Check Your Ego at the Door

By Michael Casey & Michael Stephens

Egos can insidiously prevent us from doing what we could do best. Recently, in a late-night conversation, a few trusted librarian colleagues told us how much damage an inflated ego can do to a library’s culture.

One in that small circle had clashed with a department member and been called out by the administration for “only thinking of herself” in planning and implementing a new project. Another had been recognized in a national forum as a rising talent, only to have that accolade ignored by employers. A third led a well-regarded project but was almost fired by an angry administrator who couldn’t control the message.

Thankfully, one among us had also received national recognition and reported his library had responded with a party and a press release, helping him feel a renewed sense of belonging.
The ego, we concluded, can be a very damaging thing. Inflated. Overbearing. Egos create rules for rules’ sake. Egos complicate procedures and keep good people down. Egos squash good ideas and can take the best of an organization and turn it on itself.

Fostering openness
We believe that creating a transparent, open environment, fostered by new technologies, is paramount to the success of businesses, organizations, and nonprofits.

In this new age, however, you have to lose the ego! In leading a library, a project, a department, or a small work group, keep an eye toward the whole and the benefits found there.

Consider these suggestions:

Recognize and appreciate talent.
Outside awards and recognition bring praise and attention to the library. Our profession, like any other, has rising stars. The Internet has enabled these stars to gain national and even international attention at a pace much faster than ever before. How coworkers, supervisors, and administrators respond to this person’s “15 minutes of fame” is very telling. Encourage and embrace the exposure and make sure to alert the library’s user community.

Grow your own talent (and don’t see it as a threat).
Libraries should provide opportunities for staff to learn and grow. It should not be a threat to the institution or its administrators to have individuals who excel at their jobs and projects. In a climate of encouragement, library leadership will mentor and grow the talent around them.
Appreciate those who bring issues and problems to your attention, even if you don’t really want to hear about them because it indicates that something needs to be fixed or improved. These people are valuable-they are not annoyances! Acknowledge that you don’t know everything. Ego makes us unwilling to admit when we aren’t familiar with something or someone, but being a good manager or leader means owning up to our limitations and knowing who to call for help.

The art of leadership
Good leaders surround themselves with talented, outspoken individuals, not yes-men (or -women).
Understand that while we have very good reasons for doing things, we may not communicate them well. Staffers who question administration and decisions should not be perceived as threats but as reminders that we may need to reexamine how we communicate our strategies and our justifications.

If you pretend someone is not there, if you pretend the awards and honors that someone on your staff receives aren’t worth mentioning, then this reflects upon you. People will notice it and question your awareness. If they see you deliberately refusing to recognize talent, then they will begin to ask, “Why?” The results from this questioning won’t aid in your leadership.
However, if you recognize and embrace your talented staff, if you give them the skills they need to continue improving, then your staff, your organization, and the greater library community will not only recognize those talented people but also respect and honor your organizational efforts.

They’ll notice that you’re sufficiently comfortable as an executive to salute the great talent around you and your willingness to use that talent for the greater good of the entire organization. That is true leadership.

Avoid timidity
The flip side of ego is timidity, as we’ve written (see “Ask for What You Want,” LJ 8/07, p. 29). Too often, librarians smother their need for professional recognition in their desire to provide great service.

We see this when librarians must argue for libraries-we’ve become so good at dealing with limited resources, setbacks, and a lack of public recognition that we sometimes stifle our ability to stand up and shout about everything that makes us great. Some in our field need to suppress ego. Others may need just the right dose.

Michael Casey is Information Technology Division Director, Gwinnett County Public Library, Lawrenceville, CA, and co-author of Library 2.0.

July 1, 2008 Library Journal