One Quality All Library Leaders Must Have | Leading From the Library

Leadership literature offers abundant lists of qualities that experts say define great leaders. That’s supplemented by lists of qualities workers want in their leaders. There’s much variance. Here is the one quality we can all agree is a must for leaders who want to succeed.

Steven Bell head shotLeadership literature offers abundant lists of qualities that experts say define great leaders. That’s supplemented by lists of qualities workers want in their leaders. There’s much variance. Here is the one quality we can all agree is a must for leaders who want to succeed.

Several past columns have cited the leadership writings of Adam Bryant. Bryant is best known for a long-running New York Times column called “Corner Office.” Bryant ceased authoring it a few years ago. Another author has since continued it, but I’m sure others would join me in stating that Bryant’s work is missed. He had a knack for identifying truly interesting leaders, and then profiling how they discovered their leadership ability along with their leadership style and philosophy. “Leading from the Library” columns maintain a similar theme and intent, to learn from the lessons of leaders, good and bad, and in doing so, improve our own leadership capabilities. That made Bryant’s work a near perfect fit as a source of material over the years. That’s why I was pleased to discover that he was now writing occasional columns for Strategy+Business newsletter. One such column resonated strongly with me.



As much as we might like our work lives neatly organized, with clearly articulated goals and outcomes that lead to well defined solutions, the truth is that things are pretty messy and often ambiguous. To counter this, as leaders we strive to figure out how to make them efficient to the point of creating repeatable, predictable procedures that get the desired results as close to one hundred percent of the times as possible. We refer to those procedures and process as algorithms, and that is sometimes a problem. Roger Martin’s Knowledge Funnel declares that all new knowledge goes through a process of mystery, heuristic, and algorithm. First, we identify a mystery, event, or set of circumstances we cannot explain. After some period of discovery and research we have a heuristic, or best guess at what explains the mystery. Finally, we develop a process, method, or formula that can be faithfully reproduced as our algorithm.

The problem, according to Martin, is that once we achieve a finely tuned algorithm, we depend on it so much that we stop searching for new mysteries to explore. Filmmaker J.J. Abrams stated in his TED talk on mysteries his belief that mystery is often more important than knowledge. Without a thirst for discovering and exploring new mysteries, leaders can allow themselves to become satisfied with the status quo. That’s why Bryant’s most important quality for leaders is essential for great leadership.



In his article “How to Think Like a CEO,” Bryant shares insights on what leaders need to succeed based on over 500 interviews with diverse leaders across a wide swath of for-profit and nonprofit organizations. In trying to figure out the one common element among all these individuals, Bryant came up with a single, most essential quality. He calls this “applied curiosity.” Bryant says leaders who have it:

Engage in relentless questioning to understand how things work. And then they start wondering how those things could be made to work better. They approach everything with an inquiring mind-set—whether it’s making sense of shifting consumer habits or the global macroeconomic trends that are shaping their industry.

While Bryant acknowledges the value of more commonly cited leadership qualities such as trust, honesty, emotional intelligence, and humility, the reason he values applied curiosity so much above others is what one leader described as the “infinite learning curve.” Good leaders must certainly demonstrate those other qualities, but the ability to question and constantly ask how to improve is the difference maker. That’s why it resonated strongly with me and connected with the importance of always striving to seek out new mysteries rather than satisficing with what’s always worked or doing things the same way because that’s how it’s always been done. Bryant questions whether applied curiosity, like leadership itself, is something people are born with or can learn. There are behaviors librarians on the leadership track can adopt, particularly pattern seeking or trend exploring, that can make applied curiosity more of a mindset.



Applied curiosity, as I interpret it, is about paying attention and asking questions. With their time constantly in demand for a multitude of both urgent and important matters, leaders need to stay focused and keep attentive to the big picture, both what’s next and what’s further ahead. I find the stories of Martin and Abrams helpful reminders to keep looking for the new mysteries, to avoid being trapped in today’s status quo thinking, and to remember the value of staying curious about how we can always do better and make a real difference for the people who use our libraries. The need for constant, continuous learning has been a recurring theme of many “Leading from the Library” columns. The premise is that those who do not yet lead can learn to do so and that current leaders can learn to get better at it. The columns have strongly asserted that the absence of continuous questioning and learning is problematic in library leaders at any level. Bryant’s column gives little in the way of advice for how to become more curious, other than to advise us to ask “Why?” more often. Again, the point is to seek out leaders who do it well and learn from them.

I hope that my leadership columns have helped informal and formal library leaders at all levels and in all types of libraries learn something new of value or see things differently each month. After writing several years’ worth of columns, this is the last one. I want to thank the folks at Library Journal for giving me the opportunity to write them, and I want to thank you for reading them and sharing thoughtful comments and kind words about them throughout the years. I hope you’ve gained something from them to help you be at your best when you lead from your library.

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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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Jane Reiter

SORRY to hear that you're retiring from this column! I enjoy your writing and perspective, Jane

Posted : Nov 21, 2019 02:37



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