Leadership Perspectives – The Leader as Diplomat

Originally published in the September 2021 issue of Learning Exchange: The Newsletter of the Learning Round Table of the American Library Association

Oftentimes the first thoughts of leadership are about the internal relationship between a leader and their team. However, leadership also involves interacting with others beyond that leader’s chain of command, whether they are in another part of the organization or completely external to it. This is where a leader must take on the role of a diplomat.

To paraphrase the definitions of diplomat and diplomacy from the Merriam-Webster dictionary, a diplomat is someone who practices the art of conducting negotiations between groups. They must have skill in handling affairs without invoking hostility, and handle awkward situations with tact. To be a diplomat requires sound leadership skills.

What does diplomacy have to do with library leadership? Think about the diplomats who work for the United States. They are appointed by the President with the consent of the Senate to live in another nation in order to represent America’s interests. To be successful they need to understand the culture of their assigned country while at the same time demonstrate American values. The goal is to create a productive relationship based on regular communication and trust.

Now think about leadership roles in libraries. All library employees are assigned to their position through the hiring process. Each leader must serve to connect their section, division, or department to the broader organization or community. Leaders must communicate frequently to share information and ask questions. Every day these leaders live the values of their team and work to align with the culture of the larger organization.  The end goal is to create sound relationships based on openness and honesty.

Here are three specific ways that leadership and diplomacy line up.

1/ Leaders represent their team – A leader represents a particular group, section, or area. Not only do they oversee its day-to-day operations, but they serve to connect their team to the rest of the organization. Usually, a leader makes this connection by reporting to their immediate supervisor. However, unless there is a rigid hierarchy, team leaders should not stop there. A diplomatic leader reaches out beyond their chain of supervision to network broadly. They also develop community connections to promote the mission of the organization. The leader as diplomat must champion their team and protect their interests while at the same time understanding how they fit into the larger whole.

2/ Leaders understand cultures – Successful diplomats balance the interplay of cultures between the one they represent and the one they are encountering. Culture is the set of beliefs and behaviors that members of a group internalize and express. There are points where two cultures agree and others where potential conflict lies. A diplomatic leader knows how to stay true to their own culture while appreciating and working within other cultures. For example a public service leader who interacts with the finance or information technology departments must understand that professionals from those fields may have a different perspective on work than their own.

3/ Leaders are negotiators – When working with another group, leaders often negotiate. This is especially true to resolve problems that arise in the course of delivering service to the public. The art of negotiating involves being clear on one’s own goals, while at the same time respecting the position of the other party. This allows the leader to identify ways to bring everyone into alignment. Resolving issues may involve appealing to higher shared values or objectives, such as spelled out in the organization’s mission or vision statements. Successful negotiations involve making concessions and the leader as diplomat must know their own priorities and build trustworthy relationships for it to work.

Leaders who understand their role as diplomats gain a wider perspective on their organization and the community it serves. Those who can master the art of diplomacy gain access to more resources to support their team. On a personal level they position themselves for promotions to larger sections or divisions. When all is said and done, a leader who masters diplomacy helps facilitate success for all parties which allows everyone to achieve greater satisfaction and success.