Library Leadership

104. Kind Leadership with Dr. Sarah Clark

Have you ever wondered what the application of kindness can do in our library practices? On this show Dr. Sarah Clark, Dean & University Librarian at La Salle University and Founder of the Kind Leadership Guild and the Kind Leadership Challenge Podcast, opens up about how a crisis in her own leadership caused her to do a deep dive into kind leadership, what it is, and how we can all challenge ourselves to grow in this realm for the betterment of our organizations.

Transcript

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Adriane Herrick Juarez:

This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

Have you ever wondered what the application of kindness can do in our library practices? On this show Dr. Sarah Clark, Dean and University Librarian at La Salle University, and founder of the Kind Leadership Guild, and the Kind Leadership Challenge Podcast, opens up about how crisis in her own leadership caused her to do a deep dive into Kind Leadership—what it is, and how we can all challenge ourselves to grow in this realm for the betterment of our organizations.  Enjoy the show!

Sarah, welcome to the show.

Sarah Clark:

Oh, I’m so thrilled to be here. Thank you, Adriane, for inviting me on today.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #1: My pleasure. I’ve been fascinated by your podcast. That’s why I’m so happy to have you on the show today. We’re going to talk about your concept for your podcast called Kind Leadership. And as we begin, will you share with our listeners about your concept of Kind Leadership?  01:43 

Sarah Clark:

Absolutely. I recently started hosting a podcast called The Kind Leadership Challenge. It is all about empowering educational, and library, leaders to build a better world without burning out. Because as a general rule, we library leaders go into this field, at least partially, because we want to help make the world a better place—a more educated world, a more informed world. 

You know, as long as that mission is taken in moderation and developed in collaboration with the people you work with, and the people that you serve, that’s not a bad goal for a library leader to have. 

But the longer I’ve been in librarianship, and especially library leadership, the more I started noticing that a lot of us—especially newer leaders, like I was not all that long ago, how we often end up just fixing immediate problems in our organization, rather than identifying and healing the deeper and often subtler issues that cause them. I’ve observed through my own practice, as well as coaching library leaders, that these issues tend to fall into three buckets.

First off, the first piece of the Kind Leadership Model is growing humanely, which is how leaders ourselves become more secure and grounded in our personal wellness, our values, and our decision-making skills. 

The second skill of Kind Leadership is managing effectively, which is focused on all those daily ins and outs of what our libraries do—and how we can use our limited resources to their best and highest impact, but without becoming overstretched, or burned out.

Then, the final skill of Kind Leadership is partnering collaboratively, because leadership is by definition a team sport. The better your relationship is with your team, and community, the better chance you have at attaining your shared vision for a better world.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #2: How did you develop all of this?  03:55 

Sarah Clark:

Well, I’d love to say that I developed this model through years of study and research that I did during my PhD in Ed Leadership—and, no doubt that stuff was an influence. But really, I learned this through the school of hard knocks.

As you mentioned in your intro, in early 2018 I started my dream job as Dean of the University Librarian at La Salle University in Philadelphia. It was about half way across the country from where I was living in Oklahoma at the time. It is a great college. It is making the world a better place. But, they had a lot of change going on at the time. The leadership needed me to make some big transformations as soon as I could. After years of, frankly, very little change in the library I wasn’t confident enough to push back through the administration, and try to slow things down a bit. My team was struggling to cope with everything changing all at once, so was I for that matter.

But the deeper challenge was inside me. I thought I’d never be good enough, or smart enough, to lead this library. So like many an insecure, new leader, I tried fixing everything else because I was scared to look inward. I had been a confident, skilled, and caring leader in previous roles, but I just found myself over-thinking every situation ’till we all felt cautious and defensive.

I was overwhelming everybody with too much change in too short a time. This led to toxic drama, instead of healthy conflict. I was overworking myself, because burnout—at that time, I felt like burnout was preferable instead of reaching out for help. It all came to a head at the end of that first year where all those mistakes came crashing down on my head. I got called on stuff I needed to be called on both by my colleagues, and by my supervisor who was very supportive. I have a wonderful Provost, but at that time my Provost was concerned about what was going on. 

So I was just in this pickle, and none of us handled that crisis perfectly. But, I became tired of being seen as something to be fixed by me, by the administration—and frankly, I was tired of being seen as the enemy. We were all in this unhealthy, damaging pattern where we were overworking ourselves, overthinking every decision, and overwhelming each other with all of this stress and drama. 

