Mentoring: Leadership as a Subversive Activity
This article, republished with permission, was first published in ALKI, the Washington Library Association Journal, 21, no. 3 (Dec 2005).
Having worked as a paraprofessional in libraries for over a decade, I have witnessed and been affected by the incredible pace of change in our work, and have watched our institutions struggle to keep up with the demands placed upon ourselves and our institutions. Libraries today face difficult issues in recruitment, retention, succession planning, and building leadership. Librarians and library staff—at all levels in the organization—must find ways to achieve job satisfaction while performing new roles and expanding our skill set, ideally while aligning the needs of institution and self. My interest in these matters led me to graduate study in library and information studies, and my final year became a call to action to investigate how we may instill within library culture a commitment to creating organizations that can cope with the rapid pace of change.
While I was struggling with the academic aspects of these questions, Deborah Jacobs from Seattle Public Library (SPL) provided me the opportunity to do fieldwork research into mentoring, to help that library design its own staff mentoring program. Mentoring has often served as a means of building new leadership, but I wondered how it could be presented as a solution for all, not just those intentionally seeking out leadership opportunities. And how could leadership-building be integrated into the framework of mentoring so that staff could learn the skills which prepare us for the future? My research, along with the practical experience gained working in libraries, have allowed me to explore these issues. This article will sketch out what I have learned.
Twenty years ago, as an undergraduate, I read a book that taught me the ultimate importance of “learning how to learn.”(1) But it wasn’t until 2005, during my final quarter of graduate school, that I realized how Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s 1969 book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1) could provide insight into the value of mentoring for developing leadership among library staff. While the buzz words have changed, I still live with the assumption that an environment nurtured by collaborative and continuous learning - a learning organization - can be one in which leadership is developed almost unbeknownst to the leader.
Postman and Weingartner focus on the ways in which education can better meet the changing needs of our youth, so that they “learn how to learn” and can become “an actively inquiring, flexible, creative, innovative, tolerant personality who can face uncertainty and ambiguity without disorientation, who can formulate viable new meanings to meet changes in the environment which threaten individual and mutual survival.” (1, p. 218) In my mentoring research, I discovered a similar theme in the more recent work of LeAne Rutherford, who presents the myth of Proteus as an analogy for library workers in our ever-changing careers.(2) Proteus, the son of Poseidon, had the gift of prophecy and was able to change his shape at will. We all have seen or experienced the changing roles of libraries and librarians, and can recognize how imperative it is that we learn how to adapt to changing needs, to look to future, appraise changing situations, reform and recreate ourselves and our organization to respond to the changing needs of our users and our communities.
As I began to focus on mentoring in libraries, I came to recognize a noticeable lack of accountability on the part of staff and administration to support and nurture the leadership potential in all of us. If no one is willing to step into a leadership role—or if that role is restricted to one person with the appropriate title—library staff may find themselves in leadership-challenged environments. Curiously, though we act as mentors in leadership roles outside the library—in our relationships, our families, our schools, our churches, our clubs, and our communities—many of us find it difficult to retain that multi-leveled nature of leadership when we go to work. This article will emphasize the opportunity available to us if we make intentional mentoring a priority, not as an additional burden, but as integral to our work.
My research has led me to believe that being a leader is not so important as leading; the verb takes precedence over the label. Effective leadership is not performed by any one person, but instead is a collaborative action performed by many, utilizing a toolset of complementary skills. The concept of teamwork is not new to our profession, but perhaps we’ve more to do to encourage peer mentoring within existing networks. References to peer mentoring are not new to the literature of staff development. Kathy Kram and her colleagues began discussing peer relationships in the mid ‘80s, as a means of providing a forum for mutual exchange in which individuals can both learn and share, achieving “a sense of expertise, equality, and empathy that is frequently absent from traditional mentoring relationship.” (3, p. 129)
Kram’s work began what has become a sustained debate in the literature about the effectiveness of two different types of mentoring, formal or informal. Formal mentoring is facilitated and supported by the organization, while informal mentoring is created and sustained by a pair of employees without formal institutional support. The need to define these relationships exclusively as one or the other type is the first of many myths surrounding mentoring that I encountered both in the literature and in the assumptions of those I surveyed and interviewed.
Like Kram, I resist the presumption that the mentoring only properly occurs between someone with more experience (the mentor) and someone with less experience (the mentee). I believe that both benefit when they approach the relationship as an opportunity to learn and to share, and the library benefits when this sharing is done within the context of the organization’s needs and goals. Such collaborative learning can operate outside organizational hierarchies, and can remind all participants of their responsibility to remain accountable for their contributions, whether as a leader in a defined role or as a peer contributing to the process.
