“Leading from the Middle", by John Lubans*, is about freedom and democracy at work, teamwork, and leadership. Philosophy: the best work places empower staff to achieve their full potential; the less command and control, the better the product and service.

“Seven is not the loneliest number.”

Posted by jlubans on February 08, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Starling: "Wait for me!".

The Internet and beehives - both complex organizations – are akin to the acrobatic murmurations of starlings. And, for my teaching purposes all three are excellent examples of leaderless, self-managing organizations.
There is no grand maestro directing any of the three, telling underlings what to do and when to do it. However, unlike the pure democracy among the bees and starlings, the Internet is a magnet for regulators and regulation – man’s and woman's itch to control just won’t quit.
Of course, that raw desire for control is pasted over with all the best and selfless of reasons; remember Orwell’s “all animals are equal, some are more equal than others.”
Given the opportunity, I’d even guess the “we-know-best” crowd would want to intervene with the democratic decision-making of bees, or the spontaneous decision-making among thousands of starlings. But, the bees’ 80% success rate in decision-making and the starlings’ consistent success in avoiding predators would be hard to improve on.
Complexity is a complex topic. Melanie Mitchell, writing in "Complexity: A Guided Tour" sets forth some of the parameters in her definition: “A system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptative learning or evolution.”
I’ve emphasized the lack of central control and the simple rules of operation. Please note that there’s no mention of hierarchy, our favorite way of organizing our work. Unlike self-organizing systems, hierarchies require regulation because hierarchies cannot be trusted to behave in fair and impartial ways. They can be abusive because of the power a few have over the many. Hierarchies gravitate toward secrecy and closed books; that can lead to corruption. A self-organizing system is open, transparent, and needs no formal performance appraisal – feedback is immediate and whatever’s incongruent is corrected.
Birds appear to abhor hierarchy: “Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members.” While we can wonder about those flying and turn-taking wedges in the northern skies, the starlings give us something more. Thousands of birds cartwheel; create funnels, clouds and other shapes all the while responding in an agile unity. The question is how can thousands of birds move at varying speeds and in different directions all the while remaining as a unified, fluid, predator-proof group?
Seven is not the loneliest number.
The research has it that “one bird's movement only affects its seven closest neighbors. So one bird affects its seven closest neighbors, and each of those neighbors' movements affect their closest seven neighbors and on through the flock.”
Coincidentally, seven is a good number for a self-managing team. Of course, each of the team members, like the starlings, has to have something to offer and willingness to lead/follow. Being one of 100,000 birds in a fluctuating flock suggests a remarkable example of Leading from the Middle!
No starling (unlike the illustration at the top) gets to sit out the murmuration, to not take part at full throttle. The starlings might even score high on the “C” scale instrument for measuring team effectiveness. “C”, as explained in one of my assigned readings, “Good Teams: What’s the Secret?”, predicts group failure or success through three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. Seven is large enough for diverse viewpoints and participants, a high collective social IQ, and small enough for everyone to participate in group decision-making. Gender may have less of an influence among starlings than it does for humans.
I’ll be showing my class this video.
It features two science students in a rowboat who capture a remarkable murmuration out on the water. The video, I hope, will bemuse the students and lead them to marvel at what the starlings do and, beyond the starlings, to wonder about other ways of organizing – we humans are not necessarily limited to the top down command and control model of working.

Caption: Paraboloids and hyperbolics!

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “The Mice and the Oak”*

Posted by jlubans on February 05, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Mouse munching on acorn.

“The Mice found it so troublesom to be still climbing the Oak for every Bit they put in their Bellies, that they were once to set their Teeth to't, and bring the Acorns down to them; but some wiser than some, and a Grave Experienc'd Mouse, bad them have a care what they did; for it we destroy our Nurse at present, who shall feed us hereafter?”

“Resolution without Foresight is but a Temerarious Folly: And the Consequences of Things are the first Point to be taken into Consideration.”

The “Grave Experienc'd Mouse” has got it right. We deforest the land at our own risk just like we do when, presumptuously, we rush through a policy without considering worst-case scenarios. And, acts of “Temerarious Folly” arm the naysayers, those who resist change regardless of necessity. They point to the unintended consequences of the past as sufficient reason to do nothing.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

“They know they can….”

