Finding Your Leadership Pathway

(Based on the PLA 2022 Preconference – Finding Your Leadership Pathway)

Published in ALA’s Learning Exchange – Volume 38, Number 4 & Volume 39, Number 1-3 

What is your leadership pathway?

Developing as a leader is a journey. Much like a real life trip, professional development passes through five steps:

  • Personal Assessment
  • Selecting a Destination
  • Navigating Roadblocks and Detours
  • Following a Plan of Action
  • Reflecting on the Journey

Leadership Assessment

Before starting any trip, you must know your point of origin. A leadership assessment identifies your current position, skills, and responsibilities. Knowledge of your strengths and weaknesses is essential to consider before setting out. To ensure the assessment sticks, write down the responses on a real piece of paper to make it a physical process.

After orienting yourself on the here and know, there is something deeper to consider: values.

What is a value? The Google dictionary definition states amongst several things that it is: a person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life.

With that in mind, what are your five top values? Write them down to see if they resonate with your way of life. If they do not, you may be accepting the values of those around you at face value. Reexamine the list and go deeper with another round of listing values. Keep going with more rounds until satisfied that you have found your firm foundation.

Leadership Destination

Let’s get something out of the way first: leadership development is not solely about promotions. For many people, moving into management or administration goes against their workplace happiness. It is perfectly fine for someone to grow as a leader and never become a supervisor. In fact, every organization needs leaders at all levels. The challenge is selecting a leadership destination that is personally and professionally fulfilling.

A useful tool for this process is the Nexus LAB: Layers of Leadership Model. Created through a partnership with the Educopia Institute, the Center for Creative Leadership, and the Institute of Museum and Library Services, it maps out the skills needed for six distinct levels of leadership.

  • Leading Self
  • Leading Others
  • Leading the Department
  • Leading Multiple Departments
  • Leading the Organization
  • Leading the Profession

The model is meant to be approached in a non-liner fashion. Successful leaders may only explore one or two of the levels over their careers. In fact, some people might lead their profession without ever having a management role.

I invite you to explore the model in depth and use it to determine your current leadership goal. For the level you desire to reach, write down the skills, challenges, and potential outcomes associated with it. This exercise will identify gaps in knowledge that can be addressed on the journey ahead.

Roadblocks & Detours

Once you commit to a leadership pathway, it is inevitable that obstacles will arise. Successfully navigating around these barriers holds the keys to success.

Obstacles arise in many forms. Perhaps a promotion doesn’t materialize. Maybe funding cuts eliminate exciting projects. Strategic initiatives you were counting on for resume building may change. Interpersonal conflicts could strain coworker relations.

An exercise to endure these roadblocks involves preparing for them in advance. Start by brainstorming a list of possible roadblocks. Contemplate the most likely ways that the journey could go off track. For example, imagine the goal is to become a manager at a nearby location following the incumbent’s retirement. Here are possible ways this ambition could be thwarted:

  • Heavy competition results in highly skilled candidates applying
  • The current manager decides to stay around longer than anticipated
  • The position is frozen due to budget cuts
  • Another candidate is appointed without any interviews
  • Family issues interfere with your ability to compete

By anticipating what might go wrong, overly optimistic thinking is challenged. When grounded in realism there is opportunity to clearly consider contingencies. The ability to pivot when the circumstances warrant is a vital skill that every leader needs to develop for success.

Photo by August de Richelieu on

Plan of Action

In most journeys, complications arise that force us to take alternative paths. Once these obstacles are apparent, the next step is to formulate a plan of action. There are several ways to develop these strategies. Two are highlighted below.

A solitary method to address potential roadblocks is brainstorming options. I suggest using map maps to avoid the trap of linear thinking. Take a sheet of blank paper and write the name of the roadblock in the center. Around that center point start listing potential solutions. Avoid early self-censorship by writing down anything that comes to mind. Don’t worry if ideas seem unworkable. The point is to get them out of your head for full review. In fact, sometimes ideas that seem silly at first might have merit upon closer examination.

Challenge yourself to come up with a least five options. For example, if the roadblock is lack of project funding you might:

  • Ask the owner/director for additional funds
  • Seek out grant opportunities
  • Arrange for a loan from a bank or colleague
  • Identify options to reduce the project’s overall costs
  • Close out other projects to divert funds

A collaborative way to overcome roadblocks is through a support network. Too often we fail to seek help due to embarrassment or ego. There are many with experience and resources that could be amenable to assist. Being willing to reach out to colleagues can be the difference maker.

To that end, utilize professional networks, even ones outside your occupation. Oftentimes the way to overcome a roadblock is by applying ideas from another profession. Lawyers, doctors, accountants, construction workers, and librarians all have different mindsets. Join the local Chamber of Commerce or attend a Toastmasters club. Both are examples of cross professional organizations. Tapping into alternative viewpoints is a helpful way to find novel solutions.

Photo by Lina Kivaka on

Journey Reflections

Through perseverance, effort, and a little bit of luck the desired leadership destination can be reached. Even if goals change, it is important to celebrate success every step along the way.

Too often we fail to celebrate our victories. This could be due to a feeling of modesty or simple exhaustion from the journey. However, failure to acknowledge the hard work can make the achievement feel hollow. Therefore, it is helpful to plan ways to celebrate success in advance of its arrival.

Consider that during real life trips, we make efforts to secure them in our memories. For example, photos are taken at important waypoints and with fellow travelers or locals. Souvenirs are acquired to frame specific places. We may journal or post on events and places visited. All these artifacts allow us to reminisce on the journey well after it is over.

As you travel down your leadership pathway, what parts of it are worthy of remembrance? Will it be attending conferences? Will it be specific people? Will artifacts be created or acquired? Consider in advance what items will capture the essence of the journey even before taking the first step.

For example, every time I attend an American Library Association conference or a Public Library Association conference, I bring back a small souvenir such as a shot glass with the name of the host city. It is a small memento that unlocks larger memories.

What will you acquire on your leadership journey? It is helpful to consider this in advance to ensure you capture them on your travels. Of course, when detours happen, allow yourself spontaneous acquisitions when the mood strikes. Anything that helps celebrate success is worthy of consideration.

I wish you good fortune on your leadership journey.