Leading with Heart

Photo by Flickr user Calsidyrose (CC BY 2.0)



There are sections of the bookstore many people don’t want to be seen in. For me, it’s the business section. Every time I’m scanning the spines of new titles on leadership, innovation and management, I feel a little nervous that someone’s going to jump out of the photography section and call me a square.

I don’t think I’m alone in this. There’s a strong anti-corporate feeling in many of the social circles I inhabit. In fact, the bookstore I usually go to is the largest independent bookseller in Texas. In a city whose mantra is “Keep Austin Weird,” it’s not unexpected. Business books represent corporate culture, “the man,” and mumbo-jumbo for suckers in suits.

It’s not just in Austin. Mega-corporation IBM recently released a commercial that featured “buzzword Bingo” in which employees of a large organization are called to a large meeting with the CEO of the company who boasts about the direction of the organization. As he spits out buzzword after buzzword (e.g., “Web 3-dot-0,” “out-of-the-box thinking,” “value-added”), cynical employees mark off squares on the premade bingo cards.

What I get is this: administration, regardless of what kind of organization you’re in, is often functioning within a “Dilbert-like” reality. Managers are wrapped up in their insulated world of mission and vision statements and strategic planning. They have delusional and misguided ideas about what goes on at the frontlines.

I suspect that for many librarians, the words mission and vision and strategic planning conjure up the same kinds of images. Perhaps you haven’t played Buzzword Bingo, but you’ve exchanged knowing glances with coworkers during planning meetings. You’ve experienced enough strategic planning to know that the majority of the time it’s not going to get you anywhere, and it’s going to take a long time to do so.

A recent excerpt from Benjamin Ginsberg’s book The Fall of the Faculty that appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education provides examples of visions that turned into strategic plans that turned into years-long failed efforts at change. He faults administrators that use the strategic planning process for their own personal gain in the form of resume-building experiences. These career administrators busy themselves with visioning and planning rather than making real change, all the while continuing to seek out more lucrative opportunities for themselves.

In essence, these inauthentic leaders were using the process for personal gain, and others in the organization could sniff it out.

It’s important to note that Ginsberg doesn’t deny the effectiveness of a good vision or a good strategic plan. He highlights the University of Illinois Strategic Plan as one that contains the characteristics of effective corporate or military plan in that it has explicit objectives and ways of measuring success. It’s not the idea of vision and planning that is broken – it’s the way in which it happens and the motives behind the process that make for failed efforts.

Authentic Leadership

Princeton philosophy professor emeritus Harry Frankfurt’s essay On Bullshit was a best seller when it was released as a book in 2005. In it, he writes about authenticity and fakes:

For the essence of bullshit is not that it is false but that it is phony. In order to appreciate this distinction, one must recognize that a fake or phony need not be in any respect (apart from authenticity itself) inferior to the real thing. What is not genuine need not also be defective in some other way. It may be, after all, an exact copy. What is wrong with a counterfeit is not what it is like, but how it was made. (Frankfurt, 2005, p. 47).

This echoes Ginsberg’s stance that the processes used for change are not inherently bad. It also explains why a fiscally sound, conceptually correct plan might reek of bullshit. Together, Frankfurt and Ginsberg highlight the need for competent, authentic leaders.

Authentic leadership isn’t just about leaders who are true to themselves and their organizations, though that is a part of it. Bill George (2003) identifies five dimensions of authentic leadership: purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline, and heart.


Authentic leaders know who they are and what they stand for. They know where they are headed and are inspired and intrinsically motivated to achieve their goals. The way this comes out in leadership situations is leaders who have passion.


Authentic leaders understand their own values, and they use those values to know the right thing to do in difficult situations. Instead of compromising their values in difficult times, they use those situations to strengthen their understanding of their own values. People can tell leaders are true to their values through their behavior.


Authentic leaders engage in mutual disclosure with others. They build strong bonds between themselves and others based on trust and closeness. They don’t necessarily reveal everything to everyone, but they are considered transparent and open. They will be open about their weaknesses and are willing to listen to others. People describe leaders with these kinds of relationships as well connected to others in the organization.


Authentic leaders who practice self-discipline are able to maintain focus and stay on track in order to reach their goals. They are accountable to themselves, to others, and they hold others accountable to the organization. Others know what to expect from them and describe these leaders as consistent.


Perhaps the “softest” of the dimensions of authentic leadership, heart represents the awareness leaders should have about others’ struggles. They seek to help others who need it. They are frequently described as compassionate leaders who put others before themselves.

A Lack of Authentic Leaders

There are few people who can live up to these standards on a daily basis. There are even fewer who have the management skills to use visions, missions and strategic plans to effect the change they want to see. Even fewer occupy management and leadership roles in our workplaces. It’s no wonder there are so many “Buzzword Bingo” sessions in our work lives.

