Insight-based leadership

There are two basic models that apply to the thinking on leadership. One model regards leadership as a subject in its own right and as a separate area of competency. Whoever can manage a bank can also manage other types of organization from a hospital to a library. We may call this the organizational leader model. The other model emphasizes the need to have a professional background in the core business of the organization that one is to lead. The head of a bank should come from and have skills related to the banking profession, and the head of a hospital should come from the health professions. We may call this model the professional leader model.

Should the organizational leader model or the professional leader model be employed as the basis for recruiting to important positions in the library sector? The recent recruitment of a new head of the Deichmanske bibliotek (Oslo Public Library) has brought this issue into focus.

This is undoubtedly one of the most important leadership positions in the Norwegian library administration. It was of course from his position as head of the Deichmanske bibliotek that Håkon Nyhus introduced the modern model for public libraries in Oslo, Norway and the Nordic countries.

The person who will now take over the position which Nyhus used so creatively and effectively in terms of library policy, can be the person who develops and expands the public library concept to make it relevant in the digital, multicultural age ‒ provided that the person who has been given the job has sufficient insight into the founding ideals and role of public libraries to lead such a process of development and adaptation.

To lead a public library into and through the kind of change process that public libraries in general, but the Deichmanske bibliotek in particular, are currently in the midst of, requires a deep understanding of the nature of a public library. That is the basis for developing a vision of what the library can be.

A new leadership concept

Over the past few years much has been made of knowledge-based practice and knowledge-based leadership in many areas. Or results-oriented leadership. Or change leadership. I would suggest a new term: insight-based leadership.

Insight – that is, knowledge and proficiency combined with a capacity for reflection based on that proficiency in one’s field. Knowledge, proficiency and understanding cannot be without context; they must be embedded in the business or activity that one is to lead.

Leadership in research requires insight into the essence of research; leadership in education requires insight into the essence of education; leadership in health requires insight into the essence of the health professions, and so on. In the same way leadership of a public library requires insight into the essence of public libraries.

Now, it is not necessarily the case that someone with a bachelor’s or master’s degree in library and information science will have the knowledge, proficiency and deep understanding that insight-based leadership requires. Each one of us may well have experienced that this correlation does not always exist.

Nevertheless, it is probably true that the opportunity to reflect on the character and basis of library and information science as a discipline through a three or five year bachelor’s or master’s degree course, provides the best platform for developing such proficiency. Why is this the case?

A basis of core values and ideas

The primary task of a chief librarian is to be the person best placed to define the future role and remit of the library in the municipality – she or he must be the person who, in terms of the library profession and library policy, is in a position to think most deeply and most accurately. This requires a basis of core values and ideas.

When Håkon Nyhus arrived from the USA to implement the modern public library model in Norway, his core basis was not that of general management theory; it was that of the developing professional field of public libraries. It was exactly this core basis that enabled him to become the epoch-making chief librarian that he indeed became. It is therefore wrong to say that a chief librarian of a large public library does not need to have a background in professional librarianship, because there will be so many others in a large library like this who do. And it is wrong to say that first and foremost a chief librarian must have leadership competencies.

Solid professional basis

In matters relating to the profession, he or she can of course lean upon the strong professional environment that exists in a large system, such as the Deichmanske bibliotek. But is it not precisely the task of the leader first and foremost to be the one to define the strategy for library policy and for the profession? Not common visions and values to do with generosity, openness and respect, but a genuine vision and strategy for library policy?

Is it not his or her task, first and foremost, to explain to politicians and public authorities what a contemporary library has to offer? And can these leadership tasks be performed without a solid professional basis? Of course not. Leadership that is not embedded in the profession means no library leadership at all.

Now, we naturally cannot exclude the possibility that someone may attain this type of professionalism without having followed the well-trodden path of the profession with a bachelor’s and master’s degree in the field. However, that cannot be the general rule.

The statesman dimension

A classic work on organizational and leadership theory is Philip Selznick’s Leadership in Administration, in which Selznick describes what we may define as the statesman dimension of leadership. It primarily means that the leader is in a position to ensure that what constitutes the particular institution – what makes the public library a public library – survives and can be carried on in a rapidly changing reality.

This requires insight-based leadership. A leader who merely knows leadership theory and has no deep understanding of the nature of a particular type of institution will never be able to exercise this statesman dimension of leadership.

Future threats and opportunities

The public libraries are now in a situation where the need for leaders who can fulfil precisely this statesman dimension of leadership is greater than it has ever been since Nyhus implemented his library revolution. Present-day developments have many aspects that may threaten the value base of the institution of public libraries and make it seem irrelevant.

But these same developments are also creating completely new opportunities for public libraries to appear relevant and meaningful – if the profession can manage to develop its value base and adapt it to the new challenges.

For that, we need insight-based leadership.

Professor Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences