Common Stacks Episode 22: Dr Sarah Clark on Kind Leadership


This was a fun interview with Dr Sarah Clark, founder of the Kind Leadership Challenge Podcast. Follow her at
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Rough Transcript of Episode 22: Dr Sarah Clark on Kind Leadership

Heather (00:05):

Hello and welcome to the Common Stacks Podcast. This is the show that brings together professionals from within the library world as well as interesting experts from other professions to engage in discussions around the issues affecting libraries. Looking at the ways in which libraries are dispelling the myth of, well, this is how it's always been done. I'm your host, Heather Teysko. This is episode 22. It's an interview with Dr. Sarah Clark, Dean and University Librarian at LaSalle University, and founder of the Kind Leadership Guild and the Kind Leadership Challenge Podcast. But first, your reminder that this podcast is brought to you by Library Lever. We are a new kind of library buying club. So do you know how much you're paying in transaction fees when you purchase a database or electronic resource through the buying club or consortium that you're using? Now, most library buying clubs and consortia have a model where they add a surcharge of anywhere from four to 12% to your price from the vendor. We came up with a different model. We don't do that. So you can see how much you can save by pledging your support to Lever Lever at We have an easy calculator there. You can put in the amount that you spend on resources, what your annual budget is, and you'll see exactly how much you will save by ordering through Library Lover Library Now onto Dr. Sarah Clark, who will start off explaining what she means by Kind Leadership.

Dr Sarah Clark (01:40):

Well Kind Leadership. Most simply put is the art of building a better world without burning out in the process. And, and I think that this is a struggle that a lot of library leaders have and a lot of educational leadership educational leaders have. I am a university library leader by trade. I've been in academic libraries pretty much my whole career. So that's sort of the world I move in and most of us wanna change the world. We did not go into higher ed to get rich. We certainly didn't go into libraries to get rich. We wanted to make a difference in the world. And sometimes when you have that mindset, which is a wonderful mindset to have, we need more of that in this world. You start seeing everything as a problem to be fixed. You look for the surface things, You look for the quick fix.

Dr Sarah Clark (02:37):

Oh, I just do this thing. I I re catalog this book and everything's fine. I handle this reference question. I teach this class. All that, just checking things off your list, especially if you're the sort of person who's a leader and who is very achievement oriented. But when you get too focused on fixing problems, you sometimes miss what's going on below the surface. The problems behind the problems, where I used to call the question behind the question when I was still on the reference desk. And that is because sometimes leaders need to step away from the little dopamine hit of the quick fix and go, What's the bigger problem here? What's the structural problem? What's the cultural problem? What's the, what is the people problem that I need to identify and help to heal? So that we that in that one action, we fixed 10 other problems.

Dr Sarah Clark (03:39):

And the way you do that is basically I have identified three core skills to Kind Leadership, which are growing humanely, which is kind of where you get right with yourself. You learn how to, you learn how to process your emotions. You separate kind of the facts of a situation versus the stories you may be telling your head in about a situation in your head. And you process those emotions. You get in touch with your core values and then you learn how to make decisions from a point of strength. Because leadership, for me, it's ultimately all leadership is, is making decisions that you believe will impact the world for the better. In the case of educational library leaders who wanna practice from this Kind Leadership stance and to make good decisions, you need to think of yourself as the computer that generates those decisions. So you need to make sure that your software's okay and your brain and your hardware is good.


Dr Sarah Clark (04:38):

You're taking care of yourself. You're a lot, you're making good. You're processing your emotions, you're living your values that is growing humanely. And with each decision you make and each time you work through that process, you get better. Next, you need to manage effectively. It's not just all about the touchy, squishy feely stuff, It's about actually getting the work done day to day in the most efficient, effective manner that helps the community that you are helping in your school or library. And for me, a lot of that is about basically about learning how to manage your time, manage your money, manage your political capital. And of course the favorite one for us librarians is managing the information because you have, those are the the core resources that we all work with as leaders and we have to figure out how we leverage those things effectively.

Dr Sarah Clark (05:33):

In a world where there's never enough time, there's almost never enough money. You never, you either have too little information or you're trying to drink it from the fire hose. And well, these days you don't always have as much political capital as you'd like either depending on your community and your situation. So you have to figure out how you can get the most bang for each of those four kinds of bucks. So that's managing effectively. And then the third thing is partnering collaboratively. A leader is not gonna get very far unless they have a team that is all on the same page and rowing in the same direction. They have their advocates both within their organization or school district or library system or local government or whatever, and a connection to the larger community that they serve. And by beco strengthening those partnerships with those three things, you can then start creating and moving towards a vision that impacts all of the decisions that you make so that you are truly creating something that will make, make your community that you serve more educated and more informed.

