New York Library Association. - The eBulletin

Library Friends Groups and Leadership

by Richard Naylor

Working in an organization brings together a variety of personality types with varying levels of skill and emotional intelligence. To add to the complexity, each organization has somewhat different challenges based on staff profiles, community needs, external issues, and the unexpected. Leaders need to adjust their behavior to meet a variety of challenges and opportunities. This is true of the dynamics between a library director and members of a Friends group.

In one sense, a Friends group is a part of the library. Its very existence is predicated on the library and its name usually simply adds the words “Friends of the …” to the name of the library. But a Friends group is a community partner; it has its own bylaws and its own board. This puts an aspect of the library outside of
the official library structure and brings issues that require a varying mix of leadership qualities to make the most of the relationship.

By utilizing the key dimensions of leadership, a library director can maximize the group’s success and outcomes. The main leadership aspects in working with Friends groups include developing strategy (i.e., an analysis of the organization with a review of the mission, culture and strengths and weaknesses; and
implementation plans); teambuilding; adjusting to personality types and behaviors; and encouraging networking and community involvement. My experiences indicate that the use of these techniques fosters more collaborative and coherent relationships between the library director, a Friends Group and the Library Trustees Board.

If a library leader has the luxury of being involved at the start of a Friends group, s/he has the luxury of establishing the relationship management with a clean slate. My first experience with developing a Friends group provides such an example. In that case, I was very fortunate to have help from a State Library and Archives librarian who travelled 150 miles to help with the start-up. This individual introduced the kick-off meeting with a speech in which he told the gathered group how important their role was in supporting the
library. Perhaps most important for me, he identified to them how they would recognize their success: it would be a smile on my face. Obviously he made an impression because the harmony of that evening
carried over into the day-to-day work of the Friends, and by continuing to reinforce their benchmark by praising their positive efforts, the relationship was carried forward. In this case, the Friends attitude and
contributions were also appreciated by the Library Trustees and several Friends “graduated” to the Library Trustees Board.

Another dimension of leadership requires affiliative skills: self-control, team building, and conflict management skills. These are important in trying to correct problems with Friends. In another experience, I encountered a group with members who lacked teamwork skills. One person would make a suggestion and another would immediately say why it was not a good idea, while other people in the group tried to compensate by saying “yes” to everything. These interactions produced tension in the general group and emotional deflation in the person making a suggestion. As an ex officio, I could not tell the group what to do; however, I could discuss the problem with individual members. From these conversations, we decided that at the next similar occurrence we would follow through with an immediate constructive response.
Rather than immediately saying “yes” to an idea, members of the group helped the “idea person” flesh out the proposal and provided encouragement, thus the group could work toward a consensus. In this case, the gradual result was that the disruptive member resigned and the group immediately showed an improved emotional state and more energy. It might have been better if the disruptive person had learned from the exchanges, but the result was still positive for the Friends.

My final experience came from an older case that created a situation that continued throughout my tenure. When I arrived, a trustee informed me that the library would never have another Friend’s group. He recounted that there had been a Friends group at the library’s formation and its members had been active with a building project. Over time, issues arose regarding the library’s differing governance structures.
Other people concurred with the story and highlighted the conflict between the Friends on the completion of the new library building. There is no definitive evidence as to exactly what had happened but perhaps
some conclusions were drawn from the reaction of the library trustees.

Assuming that the Friends did try to acquire more control than appropriate for the group, we can consider
and understand the Trustees Board attitudes. One interpretation of the Library Trustees response indicates
a lack of confidence to satisfy the need for recognition by the Friends without feeling diminished. Even if
some of the Friends did want to take more public credit and exercise control over library activities, the
Board of Trustees actually had the power to set policy and make decisions.

The Library Director and the chair of the Friends need to be self-confident, as well as secure in their own power and roles. What is also needed is a library leader with the ability to manage conflict resolution and facilitate team building. The director can mediate the activities of the Friends based on the library’s needs and the Friends talents and resources.

Because of the different governance structures, the library director must guide a Friends group without a command function. This library administrator can set schedules, choose who to hire, and change
procedures, but needs to work cooperatively with the Friends group to make it effective. This limits the use of more traditional leadership tools, yet through resourceful and creative approaches the library director
can lead by relying on skills such as inspiration, empathy building, and relationship management.

Whether a library director is starting with a new Friends group or working with an established unit,
affiliative, inspirational, and relationship management skills are the main tools for the leader to use in keeping the members of the Friends satisfied with their contributions and feeling like a part of a larger,
positive effort.

This article is recylced from JLAMS, Journal of the Leadership and Management Section. To see more of JLAMS please click here.