Lawrence Public Library Director advises graduates to lead through vision

Brad Allan, Director of the Lawrence Public Library, gives the graduation address.

Brad Allan, Director of the Lawrence Public Library, gives the graduation address.

Comments Delivered by Brad Allen, Lawrence Public Library Director

On January 11th, 2017

Thank you for having me here today and congratulations on your graduation from the Emerging Leaders Academy. I’m honored and humbled to be here with you today. I would never have thought anyone would ask me to give a speech at a graduation, so thank you Noel and everyone at the Public Management Center for this invitation. I guess this is what happens when you are recognized as a leader, so I guess this must mean I am one. It’s a bit surreal I’ll have to admit, but here we are. So let’s make the best of it.

Here’s what I want to say to you. When you are called to lead, lead, and work hard to do it well. One very important thing I’ll say, make sure you want to lead–or are at least willing to take on the responsibility involved in leading. Simple enough, right? Well, maybe, but you’ve already taken a great first step enrolling in this formal leadership academy.

To be honest, I never saw myself as a leader or ever really aspired to become one. I hope that’s OK to admit here. I’ve always been a fan of finding a great leader and helping them, providing the best work and expertise I could to serve their vision. So it’s confusing how I ended up where I am. I’ve always liked being a technical expert, and while I’ve always needed leaders who allowed me to speak my mind, I didn’t want to be the one to make the final decisions that have an effect on so many others. Whoops. Well, here I am now, and perhaps someday here you will also be. Or perhaps you already are.

So a little background on my accidental arrival at leadership and why I’m still doing it and hope I’m doing it well.

I entered the world of formal leadership for the same reasons many others have, I imagine. I didn’t like the ways things were. I had a vision of what I wanted–or maybe didn’t more honestly put, a vision of what I want. I applied for a job as a library director here in Lawrence because I saw an opportunity to create something from the ground up. A new building was being built. It was an opportunity to create something new and different and hopefully better and more fun than the norm. I had a moment of ambition I guess you could say, sitting In Seattle worrying I was in a dead end job. Much to my surprise, I got the job and all the responsibility that comes with it.

I try to accomplish two things at work. First, provide the best library I can to the community I serve. Many people may have many different views of what that actually means. So I use my best judgment, and even more importantly, I seek the counsel of those I work with and those I serve because those are my best tools for deciding what the best library for my community would be. I also make sure to regularly ask myself why I do what I do. I’d encourage you to do the same.

The second thing might sound a bit silly, but I decided I would try being a boss, a leader, whatever, in hopes that I would be a good one, and that there would be one less bad boss out there ruining people’s lives. Bad bosses have been one of the biggest stresses in my life, and as you probably already know, they are the single biggest reason people quit their jobs, even ones they like. I figured that even if I could just be a good boss, I could slightly improve the lives of the few people that worked for me.

So, given these two things, I see my job as a balancing act between running the best library possible and providing the most enjoyable, and hopefully fulfilling, working environment I can. Sometimes, these things coincide beautifully. Sometimes, they don’t. I see my job as bringing these two goals into harmony the best I can.

A leader sets the tone of the organization. I know that’s obvious, but it’s still important to articulate. What a leader says and how a leader behaves affects everyone in an organization. People look to their leaders to know what to do, how to act, how to understand what the rules are and what the organizational culture is like. Being mindful of your words and actions is a huge responsibility as a leader, and as a new leader, I think it’s really easy to forget that what you do and say has an impact like you never had before. So be mindful of that.

Earlier, I asked you to be a good leader, and I’m not sure how much advice I’ve given you in trying to achieve that, so in closing, let me give it a shot right now. I want to ask all of you to above all, lead with compassion and empathy.

Our world keeps changing and becoming more complex at an accelerated rate, and I don’t think it’s going to let up anytime soon. And until the robots come to take all our jobs–and perhaps that will happen sooner than we realize–most of us will continue to work. At jobs. For money. And our work will continue to involve bosses, people I prefer to call leaders.

So in this environment, I ask you to be the compassionate and empathetic leader our world demands. Work stress continues to increase. Life stress continues to increase. It is the job of leaders to provide the best environment for our colleagues to survive –actually, I’ll go ahead and say thrive–in the face of rapid, often overwhelming change and demands. Outcomes matter, efficiency matters, meeting board expectations matter, but none of those goals can be meaningfully achieved, or meaningfully celebrated if we lose sight of human factors. So, have compassion for yourself and have compassion for the human beings that surround you. Seek to understand and empathize with the day to day work struggles of those you lead. As a result, you will contribute to the positive feedback loop of making your workplace a place that achieves two important goals–its mission and vision, and to be a healthy, rewarding place for human beings to punch the clock and get their paychecks.

An organization is only as good as the humans and the human interactions that it consists of, so show your humanity to others and see the humanity in everyone you interact with. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable and allow others to show their vulnerability. As a leader, these things are more crucial than they’ve ever been.

So be good to one another. Live long and prosper. Thank you for your time. Good luck and take good care.