Leadership Lessons Learned from the Pandemic

“These are the times that try men’s souls.” – Thomas Paine

In March 2020, something happened in public libraries that I never thought possible.  Directors across the country purposefully closed their buildings to the public.  This action flies in direct opposition to the DNA of every librarian as our professional values drive us towards greater openness and increased accesses.  However, the unknown dangers of the pandemic forced library buildings to shut down.  Now six months in, some libraries are open, many offer curbside/walk up, and a few only offer virtual services available.  For library leaders this presents an unanticipated leadership challenge.  Being a Director for a large library system that opened its doors again, I have learned four lessons on how to manage this challenge.

Over Communicate – In times of crisis constant communication is vital.  However, it is easy for leaders to fall quiet in the face of uncertainty or be too limited in their sharing.  The stress of a crisis prompts fear.  One underappreciated fact about fear is the creativity it spawns.  This creativity can be directed towards solving problems or it can be used to fuel angst and discord.  I have found that in the absence of effective communication, people fill the space with negativity and worse case scenarios.  To avoid this trap, leaders must over communicate.

Over communication simply means keeping the conversation between leaders and their staff vibrant through all available channels.  In fact, the more formats of communication used the better.  In my case I send out a weekly email newsletter, conduct monthly Zoom town halls, and participate in committee meetings to share important information.  Every opportunity to communicate and reinforce values is one that should be taken.

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Show Authenticity – It is generally accepted that a leader should not lie.  Lies break down over time and destroy a leader’s credibility.  According to playwright David Mamet, “Always tell the truth. It’s the easiest thing to remember.”  A step beyond simply telling the truth is being honest.  In a crisis a leader may be afraid to speak for fear of being wrong or displaying ignorance.  They may put forth a confident image to hide their own uncertainty.  This prevents them from sharing what most staff members want to see from their leader, the trait of authenticity. 

Staff want to work for people who see them as human beings and cares about the concerns.  For me authenticity is about openness.  In my talks with staff I share what is on my mind even if it is not popular.  I seek their responses and feedback.  Most of all I listen fully and completely.  When someone is worried, having an opportunity to share their concerns with the person in charge goes a long way.  An authentic leader is a trust leader.

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Be Seen – There is an old theory called Management by Walking Around which calls for a leader to physically visit all the parts of their organization to check in.  Of course in the time of a pandemic there is obvious reluctance to travel into other people’s spaces.  However, when leaders are not seen by their staff, a problematic distance develops. 

Thankfully video conferencing options allow leaders to connect visually with staff from behind the safety of a computer screen.  In my case, once we were preparing to open, I personally visited every location in the system to inspect their safety set-up.  Being onsite allowed me to offer helpful suggestions and share ideas learned from other locations.  To that end I continue to make visits once a month to each location now that we are open.  During these visits I talk with staff, observe the public, and see firsthand any concerns.  Most importantly, staff appreciate that I personally take time to check in on them.

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Be Flexible – In these fast changing times, leaders need to be adaptable to changing circumstances.  In addition to COVID disrupting our services we have seen mass demonstrations against racial injustice and next a consequential Presidential election.  Surprises happen all the time but when the troubles start piling up one on top of each other it can be very stressful.  Therefore it is important for leaders to be flexible with changing times.

When the COVID crisis first hit, my Management Team switched immediately to daily meetings as rapid decisions needed to be made.  This required us to decide what was important and what could be set aside as we deliberately modified our service model.  For example we had to make quick decisions on our circulation policies to prevent thousands of accounts from going into delinquent status.  This included pushing back due dates and extending the amount of time before an item went to lost status.  This prevented a rush of angry members contacting front line staff unnecessarily. 

Summary – During this challenging year, leaders are being tested in ways they never imagined.  Yet it is a time when we can all learn from each other and build stronger teams.  After all, a leader can only go as far as their staff will travel with them.

I’ll end with wisdom from author and positivity expert Shola Richards:

“If you want to go fast, go alone.  If you want to go far, go together.”