It’s the same all over…

I just read Kayla Williams book, Love My Rifle More Than You.  It is a moving, gritty story of life as a woman soldier in the second Iraq War.  I highly recommend it.  But, I found that that the stories Williams tells demonstrate the same leadership issues that occur in civilian life. 

She experienced leaders who knew their stuff, cared for their men and women, rewarded good performance, and dealt with less than adequate work.  But Williams also experienced leaders who put their own interests and safety above those of the soldiers.  And she met some who valued the position but didn’t have the knowledge and wouldn’t take the responsibility that came with the position.

Many people want to rise in their profession for the prestige, but seem unaware of the responsibilities that come with the position.  They may have the leader title but continue to do the work they did before the promotion, leaving the staff in their units leaderless.  Others were promoted because they were adequate in their previous positions but adequate is not good enough at the next level.

I have a relatively jaded view of what can be expected from one’s leaders.  As I’ve written elsewhere, working for superb leaders is a rare treat.  One learns to be satisfied with OK and tries to live through awful.

When Pretty Good is Good Enough

When I was a new librarian, I thought the people above me in the organization had to be really good – certainly better than I was.  Indeed I expected perfection.  After all, they had risen beyond where I was.  You can imagine that I was certainly the one who got a reference letter that said, “She can be a trial for those she works for, but she does very good work.”  With experience, I learned that the people I worked for were human – just like myself and everyone else.  They had talents, flaws, strengths, and weaknesses.  They might have advanced based on ability, or being in the right place at the right time.  Or they may have done their previous jobs well, and were propelled to a higher level – above their competencies.  The Peter Principle is indeed alive and well in all walks of life. 

As I rose in the organization I found others further down in the organization sharing the same sentiments with me.  They found their supervisors flawed – not paying attention to staff members’ progress, not open to new ideas, not acknowledging good work, or even taking public credit for their employees’ achievements. 

I would share with them my similar reactions, letting them know I empathized with their plights.  I would also point out that directing the work of others is hard.  Few people have any training for supervision.  Being a superior reference librarian is an entire different set of skills from directing the work of a group of reference librarians.  And, speaking openly and supportively with people about details of their performance – good or bad – is hard; many will avoid it if they can. 

I’ve reported to more than a dozen people in my career.  Most were acceptable or even very good, but several were awful.  The awful included those who paid no attention to their subordinates, or who interacted inappropriately with their employees, or whose sole skill was keeping their jobs.  In no case was I in a position to do anything about the performance of a supervisor (except in the inappropriate behavior case).  So, learning to work for people with small or large flaws is necessary. 

However, your supervisor’s less-than stellar-work is not a reason for your work to be less than your best.  Good enough is not an acceptable goal for you.  Even if no one recognizes your good work, continue doing it for your own self-respect.  Doing your best and meeting your own standards has value.  You also may not be perfect, but if you are doing your best, that has to be good enough.

You may have to work without useful supervision, setting standards for yourself.    Even if no one recognizes your work, you build skills and prepare for more interesting and challenging positions.   If your boss has retired in situ (as I think of it), you may end up doing the tasks he or she dodges.  Library directors are always looking for people with untapped talents and energies.  In one library a colleague and I both worked for the same hapless supervisor and each of us did some parts of his job.  We chaired important library-wide task forces or wrote library-wide reports.  We got little credit for it, but when we rise to the next level, we already had practice and success in parts of our new position.   

In cases of impossible supervisors and no recourse in the library or the institution, you need to look for another job.  This could be working for someone else within the organization or at another institution.  If change is not possible, consider using your talents in other pursuits.  On those occasions, I have gotten more professionally involved, bought and renovated a rental property, and built a deck in the back yard. 

Working for someone wonderful is a gift – a rare occurrence.  So working for someone who is pretty good is a real treat.  Because awful is more common than we like to think.

Crying at the Dinner Table

Even the most successful career has low points, frustrations, dashed hopes, interpersonal conflicts.  Each person copes differently, usually out of sight of prying eyes.  The worst require getting away from the work site  while the pain lessens.  Some take long walks.  Some wounds have to wait until the end of the day and involve crying at the dinner table.  Some drive sedentary souls to actually exercise.  Yoga works in some situations – relaxing, breathing deeply, focusing on your third eye (the invisible one in the middle of your forehead).  But I recommend avoiding crying at the dinner table if you have children.

The causes of crying at the dinner table may be promised promotions or salary increases that fall through, projects that come to nothing for suspect reasons.  Many of the blows arise from well-meaning, clumsy or thoughtless leadership.  Sometimes the leader wasn’t aware that what he or she asked you to do could not be done; the leaders might not have been familiar enough with the landscape to know where black holes exist.  You may know there are obstacles but hope that your leader has the power to overcome them.  But sometimes he or she finds the political cost is not worth it or it may use up scarce political capital or not even be worth the leader’s scarce time.

These setbacks may be hard to take.  But even harder to take (and humbling) is when you find yourself accidentally inflicting one of these blows on your own staff.  For some unwritten law, you often wound your best people.  They may inspire you to take make some promises or take some chances that you can’t really follow through on.  Once you have been the inflictor, it reduces the bitterness that you may feel at having been an inflictee.