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The vision thing

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Philip J. Calvert, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

Leadership – the panacea for many ills

The call is often heard – we need leadership for this purpose, new leaders for that. Leadership, it seems, is a panacea for many of the ills of modern society. Yet the concept of leadership is not clearly understood, and it is often hard to tell the difference between a manager and a leader – if there is any difference. So, before writers and pundits say that we need more leadership in the information management world, perhaps we should try first of all to agree on the nature of the beast, and then determine whether we can produce the kind of leaders that, collectively, we seem to think we need.


A commonly agreed definition is that leaders have an influence over their "followers" that causes them to act over and above mechanical compliance with a job's basic requirements. Employees will go the extra yard for a leader, whereas they will "do it" for a manager, so the trend towards "managerialism" falls short of the kind of leadership being called for. Perhaps one field of human activity where traditional leadership has been seen very plainly is in warfare, and history abounds with stories of generals who could take their troops into battle against superior numbers and emerge triumphant as a result of some special inspirational quality that we call leadership. War and libraries may seem a long way apart, for war causes immense disruption to traditional ways of doing things. But is this really so different from the impact of new technologies such as the Web, and the way that they have transformed societal norms? A total, radical change in libraries can seem pretty scary to the people who work in them, so they may well look for a leader to show them the way forward.

A "vision thing"

Phyllis Spies (2000) has argued that the impact of new ICTs will fundamentally change the nature of libraries and that the change will be so rapid that mere evolutionary development will not keep pace. One of her key points is that library administrators will have to bring to the library a sense of vision of the desired future. It is this "vision thing" that dominates the current literature on leadership. No matter what style of leadership is used, without the "vision thing" there isn't really any leadership at all. Leaders essentially have two tasks: they translate external needs into an internal vision, and they translate the internal vision into employee action. They exert a positive influence on the organization's culture and its capacity to change. This can be done by leading from the front and giving rousing speeches, or it can do done from within by close attention to detail.

Are leaders born, not made?

Are leaders born, not made? For most of the first half of the 1900s it was assumed that leaders were born with special traits that set them aside from ordinary mortals who were suited only to following. Churchill and Hitler fitted this view very well. Later theories took the opposite view, that it was the context that was all-important, and leaders could only emerge if they were in tune with the situation in which they were thrust. Martin Luther King undoubtedly has some stirring qualities, but would he have been considered such an outstanding leader in a different context? Modern theories inevitably mix the two, and we believe now that both the personal characteristics of the leader and the context in combination determine leadership behaviour. Perhaps Ho Chi Minh illustrates the point well, for his personal qualities are obvious, yet without a series of events in Vietnam happening in just the right sequence from the late 1930s onwards he may never have had the impact that he eventually did.

Risk taking

Another good point made by Spies is about risk taking. The public sector in almost every country has a tradition of bureaucracy in which everyone knows his or her place and does not venture to do more than is expected. The result, of course, is that papers are pushed around and nothing much happens, except that the Government must raise taxes to pay for the civil service and that inhibits economic growth as a result. Since the 1980s, some western governments, such as the United Kingdom and New Zealand, have asked more of the public service than was once the case. Public sector organizations in those two countries must now raise more of their own revenue, and as a result staff have to act entrepreneurially. Can a bureaucratic organization act entrepreneurially? It's very doubtful. The culture is that you can only lose your job by making a mistake, so if you do not take risks, then your job is safe. Asking civil servants to take risks is anathema to them, yet that is just what they will now have to do. So government organizations that include public sector libraries will have to become less bureaucratic and more like private sector organizations. Those at the top of the organizations will have to become more like leaders. They will need to set a vision, ensure that decisions are made that can set the organization on the path towards the vision, and along the way they will have to tolerate failure. It will not be easy, especially as most public sector organizations have no examples to follow for this sort of behaviour.

Looking for role models

Where can librarians look for role models who have provided vision to their organizations? Alas, very few come from the public sector. Obviously we must turn to the business world for suitable examples of leaders. Bill Gates is not my favourite businessman, but when he was founding Microsoft he knew exactly what he wanted it to be – the dominant force in computing. He may not have known how he was going to achieve that aim but he had the vision. Whereas others were concerned with their chosen technologies and improving them to the nth degree, Gates preferred a strategy of expansion that has not always depended on technological superiority, but it has most certainly worked. We can also look at Richard Branson, a man who started out by publishing a student magazine but who had the desire and vision to develop his business into a global corporation involved in numerous activities including civil aviation. Sometimes the vision goes with a particular philosophy that catches the moment, such as Anita Roddick's Body Shop chain that has a policy of not using cosmetics that involve harm to animals. In New Zealand two very successful businessmen, Stephen Tindall and Dick Hubbard, have both used a leadership style that involves extra care of the workforce combined with a concern for their organization's impact on the external environment.

Leadership styles in different cultures

For international readers this raises a key point about the acceptability of certain leadership styles in different cultures. The traditional "transactional" style of command and control is accepted in most parts of the world and has a distinct masculine nature to it. Increasingly, a very different "transformational" style of leadership from within the organization has been recognized. This kind of leadership is sometimes said to be more suited to women (though it is ridiculous to say one style is exclusively masculine or feminine), for it relies on an ability to work with staff and encourage and cajole them towards the organization's desired outcomes. Perhaps it is a reluctance to accept this as leadership that acts as a barrier to women taking leadership positions in many countries? As always, your comments will be welcome.

Further reading

Spies, P.B. (2000), "Libraries, leadership and the future", Library Management, Vol. 21 No. 3, pp. 123-127.