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Whose Vision? Whose Values? On Leading Information Services in an Era of Persistent Change

by Chris Ferguson

In the waning days of World War II, after years of physical deprivation and psychological terror, Viktor Frankl walked away from the daily prospect of death in a concentration camp. Later, he wrote compellingly of those horrors, laying the foundation for a new school of psychoanalysis and offering to us a framework for assessing our relationship with the world (Frankl 1963). We cannot dictate the broad outlines of our lives, Frankl writes-when and where we are born, or the elements of family, community, nation, and historical circumstance. But we can choose the character with which we live our lives, the moral choices and tone with which we conduct ourselves, and what we see as the purposes and goals for our lives. In the end, Frankl tells us, we are responsible for the content, if not the context, of our lives, and within this we must understand what we can and cannot change.

Leadership is about discerning what should and should not be changed. It is about understanding the interplay of self and others, and perceiving the interconnectedness of personal and organizational values. It is about self-awareness and making choices. Key to any leadership model is the mechanism for decision making-how participation is balanced with leadership, how individual vision is reconciled with other visions, how multiple decision-making processes can be reconciled within the same institution. In the end, leadership is about realization of self through service to others and the fulfillment of collective aspirations.

When Frankl walked away from his concentration camp, the prevailing leadership model in nearly all sectors of American life was that of a strong (usually male) autocrat. The 1950s and 1960s are replete with examples of strong, purposeful leaders managing largely through command-and-control methods. In the 1970s and 1980s, as government bureaucracies expanded exponentially, the number and size of educational institutions mushroomed, and corporations typically became too large to manage as personal fiefdoms, a popular alternative archetype emerged of the chief executive officer (CEO) orchestrating a large, complex bureaucracy.

As we enter more fully into a transformative era in higher education fueled by technology and characterized by the motto of 24/7, we require yet another kind of leader-one more relevant to the emerging realities of discontinuity, ambiguity, and persistent change and transition. Situations conducive to command-and-control leadership models are becoming less common, and the benevolent CEO model is becoming increasingly unwieldy. Mobility, integration, perpetual flux, nonlinearity, and visceral distrust of leaders and institutions are some of the hallmarks of the emerging environment. Stewardship rather than personal stake, calibration of multiple visions rather than imposition of one’s own vision, high tolerance for ambiguity, ability to effect simplicity on the surface of complexity, and commitment to supporting both personal and organizational development are some of the hallmarks of the emerging leader for our time.

A Personal Context

Leading organizational change for me has largely entailed helping others think and act beyond prevailing definitions of library and librarianship, and to move toward organizational and operational realms that transcend conventional boundaries by integrating library, computing, and other academic support services within a more amorphous, evolving, responsive agency. My notions of leadership have been deeply affected by the disruption of incorporating (i.e., clumsily assimilating) information technology in libraries in the 1980s, making operational the nation’s first information commons in the mid-1990s, and, over the past decade, offering leadership for the integration of library and computing within two very different university settings.

Through these experiences I have come to believe that one of the most promising leadership models for an era of persistent change is “servant leadership,” as articulated by Robert Greenleaf (Greenleaf 2002). Emphasizing connections between self and organization, between listening and understanding, and between language and imagination, servant leadership places the leader at the nexus, rather than at the pinnacle, of change. It equips the leader with tools that foster empowerment and enables participants to live more comfortably and creatively with persistent change. In an era when agile response to sudden change is at a premium, servant leadership cultivates within organizations an increased capacity for efficient teamwork that uses mission as impelling force, values as cohering force, and vision as directing force-in short, the tools for effective adaptation to the discontinuities of our present environment.1

When I entered librarianship, I did not expect to become a leader. After several years, I began advancing through the middle reaches of organizations primarily because I was disappointed at each successive level by what appeared to be organizational constraints that impeded meaningful change. Surely, I thought, the next level will give me the wherewithal to make a difference. Only after working at some length with insufficient self-awareness or mentoring to be the kind of leader I thought I needed to be did I realize I was making the same mistakes as most of my predecessors had made. I was leading as I had been led. Only relatively recently did I learn that change is more about people than it is about organization charts and process analyses, and that to effect lasting change, I must place myself at the nexus, rather than the pinnacle, of change. To effect lasting change, I must cultivate, mentor, listen, communicate, bring together, encourage, and let go.

