Monday, 18 June 2012

We are all leaders now

There’s been a lot of discussion about leadership in LIS recently. The CILIP in Wales Conference 2012 had ‘leadership’ as its theme; Jo Alcock is running a Library Leadership Reading Group; and there have been several blog posts on leadership and management in The Profession – among others, this one by Sarah Houghton, this one by Emma Cragg, and this one by Jenica Rogers

I was fortunate enough to attend the CILIP in Wales Conference in Cardiff and was asked to take part in a leadership panel. Ian Anstice (1) and I represented Voices for the Library and sat alongside leaders in The Profession such as the President of CILIP, the CEO of CILIP, a leader from the Society of Chief Librarians, and the Director of Teesside University Library. As preparation for talking about leadership, I prepared a lot of philosophical stuff on changing paradigms of leadership – in LIS and across society – and the relationship between hierarchies and networks. But I realised that this was a ridiculously self-indulgent waste of an audience so I spoke about more important, less naval-gazing stuff: the Public Library Crisis and how CILIP Cymru members (2) could – and should – get involved. 

A panel of leaders. From Flickr courtesy of Sarah Barker.

Fortunately I have a space on the Web where I can be ridiculously self-indulgent and so… 

My experience of leadership 

In my brief career, I’ve held supervisory positions and, briefly, a managerial position. I’ve become an advocate and an activist. I’ve led workshops and given presentations. I’ve been in charge and I’ve followed orders. Thanks to my habit of ‘getting involved’, I’ve been labelled a ‘leader’ within and without the work environment. (3) 

I never wanted to be a leader. That sentence does happen to be true but is also a sentence that I secretly enjoy saying / writing (4) because it immediately casts me in the mould of the ‘reluctant leader’ archetype. As hundreds of pop culture examples will attest, this archetype is objectively awesome: see, for examples, Han Solo, Aragorn, Laura Roslin, Michael Bluth, Jack Shepherd, Batman, etc etc. It’s with no small amount of secret pride that I cast myself as the individual with leadership responsibility thrust upon him. O, the burning sense of duty! What vicissitudes of fate imprison me with such momentous responsibilities? My burden, my curse, my cross to bear, with great power comes great responsibility, etc., ad infinitum. 

Ego aside, I know what it feels like to be in charge, to make decisions, and to make sure other people are doing things correctly. But most of my ‘leadership’ positions, especially in work, have been about management rather than leadership and it’s important not to conflate the two concepts. David McMenemy of Strathclyde University wrote an interesting short article for Library Review on the conflating of management and leadership in librarianship. Broadly speaking, I’d define management as ‘telling people what to do’ and leadership as ‘showing people what to do’. 

The future of leadership 

And so the central thesis of this blog post is that leaders are less necessary and less relevant than ever. 

Nodes in a network.
Networks are increasingly prevalent in society: the rise of the Web and increased exposure to digital networks has forced us all into ‘networked thinking’ whereby networked structures become more applicable in a wider range of contexts. This has meant a rise in networked organisational structures rather than traditional hierarchical structures. Rather than one big boss reigning from on high, organisations now tend to have several smaller bosses or a completely devolved power structure. These organisations not only survive but succeed: consider the hacker group Anonymous, the political movement Occupy, and even (sort of) Google and Facebook (5). These are companies and groups that challenge traditional orthodoxies about group structure and how people organise themselves to communicate complex ideas. 

I’ve been reading a fair amount about networks for a paper I’m presenting at the CILIP Cataloguing and Indexing Group Conference in September (6) and there are a couple of quotes about networked organisations that I think it’s worth presenting in full: 

The most visible element of this remaking is a shift from a tree to a web or a network organization, flat and with lots of cross-links between the nodes. As valuable resources shift from physical assets to bits and information, operations move from vertical to virtual integration, the reach of businesses increasingly expands from domestic to global, the lifetime of inventories decreases from months to hours, business strategy changes from top-down to bottom-up, and workers transform into employees or free agents. 

New products require new alliances both within and outside the company, demanding a new topology. To achieve this, layers of middle managers have been scrapped. Employees who previously played secondary roles are in charge of major products from one day to the next. Project teams, alliances within and outside the organization, and outsourcing proliferate. Therefore, companies aiming to compete in a fast-moving marketplace are shifting from a static and optimized tree into a dynamic and evolving web, offering a more malleable, flexible command structure. Those that resist this change could easily be forced to the periphery. 
Albert-László Barabási (2003), Linked, p. 202. 

