Smashing the Jerry Jar!

Every one of the 27 Institutes and Centers at NIH shares a similar leadership structure: a Director, appointed by the NIH Director, and one or more Deputy Directors selected following a rigorous search process. A productive and effective working relationship between the Director and the Deputy Directors develops (ideally flourishes) to the benefit of the Institute and NIH and to science writ large. I have been privileged in my professional journey at NIH to serve alongside Jerry Sheehan. Jerry began his career at NLM in 2006 as the NLM Assistant Director for Policy Development. I selected him to be our Deputy Director in 2017 and, after recognizing the importance of NLM’s contribution to public policy, named him the Deputy Director for Policy and External Affairs in 2021.

Directors and Deputy Directors employ many conventions of conversation to facilitate their working relationships. During the pre-pandemic period, Jerry and I had contiguous offices, and that proximity allowed for the daily engagement necessary to oversee such a vibrant and complex organization as NLM. I relied on his affable demeanor and gentle nudging to keep the daily operations moving well, diffuse tensions as needed, and provide a warm complement to my own persona and ways of engagement. Jerry’s special understanding of the role of libraries in promoting science for society was invaluable in guiding NLM—and NIH, and the federal government—through such important initiatives as the NIH Public Access Policy and the Data Management and Sharing Policy. Along the way, Jerry and I grew to understand and appreciate each other’s strengths, share responsibilities in guiding the library through opportunities and the pandemic, and communicate in efficient ways.

The ”Jerry Jar” crept into our lingo as a shorthand way of letting me say, “Here’s something important to handle—I am not quite sure what to do with it and I believe that it needs your expertise.” Said with a bit of humor and with the recognition that each of us could place things into and remove them from the “Jerry Jar,” this phrase became the passcode that allowed each of us to trust that whatever was passed on would be addressed promptly and handled efficiently and might even be returned to me with a message advising me on how to proceed with responsibility and grace.

Eventually, a day may come when a Deputy Director leaves for a new opportunity. This is exactly what is happening now at NLM… Jerry is leaving NLM to become the Director of Science, Technology and Innovation at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, France. I wish Jerry all the best in his new venture and am using this blog to say, “Farewell and Thanks. I’m proud of what we accomplished together!” As we planned for his departure, I sought his advice about what to do with the “Jerry Jar” that had become so invaluable to our operations.

“Smash it,” he said! This rather surprised me because held in that “Jerry Jar” were many vestiges of important NLM decisions already made and the reminders of things yet to be done. Then I realized that while there are many ways we can transfer the facts of our history and our future to the leadership team still here, there is no way to transfer the goodwill and deep trust that evolved between two professionals over seven years.

When I first interviewed Jerry for the position of Deputy Director, I inquired as to why he was interested in the position. He responded by saying that he wanted to help me pilot this great ocean liner and steer it towards the new future that we would create together. Well, Jerry, I think we did a good job: We positioned NLM towards a vibrant future, and I couldn’t have done this without you! Thank you, and fair winds.

Patricia Flatley Brennan, RN, PhD

Director, National Library of Medicine

Dr. Brennan is the Director of the NIH National Library of Medicine, a leader in biomedical informatics and computational health data science research and the world’s largest biomedical library. Under her leadership, NLM has grown its intramural and extramural research enterprise, extended stakeholders’ access to credible and reliable health information, and acquired and preserved biomedical literature using cutting-edge digital research and outreach. Read more about Dr. Brennan.

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