Librarians in leadership roles often are positioned well to apply these principles in their intersections of faculty and student service planes. We are at the crossroads of information, technology, physical space, and electronic communication. We have the traditions of personalized service, respect for individuals and their needs, freedom of access, and privacy. Our heroes include Green, Rothstein, Bunge, Battin, and Lynch. In the playing out of these values for the increasingly digital library, whatever that may be or yet become, we can make a difference in ourselves in ways that perpetuate a dynamic cycle of personal and organizational enrichment.

Frankl assures us of our capacity to shape the character of our lives and thereby to affect the course of our work. Greenleaf offers us a leadership model that draws on the power of communities to form and to act on integrated visions. Together, these two authors transform the question of “Why me?” into “Why not me?” and then into “Why not us?” Once we have posed these questions, we begin to think very differently about who we are as professionals, the connections between our personal and professional lives, and what we will do with the resources that have been entrusted to us.

Leader as Learner

I did not see it coming. Twenty-four years, ago I became a librarian largely for altruistic reasons related to developing and facilitating access to large print collections. At that time, research libraries were formed around large physical print collections, with such services as on-site gateways (some might say guarded checkpoints) to information. A few years later, I thought I could see the future of libraries with the advent of microcomputing and a gradual transition to digital information resources within existing service frameworks. I was so wrong.

What I did not see coming was a massive and rapid shift (for an academic-library ecology centuries in the making) from print to digital information resources, from on-site services to virtual services through the network, from an emphasis on our values and visions to those of others-in short, from us to them.2 It has become increasingly clear that there is no place in this brave new world of largely digital information services for command-and-control leadership that does not cultivate individual responsibility. The patrician CEO can at best sustain little more than a holding action when responses to external stimuli are controlled at the executive level.

Perhaps the hardest lesson for leaders of organizations these days may be that change is often far more about leading people through a transition than about changing the operations and structures around them. At some level, most of us know this intuitively, but through both positive and negative experiences I have learned that it has become necessary to take this principle to another level of understanding and practice. One must honestly listen to, draw from, and meld the values, ideals, wisdom, and aspirations of both the organization and the larger parent institution. Moreover, in order to effect lasting systemic change (rather than temporary changes that snap back into place at the first opportunity), it is important to focus as much on the human aspects of transition as on change outcomes.

The second-most-difficult lesson for an information services leader in our transitional era may be to internalize the need to shift the leadership perspective from one’s own thinking to that of others-to calibrate one’s own vision with that of the organization, the institution, and key individuals beyond, and to see through the eyes of external constituents as well as through the eyes of employees. These seem to be simple tasks, but performing them consistently requires a degree of deference, discernment, and ideational humility that many leaders seem to lack. Call it hubris, call it self-absorption, but what some know by instinct I personally have learned with difficulty: Never assume you understand the vision of the next level, or that your ideas are more powerful or better conceived than those of others. Be prepared at all times to meld your vision and aspirations into those of others, sometimes morphing your grand notions into lesser elements within a larger canvas.

Three experiences with organizational development and change have instilled in me a great appreciation for these principles. Foremost was my involvement in bringing online the nation’s first information commons-essentially a major computer-user room recast in the heart of a library-in the University of Southern California’s Leavey Library. Deploying a heavy concentration of computing within the heart of the library, enabling on these computers a full range of productivity and network navigation tools (at a time when access to e-mail was strongly discouraged, if not banned outright, in most academic libraries), and providing robust service support for the use of these resources had not previously been undertaken on a large scale. The presence of this massive concentration of information technology in the library demanded a reformulation of core library values.

Only by working in a highly collaborative fashion with technology-support agencies outside the library were we able to begin experimenting with integrated technology and reference-service support. Only by empowering librarians and others within the library to view our services from the perspective of our students, with a great degree of freedom to shape programs accordingly, were we able to find our way collectively into new service models that integrated library and technology-support services. In this manner, we began to transform the enduring library values of personal service and equity of access into the new values of holistic computing, core services through the network, and making the technology work for everyone-framing principles that arose only after the participating leaders placed themselves within the nexus of change (Ferguson and Bunge 1997).

