Library Leadership

47. Adaptive Leadership with Robin Newell

There are two types of leadership, Adaptive and Technical. Adaptive Leadership hits people in the heart. It takes long-lasting and sustained effort to affect change in this area. Technical Leadership is work that can be done with the head, thinking through steps to fix a situation, and then you’re done. 

Are you ready to determine which one you’re dealing with in your organization and then use knowledge of yourself and ways to engage others to benefit your library? You will be after listening to Robin Newell, Director of the Emporia Public Library in Kansas, as she teaches us leadership principles based on work she’s done with the Kansas Leadership Center.


This podcast is brought to you by the School of Library and Information Management from Emporia State University, where library leaders are created, with program sites in Las Vegas, Nevada; Sioux Falls, South Dakota; Denver, Colorado; Salt Lake City, Utah; Portland, Oregon; Boise, Idaho; and Emporia and Overland Park, Kansas.


This is Adriane Herrick Juarez. You’re listening to Library Leadership Podcast, where we talk about libraries, and leadership, and speak with guests who share their ideas, innovations, and strategic insights into the profession.

I was fortunate to hear Robin Newell speak at a library conference about work she’s been doing with the Kansas Leadership Center and looked forward to bringing her on the show. Robin is the Director of the Emporia Public Library in Emporia, Kansas. On this episode she helps us learn to diagnose situations we can find ourselves in as leaders. She teaches that there are two types of leadership: adaptive, and technical.

Adaptive Leadership hits people in the heart. It takes long-lasting and sustained effort to affect change in this area. Technical Leadership is work that can be done with the head, thinking through steps to fix the situation, and then you’re done.

Are you ready to determine which one you’re dealing with in your organization, and then use knowledge of yourself and ways to engage others to benefit your library? You will be, after you listen to this show. Enjoy.

Welcome to the show, Robin.

Robin Newell:

Thank you.


Question #1: Today we are talking about Adaptive Leadership. I learned from you at a library conference that adaptive work is different from technical work. Can you tell me about that difference and what this means for libraries?  01:39 

Robin Newell:

Sure. I will start by talking about technical problems. Technical problems are usually solved by—you gather the facts, you know what to do, you have an expert. They tend to be what are called, neck up problems. They can be solved in your head.

Adaptive challenges are about changing priorities, and changing beliefs and habits for the sake of a compelling purpose. Adaptive challenges tend to live below the neck. They live in people’s hearts and stomachs. They’re about values, and loyalties, and beliefs. An example of this technical challenge would be like the brakes are failing on my car. So, I would take my car in. I would take it to a brake mechanic. The problem is very clear. The brakes are wearing out. The solution is clear that he can fix the brakes. The brake expert will fix it. He will be very efficient. It will be done in a very quick manner, and the problem will be fixed with no problem. 

The adaptive challenge would be on the other hand, the reason my brakes are failing is because my eighty-five year old mom recently moved in with me and she rides the brake pedal all the time when she’s driving. So, while the technical challenge seems to be, The brakes are wearing out, we’ll just fix them. The real challenge here is the adaptive challenge of working with someone and trying to change a habit, change a belief that’s gone on for a long time. It’s going to require my mom learning something different. It’s going to require some acting experimentally that she can drive without riding the brake pedal. It’s going to take longer than getting my brakes fixed. An expectation is not to fix the problem but to make progress towards the brakes lasting longer. So, that’s an example of a technical problem and an adaptive problem.


Question #2: That makes a lot of sense. So technical work is pretty straight forward, but Adaptive Leadership takes time and attention. It’s never really over, I mean these matters of what we’re invested in with our hearts is something on-going. You talk about taking the temperature of an organization, and then turning up or down the heat to get things into a productive zone. What is this all about? 04:22 

Robin Newell:

When you have an adaptive challenge, nine times out of ten it’s something that’s going on in the organization. It’s not something that you can just fix with a little check box, If you do this, and you do this, and you do this, you can fix it. Adaptive challenges are challenges that are daunting. They take a long time to change. So, what you can do is actually take the temperature of the organization. 

So, Are people very complacent? Do they not care about the problem? Do they not necessarily care about the organization? Where are their hearts? Where are their thought processes? Kind of going around and taking the temperature of the organization can help you. 

Now on the other side of that, people could be really hot. People could be really upset about whatever this issue is, whatever this adaptive challenge is. It could be a wide variety of things. It can be a technical situation, but it’s an adaptive process because people are going to have to learn something to make progress in this challenge. 

Taking the temperature, looking around and saying, How upset are people about this? Are they engaged at all, are they totally not engaged?  The skill with learning about Adaptive Leadership and adaptive challenges is learning when to—what we actually call it is turning the heat up. We use the word heat to mean an energizing combination of progress, purpose, and engagement that gets people into a zone where they can be most productive.

Because quite frankly if people are very low energy, there’s nothing going on, you’re not going to get a lot of productive work out of them at that point. Exactly the opposite is true. If they’re really hot, if they’re really upset you’re not going to get a whole lot of stuff done. So, you want to really think about how to turn that heat up. 

