I Got the Power: ALA Leadership Institute

From August 4 through 8 I was fortunate to attend the 2019 ALA Leadership Institute.

When I went there I really had no idea what to expect. My experience with professional development has been largely unimpressive, and I’m cynical enough to have limited bandwidth for supposed experts with a webinar to sell. Furthermore, I do not respect self-help books and the like. I see them as pseudo-psychological snake-oil selling easy answers, and the sheer number and variety of leadership books I have not been able discern from their self-help cousins. So, while I was grateful to be chosen for this highly selective cohort I went into it with many grains of salt.

The institute was held at the Oak Brook Hilton Golf Resort in Oak Brook, IL, outside of Chicago. It consisted of about forty people, including the two facilitators. Sunday evening held a welcome reception, and Monday through Wednesday were full days of intensive instruction, activities, and collaboration, including a half-day on Thursday.

I had no idea.

What proceeded over those few days was one of the most productive and revealing experiences of my life. Every session and every activity contained practical advice and beneficial activities. I was forced to address realities within myself and acknowledge strengths that I had not fully appreciated before. I opened myself up to new possibilities and new perspectives that I had not known before. I am different now.

Part of the experience is that prior to the Institute we were told to write a short case study of a problem we face in our positions. Those case studies were organized into themes and groups of case-writers were formed based on those themes. Each group was five or six people large and over the course of the 3.5 days you spent hours together discussing the case studies and supporting each other in the content and offering advice based on the topics of the day.

In this situation you create bonds with the group members as you open yourselves to them in sometimes uncomfortable ways. On Monday night I went for drinks with one of my group members in which we talked about our case studies and experiences. I told her about my professional self-consciousness and some of the issues I’ve had over the last twelve years, or so. The next day the group discussed my case study in which I talked about a transition period I’m facing in my role and changes to my practice that I’m having to make. At the end of the session as we were going to break she literally grabbed me by the shoulder, looked me in the face, and said “You are a real librarian.”

This simple gesture wrecked me.

In all my time working in libraries I’ve been a librarian “in spirit,” but never have I had the title of “Librarian” in any official documentation, degree or not. Based on the rough introduction I had to the profession for nearly nine years in my previous position, the rough start I had to my current position, and the largely inadequate librarian education I received during my Master’s program I have had a healthy dose of professional self-consciousness that I had thought I had largely worked through. My partner’s gesture hit me like a medicine ball of gratitude and relief that I did not know I needed. I had to remove myself from the area and find a place outside to recover.

Recently, I returned to therapy after it became clear that I needed to deal with some anger issues that stem from childhood trauma. My therapist is not very interested in my past or underlying issues, but he is very interested in emotional intelligence and how emotions are processed by the brain. Coincidentally, one of the major topics considered by this Institute was in fact, emotional intelligence. I found several times over the week correlations between my therapy and the Institute’s content.

About forty-five minutes after I was told that I was a “real librarian” another profound thing happened to me, less immediately positive, but still productive. We were assigned an individual activity of filling out a worksheet about where our power lies and how we express that power. After we filled out that worksheet we were to find a partner we had not worked with before and discuss our answers. I could not do the exercise. I could not answer questions about where my power lies because I realized that never in my life had I ever felt powerful. Because of the combined traumas of my childhood and the toxic work environment I had experienced I realized that I have never felt powerful because I am always beginning at a place of deficiency. I had no sense of what I might contain that is powerful. It was completely foreign to me.

My partner generously tried to help me with my problem. She reframed the question for me to concentrate on my strengths; what I’m good at. This shifted my perspective enough to participate more in the exercise, but the emotional wreckage of acknowledging my weaknesses was enough to end me for the day. That evening, instead of going out to dinner and drinks with my cohort members I instead went straight to my room, ordered a sad chicken sandwich from room service and locked myself away for the night. The recognition that I have never once, in forty years, felt powerful — regardless of my personal or professional circumstances — was an existential crisis like I’ve never felt before.

Normally, my existential crises are anxiety-driven; fear of the future. This was different. It showed me my life in a perspective in which I have settled for less that I was capable of or deserved because I fundamentally did not believe that I was worth it. This is more than just low self-esteem. Most people will tell you that my ego is healthy enough. This was an acknowledgement of how my experiences shaped my perspective about myself and my relationship to the world. Now, I am in a position in which I must discover what that means moving forward. This could get interesting.

A day and half later, on Thursday morning, we again were working on individual worksheets to be discussed with a cohort member. It asked specifically about our strengths and performance. I’ll share some of my answers below:

  • What are my strengths? What do I do well? Where do I achieve my best results?

I am a storyteller. I am a public speaker. I am outgoing & easy to talk to. I am a writer. I am a thinker.

  • How do I perform? How do I approach my work? What is my preferred work style?

I am a big picture thinker. I work intensely for short periods of time and need breaks in between. I learn slowly and need time to process. I need creativity and room to fail.

  • How do I learn? What methods work best for me?

I learn slowly and need multi-modal repetition. I need time to process. I need talking and writing to aid understanding.

These strengths and qualities are where my power lies. These are what I need to be developing. These are where my future lies. These are what I’m going to take to my boss and say “Let’s work with this and find roles for me that will make use of them.”

I have power. You have power. We all have power. Today, as I type this, I’m feeling that I have a future much more open and free than I ever thought I had before. I don’t know what it looks like, anymore, or where the path may lead. It may be someplace wholly unexpected. But wherever it is I feel like I’ll be claiming my power to travel it.

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