You Might Be an Intimidating Library Leader | Leading from the Library

Even if you think you lead without exploiting the power and privilege of your position, the way your formal leadership or management role affects your library workers might surprise you.

Steven Bell head shotEven if you think you lead without exploiting the power and privilege of your position, the way your formal leadership or management role affects your library workers might surprise you.

Leaders have power. The leadership literature identifies these different types of power and ways they privilege leaders over those who report to them. Leaders have information power, given their access to organizational developments that only they are privileged to know. Leaders have financial power because they have access to budget data that others do not. Leaders have technology power if they are tech savvy and can use it to influence decisions and outcomes. Leaders have coercive power and may choose to use it to simply issue orders others must follow no matter how irrational, pointless, or confusing those edicts might be. The good news is that most leaders are sensible and reject the notion of exploiting their position’s power to intentionally subject workers to a toxic employment experience. However, even when leaders are thoughtful about how they wield power, they may, without realizing it, intimidate unintentionally.



You self-identify as a leader or manager who goes out of their way to avoid exercising their power in any of these or other exploitive ways. Of course you do. A leader committed to earning the respect and trust of workers is already cautious in how they manage the power balance in their relationships. According to a survey of 4,000 professional managers, you have lots of company. Two-thirds reported that they are never or rarely scary to their subordinates. An even greater number, 75 percent, reported confidence that their peers and superiors found them free of fear-inducing qualities. According to the article “Managers, You’re More Intimidating Than You Think,” this survey data is suspect because “other research shows that managers in particular need to accept that people see them as much scarier than they realize.” As leaders and managers we may encourage our reports to speak up and be forthright in telling us what’s on their minds and what we need to know, but our actions may suggest otherwise. Think about a past problem at your library. Is it possible that a frontline staff member knew something that could have made a difference but was scared to share what they knew with their supervisor?



This is the tough part. How does a leader or manager know if their behavior is intimidating? It’s hard to be sure even when making the effort to be self-aware. This is why so many managers, when surveyed, think of themselves as approachable. According to the above referenced article on intimidating managers, there are several factors to consider:

  • Intimidation is relational, subjective, and contextual;
  • Non-verbal communication matters; a frown, stare or other gesture can be interpreted negatively;
  • Polite but dismissive remarks may be innocently intended to move a conversation forward but can be received as a deterrence to open sharing of thoughts;
  • Platitudes such as “my door is open” or “feedback is always welcomed” sound inviting but reports can still be hesitant to take this seriously owing to the power differential.

Since these examples include fairly common exchanges between leaders and staff, it’s evident that maintaining an intimidation-free relationship is challenging even with the best of intentions. Leaders may think they are self-aware, yet their power can surface in unintended ways to send the wrong message. Like those managers surveyed, while they think they are free of fear-inducing behaviors, leaders may be perceived as somewhat or downright scary. So what’s a leader or manager to do?



Many years ago a well-meaning staff member gave me a small token of their appreciation on National Boss’s Day. Yes, this is still a thing and, like the colleague, it is well-intended if perhaps misguided. This BOSS (“brilliant over worked superstar”) button was appreciated, but something about “boss” felt wrong, even if was meant to compliment. Boss has authoritarian overtones. A boss intimidates. A boss tells staff what to do and how to do it. A boss finds a way to subtly show displeasure or take punitive action. While the term boss is less used these days, I suspect workers still use it, in a negative way, to describe a manager or leader who intimidates, possibly through the inappropriate leveraging of their power or perhaps in more benign ways. If leaders want to avoid the boss label, eliminate these staff-intimidating behaviors:

  • Being closeminded to ideas: nothing intimidates more than routinely being shut down when offering ideas and suggestions. It is a surefire way to end organizational innovation;
  • Blaming staff when things go wrong: failure to collaboratively examine problems and understand challenges from workers’ perspective ensures that no one shares or speaks up about problems;
  • Making quick decisions without consultation: ignore a decision’s immediate or cascading consequences and, when things go badly, leaders will observe frontline staff send strong signals about the abuse of administrative privilege. (Prolonging or putting off critical decisions is nearly as bad.)
  • Assuming your title means you know more than everyone else: ignore the value of listening and asking questions to learn from staff if you want make sure no one dares question you.

You get the point. Managers and leaders set the tone for intimidation when they engage in these types of behaviors. These examples are more egregious, but more than a few leaders and managers are likely to err by committing some of these infractions in more minor, if unintended, ways. To improve, consider other options.



Library leaders and managers who emerge from the ranks of frontline staff, and many of us have, may worry that practicing non-intimidating leadership will come off as too friendly and insufficiently “leaderly.” Leaders should be mindful about being intimidating, but avoid being overly obsessed with being perceived as a pushover. Better to adopt a few strategies for intimidation-free leadership while maintaining the respect and trust of staff that will allow for a productive relationship:

  • Self-awareness through journaling: consider keeping a journal for self-reflection and to record thoughts about behavior, actions, or decisions that may signal intimidation or inappropriate leveraging of power;
  • Be kind to others and to yourself: leaders can establish themselves as a model for fairness, kindness, and caring; doing so should lead to fewer situations where intimidation can occur but if it does, remind yourself that as humans we all make errors and it’s all right to be kind to yourself;
  • Avoid judgment and think the best of people and their intentions: if you find yourself routinely judging others and being suspect of their motivations, make a special effort to be non-judgmental, open minded, and resistant to taking things personally;
  • Remember there is no one sure path: leaders are less likely to intimidate if they are not constantly defending and enforcing their ideas and are more accepting of the ideas and suggestions of others.



When people are asked to rate themselves on a scale from 1 to 10, whether it’s about general goodness, driving ability, or intellect, they tend to rate themselves at 7 or 8, above average. It’s a subtle form of self-deception; we are not all above average. Leaders and managers, likewise, when asked to rate how intimidating they are, overwhelmingly identify as non-intimidating. As with many leadership skills, developing and putting them into practice is no easy task. This is especially true with intimidating behaviors because it’s difficult for leaders to see it in themselves, and when it happens, staff are too intimidated to raise the issue. Leaders and managers can get on the path to non-intimidation by taking note of how they handle the power differential between themselves and their staff members. Just being more aware of the power they hold can be a start to using it in just, fair, and beneficial ways that enable leaders and managers to be the approachable, supportive colleagues they most want to be.

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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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