Know yourself, listen to other people, get them involved and be prepared to learn continuously.
These are traits that Hans Geleijnse, former director of Tilburg University Library and president of LIBER from 2006-2010, sees as essential for leaders in today’s libraries.
As part of his quest to help librarians improve their leadership skills, Hans now works with LIBER to run several leadership seminars. This includes an upcoming course in the UK for library directors and an international programme for emerging leaders.
The LIBER Office recently spoke to him about how his own leadership skills developed and what he believes the library leaders of tomorrow need to know, in order to prepare their organisations for the coming decades.
1. Did you always feel that you were a natural leader, and how did your approach to leadership change over the years?
I must confess that when I was a student I had already a drive to bring people together and to synthesize various ideas into views that could be shared by as many people as possible. However, I was very hesitant to express myself and I found it very difficult to act and to present myself in front of a larger audience. I preferred to work and act behind the scenes.
When I became the library director of my university, I had to play a completely different role. In my previous work as a deputy, I had plenty of experience preparing policies and executing them but was not responsible for the real decisions. There was always someone I could refer to.
This change was much greater than I expected. The pattern of relations was far more complicated: library staff, users, university boards, national and international colleagues, vendors, library organizations, funding agencies, the European Commission.
For me it was fundamental to know where I wanted to go to, to develop a vision in close communication with key people, to share it with others, to get commitment and support and to get the resources we needed. I think that this is the most important thing a leader should do.
2. Which library leader influenced your own journey and what can we learn from that person?
I learned a lot from my predecessor, Leo Wieёrs. He always stressed that we should use our imagination and to think future oriented.
In those times (I am talking about the late 70s and early 80s), he always said that most librarians were focusing too much on their wonderful collections and their role as custodians. He stressed that it was the task of a librarian to provide information.
I admired him for his wonderful ideas, but I also learned from his weaknesses. He launched too many ideas at the same time. I learned that it is not good to create expectations if you cannot meet them.
3. Which qualities do you see as essential for library directors who want to effectively lead their organizations?
From my point of view a leader should be forward-looking, inspiring, competent and honest. So, basically it is all about credibility.
To be a successful library leader it is important to know yourself, to know your strengths and weaknesses, to make optimal use of your abilities and to improve the things you’re not good at. A unique international program such as the LIBER Leadership program can provide an excellent support.
It is important to have a ‘natural basis’ but many competences can be developed and have to be developed, since the work is becoming more complex. A library director does not work anymore in an environment where he or she controls the information.
Knowledge and expertise are distributed more widely within the organization, the pace of change is accelerating, the expectations from users, staff and presidents are escalating. We are working in an environment where cooperation is key, where we have to rely on teams of people with various competences and styles. The traditional librarian could work on his or her own, but this is impossible anymore and it would also be counter-productive.
Moreover, all libraries are considering how they should reorganize or reshape in order to deal with the fundamental changes in user behavior and access to information. Changing our priorities, our activities and our organization will be required if we want the library to survive. All libraries are struggling with this process. We need to support each other and learn from each other. The program provides an excellent opportunity and can really empower library directors in their difficult role.
4. What about librarians at an earlier stage of their career: how can they best prepare for a future leadership role?
A library director can help young potentials in the library, give them responsibilities, give them good feedback and coaching. If a library director does not take this initiative and if you think that you could do more, present yourself and discuss it with your director. If he or she is not responsive, leave.
From my point of view a lot can be learned by just trying out and to find out where your abilities and limits are.
For everyone it is important not to be internally focused, but to look around, to visit other libraries, to go abroad, to take part in discussions and to gradually know yourself better.
That is why LIBER has also initiated a Leadership Programme for Emerging Leaders. This is a unique opportunity to receive leadership training in a European setting, to exchange ideas, to create an international group of colleagues who can support each other in a trusted environment and to have a coach, a library director from another research library in another country.
I am very pleased that the feedback from the first program in 2011 and 2012 was excellent and that the level of the participants in the new program that will start with a course in Munich, just before the annual LIBER conference, is so high. This program is a real asset for the Association. Everyone can benefit from the wonderful network LIBER has and the great willingness of LIBER directors to facilitate this and to support emerging leaders.
5. Can you share a few concrete tips for directors who want to improve their leadership skills?
- Don’t sort things out on your own. Be prepared to get advice from others.
- Be human. Show that you have your weaknesses and limits and involve others.
- Create an atmosphere where people can criticize you without being afraid.
- Be ready to learn continuously.