After two years awash in the adrenaline rush that came with the Leavey experience,3 I entered into the least successful yet most instructive phase of my career as a leader. I was invited to participate first in a library-wide organization redesign and then in a larger integration of library and computing within a single administrative structure. Only in retrospect did I realize that upon moving into this realm I was inhibited by my own tendency in fluid, ill-defined situations to focus inordinately on tasks and organization charts rather than on the needs of individuals and groups. I also came to realize belatedly that the executive leadership as a whole (of which I was a part) not only shared these tendencies but also failed to understand one of the basic precepts of organization transformation:

It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational; the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal (Bridges 1991, 3).

The leadership group made little effort to establish a sense of urgency, create a guiding coalition, develop a vision or strategy, or (arguably most important) communicate a change vision.4 A fundamental error in the would-be integration of library and computing was to develop a new organization chart at the executive level, announce the changes, then turn the new structure over to the organization to make it work. In the absence of a transition strategy, serious morale issues emerged, old resentments resurfaced, and polarization among groups combined to allow only superficial, begrudging changes to be made.

During these years, I lived the all-too-common experience of bringing a set of values and a leadership style that had worked well within a relatively contained environment into the much larger and more complex setting of a university library system and then of an ostensibly integrated organization of library and computing. With considerably less internal support at either the line or the executive level, an absence of clear internal or external planning frameworks, and an inability unilaterally to reconcile competing personal visions or to create an organization culture of empowerment, the silos of library and computing prevailed more or less as they were prior to the integration initiative.

The first seeds of doubt about my leadership style and some of the practices of key people around me were sown with my participation in the three-week UCLA Senior Fellows Leadership Program for librarians in 1999. There I acquired a broader view of my profession’s leadership traditions and models, greater awareness of myself as a leader, and deeper understanding of the need to look for external connections when developing vision and direction for an organization. Another turning point in the development of my understanding of leadership occurred during my participation in the inaugural Frye Leadership Institute in 2000. The Frye Institute was developed by EDUCAUSE and the Council on Library and Information Resources to cultivate the next generation of information service leaders in higher education. Participation in the institute enabled me to view information services from broader institutional and national perspectives. I began to look seriously at higher education in a holistic fashion and to see myself as an information services leader beyond library and computing. Taken together, the Frye Institute and the Senior Fellows program exposed me to professional values I later found expressed in Frankl and Greeenleaf in ways that affect me personally as well-principally, the values of choice, engagement, service, and fulfillment.

Before moving from the idyll of Leavey to the challenges of the larger, more entrenched, and only lightly charted territory of integrating library and computing organizations, I should have taken a Frankl moment to assess what could and could not be changed within these systems. A Greenleaf litmus test to ascertain what organizational tools and processes were already in place would have been helpful as well, followed by an assessment of the capacity for leadership and the organization to work collaboratively and humanely. Had I done so, I might well have realized the extent of discontinuity among personal, leadership, and organizational values and foreseen the likelihood of accomplishing relatively little meaningful change. Having realized this, my next steps, both professionally and personally, likely would have been very different.

My experience as a leader at Pacific Lutheran University (PLU) has been quite different, but certainly not without substantial opportunities for both professional and personal growth. Leading organizational change in a smaller university has in some respects been easier, because fewer people were involved and the union of library and computing had been in place under the same administrative umbrella for several years. On the other hand, there is a much greater expectation at PLU for communication and attention to individual and community needs from both inside and outside the organization. My principal challenges have been to begin operational integration, to revitalize the library as a presence within PLU’s academic culture, and to enhance the university’s capacity for teaching and learning with technology, and to do so in ways that connect with community values and aspirations.