Heather (06:48):

And I hear you talking about like library systems and schools and I mean, it sounds like what you're talking about is sort of universal. It's not necessarily for university librarians, but these are are kind of principles that you've put together that could be applied to all types of library leaders and even leaders outside of the library world, I'm thinking as well.

Dr Sarah Clark (07:08):

Absolutely. I remember one time very early on I did a webinar and I got some feedback after it. Somebody said, Have you ever thought of doing the kind parenting challenge <laugh>? Cause apparently they saw a lot of things in this, this, this framework that that, that spoke to them. As a parent, I was like, Well, I'm not really qualified in that department, but I'm glad to hear it. It resonates transfer that.

Heather (07:32):


Dr Sarah Clark (07:32):

Exactly. It transferable skills.

Heather (07:34):

There you go. So what's your story? How did you kind of put all of this together? What was your journey, your university librarian, you've been a leader?

Dr Sarah Clark (07:43):

Well I, I often joke it was about 40% my PhD in higher education leadership and 60% the school of hard knocks. I have always just had an interest in a in, in leadership just as a concept and kind of as a career path. I, I've always had a naturally strong personality. Some people may have called me bossy over the years, so maybe people may have called me other words over the years, but we won't go to go there. And early on throughout my career, I've always kind of gravitated to those management and leadership type opportunities when they've cropped up, which has made me a little bit unique in library land. A lot of, we have a lot of kind of accidental leaders, which is another reason why I've started this podcast, but that's another thing. And so I've just always been interested in how you can lead and, you know, use that way to like magnify your impact on the world by leading an organization, but do it without like, losing your soul in the process.

Dr Sarah Clark (08:53):

And I think that's kind of how I, I wound up in libraries how I wound up in library management and later leadership. My first library director kind of nudged me into doing the PhD program at a local university that did a PhD in higher ed leadership. And I went through that journey and I learned a lot of fancy theories about higher ed leadership. I did a dissertation, I did all the all the things and got my doctorate. And about a year after that I got an amazing opportunity to work at in my opinion, the best university in Philadelphia, a town with many universities, LaSalle University. It's a smallish Catholic university in the heart of northwest Philly. Wonderful neighborhood, wonderful university. I was new. I was coming from a very different situation. I had spent essentially my entire library career in a regional public university in Oklahoma.

Dr Sarah Clark (09:52):

And then I moved to a similarly sized but private Catholic urban as opposed to like suburban slash rural university in, you know, a very different part of the country. And I was excited and I was fired up and I just, I walked in and made like every newbie mistake in the book. It was terrible <laugh>. I mean, I, because I was, and, and it came from what I said a minute ago about, you have to be right in yourself before you can lead and make those grow humanely and manage effectively and partner collaboratively. And I was, I had a whopping case of imposter syndrome. It's like, why did these people bring me here? And, and there were a lot of things that needed to be done that first year and I didn't have time to, I didn't make time to be gentle. Because we had a building renovation that had to happen.

Dr Sarah Clark (10:51):

We had a staff reorg. I was pretty, that needed to happen. And there were some budget things that I came into and I found out after I got there that needed to be taken care of. And that was all in the first year. And it was a challenge. And rightfully it took that team which had not seen change in a long time. They're wonderful, wonderful librarians to a one of 'em. It's the best people I've worked with in my career. But it took us a little while to get to know each other and to understand each other. And finally they were brave enough to say, Hey, there's some things you do you're doing that I think you could shift. You know, frankly I just, cuz I didn't know any better and because I was so unsure, I was coming off as a micromanaging control freak at times just because I was trying to wrap my head around a situation that, so it was so much different, but I, it, it doesn't matter what my intent was, it's the impact that you're having on your people.

Dr Sarah Clark (11:53):

And so I had to kind of take a breath and step away and like stop worrying about all the 20,000 things that needed to be decided for the renovation and these other things. And I just needed to go, go back to first principles and, and basically figure out how I wanted our library to work and what I wanted out of our culture and how we were gonna work together. And it was about a, depending on how you count about a six month year long journey that second year I was there of, you know, of basically just saying, Look, we can't go on the way we're going with you guys feeling too scared to talk to me or too, too nervous about change. And then me, you know, either steamrolling you or feeling like I can't talk at all. We gotta figure out how to work together if we're gonna make this thing work.

