Teacher Librarian as Leader: Theories of Leadership in Action

This is the second of a series of blog posts I am sharing on the concept of Teacher Librarian as Leader. The content has been inspired by my recent work as a Learning Designer, working on the design and development of a new online MBA for the University of Southern Queensland. If you missed the first post, Lessons from the Literature, why not jump back and see where the discussion began. I hope the following post is thought provoking and practical, as we look at how the theories of leadership in the business literature might be applied to the role of the TL.

Theories of leadership in action

The concept of leadership has evolved over time. In the 19th century, the Great Man theory, asserted by Carlyle, was based upon the idea that leadership was innate, gifted only to men, by God (Spector, 2016). More rigorous theories that recognise leadership as likely to be a result of both nature and nurture (Johnson et al., 1998) and as a skill which can be learned, now define the concept.  These theories explain the characteristics of a good leader (trait theories), how good leaders act (behavioural theories), how the situation or context may influence one’s leadership style (contingency theories) and the source of a leader’s power and how they can best use it (power and influence theories). 

One set of theories that might be surprisingly helpful for TLs are those related to power and influence. It may be useful to recognise the different types of power that a TL holds, well as the power that is wielded by others in the school. French and Raven (1957 cited in Elias, 2008) created the original taxonomy describing five bases of leadership power. These are coercive, reward, legitimate, expert and referent power.  An exploration of these power bases is worthwhile when considered in the context of the TL role. 

Coercive power exists when people gain influence by using fear, the threat of punishment or actual punishment. This type of power is easily abused, and can create a negative atmosphere, as people feel that their behaviour is being controlled by the person in power. It is a formal type of power, as the person with the power must have some seniority or some capacity to withhold rewards, or alternatively put in place punishments for this power dynamic to exist. Older styles of librarianship that limited access as a form of punishment may have been interpreted as relying upon coercive power to ‘protect’ the collection. Increasingly, there are calls for more benevolent approaches to managing lost or overdue books, which rely less on coercion and more on relationship building and social justice (Paciotti, 2019).

reward powerReward power is the opposite of coercive power, derived through the granting of rewards or some form of compensation. Usually, the person with this type of power is in a position of authority, but the exception to this is the reward power that is gained by recognising a person’s value. Thanking people for their time and efforts and making small gestures of appreciation are also forms of reward power that can build influence as a leader, but in a positive and respectful way. Generating reward power in this way is how a TL can begin to build influence as a positive figure within the school community.

legitimate powerLegitimate power describes the power that people have by virtue of their position. A person in a position of authority automatically has some amount of power and influence over those they oversee. However, it is possible for a person with legitimate power to have less influence than someone lower in the hierarchy, due to their actions or attitudes. Those with legitimate power who do not earn respect for their authority can find themselves having to rely on coercive or reward power. Legitimate power holders in a school (e.g., the principal) make key decisions about the funding of the TL role and the school library, as both are not always mandated (Merga 2019b).  TLs must communicate regularly with their principal, to convey empirical data describing the value they have added, as well as to clarify the professional expectations and standards of the role (Merga 2019b). Building this relationship with the legitimate power holders is vital, as “advocacy involves not only assembling evidence but ensuring that it is presented in a suitable format for the intended audience and distributed through reliable channels” (Hughes, 2014 p.40). 

expert powerIn contrast to legitimate power, expert power is personal, being reliant upon a person’s real (or perceived) superior knowledge or experience. A person with expert power can retain that power regardless of what position they hold, because it comes from within. This is a type of power that can be very real for TLs who hold a specific set of skills and knowledge that should be in high demand. A TL can leverage expert power when they present evidence that demonstrates their practical impact on educational and social outcomes (Hughes, 2014). As mentioned earlier, the expertise of the TL is not always known or understood (Merga 2019b). Therefore, being aware of expert power and being active in highlighting one’s practice is an important aspect of leadership for the TL (Lewis, 2016).

referent powerReferent power is derived from admiration and respect. It can also be built around the desire of others to emulate or identify with the person in the position of power. Referent power is another form of personal power. It is a type of power that any one may hold, without even being aware of it. We will never know all of the ways in which our words and actions will influence others in their lives, and so in fact we all carry some amount of referent power. Building referent power is important for TLs, as strong social capital aids advocacy and promotes the position of the library and the TL within the school (O’Bryan, 2017). 

The idea using of power and influence is not as removed from a TL’s usual discourse of service and support than perhaps first thought.  Understanding the leadership role of the TL through the lens of power enables a fresh perspective.

Teacher Librarian as Leader by KayO28

Fragile but not weak

Envisioning the role of the TL as a source of influence and leveraging the power of the role to lead others to new knowledge and understandings may provide the inspiration needed during this time of transition within the profession. Although the informal sources of power that TLs have through their expertise, access to information and credibility may appear to be fragile, they can in fact be more potent than power arising from position, coercion, or reward (Elias, 2018). 

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