Among my first steps at PLU was to form a leadership group representative of the entire organization. Information Resources at this institution comprises administrative computing, networking, and systems; academic user support; telecommunications; television and audio services; Web development and services; and multimedia and classroom technology support, in addition to the usual array of functions and units associated with academic libraries. I believed it was vital to begin a process of familiarization that would mitigate the operational and space boundaries that remained between library and computing, even though they were federated through the same dean and for the most part were located within the same building. Our leadership group now meets weekly to share operational highlights and to address matters of overarching interest to the organization. A planning process began in this forum, as have initial discussions on space issues (as we explore moving the main computer lab into the center of the library), a variety of fiscal challenges, and, more recently, a series of technology and renovation projects. Finding common ground within the middle reaches of an organization and understanding how similar the challenges are is a meaningful step along a continuum that we hope will lead to a deeper level of integration.

After spending several months listening to and learning from many voices throughout the university, the leadership group and I began an Information Resources planning process with a series of focused discussions, department meetings, public forums, and a leadership group retreat. In this process we paid close attention to the classic steps of organizational transformation (Kotter 1995) by articulating a sense of urgency for the need to change, maintaining a guiding coalition, and developing a vision to direct the change effort. Parallel to this, we developed the habit of communicating regularly, both in messages and open forums, and of allowing leaders to articulate and to implement these changes in ways they felt most effective.

Several months after launching this planning effort we produced a set of four documents for public review and discussion-a general plan and decision-making framework for undertaking leading initiatives plus three implementing documents that recognize the importance of sustaining momentum through specific action steps (Information Resources 2002). We accomplished this work largely through a broad-based recognition of our purpose (i.e., mission as impelling force), an understanding of common values both institutionally and operationally (i.e., values as cohesive force), and a strong sense for the need to articulate a framework for future action and decision making (i.e., vision as directing force). The chief benefits of this process have been to create a stronger sense of common purpose and direction throughout the organization, to add substance to the ideal of an integrated leadership group, to describe and accomplish a significant reallocation of human and material resources toward teaching and learning with technology, and to lay the foundation for the next phase of operational and organizational integration.

A new provost arrived just as our campus-wide strategic- planning process was moving into high gear. The arrival of the provost, coupled with the planning activity, presented the opportunity to connect Information Resources efforts more closely with other efforts around campus. In vetting Information Resources plans with the new provost, the concept of an information commons became more closely linked with campus-wide planning and melded with the provost’s emerging vision of a student academic support center. This combination of a solid planning process within Information Resources and a campus-wide connection that associates it with several related programs has become the basis of an innovative concept for a Mortvedt (Library) Commons that will feature integrated library, technology, and academic support service elements.

An important dimension of leadership in a rapidly changing environment is the capacity to view organizational change and movement toward a vision as a train careening down tracks that are being placed only moments before the train speeds onto them-and to alternate frequently between the roles of train engineer and rail-slapper. The lesson here is that you sometimes don’t know exactly where the train is going, when your role is that of engineer or layer of rails, or just what kind of terrain lies over the next horizon; however, by sharing a mission and vision with people at all levels you can affect (if not steer) the overall course.

The challenge for the contemporary leader in an environment of rapid and continual change, then, is truly to give herself or himself up to the vision, as well as to relinquish any effort to have direct control over the means of accomplishing it, once it has been placed into motion. At PLU, in order to form a viable vision that speaks to all constituencies, I have had to surrender the notion of an information commons as the centerpiece in a redesign of the library, along with a personal emotional attachment to a Camelot I had created around my experiences with the Leavey Library information commons nearly a decade ago. This has made it more difficult to determine precisely when I should be working as an engineer or as a rail-slapper, but it has brought with it the enormous satisfaction of witnessing the emergence of a still more powerful and galvanizing idea laden with yet more opportunities for achievement and growth by the participants. Essential to this metamorphosis in my thinking and acting has been the realization that change is about people rather than things and that I must view myself as being at the nexus rather than pinnacle of change, and the awareness that if I act on these two realizations I can find effective balance between my own views and those of others.