We have seen economic, social, and political leaders create massive amounts of distrust of leadership throughout our society. Even those identified as authentic leaders have turned out to be less authentic than we had hoped. In what is a basic textbook for leadership studies, Leadership: Theory and Practice by Peter Northouse, of the three case studies exemplifying authentic leadership one was about Greg Mortenson. Mortenson, author of Three Cups of Tea, was once known for his selfless, purpose-driven work in creating schools in difficult political and geographical areas. Now, he is more known for lying about the extent of his work.

Authentic Library Leaders

Now more than ever, libraries are in search of authentic leaders because we have pressing problems. Budgets are being slashed around the country. In my own state, Governor Rick Perry has signed off on a budget that will cut 88 percent of the state library’s programs that aide and assist libraries throughout the state.

By  virtue of their transparency, self-discipline, and high ethical standards, authentic leaders enhance employees’ engagement with the organization and inspire behavior that goes beyond what is expected (Walumbwa, Wang, Wang, Schaubroeck, & Avolio, 2010). Frankly, that’s what we need to solve difficult problems.

In a study of 387 employees and their 129 direct supervisors, researchers found that supervisors who demonstrated authentic leadership characteristics led more motivated, empowered teams than those who were not authentic leaders. Because followers can identify with authentic leaders, they feel more empowered to make change as well (Walumbwa et al., 2010). We need employees that don’t just come to work for a paycheck – we need employees that come to work engaged in the profession and concerned about what’s happening around us. We need employees who are willing to go above and beyond to ensure our users are being served in spite of the cuts all around us.

The Vision Thing

Motivated employees who feel empowered are great, but all of that energy needs to be synchronized, and therein lies another role for the leader: vision-setting. Business guru John Kotter found that of the eight reasons why firms fail, three of them had to do with vision. Firms that failed underestimated the power of vision, undercommunicated the vision, or permitted obstacles to block the new vision. The Leadership Challenge places ‘Inspiring a Shared Vision’ in its model of effective leadership. Other studies on leadership have placed vision at the core of the transformational change process (Zaccaro & Banks, 2004), claiming that it is responsible for generating trust in leaders, aligning the beliefs and values of entire organizations, and intellectually stimulating all who work there (Kirkpatrick & Locke, 1996).

Vision can be a powerful motivator if it appeals to major stakeholders in an organization, including staff, customers, and community members. The business world has a variety of examples of successful visions. Kotter’s seminal work, Leading Change, identifies six characteristics good visions have.


The vision is something that is easily pictured. It doesn’t represent the organization as it is now; rather, it is a picture of the organization in the future. This ‘future organization’ provides people with a direction.


The vision is something the appeals to a variety of stakeholders, not just a single group of people. Visions that ignore one group of stakeholders in favor of another will eventually demoralize followers and invariably spark resistance.


The vision should not be so farfetched that it appears unattainable. In order to develop a vision that will seem feasible, it should be rooted in reality. That said, it should not be an incremental change, as this will not be inspirational. The right vision stretches an organization’s limits, but not to a point of incredulity.


The vision should provide a clear direction to work towards. Kotter provides the example, “To Be a Great Company,” as a vision that lacks enough focus to answer questions about where the organization is going.


Just as a vision should not be too vague, it should also not be too prescriptive, limiting the options an organization has for achieving the vision. A flexible vision allows for the environment to change and the organization to adapt to it while remaining focused on the vision’s goals.


The vision is easy to communicate. It shouldn’t take longer than a couple of minutes to explain well. If the vision is too complicated to communicate, it will eventually lose its power as others in the organization try to adopt it as their own.

Library Vision Statements

In looking at library vision statements posted on websites, it is clear that there are not a lot of what Kotter would define as good – and without a good vision statement, it will be difficult to align a whole library to achieving change even with a good leader.

It is clear that that the library world has yet to embrace a single definition of what constitutes a vision.  These statements range from long, multi-page documents that more closely resemble a mission statement (what a library does and its purpose) to one-liners than seem more like a slogan.

Kent State University Libraries

The Libraries provide information resources and services that are essential to research, discovery, and learning at Kent State University. Activities of our information professionals include synthesizing, organizing, evaluating, and providing access to the corpus of human knowledge and experience. We are committed to the broad-based support of our primary users – students, faculty, and staff – while also recognizing our role in ensuring and maintaining the Carnegie Research II status of the University. We also provide leadership in cooperation with other University offices in the visioning and management of new and more effective information resource services to the University community. Our vision embraces this ideal while acknowledging that we are bound by available fiscal resources.

It goes on to list seven statements of belief too long to include here. Obviously, this vision statement is much too complex to be easily communicated. It also speaks of the library as it is now and doesn’t provide an image of the library in the future.

The University of Texas at Arlington Library

The UT Arlington Library … the best choice for navigating the world of ideas.

