Tuesday, September 30, 2014

What being an Emerging Leader taught me

I read two really great posts this past week about Rockstar Librarianship. Each post lays out an argument for why having this status of admired, set-apart librarians has the capacity to damage librarianship. Each post called out the Emerging Leaders program as one place that creates this class of set-apart librarians, though neither post argues directly for the dissolution of the program. And each author offers the caveat that not every Emerging Leader is susceptible to, as K.G. Schneider puts it, Shiny Syndrome.

I participated in the Emerging Leaders program as part of the 2011 cohort. I felt so strongly about being part of the program that I applied twice to be part of it after my application to be part of the 2010 cohort was not accepted. I wanted to be part of the program because I wanted to develop my leadership skills and I really valued the idea of being part of what I saw as a prestigious program. At the time, I felt like ALA was an impenetrable fortress of bureaucracy and I saw the Emerging Leaders program as my ticket to scaling the wall of that fortress.

If you're not familiar with it, the Emerging Leaders program is a leadership development group with two components: a small group project and a larger, online learning community. The year begins at ALA Midwinter where participants are oriented to the program in a day-long program. The time between Midwinter and Annual is taken up a small group (3-5 person) project as well as larger online learning opportunities. The program concludes at ALA Annual with another day-long program and poster session where small groups present their work during a reception.

My experience in the Emerging Leaders program was positive for the most part. I certainly grew quite a lot as a result of being part of the program. When I considered what I would tell others about my experience in the program, it boiled down to three things: every Emerging Leader has a different experience, not everyone who participates in the program becomes a star, and you can be a leader without being a graduate of the program.

1. Every Emerging Leader has a different experience:
The experience a participant in the Emerging Leaders program has is often directly related to the small team they're assigned to and the project they're assigned. If the team works well together and has a project that feels like it could have an impact, a participant will probably feel like the program gave them skills they can transfer to other areas of leadership development. If, however, the project feels more like busywork or the team doesn't work cohesively, a participant might feel like the program was not worth their time.

A participant's experience of the program also has a lot to do with how much they take advantage of networking opportunities. The size of the cohort has gotten smaller since I participated, and 50 participants is a much more reasonable size for getting to know other people. Participants have opportunities at the two in-person meetings to make connections with other newer professionals, but they also have the opportunity to meet people who have risen to prominent positions in the organization. If a participants doesn't take advantage of those opportunities, the program can seem isolating, especially they see colleagues becoming part of ALA's "in crowd."

2. Not everyone who participates in the program becomes a star
There are a handful of people from my cohort who have gone on to significant leadership roles within ALA. My guess, though, is that they would've found their ways into those leadership roles even if they'd never participated in the program. I didn't become more well-known in ALA or in my home library as a result of participating in the Emerging Leaders program. I already had a committee appointment when I participated in the program, so I'm not certain that participating in the program helped me in that regard either.

I suspect that as many people decide that participation in ALA isn't for them as decide to pursue leadership opportunities within the organization. While the Emerging Leaders program goes a long way to help make the association more accessible to its future leaders, the truth is that an organization with over 50,000 members is always going to be impenetrable to some degree. Some people choose to find a home in a division or round table. But some people also choose to go another way entirely.

3. You can be a leader in ALA without being a graduate of the Emerging Leaders program
It's true that the Emerging Leaders program does work to equip its participants with the tools to be effective leaders, both in their home libraries and in ALA. However, not every leader in ALA is a graduate of the program. There are many people who work tirelessly to advance the mission of the Association and its divisions and round tables who have no affiliation with the Emerging Leaders program and no interest in participating.

Participation in the Emerging Leaders program certainly opens paths to leadership within the organization. But participation in the program is not the only way in which fitness for leadership is measured. Or at least it shouldn't be. When promoting people to positions of influence, we should look at someone's character and capacity for accomplishing the work that needs to be done. Yes, some of those qualities are possessed by people who participated in the Emerging Leaders program. But not every emerged leader possesses those qualities. The bottom line is that participation in the program should not be a jump-the-line pass to leadership within the Association.

My $0.02:
Leadership programs, by their very nature, attract high achieving people who want to be a Big Deal within their sphere of influence. The problems start when we give participants in, and graduates of, the program the implicit message they are are part of that admired, set-apart crowd by giving them coveted volunteer appointments or by including trading cards with their likenesses in our profession's publication. I really enjoyed being part of the Emerging Leaders program, but I also know that being among its graduates doesn't make me special. I hope that people in other cohorts can say the same thing.

Stay positive,

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