Posted by jlubans on February 01, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Dana Narvaiša, eye to eye with students, guiding student decision-making.
I am putting together the agenda for my two-credit Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia. This will be the fifth time around; it starts February 11 and will include a mix of master’s degree students and practitioners, approximately 17 total.
As regular readers of Leading from the Middle know, I often refer to this class; it’s a blood relative of this blog. And, the students’ willingness to consider different ways of organizing, leading, and following, inspires me every time.
I try to add something new each session; #5 will have several new features including an assignment that uses a Latvian produced video, “'Think School' – Children in Charge” (Domāt skola),
by Krista Burāne with English sub-titles.
The production follows third graders at the New School in Cēsis, Latvia for two month as they self-organize and manage their end-of-school-year celebration. The children apply what they have learned in school, vote, decide, deal with conflict, and carry off their project, happily. I find “Think School” highly reminiscent of Kurt Lewin’s classic, if rudimentary, film on boys
clubs and leadership styles. “Domāt skola”, perhaps unknowingly, builds on Lewin’s ideas about democratic leadership and applies them in a real school setting.
Let me explain a little bit about Latvian schools. In Latvia, the first day of school - all over this northern European country of two million - is a dress-up festive day; students wear dresses and suits, and parents, also formally dressed, tag along. Teachers are presented with bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates.
Likewise, the end-of-the-school-year is a day of celebration for students, parents and teachers. Usually the event is organized, planned and directed by the teachers
The New School, led by Dana Narvaiša, turned the celebration’s organizing, planning and executing over to the students. Not without some uncertainty. At a point in the film one of the teachers asks the quintessential question: “Do we suggest them (program ideas). Or, let them decide on their own?” In other words, what does leadership look like when working with self-managing teams? How far does the leader let go? At what point does the leader intervene?
I want my students to view the video and to write a short paper on what they see.
I’ll provide a guide sheet with several questions from which to choose two or three for a written response. They’ll have the option to make up their own questions.
I wrote to Dana Narvaiša in hopes of getting her perspective on how this experiment in democracy went. She was kind enough to respond. Here are her slightly edited responses to a few of my questions:
Q. Do you think the self-management approach worked well, overall?
“This was our very first time we tried this approach in such a large scale, before we did small projects for one/two weeks. That is why we did a lot of mistakes. …
Must admit that I had higher expectations at that moment for our students, but now when more students have joined us from other schools, I see that our students from last year have higher skills of self management - they better plan their time, they know that they can make difference, they ask for help, search for solutions, set higher goals. Well, I do not like to compare students like this, but in this case it helps me really to see impact of our approach and I see that it worked quite ok.”
Q. Did most of the students do an equal amount of work or did some do more than others?
“... In reality I wouldn't say equal amount, but what I appreciated the most - they all were involved and they all overcame themselves. For me it is important that everyone has progress - for girls it looks different than for some boys. You can see K___ - who plays with balloon, gets angry and does not dance. At the beginning of the year he was (fighting with) everybody, was rude, had conflicts with all students and teachers, but at the end of the year - he is involved in everything, he asks to do work, he wants to be involved, he has initiative. There were discussions between kids - who does more, who less and it was good chance to talk about our differences….”
Q. Did the students learn from their mistakes?
“Well… they can tell in theory what were their mistakes and what they should do instead. But they have challenges with practical realization. We analyze almost every event and definitely every project, and they are really good in telling what worked, what didn't and what should be improved.” (Emphasis added.)
Q. What is the most important outcome from this adventure for the students?
“They know they can….”


© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius' (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “An Eele and a Snake”*

Posted by jlubans on January 29, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Jellied eels, a favorite London Cockney snack.

“You and I are so alike, says the Eele to the Snake, that methinks we should be somewhat a-kin; and yet they that persecute me, are afraid of you. What should be the reason of this? Oh (says the Snake) because no body does me an Injury but I make him smart for't.”
“In all Controversies they come off best that keep their Adversaries in fear of a Revenge.”

So, bite your tongue or bite the attackers head off? Abstemius (15th century) suggests that the fear – not necessarily action - of “a Revenge” is what keeps the adversary at bay. Snarling like a junkyard dog will get you labeled as uptight, thin-skinned, paranoid, and, horrors, un-cool!
In the workplace we're told to turn away, that karma will come around and bite the maligner. Eventually.
Instead, cultivate humor as your vehicle of revenge, the snake’s stinging bite; petty people abhor ridicule.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Juicy Gossip.

Posted by jlubans on January 25, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Stern Soviet message: "Don't chatter! Gossiping borders on treason" (1941).