But, see, it was my job. It was my duty as the leader to solve the deeper problem that had led to all of this. I had to shift my library from this we and them scenario we had going on, into an us. But at that point I was just burned out. I felt lost. I knew I couldn’t keep living, or leading the way I had been but, I couldn’t quite see a route out.

Then about—in early 2019, about a month after everything blew up on me, a chance thought really made it clear. This is the insight that has fueled everything I’ve done in the Kind Leadership field, and the Kind Leadership Challenge, and that insight is this—take away nothing else from this podcast if you don’t listen to this. You don’t have to be perfect to build a better world. You just need the desire to heal, the skills to do so, and a community to work with. 

I’ve got to tell you, Adriane, that insight shifted everything for me. Just how that villain—that imposter syndrome, that overworking had been inside me. The power to vanquish that villain was also inside me, especially if I connected with people who could help me fight that battle. Because, I needed to get away from that urge to fix my school, or myself, for that matter.

We needed to come together. We needed to heal into something stronger and better, even if it wasn’t perfect. So, I focus on those three things I just mentioned earlier—growing humanely, managing effectively, and partnering collaboratively. And I’ve got to tell you, when we started doing that, that’s when the magic started. We shifted away from fixing our problems and toward healing our library, our community, our world—first as individuals, then as a library team, and then beyond.

I stopped beating myself up. I asked for, and offered help. I set, and enforced boundary, while encouraging productive conflict and collaboration. I wasn’t perfect at it, but I just kept going in that direction. And slowly, but surely my team followed suit. Seeing that transformation in mid to late 2019 made me start wondering—could what we’d done heal other educational and library leaders? More than that, could it help them heal their organizations and communities?

So, I started writing. I started presenting. I started coaching, and most recently started podcasting around these ideas around Kind Leadership. So far, they’ve been pretty well received.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #3: What is, and isn’t, Kind Leadership?  08:55 

Sarah Clark:

I get this a lot. I have really thought deeply on this question. I remember early on, I did a post for a webinar I was hosting talking about Kind Leadership and some smart aleck on Facebook—he wasn’t anybody who was in the community, just somebody who was a drive-by, posted: Kind Leadership that’s all wimpy. You’re going to get walked on. Leaders can’t be kind, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah

You know, that annoyed me, because he wasn’t talking about Kind Leadership, he was talking about nice leadership. I hope you can all hear my air quotes around nice, because these are things that get very mixed up. It’s very important to understand the distinction between Kind Leadership and nice leadership. Nice leadership is what is toxic. Kind Leadership is what is going to heal your library.

I’m going to go down a list of a few criteria that you can tell whether your library—whether your leadership practice is kind, or if it’s nice. Here’s the first thing about nice leadership. In nice leadership the best teams are pleasant. Everybody smiles. Everybody asks about everybody else’s cats, or dogs. It’s all nice. We have nice chit-chat at the birthday party. The meetings are chill and boring, and nobody’s talking about the real issues that need to be discussed. Everybody knows the rule is that you can’t talk about the real issue. 

When you shift out of nice leadership to Kind Leadership, those teams may not always be pleasant—hopefully they’re more pleasant than not, but the best teams are honest. The best teams will speak up when things aren’t where they need to be, because that’s the only way that you can get your team to the place it needs to be and what it’s doing.

It also shows that there is an underlying level of trust, because it’s hard to speak up and say, Hey, we need to be doing something differently. But, it is vital if you actually want to improve as a library, as an organization. Get away from pleasant, aim for honesty.

Next up, leading on that—nice leadership, and I’ve been guilty of this, sees conflict as a sign of failure. In reality, in the Kind Leadership model, conflict is a sign of growth. If you guys are fighting over something that means you care about it. That means you have ideas about it. That means that even if you have different visions of what is best for your institution and your community, you care about it, and you have ideas about how to make it. Through productive, healthy conflict—that’s how you grow as an organization serving your community.

Next sign of Kind Leadership—in nice leadership, in more toxic leadership, leaders have a tendency to want to rescue struggling team members. They want to fix the problem. They want to save the day. They want to make everything okay. As a recovering hero leader, I can relate—you know, I have struggles with this. But, you need to work on that impulse to rescue people. You need to, instead, move toward coaching your struggling team members.