This one is definitely communicable. However, it does not have enough focus to guide individuals in the organization. When confronted with a choice to create a learning commons or build a special collection, this vision statement wouldn’t lend much support. It’s also hard to imagine what this place will look like in five years with no imagery or description of the future library.

Keene State College in New Hampshire

Mason Library’s vision is to achieve excellence in the following: Mason Library partners with the campus community to prepare citizens ready to engage in the world. The Library is a knowledge center where students learn information literacy skills that empower them to navigate a rapidly changing environment. The Library offers a welcoming space at the heart of the intellectual endeavor integrating materials, technology, place, and teaching in the tradition of a public liberal arts institution.

This vision statement is a good balance between focused and flexible.  It highlights a distinct direction for the library: community partnerships, a knowledge center that adapts to new environments, and a physical space with materials and technology.  Still, it doesn’t specify strategies to achieve this future, nor does it tie the library to specific technologies.  “Materials,” for example, might mean books, journal articles, and other traditional library materials; however, if the institution shifted to a data-centric curriculum and adopted an e-reader program, this vision is still relevant.

The Power of Vision, Authentically Led

New technologies, shrinking budgets, the growth in the demand for ebooks and several other converging forces are changing the landscape for library work.  At the same time, the library’s relevance is being called into question in our communities, our schools, and our colleges and universities by those who would believe “It’s all on Google.”  Our institutions are competing for scarce resources: for public libraries, fire and police get funded as essential services; for school libraries, instructional units[1] get priority funding; and for colleges and universities, other schools and academic units are vying for the same funding libraries seek.

Clearly, libraries operate in a volatile environment that demands strong leaders to unify an organization and set a path for success. Authentic leadership describes how leaders can interact with followers to overcome organizational inertia and inspire action through purpose, values, relationships, self-discipline and heart.  These leaders have integrity and emotional intelligence, and they rally entire organizations around common, heart-felt goals using a clearly articulated vision of the future.

Emergent Leaders with Vision

Leaders are not always the director.  They can be found throughout the library and are identified by the way they are able to influence others to create a new future for the organization. Northouse (2010) identifies those who do not hold formal authority but who exhibit leadership qualities as emergent leaders.  These leaders are identified by the way they motivate others, initiate new ideas, and seek others’ opinions.  They are passionate and involved.

Library visions can (and should) be emergent as well.  All institutional visions were once just the vision of a single individual that were shaped by others in the institution. Kouzes and Posner elaborate:

We all have dreams and aspirations.  We all think about the future; we all want tomorrow to be better than today.  Leaders have to make sure that what they see is also something that others can see.  When visions are shared they attract more people, sustain higher levels of motivation, and withstand more challenges than those that are singular. (2002, p.105)

While you may not have the authority to define the vision of the library and draft it as part of a strategic plan, you certainly can have a vision and share it with others – even if it’s not in the context of formal planning meetings. For example, in developing the St. Edward’s University library website, I had conversations with each staff member at the library to come up with a shared vision for the site.  This vision was partly mine – I built the bones of it on my own – but it was shaped through conversations with people that knew the St. Edward’s community, including faculty and students.  The final vision that guided website development was:

The St. Edward’s University library website is the go-to resource for academic research for our faculty, staff and students.  It provides unfettered access to high-quality library materials and opportunities for website visitors who have never interacted with the library in any other way to expand their research capabilities through intuitive design, rich information literacy content, and ways to communicate with library staff.  The library’s website will be ubiquitous in the research lives of our users and its content and tools will be found throughout the SEU digital infrastructure.

Because each member of the organization contributed to this shared vision, it withstood early criticism and gained buy-in quickly.  Others saw themselves and their input in the website.  Part of my role as an authentic leader in this situation was to listen actively to others and be honest and open about my own intentions for the site.  I was passionate about making an excellent site that would serve the St. Edward’s University community by recognizing the needs and interests of all major stakeholders.  As corny as it sounds, it was an effort both of the mind and the heart, and I believe that is why it has been a success.

I’m not a director, but I certainly have a vision of what the library will be in the future.  I believe it is a vision that I share with several of my colleagues, and that helps guide my actions.  As my library embarks on a strategic planning process that began this month, I am ready to contribute my vision to the conversations that our entire staff will have about the direction our library will take.  If I do that with authenticity and heart and articulate a good vision, I will help steer this library into the future.

