Pretty early in my career, I realized I wanted to be a leader. It might be gauche of me to admit my desire to be influential, but I think that it's not an uncommon feeling among of subset of new librarians. And the more we talk about it, the less likely it is that we'll scare away newer librarians in favor of friendlier professions.
The thing I realized almost immediately after realizing I wanted to be a leader is that it's really challenging to lead if you don't have administrative power. After all, it's hard to get people to follow you if you aren't the head of their reporting line.
People who know things about management have a name for this phenomenon: leading from below.
What I've learned is that even if you're not at the top of an organizational chart, you have more influence that you might believe. I've been trying to get better at leading from below for a while, and I've learned a couple of things.
1. Be amazing at your job, but don't get caught up in who might be watching.
The first part of this seems much easier than the second, right? I get it. I've been there. It's easy to get caught up in wondering whether people notice the work that you do. I think it's especially easy when you're working in a behind-the-scenes role or when you see others around you receiving accolades for the work they're doing.
Here's the thing, though: people notice. They may not always tell you what a great job you're doing or give you the accolades you believe you're owed. But they notice. The flip side of that is true, too, by the way. People notice where you're not bringing your A-Game. Maybe not right away, but they do.
You earn credibility by meeting deadlines. You earn credibility by having more solutions than excuses. You earn credibility by being the kind of person you'd want to have as a colleague.
And that credibility leads to new opportunities and, yes, greater influence.
Volunteering to serve on committees gives you the opportunity to build your leadership toolbox. These opportunities are often lower stakes than some of the leadership work your administrators are doing. But they serve as more than just a line item on your CV--they are experiences you can point to where you organized a group or implemented a solution.
You get bonus points if the volunteer work you do is something other people might decide is too challenging or too boring.
3. Partner with people who have similar goals and complementary skills set.
There are probably a few people in your organization who are passionate about the same things that you are. Maybe you're all interested in outreach and marketing. Or maybe you're all interested in how library users find things in the catalog. Finding those people with similar interests to yours is the first step. The second step is finding someone in that group whose skill set complements your. They're outgoing where you're reserved. Or they're a details person where you favor the big picture. However you complement one another, work together to accomplish your shared goals. It's often easier to share the burden between two people. And it's good to have someone who can step into a situation when you know you aren't the best person to tackle the job.
If you want to learn more about leading from below, I highly recommend Shirley K. Baker's article entitled "Leading from below; or, risking getting fired" from the Fall 1995 issue of Library Administration & Management. It's from 1995, but it's as true today as it was then. Here's a citation from ERIC for it, but you may have to hunt down a paper copy from the stacks of your library.