Dr Sarah Clark (12:47):

And so we basically just started out on first principles and you know, we had a lot of conversations, a lot of some team building meetings, but just time and having meetings and like we like had some disagreements and conflicts and we discovered, okay, yeah, we can fight with each other and it's not the end of the world because really it was us discovering that we all wanted the same thing and we all cared about the same thing. I was not, you know, they understood better where I was coming from. I understood better where they were coming from and we were able to come together and grow together. And it was a wonderful experience but it also left me at the end of that second year going, I wish I had had help. I mean, I read a lot of books. My boss at the time, you know, was a, a helpful mentor and kind of guided me, but you know, he was a big busy guy as a provost too.

Dr Sarah Clark (13:43):

So it was pretty much on my own that I figured this out and I was like, I don't want anybody, any new leader or any older leader taking on a new challenge to feel lonely the way I did to feel alone, to feel ashamed. There was nothing that was shameful about it, but it, because I was so alone and didn't have anybody, I felt like I could really, who understood who got it. I didn't feel like I'd failed that first year. I'm not even really sure I totally failed that first year in retrospect, but I didn't feel like I'd failed. I felt I, like I was failure and that was the hardest thing to crawl out of once I, once I got my head screwed on back straight, the rest of it was relatively smooth. But it was, it was making that shift within myself and learning to be kind to myself in these rough times and learning that I did not need to be perfect to build a better world. That epiphany was really where Kind Leadership was born.

Heather (14:43):

Gotcha. Wow. And it sounds like your team, so it's almost been a collaborative effort to put this together too with your team giving you the feedback and thank goodness they did. So you could kind of start to have these epiphanies as well.

Dr Sarah Clark (14:56):

Exactly. My mom as when I was younger, would talk about, you know, gifts and ugly wrapping paper. That was definitely, that, that's one of the biggest gifts and ugly wrapping paper I've ever had in my career. And and yeah, yeah, we all learn to work together and, and it's, you know, it's been wonderful

Heather (15:13):

So. Oh, that's amazing. That's so cool. So then you had all of this stuff, and this kind of leads me to the next, how did you put this all together? You know, it's one thing to kind of have these epiphanies and, and learn this stuff for yourself, but then to start to be able to teach it and to start to be able to write it and, and put it in into a course or into modules and put together like a program and methodologies, how were you able to kind of transfer the personal growth that you had into the Kind Leadership Guild and into, you know, doing this for other people?

Dr Sarah Clark (15:46):

Well some of it was trial and error and this actually probably the PhD helped a little bit more cuz I knew a lot about like theoretical frameworks. I was able to like look at other models of leadership, you know, like, like transformational leadership and there's change management and I am not gonna bore you with a bunch of names. You know, don't worry about that. We're not gonna go, this is not gonna be a lecture people mostly cuz I've forgotten half of that since I graduated. But but it did get me thinking about how you put a theory together, how you put a framework together because I wanted a system that had steps that people could work through in the process of becoming kinder leaders to themselves and to their libraries and their organizations. And the things that I found that I needed to figure out in my journey were about, you know, about leading myself and that's the growing humanely space that the, that kind of, and then kind of the day to day nitty gritty of making your, your library work at to its best effect to use your limited resources to their best effect, which is managing effectively.

Dr Sarah Clark (16:55):

And then of course dealing with all of the other people you have to deal with in, in your role as a leader. And that's where manage, you know creating collaboratively comes in. And when you put those three things together, then it like just becomes this flywheel where it just, everything just strengthens on itself. You know, it was a heck of a time getting the boulder rolling if I can mix my metaphors here. But, you know, the momentum starts surprisingly quickly.

Heather (17:27):

Gotcha. So, you know, we talk about kindness and being kind to yourself. You also talk about the difference between being kind and being nice. So can you talk about that a little bit?

Dr Sarah Clark (17:37):

Oh yeah, I can talk about that because this is one of my hobby horses because I think that a, a big problem and kind of my, my dual world is an academic library and in higher ed and in libraries is that there is too much confusion between being nice and being kind. And those two things actually, I would argue that that goes back to the fixing versus healing thing I was talking about a minute ago. Nice leadership in my mind, and I'm gonna use leadership in air quotes cause I, I, I think this is actually an abdication of leadership. Nice leadership has the goal of fixing, When you're in a nice head space, you basically think like the best teams are pleasant. Everybody's talking about the weather or who won the game or you know, Oh, did you see this cute cat video on TikTok or this, that, and the other thing.

