I am sure many of my library colleagues didn’t know quite what to expect from the Clore Leadership Day for Libraries at the Library of Birmingham in late June 2016. I was at a slight advantage, having attended the Clore Short Course a few years ago. However, the relaxed style and gentle humour of our facilitator, Fearghus O’Conchuir, soon put all the delegates at ease. The fact that Fearghus was a choreographer was both intriguing and illuminating. Clearly the day was about leadership in the widest sense - and not just in libraries.
As part of the British Library’s Cultural Partnership with the Library of Birmingham, Clore organised the day - in partnership with the British Library and Society of Chief Librarians (SCL) - because relatively few candidates from libraries had put themselves forward, or been nominated, for leadership courses in the past. The problem, perhaps, was not lack of ability but confidence.
Following introductions from Sue Hoyle of Clore and Jamie Andrews from the British Library, outgoing SCL President Ciara Eastell started things off by highlighting five opportunities for library leaders - digital leadership, partnership and collaboration, the changing policy landscape, entrepreneurship, and workforce/volunteer development.
Taking Ciara’s lead, we concentrated on libraries’ many strengths and the opportunities ahead. We resisted the temptation to have a collective moan about shrinking budgets and looked positively forward. It’s true that libraries are not a life-and-death service, which makes them particularly vulnerable to funding cuts, but they have so much to offer - to their customers, councils, partners, and society in general. We have a diverse customer base that many cultural institutions would die for.
The challenge for libraries is to do more with less, concentrating limited resources on the services modern-day customers need, want and will use. They are reinventing themselves by developing new structures and business models, and forming new partnerships with the public, private and voluntary sectors.
All this demands a more entrepreneurial and innovative approach to service delivery. Most importantly, heads of service need the leadership skills to take colleagues, councillors and the public with them. So the Clore libraries day was a timely, useful and enlightening experience.
Guest speakers Roxana Silbert, Artistic Director of the Birmingham Rep, and Fiona Allan, Chief Executive of the Birmingham Hippodrome, described their respective career paths and their ‘take’ on leadership. Sometimes it’s about being in the right place at the right time, and exploiting opportunities as they arise. Delegates quizzed both speakers about their leadership styles, their priorities, and how they steered their organisations - and colleagues - through change.
For me, the most valuable elements of the day were when Fearghus encouraged delegates to contribute observations and ideas to group discussions. I sensed some of us learned more about ourselves, and our respective leadership styles, in the process. For example, we discovered that being a good manager was not the same as being a good leader - though the roles might well overlap.
As the day progressed even the quietest delegates weighed into the discussions. It felt like we all discarded our inhibitions for a few hours and let our imaginations loose. I know from chats during coffee breaks that several people were genuinely inspired. And, of course, it always helps to compare notes and discover ‘it’s not just me’.
We looked at libraries - and library leadership - within the broader cultural context. We considered the role of library managers as cultural leaders, and the leadership qualities they needed to be successful. We discussed how libraries could collaborate with each other, and with other cultural institutions. We explored practical ways to help and support each other - not at some time in the future, but right now. Several co-operative ‘pledges’ were made as a result.
It became clear, from the group discussions, that library professionals are not generally ‘pushy’ people. Though passionate about their work and determined to do a good job, they are not really motivated by power. This is something I think we need to revisit, perhaps introducing senior colleagues to the notion of ‘soft power’ and what it can achieve.
Comments from delegates at the end of the day were also revealing. They talked about being more ‘positive’, ‘confident’ and ‘proactive’ - about ‘trusting their instincts’, ‘being bolder’ and ‘prepared to take more risks’.
When I attended the Clore Leadership Short Course some years ago, I could not have imagined that I would one day lead a multi-faceted organisation with more than 500 staff. I now manage Warwickshire County Council’s face-to-face services or - in theatre terms, to follow the theme - front of house. Reflecting back on my first Clore course, I met people from across the cultural sectors. The experience made me realise - then as now - that the issues and challenges we face are very similar.
What impressed me on June 21 was the high calibre of the 2016 library delegates - really good, talented people working in the sector, with great potential. The main thing I took away from the day was that leadership has so many different facets and yet, at the same time, so many similarities across the cultural sectors. Indeed, in leadership terms, we discovered that libraries seem to have a surprising amount in common with choreography. And that, in essence, was the point. Leadership is a quality - and skill - in its own right, transcending specialisms. Understanding that makes a big difference.
Ayub Khan MBE
SCL Digital Lead
Head of Face to Face Services, Warwickshire County Council