Mastering The Art Of Adaptation

ACRLog and its readers have engaged in some lively conversation about leadership in the last few weeks, and I hope you are looking forward to another post about it (sorry Barbara). I attended OCLC’s 2008 Symposium on “New Leadership for New Challenges” at the ALA Midwinter Conference. Described as an exploration of “how both individual and institutional leadership has an impact on the success of libraries” the program featured Leslie Crutchfield, co-author of Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High Impact Nonprofits and Rush Miller, co-author of Beyond Survival: Managing Academic Libraries in Transition. The two speakers gave different, but occasionally overlapping, presentations about organizations that transform through change and how they achieve sustainable success. The common thread: great leadership.

Crutchfield’s philosophies and strategies are based on a detailed analysis of successful nonprofit organizations such as Habitat for Humanity and Heritage Fund. Successful nonprofits (including libraries) achieve positive social change. What are the six practices? Advocate for a long-term vision; what will the world or your community look like when you succeed? Make markets work; yes, you can achieve success by collaborating with for profits. Inspire evangelists; convert your community into true believers and get them to do your job for you (that one should sound familiar to the scholarly publishing advocates). Nurture your nonprofit network; collaborate with peers to succeed. Master the art of adaptation; know your mission and do whatever it takes to accomplish it even if it’s not mainstream. Share leadership; leaders need to let go and let others share the power. Crutchfield’s talk was more about the qualities of great nonprofits and less about leadership, but she gave case studies that clearly pointed to visionary leaders who had the courage to institute the six practices even when it meant taking great risks in the name of innovative change. That’s why she said that for libraries the number one practice should be mastering the art of adaptation.

Miller’s advice for survival – or avoiding complete marginalization in higher education – was more familiar to the audience of librarians. Referencing stories about change at this own library since 1994, he emphasized that achieving an adaptive library was about the attitude of the employees not organizational structure. Miller said that while a great leader alone can’t make all the difference, a great library must have a leader with a well-articulated vision and the confidence to pursue it. In response to a question Miller closed with some important advice for the next-gen leader. While today’s leaders (and folks, by leaders he meant top library administrators) obtained their jobs based on expertise in library skills (e.g., collection development, technical processing, etc.), the next generation must achieve their authority based on ability to adapt, innovate, identify problems and develop creative solutions.

Both speakers pointed out that great organizations, nonprofits and libraries, needed leadership throughout the organization – employees that are willing to be adaptive. But it was also clear that those adaptive employees needed a topnotch administrator – an executive director – to motivate and influence them to share in the leadership so that the organization could transform and move into the future. I suggest that in our future conversations we not debate where true leadership emanates from in the academic library, the administrator or the front-line worker, but that we focus instead on how the two can share leadership in a way that puts the mission and cause of the organization ahead of anyone’s ego.

OCLC will have a video recording of both presentations on their website sometime in February. If you’re interested in leadership and creating adaptive library organizations, plan on viewing the program archive.

One thought on “Mastering The Art Of Adaptation

  1. But it was also clear that those adaptive employees needed a topnotch administrator – an executive director – to motivate and influence them to share in the leadership so that the organization could transform and move into the future.

    I think the more supportable argument is that organizations that have an executive director need that position to be occupied by someone who is good at that job.

    (My own administrative experience makes me allergic to the words “motivate” and “influence,” as I’ve seen them used in practice too often to mean “coerce people without the unseemly appearance of coercion,” but I’m not going to hold the bad practice of others against your statement of principle).

    I suggest that in our future conversations we not debate where true leadership emanates from in the academic library, the administrator or the front-line worker, but that we focus instead on how the two can share leadership in a way that puts the mission and cause of the organization ahead of anyone’s ego.

    I agree with the basic idea that, given a certain organizational structure, it doesn’t make sense to argue about who “really matters” in it–every position serves (or should serve) an important function. But stated this way, it seems like you are suggesting that discussions about organizational structure per se should be out of bounds. I don’t think that’s a fruitful approach to take, especially given the recent discussion about librarians and professors and tenure and what it means to be faculty or not.

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