The heat sometimes means that you have to bring conflict out into the open. Raising the heat may include getting a group of people to pay attention, and take action on a shared purpose. But you’re actually creating energy by working with people, and sometimes this can be very conflictual. It takes a lot of skill to do this. But it can be done, and I’ve seen it happen where you go into organizations where everything’s just been the same way for a long time. And sometimes when you raise the heat, and you do become conflictual, people are able to work in a productive zone.


Question #3: That’s so interesting. So, getting the temperature right in our organizations, not too cool, not too hot—we have to have some good diagnostic skills. We have to be able to test multiple interpretations and points of view to get a good handle on what to do again. I’m learning this from all of you at the conference. You help us understand ways to do that, how to diagnose a situation. Can you tell me about that? 07:48 

Robin Newell:

Absolutely. You mentioned one of them, it’s to explore multiple interpretations. Sometimes when we look at a situation we look at it and we think [laughter], I think I know what the problem is. And I will take that interpretation and run with it. But, when you’re diagnosing a situation that you’re really trying to make progress on, you’re trying to move the needle. This is not something that we can fix overnight, but we’re just trying to make progress. We want to get as many interpretations as possible from as many people as possible. We don’t just want benign interpretations. We don’t want the nice interpretations. We want all of them. We want the conflictual interpretations as well. We want to explore as many interpretations as we can. 

Another way to diagnose is—we talked about this already, Is this a technical problem? Is this a technical challenge, or is this an adaptive challenge? If it is, that helps us know which way to go. We also want to take those interpretations that we have and we want to test them. The way that we can test them is, to actually sit down and talk about those different interpretations and those points of view, and see if they’re relevant, and how they affect that situation. Part of that is taking that temperature. When you’re diagnosing the situation you’re looking around the organization, what is the heat in that organization? Is it too hot? Is it too cool?

And then the last thing with diagnosing the situation that I want to mention is to identify who needs to do the work. Sometimes it’s very easy for us to take the work on our own shoulders and move forward with that. But sometimes, the work is not ours to do. Sometimes, the work belongs to someone else. So, being able to identify who needs to do that work is a critical part of diagnosing the situation.


Question #4: Also, it’s important to know ourselves as part of this process and work with our own strengths and vulnerabilities in order to lead others, right? 10:05 

Robin Newell:



Question #5: How do we do that? 10:11

Robin Newell:

So, in order to work with our strengths and vulnerabilities we have to know them. Some of the ways that can happen is you can look at some personality tests, like the Kolb Inventory. You can look at the StrengthsFinder. You can look at Myers-Briggs. You want to look at those and build some knowledge about how you are, and what you do, and identify your own strengths, and vulnerabilities, and triggers. 

Once you start doing that it’s like this fascinating map that you start learning to listen for those triggers, and everybody has them. Everybody has hot buttons that others can press and take us out of the game. That’s the worst part of working with our strengths and vulnerabilities. If somebody triggers this and we just totally shut down, then no progress is going to be made. So understanding that, and having that commitment to not give up and get mad, and take our toys and go home, but really, to stay in that diagnose situation and work with that to move past whatever that discomfort is that you’re feeling.


Question #6: That’s good. We really do need to know that about ourselves to move forward in this. Then, how do we energize others in this work? 11:55  

Robin Newell:

Energize others. The whole purpose is to energize others to move forward. It’s to make progress. It’s to work towards—I’m not going to say a solution, but to work towards something that is greater than it is now. One way to do that is to start where people are. If you’re working with a group of people on an adaptive challenge then you want to really connect with those people. You want to talk with them. You want to see where they’re at. What are their fears? What are they worrying about? What keeps them up at night? You want to really connect with them, as far as starting where they are not where you’re at. 

This is about working across groups of people, so you really want to talk with as many individuals as you can. You want to engage the unusual voices. If there are people there that you don’t normally talk to, bring other people in. You may need to engage unusual voices. But the most important thing is to start where they’re at, and then speak to their loss. 

Because when you’re trying to energize others, that means change. It’s my belief that people don’t fear change as much as they fear the loss they are going to experience with that change. They’re going to lose something when something’s different tomorrow. It’s not going to be the same. So they really need to be able to speak to that loss, and to talk about—not the thing that’s going to change, but the thing that they’re going to lose. Give them a voice and let them really be able to work through that. 

And then, it’s important to inspire a collective purpose. Hold the purpose is one of the leadership principles. There’s five leadership principles. One of the principles is, your purpose must be clear. When you’re going into an adaptive challenge your purpose must be clear as far as where you’re going, and what you’re trying to do. So you really want to inspire a collective purpose by again, engaging those unusual voices and starting where they’re at.

And then you want to create a trustworthy process where people feel like they can come to the table and have discussions, and feel like they’re not going to be shut down, or triggered, and that type of thing.


