what I learned as an Emerging Leader

As a LITA Board member, one of my happy duties is participating in the discussion about which Emerging Leaders should be LITA-sponsored. (I’ve already made my recommendations and won’t be discussing them. Moving right along.) It’s all very circle-of-life, and I think that makes it time to tell the story that sticks out most in my head from my Emerging Leaders experience, the Thing I Learned that’s at the root of all the other things I learned.

A room in San Diego, Midwinter 2010. We had a flipchart and en masse, all eighty or so of us, we were brainstorming the qualities of a good leader.

And that woman on the flip chart, let me tell you — I would have loved to work for her. She was just amazing. And as we painted her out of air one of my cohort — one of the ones I knew, a friend of mine — said, you know, there’s one quality we haven’t written on that chart, and that’s intelligence. And the room nodded in agreement.

And I thought, well, damn. Because she just named the only thing I’ve ever been really good at, and she’s right. Not that it’s okay for leaders to be idiots — it’s not — but once they’re past a reasonable minimum, a minimum that many people achieve, having more intelligence won’t necessarily make them better leaders. Having lots of intelligence, without any of those qualities on the flipchart, won’t make them good leaders at all. It is not, to borrow from D&D, a prime requisite.

So I flailed for a while inside the cognitive dissonance of that.

And then I realized, you know what? I was there. I was there in San Diego, in a room of people who’d been chosen as exemplars of young library leadership. A room of people who seemed deserving of the name. And I knew one of the people who’d done the choosing was — still is — one of the leaders I respect most. So whatever else, whatever the mismatch between me and our flipchart leader, I deserved to be there.

And then I realized, you know what? Flipchart woman, she doesn’t actually exist. She has all the strengths we wish our leaders had — and many people have many of them — but no one has them all. She doesn’t have any weaknesses, and all of us have some of those, too. I can’t be her because no one can be her.

I can’t be the leader that the other people who were in that room can be, either. I don’t have their unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. But neither do they have mine.

What I learned in that room is that, for me, if intelligence is the thing I’m best at, I’m going to use it to bootstrap all the rest. It may not substitute for any of those flipchart skills, but it can at least briefly simulate some of them, and better yet: I can use it to frame the questions. I can use it to choose the situations I need to be in to learn those other skills, and to reflect on my experiences critically, and to learn faster.

What I’ve learned since is that people think not only that I have some of those other skills, but that they’re native talents. I maybe don’t. They’re definitely not. You didn’t see me when I was a kid. But it turns out if you practice things long and obsessively enough, until you internalize them, they look like native talents to people who meet you after. And it turns out your whole life is a big canvas on which to paint. There’s a lot of after. You never have to stop.

What I’ve learned is that we can’t, any of us, be the flipchart leader, and we can’t be the leader that every situation needs its leader to be. But many of us can be the leader that some situation needs us to be. And we can choose to gravitate toward the places where our strengths have impact and our weaknesses are held less against us. And toward the places ones that make us the leader we will need to be tomorrow.

Tomorrow’s big, and there’s a hell of a universe out there. Let’s go.

One thought on “what I learned as an Emerging Leader

  1. I always learn something from you or take a step back and look at something I hadn’t even thought to look at. “many of us can be the leader that some situation needs us to be.” Yes! So many times I’ve felt all angsty about not stepping up to something that needed to be done because I knew it didn’t fit my skills. Other times it’s easy to step up. Somewhere in the middle is a good place, know you have the skills needed, or that you know you can stretch a bit and get there.


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