The Value of Values

We have been hearing for some time about the coming transformation of higher education. In recent years, many of us within information services have begun to create viable frameworks for the transition from largely print to largely digital scholarly communication and teaching-and-learning environments. But relatively few of us truly understand just how massive the coming shakeout in higher education will be or the true extent and character of the restructuring that likely will occur over the next decade or so. Globalization, return to massive federal deficits, further withdrawal of federal and state funding from higher education, continuing malaise in philanthropic investing, preoccupation with national security, the ongoing struggle over matters of privacy and security, increasing demands for accountability with emphasis on assessment-all conspire to accelerate dramatically our transformation into a system of higher education restructured largely by technology, mission, accountability, and values.

Values for this new order are by no means clear. It is certain only that the values are changing and that demand is increasing for leaders who can clarify them for institutions, organizations, and even themselves. If the workplace is demanding less command and control and more inspired organizational change, if leadership now requires more personal affect than direct control, if organizational effectiveness increasingly requires movement from low-trust/high-control to high-trust/low-control models, then transparent, values-based, egoless leadership is becoming all the more important.

As leaders, we have the capacity-indeed, the responsibility-to foster creation of the values needed in our organizations. Often the most effective way of doing so is simply to get out of the way and allow the collective wisdom of the persons to whom you have entrusted these services to bring them forward. An information commons by definition possesses a hybrid, transforming character that engenders discontinuities and ambiguities. Conventional service silos and multiple service points are no longer viable, professional roles and responsibilities are considerably more ambiguous, and the convergence of information services and technologies erodes organizational boundaries. For more than a century, librarians have refined and sustained the values of personal service and equity of access, yet our new service environments demand even more. Now we must reinterpret our enduring values and formulate new ones for the next generation of information services. Finding our way to framing values in Leavey required that librarians have a considerable degree of freedom to search for new responses to new service demands. Service providers had to be empowered to do so, and leadership had to let go of direct control over that process.

A final point: Fostering change in a true spirit of discovery and receptivity to new directions can lead to unexpected results. Proliferation of the information commons concept throughout academe is both a manifestation of and an accelerant for convergence of technologies and the services that support them. The Leavey experience early on convinced me of the inevitability of the convergence of library and computing, both operationally and organizationally. Since then, integration of these agencies has been a prominent element in the professional values I espouse and an underpinning for all the organizational visioning in which I participate. It has even become a major consideration in choosing the institution with which I affiliate. The seemingly innocuous exercise of openly exploring new values for a new service arena turned out to be only the beginning of an odyssey that has led into the realm of reconceiving how organizations can be shaped to better serve the interests of the communities whose interests they serve.

Leader as Leader

Much of the latter portion of my career has been based on the premise that an effective leader enables an organization to go somewhere (presumably a good place) to which it otherwise would not have gone. The organization that has such a leader moves forward willingly and with a sense of fulfillment, having been fully engaged and appropriately inspired to become more than it was. It is not by coincidence that I have focused on the merging of library and computing as the chief arena in which to play out these values. I have done so because it is a largely unmapped frontier that readily captures the imagination and because we must find ways to populate this new world as one element in a broader-based restructuring of higher education now under way.

Frankl and Greenleaf encourage us to make choices, to serve the best interests of all, and to cultivate values that enable both individuals and organizations to realize their full potential. Taking oneself from a hierarchical role to the nexus of change entails considerable mentoring, cultivation of trust, listening, mediation, and encouragement. It requires one to see service as a transparent interface between internal and external interests. Inherent in this dimension of contemporary leadership is responsibility for the personal and professional development of individuals and, in these extraordinary times, the responsibility to explore new ways of meeting information needs for the general good of both our local and national communities.

One of my chief joys in this journey has been to witness firsthand the fruits of computing-library integration in the creation of more flexible organizations for the transition from a largely print to a largely digital world, especially the collaboration of librarians and technologists in developing networked resources, understanding user needs in holistic ways, developing new modes of assistance, and jointly instructing faculty and students. Involvement in these and similar enterprises has affected me personally through an interplay of organizational values and visioning, a life of writing and speaking, and an evolution of personal values that feed back into my professional life.

