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Leading from Where You Are

By Diane Skorina

Reflections on LCI 2013, Part II

On the first Monday of LCI 2013, a tweet encouraged everyone to “go to the bar and socialize” after the day was over. I was tired and my head was spinning when the last session ended at 9 p.m., but I decided to get out of my shell—I’m a librarian at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania—and head over to the hotel bar. On the way there, I ran into Ryan Frazier, last week’s Re:Thinking blogger. I was a little nervous when we arrived and no one else from LCI was there. Maybe they went to another bar? Maybe they were too tired from the 13-hour day? What would I—a teaching librarian from Ursinus College—have to talk to Ryan Frazier—director of infrastructure customer & project services at Harvard University IT—about?

I love our IT department here on campus, and I chat with them whenever I get the chance, but it’s usually not about work. As a librarian who finds myself in the classroom quite a bit, I’m in the trenches when it comes to concerns that are core to the mission of any institution of higher education: teaching, learning, and research. I’m often too swamped to lift my head up from the daily demands: running library workshops for many different subjects, advising my group of first-year students, helping students with their research, assisting faculty with finding materials that aren’t easily available on our small liberal arts college campus. I teach a first-year course at the college, attend faculty meetings, and work to figure out ways that the library can support faculty and student research through our (relatively) small library.

But it turned out that Ryan and I had quite a bit to talk about that Monday night. We found that we agreed that library and IT professionals must understand the broader educational enterprise (including K-12) to be able to have a voice in the larger conversations going on. We cannot continue to see ourselves simply as “services,” and it benefits us to understand and work with each other, too. The intense day we’d had listening to five leaders from various organizations, from CLIR to the federal government, also gave us plenty to chat about. As different as our institutions and our roles within them are, it seemed to both of us that, as one speaker put it, the changes happening are no longer about a “changing perspective” in higher ed, but about an entirely different model that’s still emerging and uncertain, and yet is already calling for new methods of leadership. Richard Culatta’s excitement that day was contagious to both of us as he directed us to look at the National Education Technology Plan and emphasized that the question that people usually asked him—” does technology really improve learning?”—was based entirely on the wrong premise. Sometimes, it’s about questioning the question itself—re-framing or flipping it—which changes the answer in important ways.

As the week went on, in addition to continuing to converse with and question leaders throughout higher education, my fellow LCIers and I worked for hours in teams that consisted of both librarians and IT professionals from institutions of varying sizes. Together we attacked questions meant to kindle our creativity (how many uses for this roll of foil can we find, and how can we pitch them effectively to this room of people?) and stretch our thinking about pressing issues facing higher education (the future of for-profit education companies and traditional publishing, and how MOOCs might evolve to address education inequality). My team learned through failures, frustrations, breakthroughs, and successes how to work together, how to listen to each others’ perspectives, and how to present our ideas effectively. Toward the end I found myself up at the podium acting as a CIO presenting a plan that we’d hatched in a few hours to a faux “Board of Directors.”

One of the biggest revelations, from both the LCI speakers and my fellow LCI participants, was that leaders can’t be easily defined, and they certainly can’t be stereotyped. Effective leadership isn’t determined by a checklist of traits or actions, or by adherence to a script, and it can happen at all levels of an organization. I realized that, with the right knowledge and by taking the time to keep my “chin up,” as Ryan noted, I can lead from where I am. I can encourage others in my organization to lead where their strengths are. And thus the library as an entity within the college will become stronger, and so will the college itself.

As more LCIers came out on subsequent nights, I found common ground with many others. Now, I find myself back at Ursinus with a new confidence, ready to participate in and inform important conversations about the future of the institution, and to lead initiatives developed in collaboration with others across campus. And I know I can always call Ryan, or any of my fellow LCIers, if I need some inspiration.

I’d like to end with a question for you: How can you lead from where you are?

Diane Skorina is information literacy librarian at Ursinus College.

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