Thursday, June 25, 2015

Leading Means Teaching, by Patrick Wohlmut

As I write this post, I have just completed end-of-year evaluations for my library’s student staff of reference workers.

You read that correctly. We have students working at the reference desk.

We trust our student reference workers, who we call Lead Workers, with a lot. To be eligible for the position, student workers must have worked in the library for at least one year. Lead Workers offer research assistance to library patrons, make sure that the library runs smoothly when librarians are not present, handle difficult situations as they arise, take on small projects for librarians and library staff as needed, and refer patrons to the proper place for help when necessary. Where the student staff of the library is concerned, Lead Workers really are leaders. The cream of the crop. Some students look up to them as role models.

For me, assuming leadership of this team was daunting. I hadn’t had much experience with this kind of supervisory position before and, since I was a visiting faculty member and didn’t know whether or not I would return in the next school year or who would head the program after me if I didn’t, it kind of felt like this:


I had to figure out very quickly how to do several things:
  • combine authority with approachability;
  • make the transition between supervisors as smooth as possible for the Lead Worker team;
  • balance my work with the Lead Workers against personal concerns, including an hour-and-a-half commute, being a dad and husband, and the interview process for the tenure-track position that would replace my visiting one, not to mention my other job responsibilities;
  •  take ownership of my new role while knowing that I may have to let go of it at the end of the school year;
  • and make sure that the Lead Workers got what they needed to succeed and were impacted by as few of these struggles as possible.

Mostly I was successful; predictably, I also made mistakes. Here are five of the many important things I learned as a result of spending a year doing this job:

Leading Means Teaching
Teamwork, communication, initiative, acting on vague or missing information, and dealing with difficult people effectively and respectfully are just some of the skills Lead Workers have to develop. I was always modeling these skills for them. I quickly learned that in this position, leading means teaching, and teaching means modeling both my successes and how to learn from my mistakes.

Make the Expectations Clear
Young Adults aren’t always good at handling ambiguity, so they have to learn. Giving them a project with very broad guidelines, no concrete deadlines, and only a fuzzy idea of what I expect, and expecting them to do their best, is like asking a polar bear to fish without giving her any ice where she can fish. I learned to be very clear about my expectations.

Let Them Run
At the same time, dealing with ambiguity is a huge part of a Lead Worker’s job. I found that I had to give them enough opportunities to take ownership of what they do, make clear where and when they can run with a project or with the job in their own way, and in what areas I completely trust their decision-making and discretion.

Make Them Reflect
Aristotle was wrong: excellence is not a habit. It’s a process. I could follow a rubric and make sure that my student workers are able to do everything on that rubric, and they still might not grow, either as people or as Lead Workers. I learned that to really do their job well, my workers needed chances to reflect on what they do, on what they do well, and on what they could be doing better.

Connect With Them
I have a great library director, and one of the things I admire about her is her authenticity and how well she connects with her library staff as a human being. It makes it very easy to respect her, listen to her, and follow her lead, because I know exactly who is getting my respect. This is a quality I have tried to emulate with my Lead Workers. It bites me in the rear sometimes (I’m kind of a softie), but mostly it works.

Doing this job has been a yearlong, rewarding, confusing, joyful, scary, headlong-rushing balancing act. It has also been one of the best learning experiences of my life, and one that I have since been hired to do more permanently at the same library. I have so many ideas for the future, and I can’t wait to try them out.

Patrick Wohlmut is the Teaching and Research Librarian at Nicholson Library at Linfield College. He walked away from most social media around a year-and-a-half ago, and has never been happier. He’s also a produced playwright, and juggles a mean three-ball Mills Mess. He can be reached at, and blogs very, very occasionally at

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