While this speaks to an intimate connectedness within the leader’s professional life of values and involvement, a substantial degree of transcendence is required to lead transformation of an organization when no clear road map is available. In the case of the integration of library and computing, the leader cannot afford to be viewed primarily as either librarian or technologist. The leader must instead find a third way-one that relies on collective wisdom and the deep knowledge and expertise of others while managing still to foster a cohering vision (Ferguson and Metz 2003). This might seem contrary to some of the points made earlier in this essay, but this is precisely the paradox of leadership in the contemporary organization-the leader leads yet follows, engages yet transcends, and teaches while learning.

In this era of persistent change and transition, leadership must be experienced as striving, a tension between opposites, growth through both negative and positive experiences, and fulfillment of both organizational and personal potential. Effective leaders have a sense of calling, a vocation from which framing values are derived. The essence of an authentic leader is the feeling that she or he can make a difference and is willing to try. The effective postmodern leader thus repeatedly asks, “Why and for whom am I doing this?” As Viktor Frankl urges, we must intuitively understand what is circumstance that cannot or should not be changed and what is incumbent on us to try to change. And as Robert Greenleaf instructs, it is possible to shape our personal and professional worlds in ways that connect and enhance each other in service to the best interests of all.


Bridges, William. 1991. Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change. Cambridge, Mass.: Perseus Books.

Ferguson, Chris D. 2000. ÔShaking the Conceptual Foundations,’ Too: Integrating Research and Technology Support for the Next Generation of Information Service. College & Research Libraries 61(4): 302.

Ferguson, Chris D., and Charles Bunge. 1997. The Shape of Services to Come: Values-Based Reference Service for the Largely Digital Library. College & Research Libraries 58(3): 252Ð265.

Ferguson, Chris D., and Terry Metz. 2003. Finding the Third Space: On Leadership Issues Related to the Integration of Library and Computing. In C. Regenstein and B. Dewey, eds. Leadership, Higher Education, and the Information Age. New York: Neal-Schuman Publishers.

Frankl, Viktor E. 1963. Man’s Search for Meaning: An Introduction to Logotherapy. Translated by I. Lasch. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Greenleaf, Robert K. 2002. Servant Leadership: A Journey into the Nature of Legitimate Power and Greatness. 25th anniversary edition. Edited by Larry C. Spears. New York: Paulist Press.

Holmes-Wong, Deborah, et al. 1997. If You Build It, They Will Come: Space, Values, and Services in the Digital Era. Library Administration & Management 11(2): 81-82.

Information Resources, Pacific Lutheran University. 2002. Information Resources as Strategic Assets: Library and Computing for PLU 2010 and the Next Level of Distinction. Available at Accessed September 2003.

Kotter, John P. 1995. Leading Change: Why Transformation Efforts Fail. Harvard Business Review 73(2): 59-67.


1 Robert Greenleaf was a Quaker with strong convictions on social justice and service. His writings and many years in leadership positions with AT&T speak to the effectiveness and relevance of his ideas within a large contemporary organization. The “servant leader” might thus also be seen as the empowering leader in a learning organization. Additional attributes of the servant leader include the ability to listen to self and to others, empathy for others that reveals individual talents and insights, concern for personal and professional growth that fosters a larger sense of community, recognition of the role of steward over resources in trust from society at large, and capacity for persuasion rather than coercion.

2 Another way to characterize this shift is from a Ptolemaic, library-centered view of the service universe to a Copernican, user-centered perspective (Ferguson 2000, 302).

3 Leavey Library was the work of many hands and minds, so let me be clear on my contribution to the enterprise. Charles Ritcheson, Peter Lyman, Joyce Toscan, Lynn Sipe, and many others were instrumental in fund raising, architectural design, construction oversight, and broad conceptualization of the library and its central feature, the information commons. Appointed inaugural director of Leavey several months before it opened in 1994, I was charged to define positions, design services, recruit personnel, and provide general leadership for the library during its early years of operation. For a general account of Leavey after its first year of operation, see Holmes-Wong et al. (1997).

4 Eight steps for successful organization transformation are defined and explored in the now-classic 1995 article by John Kotter: establish a sense of urgency, form a powerful guiding coalition, create a vision, communicate the vision, empower others to act on the vision, create short-term wins, consolidate and produce still more change, and institutionalize new approaches.

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