foot in the trenches, so to speak. The problem happens when the top leaders refuse or neglect to listen to the ones who actually know what they are talking about because they actually experience the situations on the ground. Just a thought.
  • "This study reveals a perception among middle managers in academic libraries that not all ideas for change are treated equally" (156).
  • "If ideas that come from all levels of the organization are not considered equally, then to what extent are all decisions credible to bring about change in academic libraries?" (156).


T Scott said...

"Given that more often than not, said manager already has a decision made when he/she pretends to involve the subordinates..." Sigh. I run into this assumption often. The problem is that as someone who has been a library director for twenty years, and who sits with the senior leadership at my university, I know that, more often than not, the assumption that a decision has already been made is flat wrong. For example, at my university we recently went through a long process that resulted in the consolidation of several schools. Many faculty here are convinced that the decision that was ultimately reached is what the president & provost intended all along. But because I have access to the actual decision making process, I know that's not true. I know how much they agonized over the decision and how seriously they took all of the input that was provided to them. But when you assume that a decision has already been made, it lets you off the hook. You don't need to bother participating in the decision making because you're sure it doesn't matter anyway. That way you don't have to take any responsibility for the decision and can feel free to criticize it to your heart's content. For those of us who really believe in participative decision making and who work very hard to try to make it happen, that attitude undermines everything we do. It won't stop us from trying, but it sure can be damned annoying.

Angel, librarian and educator said...


I think you are way more charitable than I would be. Granted, there are times when us peons don't know what the administration is up to (agonizing or otherwise, and that is certainly a transparency question that admin could and should address), but I have seen enough cases (from public schooling to higher ed) where when they asked for input, what it really was turned to be the admin. wanting the rubber stamp to what they decided already. I don't particularly appreciate personally people in the higher ranks who just want a stamp of approval, conscience clearing, or whatever other salve they wish to be given after making their decision (say in hiring a certain candidate even when most of the professional staff both knew and advised that candidate was less than qualified and the boss hired them anyways because he/she had already decided as much). If you are the boss, and you made the decision, go with it. Don't insult me or my intelligence by pretending you want input. I am not saying it happens every time, but it does happen often enough. Let's just say I am very skeptical.

Best, and keep on blogging.

T Scott said...

And what's your evidence that it "really was turned to be the admin. wanting the rubber stamp"? I'm not saying that never happens -- certainly it does. I'm saying that in my long career, in cases when I have actually known the facts of the case because either I am the decision maker or I have been directly involved in making the decision, the assumption that the decision maker only wanted a rubber stamp has been wrong more often than not. Be skeptical all you want -- I'm a firm believer in skepticism. But what I object to in your post is the assumption that "more often then not" when someone seeks input, they've actually already made the decision. I don't think you have any real evidence for that assertion.

Angel, librarian and educator said...

My evidence, at least the most recent, is in a certain hire who would not have passed the phone interview (as agreed by everyone who interviewed the person). The administration, who was friendly with this person (to put it mildly), pretty much made it very clear that she would get an on site interview (which she got) and would be hired (she worked in another dept in the campus). This was made very clear from the start by the higher ups. However, it became the immediate supervisor's job to go through all the motions (including asking the professionals our opinion even when we all knew it was a done deal. I knew her hands were tied on the deal as well. We all did.). Now, if anyone in my campus sees this, I will probably get in hot water, but so be it. I already know I run a risk of making someone local unhappy when I blog.

Let's just say that you and I have had different experiences (yours sound a bit more positive than mine), and that I have been burned once or twice.

Best, and keep on blogging.

T Scott said...

Certainly an unfortunate circumstance and one that does happen. But from that experience you conclude that "more often than not" when input is requested the admin has already made up there mind? Like I said, I'm not saying that never happens, but you need to be cautious about overgeneralizing from some bad experiences.

The.Effing.Librarian said...

my decision is a point on the horizon that keeps me focused through the decision-making process. it's like looking down the street as you drive; you have a destination, but, you could make a detour if you hear a good argument for getting some late night tacos.
and I never know what the argument might be. I was in a meeting today where we discussed charging a fee for a service our library provides. I wanted the fee. I thought I had calculated all the pros and cons and assigning the fee made the most sense to me. but then during some point that "a subordinate" made, I suddenly had the thought that I left something out in my decision process. it wasn't an important point, but it was something that revealed a different path, one that I didn't think we should take. so in an instant, I changed my mind and supported the "no fee" idea, even though I was prepared to argue for fees.
I think in my professional position that I'm a pretty thorough thinker. I don't make decisions lightly, even though I often make them quickly. I can see the "if this, then that" process zip by until I reach my decision. but I seek other viewpoints in case I missed something. And yes, I hear many opinions that I don't follow. but the point is that it's my job to make the decison. if I was alone in the library, I would make the decision because it's part of my job and I've been trained to do it. so that's why I make the decsion first. but I still look for those other ideas because there's always the chance someone will yell out, "let's get tacos." and I was thinking a burger, but yeah, tacos would be better.