What You Can Do

You can be an authentic leader.  Here are some thoughts on becoming an authentic leader at your library, regardless of your position:

  • Take leadership seriously.  Just as the library community has come to embrace teaching as a skill that requires passion and knowledge, so does leadership.
  • Participate, if possible, in leadership development.  The American Library Association’s Emerging Leader’s Program is one example, but state library associations may offer something as well.  The most valuable learning experience I have had has been the Texas Library Association’s TALL Texans Leadership Institute, led by ALA president-elect Maureen Sullivan and George Washington University Libraries dean Jack Siggins.  If leadership is a phenomenon you’re really interested in understanding, there are graduate programs like Simmons College’s Managerial Leadership in the Information Professions [2] that can engage you in leadership theory and help you explore how leadership happens in libraries.
  • Find your own vision and voice.  You cannot authentically lead using someone else’s vision and someone else’s passion (Kouzes & Posner, 1999).  I recommend the Leadership Challenge, which not only is a great read, but provides activities to articulate your authentic self.  This sounds touchy-feely, but it is something many of us do not do in the midst of our busy, hectic days.
  • Lead.  Take the five dimensions of authentic leadership and apply them in your work, starting today.

Many thanks to Dr. Anne Marie Casey, director of the Hunt Library at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and Irene M. H. Herold, dean of Mason Library at Keene State College for their perspectives on this piece.  As always, thanks to all of my fellow Lead Pipe editors, but especially Emily Ford and Ellie Collier who provoked me with insightful comments and questions.


George, B. (2003). Authentic leadership: Rediscovering the secrets to creating lasting value. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Ginsberg, B. (2011). The fall of the faculty: The rise of the all-administrative university and why it matters. New York: Oxford University Press.

Frankfurt, H. G. (2005). On bullshit. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Kirkpatrick, S.A. & Locke, E.A. (1996). Direct and indirect effects of three core charismatic leadership components on performance and attitudes. Journal of Applied Psychology, 81, 36-51.

Kotter, J. P. (1996). Leading change. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (1999). Encouraging the heart: A leader’s guide rewarding and recognizing others. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2002). The leadership challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Northouse, P. G. (2010). Leadership: Theory and practice. Thousand Oaks: Sage.

Walumbwa, F. O., Wang, P., Wang, H., Schaubroeck, J., & Avolio, B. J. (2010). Psychological processes linking authentic leadership to follower behaviors. Leadership Quarterly, 21(5), 901-914.

Zaccaro, S. J., & Banks, D. (2004). Leader visioning and adaptability: Bridging the gap between research and practice on developing the ability to manage change. Human Resource Management, 43(4), 367-380.


[1] As a former high school teacher, I am fully in support of recognizing school libraries as instructional units, especially considering that many states require their librarians to have been classroom teachers for years.

[2] Disclaimer: I am a current student in this program. I love it!

11 Responses

  1. Really great post! The buzzword leader is a common ailment of staff everywhere. It poisons the message of someone who is trying to be authentic and transparent, adding cynical fuel to the fire of jaded staff. I’ve thought about this issue a great deal over the years, thank you for writing this.

  2. Can I just say – thank you? Thank you for not just recognizing but calmly and smartly calling out a massive problem in our field. I have been saying for years that we have lots and lots of managers (and many of them struggle with the day-to-day duties of that job) but very few who can lead. It does take a rare person who can both manage people and projects AND inspire and engage others, but we should be encouraging these people to come forward. Unfortunately, I’m not seeing that happening much. It’s truly a shame, but a trend that I hope will change very soon.

  3. I really appreciated your blog post and the thought you put in to describing ideal library leaders, but I must say, I was completely distracted by your redesign of your library’s website! I thought it was clean, intuitive, and functional. As someone who will be undertaking an academic library website redesign this coming year, I would love to use your site as inspiration.

    1. Eric Frierson

      Ha! Thanks, and stealing the design would be flattery. :) Must thank our outstanding university Web Team at St. Ed’s for doing the heavy lifting with the code and being very attentive to the design that reflected our library goals.

  4. Nice post that captures some very profound points. Glad you included the hook about no one being able to do all of those things each and every day. There’s real truth behind that statement, but it doesn’t mean we should not aspire to be transparent and trustworthy at all times.

  5. Eric Frierson

    Thanks for the comments, everyone! Does anyone want to highlight a particularly authentic leader in libraries that you know about? I can name several people that come across as open, supportive, and passionate about the work – Barbara MacAdam, AUL at the University of Michigan… Laurie Sutch, Academic Learning Facilities coordinator also at UM… these two taught me so much about being a leader early in my career. Honored to have worked with them.

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  8. Vivienne Blake

    Thank you for an inspiring post, defining what constitutes effective, generous and human leadership.

  9. Eric,

    I liked how your article cut through the half-marketing/half-management self-help gobbledegook to explain authentic leadership. I was particularly pleased with the personal example you used; you did what a leader should do – you had a personal vision, but you created an environment where everyone had a chance to contribute. I’m a librarian now, but I worked as stage manager in the theatre before, and this is ability to have a strong personal vision and yet let everyone (actors, designers, crew…everyone) feel like it was they who made the show happen.

    Anyhow, nicely done.