On control & empowerment ...

Lately it seems that a week doesn’t go by where I don't find myself in some discussion with a colleague over the topic of leadership vs. management. Part of the reason for this is two recent initiatives our library has launched to help provide management training for staff and to "build the bench" as part of succession planning. But the other part is that I think with all the changes happening today in society and with user expectations, there is great need to shift our libraries to a new model of service which more fully empowers the user.

For me this shift is analogous to the management vs. leadership question that I have been talking about with several staff members. And in looking at library services I think you can transform the question several different ways…

  • Are our services designed control? Or to empower the user with options?
  • Are our services designed to manage processes? Or provide our users with a rewarding experience?
  • Are our facilities built to contain the user’s use of areas? Or provide users with flexibility and options to collaborate and multitask?
  • Are our collections built on a formula to fill shelf space? Or designed to keep our shelves empty and ideas and thoughts circulating within our communities?

The bottom to all these questions seems to come down to the distinction between the foundations of management and leadership. Management for the most part is based upon the principle of control (managing people, managing processes, etc). Leadership on the other hand is based upon the principle of “guidance” and empowering others.

It’s hard to select one over the other for you need both management (control of well managed processes) and leadership (guidance and the means to empower) to build and provide excellent library services. Therefore it's not a choice that needs to made, it's a balancing act. And as libraries continue to transform and evolve, the goal should not be to weight the scales evenly, but rather to ensure that we favor the side that empowers the user as much as we can - without falling over. :)

PS: Thanks Michael Stephens for your excellent reply to my thoughts last week. You Rock! I hope this post sheds some more light on my thoughts about control vs. empowerment. and, if you’re thinking at all that I can be a semantics freak, you’re right! Just ask anyone from PLCMC’s management team that was involved in developing our library's mission statement and they'll tell you I was among the adamant supporters for having the verb be in the active tense (empowering vs. empowers). :)

PLCMC: Expanding minds, empowering individuals, enriching the community

PS: I bet you can guess which is my favorite “e” in our mission statement? :)


Matt said...


As a manager/leader I've been wrestling with this for quite some time and have come to the realization that it is a conversation and an ongoing process. There really is no solving that should happen, for it is all about balance. It is the balance that needs to maintain and be sought after by each of us in our thoughts and actions. Just because we may not have the title of manager or leader doesn't mean that we aren't or don't. Some of the world’s best and most effective leaders did so from a position of little or no formality of title and power.

What does it mean to empower the people of our communities? How does one, as a manager/leader, maintain a position that empowers people?

Anonymous said...

I think empowerment is something that people seek out while control is something that people avoid. And the experience on the continum between empowerment and control is unique to each user. For example, 30 years ago, information services may have been empowering for most users, now with the internet may be experienced as controlling. The same with technology. I say "let go" of the control because you never really have it for long anyway.

Anonymous said...

... and my question is: Is there a distinction to be drawn between managing and leading within your library, to wit, the staff, and managing and leading to your constituents (reader, audience, what have you)? To even draw the distinction offer the opportunity to 'empower' the latter. Presumably a good leader-manager is already empowering those over whom s/he has nominal 'control'.