Not Bossy—the Boss! 10 Tips for Building Librarian Leadership Skills

by Alphild Dick, Head Editor, INALJ Washington

Not Bossy—the Boss!
10 Tips for Building Librarian Leadership Skills

alphild-dickRecently, a good friend confessed to me that she struggles with taking leadership roles at work. This friend is sharp, dedicated, and has years of experience in her field. She is one of the most competent individuals that I know. I was, to put it mildly, shocked that she felt that way. It was baffling to think that she didn’t feel ready to take on leadership roles—if she didn’t, who would?

I admitted to her that I take a very different tack than she does—volunteering for leadership positions and then crossing my fingers that I haven’t just jumped off some sort of professional cliff. And even as I write this, I wonder, who I am to tell you about leadership in libraries? Then I have to remind myself that I regularly lead projects at my job. I have in the past, as well. They have been pretty successful endeavors, too. So why the sense of being ill prepared?

This is not to rehash Lean In–though, it is an extremely interesting, and important, conversation. Instead, I wonder how we can make ourselves feel more prepared to take the lead in our libraries. There is no shortage of passion, dedication, experience, or motivation in libraries. What can we do to motivate ourselves to use that positive energy, and step into leadership roles?

  1. Know your organization: A good leader knows how to contextualize things. Being knowledgeable about your organization’s structure, who you are working with and for, will help you make informed decisions later. This doesn’t happen overnight, but being observant of the structures at work will increase effectiveness later.
  2. Know yourself: What are your professional skills and strengths? Moreover, what are your personal skills and strengths? I’ve found that being aware of my Myers-Briggs type (INFP, if you are curious) has been really useful in helping me understand how I relate to others. Anyone can develop leadership skills, but knowing who you are will help you develop an effective leadership style.
  3. Get ready to collaborate: Collaboration is an enormous part of librarianship. Good leadership in collaboration is about pinpointing other’s skills and letting them use those skills. Taking advantage of opportunities to work in groups, even when you are not the leader, lets you hone your people skills.
  4. Listen: This is a subset of collaboration, as listening is a collaborative activity, but it bears its own mention. By practicing active listening skills, like paraphrasing, clarifying, and striving to empathize with your coworkers, you demonstrate not only your ability to hear people, but also that you care.
  5. Find a mentor: It’s nice if you have someone who can officially occupy that role, but there is huge value just in having another professional with more, or at least different, experiences than you, who can give you both feedback and encouragement when you need it.
  6. Believe: Okay, so for a lot of us, believing in ourselves is hard. But if you can’t believe in yourself, try believing in why you are doing your job. Simon Sinek gives a fantastic Ted Talk on the efficacy of leading with the why, not the how or what, arguing that selling others on the beliefs and ideas behind a product or proposal is what inspires action. But, you have to sell yourself on it first. In other words, you can’t lead others if you don’t think you’re doing something worth following. Keeping a career journal is a great way to hash out what your professional values and visions are—and it helps you figure out how to express them.
  7. Prepare: Whether it’s your elevator pitch, a project timeline, or proposing a solution to a day-to-today problem, know the talking points. Again, this is where keeping a journal comes in mighty handy. To be fair, you don’t have to have detailed plans for world domination your proposal, but articulating your ideas, values, and plans is a key step in taking leadership.
  8. Have opinions: Really. Even if they end up being wrong, have opinions. Even if you change them later, have them. You don’t need to have them on everything—it’s okay to admit that something isn’t particularly important to you. Having strong opinions is one thing that gets leaders labeled bossy, but the general absence of opinions is apathy. Apathy won’t get anyone anywhere. Bonus points—showing openness to other viewpoints, and being open to changing yours, increases your credibility as a leader.
  9. Be ready to fail: Failure is as unpleasant as it is necessary. Falling flat on your face is useful because it ultimately allows for innovation. If nothing goes wrong, then you don’t need new, better solutions. And your willingness to try again after failure communicates something invaluable to others—that you are committed to the why of what you are doing, not the what or the how.

10. Get beyond bossy: Most of us, regardless of gender, want to be liked. A lot of us worry that taking the lead makes us seem bossy, controlling, or demanding. But it can’t be our sole focus, whether we take leadership roles or not. There are other ways to build good relationships with your colleagues than making sure they like you.

So, how does this translate into specific actions for the typical MLS student? Or a new professional? Thankfully, there are enormous opportunities for leadership in our field, and a perpetual need for it. If you are a student, get involved. Join ALA, SLA, PLA, or your state library association and then get involved in committees and conferences. Speak up on social media. Groups like ALA Think Tank are great because they give professionals from all backgrounds, levels of experience, and types of specialization a chance to share what they know. Start a blog and share your thoughts and experiences. If your program offers a practicum option, strongly consider taking advantage of it.

If you are in your first years as an MLS’ed professional (regardless of where you use that MLS), the same groups and organizations can provide opportunities for you. Having an active professional life outside of your 9-5 job is an excellent way to develop relationships and experiences. However, there are always opportunities to build leadership experience at a job. When you see things that need to be fixed–figuratively or literally, matter how small–be the person to fix them. Volunteer for committees and projects; even if they fall outside the scope of your experience, if it interests you, pursue it. Take advantage of webinars–WebJunction and InfoPeople have great ones–to inform your skill set. And make sure that your supervisor knows about your contributions. While much about leading involves recognizing the thoughts and abilities of others, being able to advocate for yourself is extremely valuable.


Thanks to Beyonce for the title of this blog post!

Naomi House

Naomi House, MLIS, is the founder and publisher of the popular webzine and jobs list (formerly I Need a Library Job) and former CMO (Chief Marketing Officer) of, a crowdfunding platform focused on African patrimony, heritage and cultural projects. INALJ was founded in October 2010 with the assistance of her fellow Rutgers classmate, Elizabeth Leonard. Its social media presence has grown to include Facebook (retired in 2016), Twitter and a LinkedIn group, in addition to the interviews, articles and jobs found on INALJ. INALJ has had over 21 Million page hits and helped many, many thousands of librarians find employment! Through grassroots marketing, word of mouth and a real focus on exploring unconventional resources for job leads, INALJ grew from a subscription base of 20 friends to a website with over 500,000 visits in one month. Naomi believes that well-sourced quantity is quality in this narrow job market and INALJ reflects this with many new jobs published daily. She has also written for the 2011, 2012 and 2013 LexisNexis Government Info Pro and many other publications in the past decade. She presents whenever she can, including serving on three panels at the American Library Association's Annual Conference in Las Vegas; as breakout presenter at OCLC EMEA in Cape Town, South Africa; as a keynote speaker at the Virginia Library Association annual meeting; at the National Press Club in Washington DC; McGill University in Montreal, Canada; the University of the Emirates, Dubai, MLIS program and the University of Hawaii at Manoa. Naomi was a Reference, Marketing and Acquisitions Librarian for a contractor at a federal library outside Washington, DC, and has been living and working in Budapest, Hungary and Western New York State. She spent years running her husband’s moving labor website, fixed and sold old houses and assisted her husband cooking delicious Pakistani food. She is preparing to re-enter the workforce and is job hunting. Her husband is now the co-editor of INALJ, a true support!  She has heard of spare time but hasn’t encountered it lately. She pronounces INALJ as eye-na-elle-jay.