Dr Sarah Clark (18:38):

Instead of talking about like the real problems that are under the surface. In fact, if a lot of nice environments see conflict as a sign of failure, that was actually one of the biggest things that I had to learn in my leadership journey was to be more comfortable with conflict, to be more comfortable with fighting. Because a lot of times the solution to a problem is found on the other side of a debate because if it, the answer was obvious, you wouldn't need to have a debate about it. <Laugh>, there wouldn't be good. You know, if you're arguing, that means there's a sign on other things. And, and, and when you get nice, you like wanna rescue like struggling team members instead of helping them grow so that they can solve their own own problems and you know, those sorts of things. And basically it's all surface, It's all hiding from the deeper challenges, not rocking the boat giving 110% because you feel like you're the only one who's willing to work.

Dr Sarah Clark (19:44):

So instead of letting people live the circumstances of trying to do you know, too much with not enough, we need to, you know, I, I could go on for a half hour just about doing more with less because that is one of my pet peeves. And I think it's a big reason why education and libraries are in the situation they are now. Because every time somebody has piled another unfunded mandate on us, we're like, Thank you. Can we have another until we're ready to collapse? And that is nice. Leadership in my mind, Kind Leadership is honest. Mm-Hmm. <Affirmative> it, it and it sees conflict as a sign of growth. And when you have a team member that's struggling instead of like saving them and rescuing from their situation, you coach them to get better and you set expectations and boundaries for us, they don't get better.

Dr Sarah Clark (20:40):

And instead of like trying to make people happy all the time and not rocking the boat, your focus on is making your teams humane and effective and collaborative even if they're not happy all the time. And you remember that rather than trying to do more with less, you leave some gas in your tank so you can actually change the world for the better. And that, that in a nutshell for me is nice leadership versus Kind Leadership. And I think that as a field, arguably as a world in some ways, we need to get rid of the nice thing and we need to start being kind instead. And that includes being kind to ourself and sometimes the kindest thing is to say something challenging to somebody to say something they don't wanna hear. Like I said, when I, my team came to me at that first year and said, Hey, we think there's some things you could be doing better that stone. I mean that gave me like, you know, probably six weeks of sleepless nights when that happened cuz a lot of other things were going on right in that moment. But yet I would say that's one of the kindest things that anybody has ever done with me in my professional life.

Heather (21:52):

Yeah. That's amazing. Yeah. One of the things that you have on your website, which we will plug,

Dr Sarah Clark (22:00):

I'm gonna have everybody actually go to my podcast website, which is Kind Leadership I also, because that's, that's where you can find my podcast. I talk about basically common leadership issues and, and challenges from a kind of school and educational library standpoint. Sometimes it's like inspired by something that's happened in my life or in the news or pop culture or if it's just something I wanna ran about. And I, but they're short, they're 10 minutes. They come out every Monday morning and everyone ends with a challenge to the listener. I don't want you to be like all your other podcasts and just listen to two talking heads talk to each other. Not that this isn't a wonderful format, but my, my my goal is at the end you have some sort of nugget, some sort of takeaway that you can go and implement in your leadership practice this week.

Dr Sarah Clark (22:56):

And it's gotten really good response and I've been, been very happy with it. But that's Kind Leadership and actually from there you can link to the page for the Kind Leadership Guild, which is basically my area where I have some courses on leadership decision making. It's called Get Unstuck. You can find that there. And you can also find coaching, I'm kind of in between coaching cohorts at the moment, but I may be starting some in the new year, but if you sign up for my email list, which you can get,

Heather (23:28):

That's what I wanted to talk about. What you have called conversations that you have this booklet and I wanted to ask you for some the quick three minute takeaway of of what you offer with that. Yep. Cause it's a freebie for people. They just have to give you, give you their email address and it's a

Dr Sarah Clark (23:46):

Exactly. Give me your email address and you will get it's about a 10 page, it's actually a set of checklists for planning, for conducting and kind of debriefing from a difficult conversation of any sort, any kind of difficult leadership conversation. It can be talking to a struggling team member, It can be talking to a frustrated patron, was that good and diplomatic, you know talking to a you can even talking to somebody above you, an administrator or a board member or somebody who you need to have an an a uncomfortable or challenging conversation with. And I walk you through the steps of how you kind of get your head on straight and understand what your goals are for a particular conversation. Map out an outline of how the points you wanna hit, how you're gonna do it, and then basically just a roadmap, almost a script for that you can fill in for having the conversation and then figuring out next steps after it. And that's a free version. And you can also, if, if you want to, you know, if you wanna show out 19 bucks, you can also upgrade to a small video course. It runs about an hour and a half where I dig deeper into each of these things and actually go through like common scenarios and situations that people have that that can help you kind of do that. And you can download this the free guide, just go to Kind Leadership, enter your email. You're good to go.