Frank T. McAndrew states in a recent edition of The Conversation, “Gossip is a social skill – not a character flaw”.
I always thought gossip was something to avoid; a meddlesome, backstabbing kind of thing. So, when I saw that headline, I took notice.
Reading his essay, I noted that some other researchers also think that gossip does more good than bad and that it is something we are seemingly hard wired to do. It’s in our DNA and helps us survive, in our personal and corporate lives.
In my experience, there appear to be three types of gossip: idle, malicious and useful. For the latter, I recall the “Pincher” from the earliest days of my career. He was a middle-aged manager with a penchant for pinching women in elevators; in those days he did so with impunity. It was through gossip that women learned never to get on an elevator with the Pincher.
Also in the utilitarian line, I recall a leader in my professional association who seemed to know everyone. Whenever I had lunch with her at a conference, she’d “dish” and I would come away with career planning information about job openings, who was leaving, when they were leaving and why. She did not lie nor seem to get any visible jollies from sharing the information. Obviously, she had an extensive network and was willing to pass on information to people she liked and wanted to see advance. She appeared to practice McAndrew’s conclusion about gossip: “Successful gossiping entails being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.”
A quick search brought up a couple other articles that claim gossip might be more good than bad. For a gossipy, “juicy” read, see “Psst, have you heard that gossip is good for us?” by Lucy Kellaway.
Of interest for team builders, McAndrew cites an essay
about the effect of gossip in a rowing team and how word of mouth was used effectively to get rid of a “social loafer whose relatively inferior commitment to the squad impeded the rest of the group’s success.” The researchers considered this an example of how gossip identifies a group’s takers vs. the givers and how a group responds to the egregious “taker”. Surprisingly (for a men’s sports team), no one confronted the loafer’s behavior and candidly told the person to get with it or get out; it was all done subversively, a classic example of conflict avoidance. That suggests a weak team since it appears afraid to get anywhere near the “storming” dynamic, that crucial phase of group development when doubts, anxieties, and fears are candidly and openly discussed. Absent this honest discussion, the group will not do as well as it could.
As a more effective model of constructive conflict resolution, the researchers cite the role of gossip among cattle ranchers. Gossip precipitates face-to-face discussion when one herd persistently stray’s onto another rancher’s property. The gossip triggers the discussion and settlement of differences face to face, never in a court of law.
While I have spent little time on the idle and malicious varieties of gossip, it probably goes without saying, that that kind of gossip should be avoided; it does more harm than good for all involved.
So, if much of your day at work is spent in idle gossip, guess what? You've plateaued and it is time to move on. And, if you find yourself becoming a backstabber and admiring Lady Macbeth, what should you do? Depends on who you want to be.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Frightened Lion”*

Posted by jlubans on January 22, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)


In another telling of this fable, the facetious frog does not guffaw with impunity:
“The Lion hearing an odd kind of a hollow voice, and seeing nobody, started up. He listened again; the voice continued, and he shook with fear. At last seeing a Frog crawl out of the lake, and finding that the noise proceeded from that little creature, he spurned it to pieces with his feet.”
So, mind your unexamined words, lest they get you “spurned to pieces”.

*Source: Walter Crane, Artist, “Baby’s Own Aesop”. 1887.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016


Posted by jlubans on January 19, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Not your usual display of expert juggling

One of my former students told me about the Gandini juggling troupe. She saw their one-hour show, “Smashed!”, in Riga’s Vermanes Garden and wondered – in spite of a stage full of shattered crockery, upended chairs and dozens of squashed red apples -if what they did was not about teamwork, an upside down version, of followership gone monumentally awry?
The show offers up ubiquitous symbols of the “office”, the workplace – the suits, casual Friday sweaters and dresses; the precisely aligned nine armless chairs, along with the geometric precision of the apples distributed over the floor, and the ritual of an afternoon workplace tea break.
In class, I’ve will use two segments (tableaux vivants) from an hour long video to demonstrate and to discuss aspects of un-teamwork, of failed teamwork. (Here is a 4.5-minute condensation for a quick glimpse of the Gandini jugglers.)

Caption: In pursuit of failure.
One of the segments I’ll be using is of a disruptive worker who, with a paper baton, does all he can to disrupt the eight apple jugglers, literally getting in their faces and slapping them with the baton. A persistent pest – an alienated follower or incompetent jerk or even an envious boss - his one ambition is to make everyone fail, to screw up the organization. He succeeds, but there is some payback. At the end, the group spurns him and won’t give him a seat back in the “office” area of nine chairs.