I think about it like—if you’re at a reference desk at an academic library, because that’s my context, and a student comes up three or four days in a row and asks you to help him figure out how to print out—like an excel chart, or something like that. What I found I had to do for boundaries is I would walk them through it the first time, then I’d say, Hey, do this. You need to do this on your own, and I’ll hand them guides and I’ll support them, but, I won’t do it for them. I’ll help them to do it. 

This is sort of an extrapolation of that concept. You can’t be rescuing your team members because they need to be able to grow into meeting your expectations in the areas you need to meet them, but you can coach and support them. That’s actually the kind thing because it helps them move through and become more independent.

Next up, nice leadership. They don’t rock the boat. Everybody just doesn’t touch the hot button issues. We’ll just pretend everything’s okay all the time. You can’t make a better world until you actually admit that there are things wrong that are going on and figure out a way to change the world for the better. That’s another distinction between Kind Leadership and nice leadership.

Another one—and I think this is perhaps the most important for leaders in libraries, especially in the year of 2022—after everything we’ve been through. Nice leadership, the nice toxic leadership model says we have to give it all—we have to give 100%, 110%, 150%, that way life’s dragging. You cannot pour from an empty cup, you need to put on your mask before assisting others, whatever cliché you like. You need to always save some gas in your tank, because whenever you’re stressed to your max that’s always when some crisis is going to happen. Your most important job as a leader is to be able to make level-headed decisions in times of crisis. You can’t do that if you’re already redlining it, even more something blows up. You need to always have a little reserve in your tank—energy-wise, mental health-wise, physical health-wise to the extent that you can.

Really, I see it coming down to the goal. As I spoke earlier, nice leadership—I see the goal as fixing, making things look very pretty on the surface, dealing with the surface issues. Kind Leadership is messier. Kind Leadership is harder. Kind Leadership tends to be uncomfortable, but the ultimate goal is healing the underlying problems, and getting to a stronger library on the other side of it.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #4: Given these things, Sarah, how do we navigate difficult conversations in an effective, and humane, and collaborative manner?  14:48 

Sarah Clark:

Well, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and actually I’m currently working on a free guide that’s going to be coming out in early June on basically, mastering challenging conversations. Because, this is the perennial question I get asked by listeners to the podcast, by people in the Kind Leadership Challenge Facebook group—How do we handle these difficult conversations? We want these people to do the things we need them to do, whether it’s patrons, whether it is team members, whether it’s our stakeholders. If we have to tell our boss something uncomfortable, it’s hard. You want to be caring about it, but you also need to get your goal across. 

This is where I see those three skills of growing humanely, managing effectively, and partner collaboratively fitting into that puzzle of navigating difficult conversations. The first thing you need to do, and this is where growing humanely comes in—you need to be in a good place yourself about this conversation. Because, you’re not having a difficult conversation unless there’s a problem. If there’s a problem you’re probably kind of upset about it, or irritated about it, or whatever you’re feeling. 

Step one always needs to be processing your own emotions as the leader, as the person who’s instigating this conversation, whatever emotions you have around the problem that’s led to this difficult conversation. Because, when you have the conversation you need to be the most level-headed person in the room. You need to think about your emotions. You also need to think about the values that you’re trying to uphold in this conversation. In what ways are the values that you hold for your team, for your library, for librarianship in general—what are the values that you’re fighting for in this conversation?

You also need to figure out both the problem that the conversation is trying to address, and what your goal is—what you see as the potential solution for that conversation, and what your ideal outcome looks like.

Once you’ve done that pre-work you need to think about the next step, which is managing effectively. This for me comes down to separating the facts of the situation from the story you tell about this. This is a human thing. We all tell stories. That’s what human brains do to make sense of situations that are going on in life.

Two people can look at the same event and come up with very different stories about them, and those stories can lead them to make actions that don’t actually get them toward solving whatever the leadership problem is. You need to have the objectivity, and the distance—that’s why you need to process your emotions first, to basically, look at what is happening, like you’re a movie camera, like you’re just a webcam recording what is going on, and looking at the literal facts of the situation. 

You need to plan your conversation around the facts of what happened, as opposed to these stories that you’ve told yourself about why those things happened. That will help you in planning the conversation. You should come in for a game plan with the talking points you want to hit, and your overall goal with the knowledge that the actual real conversation will almost certainly play out very differently. It’s the old general saying, no plan provides first contact with the adversary. It’s kind of like that. It’s still good to come in with a plan, because you’ve at least got a place to start from.