Heather (25:21):

Perfect, perfect. So I wanted to make sure we talked about that and talked about the difficult conversations that's there. What I, you talked, I wanted to ask about how library leaders in particular could improve their Kind Leadership. And you kind of talked about that with the whole doing more with less mindset and and some of those things that are there. Is there any other kind of takeaway for what you see specific to library leaders, public or academic?

Dr Sarah Clark (25:53):

Yes, because I think there is something that is behind the nice leadership, the doing more with less tendency that we have. I include myself in this. I'm trying to break myself with the habit, but I, I still struggle with it like all of us. And that is, I think we as a profession are scared of conflict.

Dr Sarah Clark (26:21):

I think that we, for many understandable reasons, sometimes grounded in history, sometimes grounded in a lot of social context about libraries and their roles in the government and their roles in the community. The typical gender of a lot of us in the profession and how we move in society have moved into society historically. I don't think we're comfy with conflict. Yeah. And when I think of the common challenges that leaders have in the educational world, when I think about the cultures that are just full of like gossip and in fighting of people like trying to do end runs around their bosses because they don't like what their boss says. So they go to their boss's boss and you know, all the silly petty nonsense that goes on in a lot of higher ed and a lot of K-12 ed and certainly a lot of libraries, a lot of it could be solved by just having a frank, honest, uncomfortable conflict.

Dr Sarah Clark (27:27):

Just tell somebody they don't what they don't wanna hear. And yeah, it may be uncomfortable, there may be raised voices, you may have a debate, you may learn you were a bit wrong, they may learn they were a bit wrong. But at the end, if you're after the same goal goal, then you'll get to that goal and you will be stronger on the other side and the other side will understand better what you are dealing with. And that is how we move forward as a profession, as libraries. This is how we stand up to the people who are trying to challenge the core values of what libraries do in society because they are uncomfortable about hearing ideas and notions and information that they don't agree with. We all have to learn how to handle conflict better and I don't, and and I think it has to start in the library with librarians and library leaders, educational leaders too. Because we need to, we need to teach people how to have a conflict and how to disagree without being disagreeable, which means we better start learning ourselves.

Heather (28:40):

Right, right. That's wonderful. That is a great note to end it on. We talked about your website. Is there any other, are there any other places where people can find you?

Dr Sarah Clark (28:53):

I am on LinkedIn. That's probably the that and LinkedIn's the most easy place to find me. I'm just Sarah Clark on LinkedIn. If you type in like Sarah Clark kind of leadership, I ought to pull up. I'm also connected with Heather so you can, you know, check her connections and you'll see me there. Alternately I do, we do have a Facebook group for the podcast. It's the Kind Leadership Challenge, so you can go there as well if you're a Facebook person. Those are the main places I am on the socials. And then of course you can find the Kind Leadership Challenge anywhere podcasts are found or just head to Kind Leadership You'll see like all the logos for all the big podcast things. All you need to do is click the one you use and all the things will set up and you'll get subscribed and it'll be fabulous. And also if you enter your email and get the guide every Monday morning, I also send out the podcast via email. So if you're not a like a podcast app person, you can just listen to it through your email. I got you covered.

Heather (29:53):
Thank you Sarah, for taking this time. It's been such a, a joy to meet you and to speak with you and to learn more about Kind Leadership. I'm gonna start looking at this more in my own life now.

Dr Sarah Clark (30:07):
Wonderful. Thank you Heather. Thank you for having me on. I've been looking at your projects too and, and you know, it's really exciting to be here.

Heather (30:14):
Thanks for listening everybody, and thank you to Dr. Sarah Clark for taking the time out of her day to share her experience with Kind leadership and how it has changed her leadership style. Hop into our community, discuss your We have some exciting events going on, including free training on the Agile methodology, Agile framework within project management that's coming up this week. We've got lots of stuff happening in there, so and we hope to see you in there soon. It's free to join. You don't have to be a member of the Library Lever Consortium to hop in. It's free to everybody. Thanks again for listening. Thank you again to Dr. Sarah Clark. Check out her podcast at

About the author 

Heather Teysko

Heather Teysko is head of community and engagement for Library Lever, and she loves running the Common Stacks Podcast. She's been in Library Land for close to 20 years, with a career that has focused on technology and ebooks. She is also passionate about history, having built a website on Colonial American history in 1998 that got to #1 on Yahoo (when that was a thing) has been podcasting on Tudor England since 2009, and her podcast The Renaissance English History Podcast has a social following of over 50,000 people. She has published several books including Sideways and Backwards: a Novel of Time Travel and Self Discovery, which was negatively compared to Outlander in several Amazon reviews, despite the fact that it is set in a completely different time period, but the comparison still feels like an honor.
You can follow her on twitter @teysko.

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