A striking thing to notice about leadership in today's school libraries exists in the act of noticing. That is, we must take care to see that leadership reveals itself in diverse forms and methods and styles, not to mention in people. In my experience teaching K–12 and higher education, embracing and honoring the spectrum of leadership possibilities is a newer stance, even in the twenty-plus years since I began my career in education. When I was a first grade teacher and not yet certified as a school librarian, our school-wide Monday morning PA announcements included reading a list of the "Library Leaders": classes whose students had all remembered to return their library books on Library Day the previous week. My little six- and seven-year olds were rarely Library Leaders, although I'd describe them as fervent readers and enthusiastic sharers of books and stories. I always chalked up our lackluster record to the challenges for parents in keeping up with first graders' schedules and never gave it much thought.
But looking back now, I wonder if my students ever took to heart the idea that they weren't "leaders." A perfect record of returned books is nice to brag about, and responsibility isn't unimportant. But as I think about leadership in and for school libraries, especially the skills and learning we believe in, I have to ask, what is a Library Leader, really? A leader doesn't have to be a "perfect" anything. Leaders can be imperfect, willing to learn and risk. They are not necessarily unafraid, but their fear may drive action or thought, rather than stand in the way. Leaders are actors in the room, participants who in their uniqueness offer every manner of listening, knowing, and sharing.
Students can be leaders in our school library programs, and librarians have the power to notice and acknowledge these leaders as such, according to new rules for defining leaders. After all, couldn't a "library leader" be the student who takes a chance on recommending a cherished book to a classmate, leading in the process of sharing knowledge and fostering social connections? A library leader might be a child who asks a question and wants to know more after hearing a story, leading in initiative and curiosity. A teacher can be a library leader in offering suggestions for a co-taught lesson, leading in collegiality and collaboration.
Of course, we have (and in most cases need) leaders defined by role—chair, director, supervisor— but in order to function and innovate, I'd argue that other types of "unnamed" leaders are critically important. Here's a story that I think of when I consider myself as a "leader." A few years ago, I was elected chair of the Educators of School Librarians Section (ESLS) of AASL. A significant task of the chair is to co-plan (with fellow officers) the ESLS meetings at ALA Midwinter and Annual. As the leader of this group by virtue of my elected position, I arrived for our biannual meetings early, materials and agendas in hand, with as many details as possible thought through in advance. Our meetings of around twenty five or more, university faculty and doctoral candidates typically begin with a business portion, followed by a curriculum discussion and learning activities. As the meetings began, I remember sitting at my seat in our circle of tables, waiting with butterflies and bated breath the first couple of times I asked for contributions from the group.
My role as a leader could only come to be with the active participation of my colleagues—and wow, did they show up, every time! I remember being simultaneously relieved and thrilled that they provided the voices, the ideas, and the questions that moved us forward. I was the person charged with being the leader; they allowed me to understand what that meant and to grow in that role.
When you reflect on the history and possibilities of your own leadership, consider the people who allow you (by choice or otherwise) to lead. What contributions let you grow and thrive? What kinds of participation do you depend upon? Did the words or actions of someone ever reveal unexpected value to your professional development or the growth of your program?
Finally, thinking about the range of library leaders I've suggested, what accomplishments of students and colleagues do you notice? Which receive your attention in your library or organization, and which should? And what does our effort to nurture leaders say about our own ability to lead?