Using the Servant-Leadership Style in Law Libraries

The highest type of ruler is one of whose existence the people are barely aware.
Next comes one whom they love and praise.
Next comes one whom they fear.
Next comes one whom they despise and defy.

When you are lacking in faith,
Others will be unfaithful to you.

The Sage is self-effacing and scanty of words.
When his task is accomplished and things have been completed, All the people say, ‘We ourselves have achieved it!’ -- Lao-Tzu

Over the past 10 years working in law libraries, I've gone from Student Circulation Assistant to Student Reference Assistant to a general Reference Librarian to a more specialized Faculty Services & Scholarly Communications Librarian to Associate Director to Interim Director. For the first 8 years or so, I spent my time honing the front-line skills necessary for exemplary library work. As I've entered middle and now upper management, there's an entirely new set of skills necessary to effectively perform these roles.

Needless to say, I've been soaking up leadership material through conferences, books, and articles. Thanks to the passive alerts to The Chronicle of Higher Education set up in my email account, I recently came across the book Using Servant Leadership: How to Reframe the Core Functions of Higher Education

Law schools tend to have rigid hierarchies. After working the front lines in law libraries, it's clear that rigid hierarchies are not appealing for the type of constant collaboration needed in today's fast-changing library environment. We must build teams with varying expertise that can be supported and harnessed to help meet the overall mission of the law library and law school.

To effectively support this team of experts, law library leaders should consider using a servant leadership style. Servant leadership is a leadership philosophy. Traditional leadership generally involves the exercise of power by one at the “top of the pyramid.” By comparison, the servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first and helps people develop and perform as highly as possible. Servant leadership turns the power pyramid upside down; instead of the people working to serve the leader, the leader exists to serve the people. When leaders shift their mindset and serve first, they unlock purpose and ingenuity in those around them, resulting in higher performance and engaged, fulfilled employees.

 In CHE, the author of the book, Angelo J. Letizia, suggests, for example, that administrators, ideally, can use their positions not to accumulate power but to exemplify wise and selfless leadership. 

The concept of "servant leadership" has grown more familiar in various walks of life in the nearly five decades since Robert K. Greenleaf, a management researcher, introduced the idea in an essay. The term encompasses such qualities in leaders — whether they hold managerial titles or not — as altruism, humility, and an ability to inspire others to press on toward goals in situations "fraught with setbacks, self-doubt, and self-questioning." Such leaders are high-level conceptual thinkers who counter "rabid individualism" by advancing an ethos of service to others.

In a higher-education context, the concept can relate to improving institutional life along various axes. These include exercising restrained but effective control, increasing diversity and tolerance, and helping students to become leaders who advance causes of social justice. Letizia says servant leadership may also entail finding ways "to measure growth on these axes without falling into a pathology of measurement." That means not only being able to quantify accomplishments in such terms as [traditional law library statistics], but also to offer a "narrative of accountability" that demonstrates accomplishment "in the chaos and volatility in which organizations must operate."

Law libraries are certainly operating under the chaos and volatility inherent in 21st Century library work. We must cohesively keep the systems running that support the legal education curriculum while instructing on a coherent process that utilizes these systems and prepares for practice. We have all worked out our "narrative of accountability that demonstrates accomplishment" in these challenging budget and staffing times. Now is the time to support our (generally) fewer staff people more than ever and see where we can go.


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