Like the rest of the movement it helped spawn, PGA [People’s Global Action] has an almost fanatical devotion to the concept of 'horizontal organising' - working in networks, not hierarchies, with no appointed leaders. 

What characterises PGA, I am to discover, is what characterises the global movement: diversity. Diversity of aims, of tactics, of race, of language, of nationality, of ideas. There is no manifesto, no line to follow, no leader to rally behind. This diversity is what leads critics outside the movement to assume that it doesn't have any ideas. After all, if it did, surely it would write them down, publish them, form a party, get a charismatic leader and march forward to take power? That's how politics is supposed to work. This, on the other hand, is gloriously anarchic, in the best sense of the word. This is a politics in which means matters as much as ends.

Sometimes it's hard to come to terms with this, even for activists. You might be standing in the middle of some mass action or conference or spontaneous uprising, thinking, Who started this? Who organised it? Who's in charge here? Police officers and politicians, imbued instinctively with a 'take me to your leader' mentality, have never believed the movement when it answers 'Nobody and everybody.' How can events as stunning as Seattle and Genoa have no centralised organisation, no leader who decides and declaims, whom people follow, and who we can arrest to neuter everybody else? 

But they don't, and this in itself is a revolutionary idea - not a new one, but one that's rarely been put into practice. So much so, that even as part of it, it's a leap to give that question - 'Who's in charge here?' - the answer it deserves: Everyone. No one. Oh yeah: Me! 
Paul Kingsnorth (2003), One no, many yeses: 
a journey to the heart of the global resistance movement

This shift from hierarchies to networks is a sea-change for social groupings and hence for our previous models of leadership. As an example of working and functioning as a community rather than a hierarchy, consider Voices for the Library. At a previous conference, I was once asked about our structure and our decision-making process and basically how we work. The only answer I could give is that the group just seems to work. We don’t have any rigid structure that can be written down or drawn in a tree diagram: we talk to each other more or less every day, we share news and views, and generally we come to group consensus rather than calling votes or bowing to the authority of one leader. Some of us take charge of certain projects but there’s no formal structure in place. And I believe it’s this lack of structure that has allowed us to be flexible, to move and react quickly, and to get where we are today. 

The rise of networks has led to the weakening of two pillars of traditional leadership: power and authority. In a network, power is devolved and shared: there are certain nodes and hubs that have more ‘links’ and therefore more power than others but there is no central node that controls everything else in the network. In networked organisations, there is no one person who cannot be done without and therefore no one person who has the power of necessary leadership. 

Authority is similarly devolved by networks. I’ve written before about the need for librarians and information workers to have technocratic authority due to the decline of autocratic authority. Nowadays, authority does not necessary make one a leader and authority is increasingly shared anyway. Wikipedia is the most used encyclopaedia in the world today but (or ‘because’) it’s shed the authority of traditional encyclopaedias like the Encyclopaedia Britannica. (7) Its material is crowdsourced and it relies on the Wisdom of Crowds (8) to maintain accuracy and consistency: it has no authority at the top, it has no leader. 

We’re increasingly becoming parts of a hivemind: individuals are coming together in a global collective network and communicating complex ideas without the intermediaries of authorities or leaders. There are all sorts of science fiction-y ideas you can throw in here: Vladimir Vernadsky’s concept of the noosphere as the next development in human evolution; H. G. Wells’ idea of the emerging World Brain; the augmenting of humans with technology to expand our mental faculties and connect us to something beyond ourselves. The point is that we increasingly see ourselves as part of a network rather than a hierarchy: as Wells said, “We do not want dictators, we do not want oligarchic parties or class rule, we want a widespread world intelligence conscious of itself.” In a hivemind, everyone is equal. There are no leaders.
Leaderless but not directionless. From Flickr user Thierry Ehrmann.

And so… 

The idea of leaders as managers, as large-scale team co-ordinators, is not relevant anymore. The boardroom of The Apprentice seems as antiquated a structure as the feudal system. In a network, we’re all equal, all opinions are valid, and decisions are made collectively. 

