Leaders Keep Learning | Leading from the Library

If leadership is mostly learned rather than an innate ability, then continuous learning is a vital contributor to leadership growth. “Never stop learning” is good advice, but it is one of those tasks that’s easier said than done.

Steven BellIf leadership is mostly learned rather than an innate ability, then continuous learning is a vital contributor to leadership growth. “Never stop learning” is good advice, but it is one of those tasks that’s easier said than done.

This column is predicated on the idea that no library leader is fully formed, possessing all the skills required for success. Rather, the path to leadership is one of continuous learning. I routinely see library literature and social media posts about low library worker morale and toxic leaders, leading me to question how it is that our profession has so many awful leaders. We have an abundance of leadership development programs. Many academic institutions have internal management and leadership programs. There is no dearth of opportunities to develop and improve as a leader. Possible causes for this failure are many, from library leaders simply not giving a damn to a total absence of self-awareness. For those leaders who do care about staff morale and strive for a workplace where staff want to be, constant learning is a must. So allow me to share some ideas that I’ve recently come across for making a stronger commitment to learning to be a better leader.



Who has time for continuous learning? What are the best sources among an avalanche of leadership blogs and development opportunities? According to research conducted by Josh Bersin and Marc Zao-Sanders, a leader’s first priority should simply be to commit to making learning an everyday activity. They call their approach “learning in the flow of work,” and it’s hardly a radical idea. It’s based on the way leaders already work. Bersin and Zao-Sanders found that leaders spend 6.5 hours a day in front of a screen and 61 percent of that time is on communication activity. The idea is to integrate continuous learning into the flow of everyday work. Among their recommendations, I find two of particular value:

  • Maintain a “to learn” list. As a leader you bring many strengths to your work, but all leaders need to recognize their skill areas that need improvement. It may be becoming a better listener, working on better self-awareness, or holding more effective meetings. Put those items on the “to learn” list and be highly selective in identifying resources to help build strength in those areas.
  • Calendarize dedicated time into your work schedule. Whether it’s writing, meditation, exercise, or some other purposeful activity, accomplishing it is easier as a routine behavior. To support professional development, carve out a designated time of the day and make it a regular activity. If your schedule is so hectic and unpredictable as to make that difficult, at least aim for some time during morning, afternoon, or night.



One of the great things about working in a library is constant access to the latest books in the fields of leadership and education. I recently discovered Bradley Staats’s Never Stop Learning (Harvard Business Review) on the new book shelf. Though hardly just for leaders, this guide to becoming a dynamic learner is a great read for them. Starting from the premise that many people are ineffective learners, the author offers advice and strategy they can use to stop actively behaviorally sabotaging the learning process. Among the many books on learning, this one offers practical, proven strategies leaders can put to use. Those lessons are broken down into eight key learning elements derived from learning science:

  • Value failure—you are less likely to learn if you fear making mistakes;
  • Process over outcome—worry less about achieving a specific outcome and concentrate on having a process for learning;
  • Ask questions – it is critical for leaders to acknowledge what they don’t know and ask a question to learn more;
  • Reflect and relax—putting more pressure on ourselves to get it right hampers learning so give yourself time to recharge and think;
  • Be yourself—a path to learning that works with to whatever your style is will facilitate better learning;
  • Play to strengths—and don’t try to fix weaknesses (Note: I don’t agree—know your strengths and weaknesses and learn to turn weaknesses into strengths);
  • Learn from others—in addition to learning from mentors and models, explore the many stories of leadership, both good and bad.

Chapters cover each of these eight points in depth. Similar to other books in this genre, it has many stories, anecdotes, and observations from research, and is a quick read. The book makes a good case for never thinking you don’t have something to learn. Wondering if you are an agile learner? Take this quiz to find out how you rate on 12 different learning behaviors.



Among those many surveys that ask employees what qualities they desire in a leader, you rarely come across “I want a leader who devotes regular time to learning.” It hardly ranks up there with trust, transparency, communication, or other much admired leadership traits . While some of those characteristics are somewhat innate, such as empathy, others improve when leaders commit themselves to do better. Maintaining curiosity and being open to discovering new skills and ways to improve existing ones, to me, is just as crucial to leadership success as any of the many cited skills that workers look for in a leader. Given what’s at stake—the leadership responsibility for a library organization, a department within it, or even a project team—committing to being your best is essential to a healthy organization. What if you think your own leader needs to be a better learner? I hope they’ll read this column, question their own commitment, and start down the path to change with a leadership learning quiz.

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Steven Bell

Steven Bell is Associate University Librarian, Temple University, Philadelphia, PA. For more from Steven visit his blogs, Kept-Up Academic Librarian, ACRLog and Designing Better Libraries or visit his website.

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