My research uncovered many new definitions related to peer mentoring, which aims ultimately to develop and sustain a learning organization, a concept I’ll explore below. Organizations adopting Semi-formal, semi-structured, or facilitated mentoring show their commitment to mentoring by providing flexible and structured tools and support for the process. Group mentoring brings together a group of staff members with a common need and pairs them with another staff group with solutions to share. But co-mentoring most clearly expresses what I consider to be the essential nature of peer mentoring: each peer-partner both learns and teaches.
After researching the learning potential of mentoring in general, I began to compile a list of print and digital resources specific to mentoring in libraries. In order to solicit input from people that had actually participated in mentorship, I posted an online survey to a number of library listservs and collected forty-two responses from the U.S., Canada and Australia. I asked those surveyed to highlight some of the key challenges to and benefits of mentoring; among the data gathered, I received these telling responses:
- Giving momentum to a program without its appearing to be a “top down” initiative.
- Providing enough time for training, and for evaluating the relationship.
- Addressing a lack of “give and take” between participants.
- Mentoring relationships create “less ambiguity about expectations and non-codified rules or procedures” for newer staff.
- The “mentor often gains perspective on the profession” through “new ideas and viewpoints.”
- “Learning for succession management and achieving a level of leadership that contributes to positive performance reviews.”
- “Better support process, cross-training, leadership and staff development.”
- “The organization benefits from stronger networks developed and more confident, active employees.”
In my reading, I came across a number of connections between mentoring and this relatively new concept of a “learning organization.” Peter Senge defines learning organizations as “organizations where people continually expand their capacity to create the results they truly desire, where new and expansive patterns of thinking are nurtured, where collective aspiration is set free, and where people are continually learning how to learn together.”(4) Coming across this concept, so reminiscent of Postman and Weingartner and their “learning to learn” manifesto, I found I had come full circle in my own learning, to a renewed recognition of how we can enable learning in our lives and in our work. Senge reflects on the more subtle or, as Postman and Weingartner would say, “subversive” way that leadership can be cultivated in our organizations:
“If people are really enabled to grow in authentic ways, they will develop their natural capacities to lead regardless of their formal positions….Effecting such changes will require new tools and approaches to leadership cultivation…This will require mentoring. But it also will require enacting work environments that combine inquiry and reflection with decision taking…It will also require attending in more subtle ways to the overall environment or context within which work occurs. People know when they are in a ‘generative space.’ They sense the excitement, trust, and openness to new ideas combined with commitment to results. Few experiences shape people’s leadership capacities more than being part of an extraordinary team that achieves the impossible.” (5)
Libraries are well aware of the limitless opportunities for learning, but we often focus on patrons’ needs and neglect our own individual and organizational learning. I would like to see libraries implement the ideas of Postman, Weingartner, and Senge, and develop supportive learning relationships for the active exchange of information, ideas, and expertise. Such libraries could set a positive example for other institutions in our communities, and I believe society would be better for it.
Though I’ve only begun to touch upon some of the practical applications of these ideas about leadership and mentoring, I hope I’ve piqued your interest enough to come see what else I’ve discovered that may help you address a mentoring approach to professional development—whether of individuals, peers, or of your entire organization. I have discovered that there are as many different types of mentoring and leadership as there are people, and as many ways to approach “learning to learn” as there are collaborators in the library world.
While I have completed my MLIS and moved on to a new job, I have continued to collect and make available various mentoring and leadership resources on WebJunction (see below links), an online resource for library staff to share ideas and resources.
Here you’ll find some of the results of my past year’s research, including the mentoring survey, best practices resources, and a mentoring workbook for those interested in initiating a mentoring relationship. I encourage you to use, share and contribute tools as you develop the rich resources you have in your own staff and communities, and grow, subversively or overtly, a network of seasoned learners capable of collaboratively building and leading a rich and fulfilling learning organization.
Mentoring Resources collected on WebJunction:
- Mentoring: Leadership as a Subversive Activity
- Mentoring Workbook
- Mentoring Definitions
- Areas for Learning through Mentoring Relationships
- Leadership and Mentoring Resources
- Postman, Neil and Weingartner, Charles. Teaching as a Subversive Activity. New York : Delacorte Press, 1969.
- Rutherford, LeAne H. “Taking Charge of Your Professional Life: A Special Librarian’s Guide to Greater Work Satisfaction.” Information Outlook 3(9)(September 1999): 17-22.
- Kram, Kathy E. and Isabella, Lynn A. “Mentoring Alternatives: The Role of Peer Relationships in Career Development.” Academy of Management Journal 28(1)(March 1985): 110-132.
- Senge, Peter. The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization. New York : Doubleday/Currency, 1990.
- Senge, Peter. From comments on “Illuminating the Blind Spot: Leadership in the Context of Emerging Worlds.” 15 February 2001 (26 October 2005).
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This work is licensed under a  Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 United States License