So, you’ve got your head screwed on straight. You’ve got your plan figured out, based on the facts of the situation, not some story you’re telling about it. Then the third thing— partnering collaboratively, the third Kind Leadership skill. This is where you start thinking about this in terms of other people, and actually having the conversation. 

Sometimes it makes sense to consult with a trusted advisor. I have several people on my team, most particularly my associate dean, who I always talk to when I’m coming up with a difficult conversation, because they give me very good advice. Every once in a while you may need to talk to HR if it’s an employee situation. We have a wonderful HR team here at La Salle, and fortunately it hasn’t come up very often, but it’s great to have them there. You need to know your advisors in your role that you can consult with and help make sure you are prepping for this conversation the best you can. 

And also, try to see the issue from the other person’s point of view. I was talking about facts versus story—try to put yourself in their shoes and figure out, Okay, what story are they, maybe, telling about this situation? How can you design your conversation in a way that helps shift them back toward the facts, potentially. Or at least, if nothing else, it helps you empathize with their situation.

Then you have the conversation. You have it with a shared goal in mind of your ideal outcome for this difficult conversation. You may get to that goal. You may not get to that goal, but you at least can go in there with a plan, and knowing that you have done everything you can do to make the conversation effective, humane, and collaborative.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #5: What skills do we need to have to practice Kind Leadership?  19:59 

Sarah Clark:

In some ways it touches on what we were talking about with difficult conversations. Because in some ways, Kind Leadership starts as a conversation with yourself, in some ways.

First and foremost, the most important skill you need to have to be a Kind Leader is to nurture yourself. I see way too many library workers, and library leaders sacrificing themselves—sacrificing ourselves—on the altar of perfectionism, and burnout. You are only as strong as your ability to nourish your body, your mind, and your soul in whatever ways work for you. 

Second is separating the facts of a situation from the story you tell yourself. This is so important. It’s not just about difficult conversations. It is something that you need to find a way to practice day in and day out in your leadership work. Because, the biggest mistake I made that first year at La Salle was not all the litany of dumb mistakes I made that I talked about earlier. It was the fact that after I realized that I was making all those silly newby mistakes, I told myself that my failures meant that I was a failure. I didn’t think I’d failed. I thought I was a failure.

That story which I now know, was absolutely false. It still threw me in a deep hole that took me months to climb out of. It is just so easy to activate based on your interpretation of facts, rather than the facts themselves, and you’ve got to fight that impulse.

Then this is the third skill I think you need to practice for Kind Leadership. I stole this one from Simon Sinek. Read his stuff if you doubt it. It is know your why. And more importantly, share your why with your team and encourage them to help develop a shared why for your library. My why is in my signature file of my work email. Every time I send an email to somebody they see the mission of the library. They see our why

One of the things I love most about this university I work for, La Salle University, is that we have a strong why that is rooted in the belief that education is a powerful, if sometimes imperfect, tool for social mobility and social justice. That why goes back over three hundred and fifty years to St. John Baptiste de La Salle, our namesake. The patron saint of teachers. He basically invented free, mass education as we know it. My library, my university—we’re not perfect at attaining our vision, and we never will be, but that vision helps us make effective, humane, and collaborative decisions in tough times.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #6: And Sarah, do you have any favorite management, or leadership books, or resources, and why?  22:48 

Sarah Clark:

You do realize how dangerous a question like that is to ask, right? [laughter] 

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

I do, I do.

Sarah Clark:

I’m a librarian with a PhD in higher ed leadership, but I did narrow it down to three. These are ones that I think should be better known than they are, one of which is specific to library concerns. 

First off is The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. It is by Jim Dethmer, Diana Chapman, and Kaley Klemp. It’s been out for about four, or five years now. They basically say that most leaders are leading unconsciously, just kind of letting things happen to them, rather than actually taking conscious action toward shifting their own leadership practice in their organization to a healthier place.

They go through these fifteen steps around being more conscious, around finding your own genius, and skills. I won’t go through all fifteen of them because I know we’re going long already, but this is an excellent book if you’re looking for a means of more mindful leadership. If that is a concept that intrigues you this is a book that—I don’t know why it’s not better known than it is, but it is just an excellent primer for somebody who’s interested in those things of leadership.

And on a related note, another book that I actually discovered around the same time is by a leadership consultant, Peter Bregman, and it is called Leading with Emotional Courage. This book really influenced my leadership practice like 15  Commitments, it also really influenced a lot of what I do with the Kind Leadership Guild. 