Question #7: And, we all have adaptive challenges in our organizations. You talk about this way of work as something that can help you intervene skillfully. What’s the process for this? 14:42 

Robin Newell:

Intervening skillfully is like a—I want to say, an interesting concept where you’re going to really be very, you’re going to hold a purpose, number one. But, you’re going to make a conscious choice to intervene in this situation. You’re going to act experimentally. You’re going to see how this works. You’re going to try some things. It may raise the heat. It may lower the heat. You may have to give the work back to the individuals, work that you’ve been doing. But also, you need to speak from the heart. And again, it’s from heart-to-heart here. We’re not talking about logic models and talking from fact-to-fact. We’re talking heart-to-heart here. 

So when you’re intervening skillfully, you really want to be focused on how people are feeling and what they’re feeling, what their concerns are and then, for yourself, to speak from the heart.


Question #8: And like you say, adaptive is heart work. Technical work is head work. So when you’re in an adaptive process, you’re definitely going to be creating changes that affect people very deeply inside. So, this seems very important. Is there anything else you would like to add? 16:22 

Robin Newell:

I want to go over the leadership principles that this framework is built around, just really briefly. The first one is that leadership is an activity, not a position. This is not about authority. Authority is a position. This is leadership as an activity. You’re actually doing something. You’re moving something. You’re making progress. It is not a position.

The second one is that anyone can lead anytime, anywhere. And I love that in Libraryland because, I really believe that in many organizations that have been embraced and brought forward, that no matter what your position is in the library, if you’ve got a great idea, bring it forward and let’s make some changes.

The third leadership principle is, it starts with you and must engage others. That means you have to be active. And, you have to be active in engaging others. Your purpose must be clear, I’ve mentioned that a couple of times, especially with an adaptive challenge. The purpose has to be clear.

And then the last one is, it’s risky. Leadership is risky, but it is so worthwhile to see progress being made on challenges or in an organization. It takes a long time. It’s a journey. This is not a technical problem. So, the whole risk factor can be scary to many people. But, just knowing that leadership is risky and that you’re going to be fine, and they’re other people that are going to be supportive of you, and have conversations with you, I think is very helpful.


Question #9: Do you have a favorite book or resource you’d like to share about leadership, and why? 18:11 

Robin Newell:

I would have to say I probably have twenty [laughter] leadership books. But my latest one, because I am working with this framework is, Your Leadership Edge, Lead Anytime, Anywhere. It’s a book written by Ed O’Malley and Amanda Cebula. It really talks about this framework and how to use it. This whole process was developed to redefine civic leadership and to really get people civically engaged. It’s being used throughout the state of Kansas to really engage communities back into active engagement, instead of passive. Looking for board members, and looking for council members, and that type of thing. It’s really geared to giving people the tools to have difficult conversations about making progress. Actually building healthier communities is the long-range plan for Your Leadership Edge.


Question #10: And this is something out of Kansas? Do you want to talk a little bit about the process where this came from? 19:27 

Robin Newell:

Probably about, fifteen years or so ago, the Kansas Health Foundation set some people up to go across the state of Kansas to say, We would love to have a healthier Kansas. How are we going to do this? What they heard back was very surprising, because what they heard back from Kansas was, We need strong leaders in our communities that will help us make our communities stronger and help us make great decisions. 

So out of that year-long questioning of the state of Kansas, the Kansas Health Foundation granted money for the Kansas Leadership Center, which brought together some individuals who had already been working in the leadership field. And through that, they developed this framework that I’ve talked about today. Again, it’s to get people engaged in their community. It’s to get people engaged in their organizations. Whether it’s your state professional organization, whether it’s your religious affiliation, however it is, it’s to have people actually stand up, be active, and make their community better.

That’s why the whole goal of this type of framework, and the Kansas Leadership Center is community health. It’s been interesting because the Kansas Health Foundation has recently decided that literacy is an important function of health. They have started actually, a whole literacy campaign throughout the state of Kansas, to help people understand that if you can read you’re going to be making better health decisions. You’re going to be making better community decisions. They’ve done a lot of work with literacy as well as libraries right now. That’s been an interesting partnership to see, with all of the community health, nationally that’s going on. It’s been interesting to see the Kansas Health Foundation step up.


Question #11: Absolutely, and it provides a great foundation based on research, and talking to people, and many partnerships. So, it’s a great starting place. I’ve been really intrigued by this. I’m so excited we talked about it today. Robin, in closing, what does being a librarian mean to you, personally? 21:52  

Robin Newell:

Professionally my goal is to have a literate society that will vote because I know that unless libraries are funded then there’s a good possibility that we will not continue to exist. And unless we can explain that to people, and get them out to vote for literacy and for libraries—that’s my professional…personally, my goal is to develop strong leadership within my profession. That’s my personal library goal—to build leadership, to build the future leaders of libraries.


That’s great. Thank you so much for sharing today. It’s been fun having you on the show and I enjoyed hearing this first at a library conference, and now we’re sharing it all with our listeners, so thank you.

Robin Newell:

Thank you for inviting me. I’ve really enjoyed speaking with you today.

You’ve been listening to Library Leadership Podcast. I’m your host, Adriane Herrick Juarez. Our producer is Nate Vineyard. More episodes can be found at, where you can now subscribe to have new shows delivered right into your email inbox. You can also find the show on Apple iTunes, or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you for listening. We’ll see you next time.

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