Collage of MAALL Adaptive Leadership Panelists with MAALL Logo

Adaptive Leadership During Volatile Times

The notion and concepts of adaptive leadership inspired me last year during the darkest times of the pandemic.  Shortly after beginning my new position with the Seventh Circuit, I attended a judiciary seminar on the topic.

It was informed by the framework of adaptive leadership developed by Harvard business scholars, Marty Linsky and Ronald Heifetz, in a pre-pandemic world to manage change and often unanticipated changes in the workplace.[1]

It seemed especially timely midway during the pandemic and while beginning a new job.  It reinvigorated me to observe structures and slowly effectuate changes to systems or habits or projects that appeared ready for change.  Not “change for change’s sake,” but steady improvements and envisioning new projects and opportunities from the pandemic that brought such an upheaval to the workplace and constant change.

With this topic in mind, I further solicited and convened a panel for the MAALL annual meeting (which was again virtual) to discuss the topic of adaptive leadership and share visions for growth.

Change management is difficult, so support from peers is essential and everyone in an organization can benefit from knowledge of the adaptive leadership framework and its strategies for challenging times.

MALL Panel

The time was ripe to reflect and share ideas during the heart of the pandemic, so I organized the expert panel of speakers for the MAALL event.  Dean John Edwards (Drake Law), Professor Susan deMaine (Indiana University Maurer School of Law), Professor Therese Clarke Arado (NIU Law), and Professor Matthew Braun (University of Illinois Law) joined me in a lively discussion of adaptive leadership by first setting the stage for literature on the topic and then engaging in a few library-specific adaptive leadership challenges.

Top 5 Issues

We focused on five top law library issues that we had most acutely encountered during the pandemic and then applied the adaptive leadership strategy and principles to those challenges.  The most volatile and enduring issues throughout the pandemic for leadership in law libraries based on our panel’s consensus are:

  1. Budget
  2. Collections
  3. Morale of Personnel and Communication
  4. Teaching and Reference
  5. Mental Health and Wellness.

The third and fifth categories require the most empathy by managers, but empathy could hypothetically be infused into each issue.

Adaptive Leadership

Our MAALL panel began with an overview of the Heifetz & Linsky literature on adaptive leadership.  Adaptive leadership is contrasted with the more fixed mindset or technical framework of leadership strategies.  In a technical problem landscape, current rules and norms are applied to a known universe of problems and then a technical outcome is produced based on little or no change by the individuals.

This is contrasted with the adaptive leadership model where new problems emerge that have never been encountered (e.g., pandemic-driven changes or other unknown changes like new management) and then individuals must change their habits, known skills sets, ways of thinking, and even other loyalties within an organization.  The biggest common denominator in an adaptive leadership framework is acknowledging the sense of loss that change(s) bring to the workplace or organization.

Adaptive leaders are active leaders and bring light to changes through gathering and analyzing data carefully (e.g., listening), actively participating and communicating with members of the community, regulating distress, and giving the work of creating new solutions back to the people and empowering resolutions through democratic solutions to new issues.

Finally, adaptive leaders also steer employees away from avoidance, hear leadership voices from below, connect to a purpose and vision for the organization during times of volatility, and are not afraid to experiment.  The overall goal in an adaptive leadership framework is engagement of all employees during times of uncertainty and achievement of common goals through effective communication of common vision or strategic planning to assuage fears about the disruptive era.

Yirka Method

Our panel addressed each of the five issues for law libraries with a few minutes of expert commentary and then additional thoughts by the panel.  Another common theme for adaptive leadership strategy is finding opportunity during each challenge and using a growth mindset.  For budget challenges, there was a revisiting of the Yirka question and library management decisions.

The Yirka method was posited in the 2008 AALL Spectrum “Article of the Year” by the same name, and Professor Karl Yirka bravely asked the questions about which services law libraries should re-envision or stop doing during periods of economic strain.[2]  Dean Edwards also gave the sage advice that it is always wise not to “do it alone” and to confer with colleagues carefully before making budget or collection decisions.

We are in a wonderful group of professionals who are fortunate to share knowledge and advice during unprecedented times like the pandemic.  I shared thoughts on law library collections once again being flipped again to more digital collection building and remote service models for delivery and posited a few articles for this reprise of tough economic times.[3]

Proactive, Empathetic Leadership

We will have to be more proactive leaders within law libraries to fine-tune current collection development policies and re-envision collections for a digital age and curate more robust digital archival library collections.  Professor deMaine shared thoughts about communication and pivoting to Zoom, Teams, and Slack and removing barriers of reporting lines for adaptive leadership purposes and bolstering staff morale during the stressful times of the pandemic.

Staff morale is often directly impacted by access to and adeptness with technologies, changing workflows and workload expectations, and opportunities for growth and connection amidst volatile times.  Finally, Prof. Arado and Prof. Braun addressed the vast array of teaching changes and need for wellness services during the pandemic to support students, faculty, and staff.  Empathy is imperative for adaptive leaders and everyone within an organization, but it’s a special opportunity for librarians to envision and plan for nontraditional services to bolster our communities.[4]

Librarians can help spark wellbeing, access to authoritative information, and infuse empathy in an often unkind and stressful professional setting for lawyers.[5]  The adaptive leadership model strives to empower individuals to tackle strife and difficult problems, so implementing this leadership model widely during the pandemic era makes good sense.

As a continued effort to spread the Heifetz & Linsky literature and the adaptive leadership model, we are planning to convene a CALL panel in April on this topic.  Please look out for this joint sponsored Continuing Education and Mentorship and Leadership committee group panel to join the conversation and share your ideas.  Until then, be well and strive to embrace unexpected changes within your workplace and view them as opportunities for growth and change as Heifetz and Linsky would.  Adaptive leaders unite!


[1] See Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing your Organization and Your World (2009), The Practice of Adaptive Leadership: Tools and Tactics for Changing Your Organization and the World: Heifetz, Ronald: 9781422105764: BooksSee also Ronald A. Heifetz and Marty Linsky, Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive During the dangers of Leading (2002), Leadership on the Line: Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading: Linsky, Martin, Heifetz, Ronald A.: 9781578514373: Books and Harvard Business School, A Survival Guide for Leaders, A Survival Guide for Leaders ( .

[2] See Carl A. Yirka, Yirka Question and the Yirka Answer – What Should Law Libraries Stop

Doing in Order to Address Higher Priority Initiatives, 12 AALL Spectrum 28 (2008).  See also Cathy Hardy, Applying the Yirka Question in Tough Times, 16 AALL Spectrum 9 (2011) and Kristina L. Niedringhaus, Leadership and Learning: Asking the Yirka Question, 22 AALL Spectrum 1 (2017).

[3] Taylor Fitchett, James Hambleton, Penny Hazelton & Anne Klinefelter, Law Library Budgets in Hard Times, 103 Law Libr. J. 91 (2011) (stating that libraries should have a Plan A, Plan B, and Plan C during dire budgetary times to take control and advocate with administration); Ursula Gorham & Paul T. Jaeger, The Law School Library or the Library at the Law School: How Lessons from Other Types of Libraries Can Inform the Evolution of the Academic Law Library in the Digital Age, 109 Law Libr. J. 51 (2017).

[4] Melissa Beuoy, A Case for the Empathetic Librarian, in Student Wellness and Academic Libraries: Case Studies and Activities for Promoting Health and Success (Sara Holder & Amber Lannon eds., 2020).

[5] National Taskforce on Lawyer Wellbeing, The Path to Lawyer Wellbeing: Practical Recommendations for Positive Change (2017), Lawyer-Wellbeing-Report.pdf ( .