He starts from the concept of emotional intelligence, that we’re all very well familiar with, and then he challenges leaders to take the next step of not just being emotionally intelligent, but embracing courage around our emotions—of being unafraid to feel what we feel, and process what we feel, and leading through the power of our emotions in a way that will help you and your team to work together more effectively, and achieve better results. It is another excellent book. It’s sort of—it has very short chapters. I like how it is, it’s almost like a devotional, or something in a way. It’s just these one or two page tidbits where you can read on each step. It’s like you can read one each week and say, Okay, this is my theme of the week, and go through it. It’s really an amazing book. Again, if you’re into that whole concept of emotionally intelligent, emotionally courageous leadership, if you’re still listening to a podcast about Kind Leadership you probably are. This would be another good one for you.

Then a third one that I want to make sure all of our library folks know about, even though it sounds like it’s only relevant to some of you, it’s A Starter’s Guide for Academic Library Leaders, by Amanda Clay Powers, Martin Garnar, and Dustin Fife. I actually guest hosted on the Circulating Ideas Podcast a couple years ago at this point, I forget, not long after this came out. I was able to interview the authors. This is a superb book. It is not just for academic librarians. It gets into a lot of the nuts and bolts. So, if you want to think about how libraries could, specifically, handle things like building a diverse team, or crisis management, fundraising, and development, developing budgets. I’m sitting here, just reading some of my favorite chapter titles. This is a great, just—handbook to have. I have it on my desk right now. I had it at hand when we talked today. It is another excellent book that is really specific to the library perspective.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Question #7: Thank you, Sarah. In closing, what do libraries mean to you, personally?  26:41 

Sarah Clark:

Well, there’s the old cliché of how I’ve always loved to read—but, here’s what it is for me—when I was about nine, ten years old, my mom went back to college to finish her bachelor’s degree. We lived very near the University of Oklahoma in Norman, which is actually where I ended up getting my bachelor’s, and my MLIS, in due course. But, at this time it was the late eighties. After my brother and I got home from school, sometimes Mom would need a quiet place to do homework. So, we would drive down the road to OU. She would get settled in a study carrel somewhere. Then, being the eighties and kids being a bit more free-range, we basically—Mom said come back in two hours, and we just roamed around the library.

We both fell in love with it. My brother was a budding piano player, so he would find things to read about music. I just wandered all over the place. I would try to play on the dummy terminals that we all had in the eighties, and figure out, Okay, what’s the difference between a keyword search, and a subject search, and just wander around this huge library. I felt like every book in the universe was in there. The new part of the building, the older stacks that were built in the early 1900’s, it’s really cool if you’ve never been in that library. The great reading room, which is—it has stained glass, and huge mahogany ceilings. I just would read. I could explore any topic I wanted without an adult looking over my shoulder. I could learn about how the world worked.

So for me, libraries represent freedom and the ability to grow and challenge your mind. I read the same headlines everybody else listening to this has read, and I see the same disturbing trends around intellectual freedom, and privacy, but what we need to do is we need to understand that we can’t fix everything that’s going on with the world. In a way it’s not even our job to fix everything in the world. But, I have come to believe that by addressing those challenges from a kind, healing position to preserve that world where a kid can just roam around a huge library and pull off whatever book they want to read and enjoy it, and challenge their minds, and challenge themselves. If we approach those challenges from a kind, healing position, we are going to have the best shot at addressing those challenges in a way that furthers our values and uplifts our community.

Adriane Herrick Juarez:

Dr. Sarah Clark, thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with me today on Library Leadership Podcast. I’m so glad that those early experiences in libraries led you to where you are today and the experiences you had taking on leadership also brought you to the point of being able to share this wonderful information with us today about Kind Leadership. Thank you for being on the show.

Sarah Clark:

Thank you for having me, and if folks want to know more just head over to Kind Leadership Challenge dot com, or you can just search for Kind Leadership Challenge in whatever your podcast app is.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. For more episodes tune into LibraryLeadershipPodcast.com, where you can now subscribe to get episodes delivered right into your email inbox. Our producer is Nathan Sinclair Vineyard. Thanks for listening. We’ll see you next time.

We would like to thank the Park City Library for their dedicated support of this show. The opinions expressed on this show are those of the speaker and do not necessarily reflect the views of Library Leadership Podcast, or our sponsors.

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