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Career Strategies for Librarians
Reluctant Leaders: Helping Others Have Confidence in Their Own Leadership Abilities
by Chrissie Anderson Peters

The Need to Lead

In most organizations, there tends to be a “core group” of people who make the organizations “work.”
When I was new to the profession, I thought that those people must either love the challenges and
rewards of committee work, be gluttons for punishment, or be willing to do anything for recognition. Now
that I have had more opportunities to be involved in professional organizations, however, I have learned
that, in most cases, this core group exists and works so diligently in their leadership positions because
so few others are willing to do so. Overall membership numbers of an organization may be quite strong,
but if new leaders fail to be identified, recruited, and adequately trained for these positions, it becomes
increasingly difficult for would-be leaders to develop leadership skills and for current leaders to find
suitable successors. We need leaders and need to commit ourselves to making future leaders ready for
the trials and triumphs of leadership. In order to assist future leaders to develop such leadership skills,
current leaders need to consider why others are reluctant to step into leadership positions, thereby
accepting accountability for those who will ensure the continued growth and prosperity of our
organizations.  

Reasons for Reluctance
There are many reasons – and countless excuses – why people tend to be reluctant to become involved
with organizations, much less to assume the responsibilities of leadership. One dominant factor is that
people think they are simply inexperienced. Because people have no practical experience being a
“leader,” they tend to doubt their abilities to lead and therefore remain passive members. What they often
do not consider, though, is that everyone had to start somewhere. Also, “leadership” is not confined to
elected offices and committee work – being involved with Scouts, unofficial groups in church or civic
capacities, being part of some team, etc., can certainly contribute to the qualities needed for leadership.
The term “leadership” is sometimes so often elevated that “average” organizational members find
themselves thinking that they could never be capable of such feats. In other words, we scare potential
leaders by making ourselves seem more indispensable and our positions seem more all-
encompassing than necessary. In a sense, this contributes to the alarming lack of role models and
mentors who make themselves available to would-be leaders. Future leaders need open and direct
access to current leaders in order to sustain professional growth for themselves and the organizations
they will help lead. Although frequently encountered more as an excuse than a reason, there is also the
issue of time commitment involved with leadership opportunities. If someday-leaders interpret what
current leaders do as prohibitively time-consuming (after all, no one wants their leadership involvement
to turn into hard-core work!), then they may become turned off to the possibilities completely.  

Starting With Current Leaders
Current leaders must accept responsibility for finding/recruiting tomorrow’s leaders. This is one of the
most important charges of our duties as leaders in any organization. First, we must alert members to
leadership opportunities. Sometimes this can be accomplished through a simple “call to action” email
on a discussion list or in a membership newsletter. More frequently, however, it requires those of us
who have worked on committees or in other leadership capacities with those who show leadership
potential (i.e., course projects with classmates, search committees at work, conference or workshop
presentations/attendances) to make individual contact with those people. Often, asking directly can
make an individual feel more compelled to become actively involved and also more confident in that
involvement than a general announcement might; individual contact might also be more effective
because that person realizes that someone recognizes his/her potential and is willing to help him/her
develop those skills necessary to accomplish the goals set forth for that opportunity. In terms of
mentoring, leaders also sometimes unintentionally build up walls or set boundaries between “us” and
“them,” robbing themselves of opportunities to instruct in leadership and also depriving would-be
leaders of our experiences – past and present. Mentoring can be an exciting exploration for both the
mentor and the mentored if leaders can put aside their egos and pride and share not only the keys to
their successes, but also the details of their professional disappointments. Leaders must also commit
themselves as mentors to creating and maintaining positive leadership development experiences. New
leaders must enjoy (at least nominally) what is expected of them in order to excel. They must feel that
their efforts make a difference in order for them to remain interested in active participation, in order for
them to continue the development of their leadership skills. If new leaders are shown how effective
leadership shares responsibilities and rewards, it makes the experience richer for them, but it also
helps to insure that those already in leadership positions do not have to invest so much time
themselves – the more willing people there are to contribute to a project, the more easily the task sees
fruition! Current leaders can also make an impact through encouraging and supporting these “young”
leaders and through demonstrating positive leadership.

Working – Together
As a general rule, new leaders must be sought, found, and sometimes persuaded in order for sustained
growth in most organizations. They must be assured that they can become effective leaders by those
who already are. Current leaders must be willing to make themselves available and approachable to
those interested in doing what they do (which could be anyone currently in the organization or anyone
who may join the group later – in essence, absolutely anyone, period). Through taking an active interest
in the goals, challenges, successes, and futures of those who want to learn to lead, current leaders can
help new and future leaders develop a working knowledge and understanding, pride, and dedication to
the overall organization (and, more broadly, to the profession). Those already leading must facilitate
relationships with the leaders who follow that will demonstrate a sincere faith in their abilities,
appreciation for their efforts, and commitment to helping them to succeed. All of us must cooperate for
the good of the organization and for the hope that we will build in it and through it – together.  

About the Author:

Chrissie Anderson Peters is a Fall 2002 graduate of the School of Information Sciences at the University
of Tennessee, a program that she participated in as a distance education student. A member of the
Tennessee Library Association, the Virginia Library Association, ALSC, NMRT, and YALSA, she is a
Librarian for Northeast State Community College in Blountville, TN. Her passions include writing, music,
reading, traveling, her "children" (the feline kind) Mel, Reid, Xander, and Willow, and spending as much
time as possible with her husband Russell, who makes her life a joy each day.

Article published Dec 2003

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