So why is there so much discussion in The Profession about leadership? Perhaps part of the motivation is a collective desire for strong leadership: we occupy a rapidly-changing industry, we’re battling multiple crises, and, during times of upheaval, our instinct as human beings is to wait for someone to tell us what to do. A lot of the pontificating about leadership seems to be a manifestation of a desire for leaders. While The Profession does still have de jure leaders, we don’t necessarily want them or need them. (9) 

There’s an argument to be made that we still need mentors, we still need visionaries, we still need prophets, and that these are forms of leaders. But the leadership-as-management paradigm is dead or dying. We don’t need top-down managers or rigid hierarchies anymore. Rather than being worried about being told what to do, we need to do things. We need to be active on our own and get out there and do things without someone telling us to do it. The corollary of there being no leaders is that we are all leaders now. (10) 

(1) Of Public Libraries News fame. 

(2) Did you know that in Wales CILIP (sill-ip) is pronounced CILIP (kill-ip)? It’s because the Welsh dialect doesn’t lend itself to sibilant, soft ‘c’ sounds. The more you know. 

(3) A distinction that, for me, has become increasingly blurred and somewhat irrelevant anyway. 

(4) I’m willing to admit that, in times of great pressure and while alone, I’ve said that sentence in a gruff Christian Bale-as-Batman type voice. (4a) 

(4a) “Why would anyone invite this obviously unstable individual to any sort of public event let anyone invite him on to a panel discussion about the future of a profession?”, you wonder. Beats me. 

(5) Which, yes, do have CEOs and ‘managers’ and whatnot but also give their employees more power and more freedom than has traditionally been the case. 

(6) 10th-11th September in Sheffield. Tell your friends! 

(7) In the early days of Wikipedia, co-founder Larry Sanger (7a) wanted articles to be checked by people with authority in the subject: PhD researchers, academics, etc. 

(7a) Who, by the way, never gets mentioned. Articles tend to erroneously label Jimmy Wales as ‘founder’ of Wikipedia rather than ‘co-founder’. Poor Larry Sanger gets a footnote in Web history (and in this blog post, I guess. Sorry, Larry.). 

(8) Currently a very zeitgeist-y concept but with good reason. 

(9) Pertinent here is the fact that CILIP currently doesn’t have a Vice President or therefore a President for 2013. More pertinent is the fact that no-one seems bothered by this. 

(10) This was kind of supposed to be a motivating, rallying kind of thing (10a) but it puts me in mind of what someone said to Robert Oppenheimer after the first nuclear bomb test: "Now we are all sons of bitches." Ominous. 

(10a) Aware of the sort-of-contradiction of rallying people after spending paragraphs telling them to think for themselves.


John Kirriemuir said...

The question is, what are the leadership philosophies of the boss of #TropicalLibrarian? Actually, on reflection, it's probably best not to know.

Simon Barron said...

We can probably assume a Hugh Hefner and/or Don Draper style of leadership. With a touch of Charlie Manson.

Christopher Pipe said...

I'd like more visible leadership in the public library sector. When library provision is under threat, I want to know who the professionals are that run the service and ask them what professional advice they have been giving to council decision makers.

How many public library websites tell us who holds the senior positions in the service and what their qualifications are? Most school websites tell parents who the teachers are and many at least give their postnominals, but in the library service that seems to be rare.

And when user groups campaign for threatened libraries, where are the comments from the professionals who are in charge of the service? This is where I want to see real leadership - sticking their necks out and fighting for a visionary service - not mere management, which seems to imply doing the best you can within a budget that may be far lower than you advised was necessary.

Jacqueline Barlow said...

I don't think you've distinguished adequately between leadership and management; the two block quotes you've provided still seem to conflate the two concepts in exactly the way McMenemy warns against.

I would also take issue with the claim that power and authority are "pillars" of leadership. It may be that, in a hierarchy-based system, leaders have had to establish themselves by claiming power and authority, but that doesn't mean that these are essential parts of what it means to be a leader.

A manager could both tell and show how to do something. It is the nature of the "something", and also the how, that makes a difference, I'd say.

Good post. I have been thinking a lot about this issue lately.

Nicola Franklin said...

Jacqueline - I agree with you about the distinction of leadership and management. I think the key is having a vision to change the situation vs organising within current constraints.

I wrote a post about this recently ( and included links to several other resources that list many of the differences between the two concepts, which you might find useful.

John Kirriemuir said...

On reference number 9, it's looking like The Bradley will be doing a second year, perhaps:

Guessing that if no-one stands in this autumn, they may offer it him for life. A bit like the Queen, or something.