Leaders Who Notice Make a Difference | Leading From the Library

Leaders can all too easily go through the paces on auto-pilot. Go to this meeting. Deal with that situation. Those leaders who are adept at taking notice of what’s less obvious are more likely to innovate.

Leaders can all too easily go through the paces on auto-pilot. Go to this meeting. Deal with that situation. Those leaders who are adept at taking notice of what’s less obvious are more likely to innovate.

The radio station I listen to during my morning routine has an occasional bit in which the program co-host becomes “The Noticer.” It’s a silly segment that features oddball news stories, puzzling consumer products, or otherwise absurd societal observations. While it makes for an entertaining diversion, it occurred to me how much of my own leadership revolves around noticing things. Most of what’s noticed, whether it’s about librarianship, higher education, or something altogether different, leads to nothing in particular. Every so often, however, just taking notice of something can have an impact on what we do and why we do it. It may lead to an innovation or waking up to a needed change. If you lead but fail to take notice of things that could make a difference for your library, perhaps becoming a Noticer would lead to new discoveries.



When leadership books, seminars, and blogs point to the critical skills leaders need to succeed, noticing is rarely mentioned. It’s hardly surprising, as noticing is rarely recognized as a leadership skill. We should give it more attention. At best, leaders are advised to conduct environmental scans, to stay abreast of trends in their field or hobnob with other leaders to exchange those “what keeps you awake at night” issues. Noticing is somewhat different. Rather than a planned activity, it’s more of a spontaneous reaction to something read, heard, or observed. It might be the start of pattern recognition, but more likely it simply engages the gears of curiosity. Observing that students always sit on the floor in a particular corner of the library could lead to the introduction of soft seating. That’s a fairly straightforward example.

High-impact noticing is of a more complex nature. It can lead to tough questions, such as why the on-campus coffee shop is always crowded with students when the library café is barely used. It might be noticing that your conference hotel has eliminated a registration desk in favor of small kiosks. Good noticing should lead to more than “could we do this better” questions; it leads to curiosity and “how might we do this completely differently” questions.

Leaders should avoid a certain kind of noticing though, the type where staff get bugged with “Why do we do it that way?” or “How come we’re not doing what that library is doing?” questions. That gets into micromanaging territory and will demoralize library workers.



How might a leader become a Noticer? It requires more than a mental note to do more noticing. Become an effective Noticer requires the ability to achieve something along the lines of habitual spontaneous attention. Ellen Langer, a Harvard social psychology professor, speaks to this practice in discussing the value of mindfulness for leaders. She writes, in this interview, that a leader must “cultivate the ability to notice things around you.” Noticing things, in general, she adds “puts you in the present.” Langer connects the importance of noticing to mindfulness by encouraging leaders to avoid the “mindless” approach that puts leaders into an “automatic mindset that dictate[s] what people do.” I would agree that when leaders operate on autopilot and just go through the motions of their routines, that’s when they are least likely to achieve noticing. What advice does she offer for leaders to get in the Noticer mindset? Here are some suggestions to challenge yourself to be in the present for better noticing:

  • Take an incoming thought and look at it from different perspectives. How do you know this? When is it not true? When is it an advantage? A disadvantage? Get to thinking more deeply about something you take notice of.
  • Overconfidence causes leaders to think they know all that they need to know. That means less looking around and when they don’t look, they don’t see. Seeing and noticing contribute to personal growth.
  • Everyday things can appear boring. Make things less boring by taking more notice of them. Take anything that is mundane and challenge yourself to notice six new things about it. When leaders notice they are more engaged and increase the likelihood of new ideas emerging.



Being a Noticer is one of those small but critical soft skills that deliver a leadership edge. To my way of thinking, one of the essential differentiators between leaders and managers is long-range vision with an openness to experimentation. Leaders are thinking beyond every day efficiencies and project supervision. They need to notice those things, minor and subtle, that could have significant future impact. Many library leaders can now speak to the importance of their library taking a role in Open Educational Resources adoption or development. But the leader who noticed ten years ago that students were getting fired up about textbook prices, when few if any librarians were thinking about it, had the opportunity to be an institutional innovator. That same leader, who now notices the significant number of people picking up mobile orders in food outlets, observing how Gen-Z students do just about everything on their smartphones, may be inspired to develop a new library service leveraging mobile technology. We desire curiosity as a trait in the staff we hire, but library leaders must challenge themselves to be even more curious, to be looking for new mysteries that lead to tomorrow’s innovations. Noticing is a skill leaders can execute around the margins of algorithmic practices and autopilot routines that consume most of our waking hours. Less time spent looking at screens could be a good first step to becoming a Noticer.

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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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