Out of Step with the Times

27 nov 2022 • 3 min

There was also testimony of an outdated leadership style in his previous place of work. Nevertheless, Gerald Leitner was given the task of modernising the global library sector.

Gerald Leitner speaks at the inauguration ceremony of WLIC in Columbus, USA, August 2016. 
Photo: Ifla/CC BY-SA 2.0

With Gerald Leitner as Secretary General, IFLA would continue to grow as a dynamic, influential and global brand in the library world. This was stated by the then Chair of the Board when Leitner was appointed, just before Christmas 2015. His promise was to unleash IFLA’s full potential to serve the global library sector.

Biblioteksbladet interviewed him in connection with the sector’s world congress, WLIC, in Kuala Lumpur 2018. There, he seemed to rush between the seminar rooms, always with something to say about the fact that libraries need to evolve in step with the times in order to remain relevant. Always impeccably dressed in a suit, and with language loaded with dramatic terms (”action”, ”change”, ”risk”), he seemed set to turn up the temperature in the generously air-conditioned halls of the convention centre. It was clear that he wanted to evoke crisis awareness among the assembled library representatives from all over the world.

”To motivate people and get them on their feet, you have to use words that seem relevant. Many at the conference are managers, but there are also hundreds of thousands of people in the library world who are not interested in change,” he said, over breakfast at the five-star Grand Hyatt hotel right next to the convention centre, after WLIC had just closed. 

The stress and anxiety of hosting 3,500 faithful library representatives had begun to dissipate. After breakfast, he visited the spa at the luxury hotel.

So did he think that people in the library sector are too reclusive and don’t realise they need to move with the times?

”No doubt a lot of people have that attitude and maybe that’s one reason why we have to use such strong words to make it clear that they have to be part of this movement,” he said.

By ”movement” Gerald Leitner was referring in particular to the common strategy for the world’s libraries that IFLA was about to implement using a ten-year funding programme from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He described the money as a ”game changer”, and the strategy as a necessary investment for the future.

He said the idea was his own.

”I was interviewed for this job and came up with it then. Fortunately, a vision for tackling the challenges of globalisation and new technologies was something that the IFLA executive committee also felt was exactly what was needed.”

When he took office as Secretary General in the summer of 2016, he was already known in international library contexts. Between 2005 and 2012, he was Chairperson of the European Bureau of Library and Documentation Associations (Eblida) and had been a member of IFLA’s Governing Board since 2012. In particular, he had been the managing director of the Library Association in his native Austria for almost two decades. 

It was a workplace plagued by the same kind of turbulence that the testimonies from IFLA would later describe. 

”In the years before 2016, there was a considerable fluctuation of staff,” writes his successor Markus Feigl in an email. ”It was also difficult to transform the operational culture from the previous very centralised management style focused on the managing director to a more collegial management style.”

This might as well have been a cautiously diplomatic summary of what was stated by IFLA employees.

Markus Feigl notes that he has no idea how his predecessor got his top job in The Hague. How could someone with such obviously outdated leadership ideals be tasked with making people and organisations move in step with the times?

Many questions about what happened at the headquarters in The Hague and how Gerald Leitner can continue to be Secretary General of the IFLA Foundation SIGL, recipient of multimillion-dollar support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, seem to remain unanswered. Since he was relieved of his IFLA duties last spring, silence has been the media strategy of the management, the Board and Leitner himself. 

When the interview in Kuala Lumpur was carried out in 2018, it was just over 18 months since he became Secretary General. It might have been too early, but the question was asked:

What legacy do you want to leave? 

”Change is, of course, constant, but when I arrived it accelerated,” Leitner said.

Just as this article is being written, a little over four years later, an email arrives from Leitner. There is no content other than a link to a press release, in which IFLA Chair Barbara Lison announces without further explanation that his contract for the post of IFLA Secretary General will be terminated at the end of this year.

Gerald Leitner has been given the opportunity to comment on the statements in this article.

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