Caption: Entropy happens.
Another segment, near the finale, is called “Drop It!” The most destructive, it flips the envious individual vs. the group to a group hell-bent in opposition to individual success, willing and wanting to destroy the organization lest anyone succeed. Each juggler in turn is derisively shouted down or otherwise discombobulated so their juggle fails, apples crashing all over. At the “Drop It” conclusion, the group’s entropy - it’s falling apart - is manifest in dozens of apples littering the floor amidst smashed teacups, saucers, and teapots.
The finale restores some order as the troupe gingerly steps through the debris, demonstrating it’s earlier insouciance, expertly juggling apples to the sound of the bistro-ish, “I always wanted to waltz in Berlin….”
I plan on having my students in the upcoming fifth (!) iteration of The Democratic Workplace at the University of Latvia do some juggling either before or after the Gandini discussion. The “Balloon Juggle”, it will challenge the group to juggle an increasing number of balloons (a growing workload introduced by an unsympathetic boss) to keep afloat as many balloons as they, the team, decide they can, to sort them by color, etc. They’ll get to define what their success will look like. We’ll see if they improve on the Gandinins.
Caption: Back in synch.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. LaFontaine’s version of Aesop’s “THE JAY IN THE FEATHERS OF THE PEACOCK.”*

Posted by jlubans on January 15, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by André Hellé, 'Le Geai Pare des Plumes du Paon,' 1922.

“A peacock moulted: soon a jay was seen
Bedeck'd with Argus tail of gold and green,
High strutting, with elated crest,
As much a peacock as the rest.
His trick was recognized and bruited,
His person jeer'd at, hiss'd, and hooted.
The peacock gentry flock'd together,
And pluck'd the fool of every feather.
Nay more, when back he sneak'd to join his race,
They shut their portals in his face.”
“There is another sort of jay,
The number of its legs the same,
Which makes of borrow'd plumes display,
And plagiary is its name.
But hush! the tribe I'll not offend;
'Tis not my work their ways to mend.”

Notably, at fable’s end, LaFontaine targets plagiarists. To which “tribe” is he is referring? Academics? Or is he targeting the Parisian equivalent of London’s Fleet Street? Or, is his complaint in general of anyone, like Aesop's jay, who feathers his cap with feathers (achievements) lifted from others?
For scholars, the most blatant “plagiary” is straightforward copying without attribution. In the workplace, this is akin to taking full personal credit for someone else’s good ideas or work. And, then there’s the sly supervisor who attributes the good work to her department but omits naming the individual(s) most responsible.
Equally petty and unsavory is when someone imitates another’s ideas, recasts them somewhat, but gives no tip of the hat to the originator. Interestingly, a professed oblivion is often the case with hard-core plagiarists, people who’ve ripped off pages of someone else’s work almost word for word. When confronted, they deny, shift blame, obfuscate, and often threaten to sue. Since many academic plagiarists won’t apologize for stealing - nor will their peers “out” them - I understand why LaFontaine ends his commentary with “'Tis not my work their ways to mend.”

*Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016


Posted by jlubans on January 12, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Indicative of a wide prevalence, a Dummies guide to OP.

A friend who’d recently retired from the behemoth IBM told me that on-the-job office politics (OP) took up 50% of her day. Imagine that, half of your workday invested in surviving to yet another day. Is OP a productive or unproductive activity? Some might claim OP is the social lubricant, when applied sparingly, which makes the office machine work.
I am not sure. OP carries a largely negative connotation and can manifest itself as secretive, selfish, hypocritical, hierarchical, and incompetent behavior. Yet, I have seen colleagues who adroitly practiced OP and were decent folks and successful at "playing the game". And, I have experienced, personally, where ignoring OP led to an innovative and productive worker’s blackballing.
Indeed, OP can shut down candid communication, the freedom to offer up ideas without retribution and can leave an organization in desperate need of change, unchanged.
Is candid communication not quintessential to a democratic workplace? If you fear speaking up because you’ll be punished, is that not how totalitarianism works? Open communication is essential to anything approaching the democratic.
IBMs founder, Tom Watson, is on record about organizations needing more mistake-making, not less. Mr. Watson believed that a willingness to upset the apple cart would lead to innovation and discovery. Well, how does that compute for my retired friend who spent half of every day keeping up a fake veneer of politeness to cultivate, Darwinistically, a network for survival?
I agree with Mr. Watson that freedom to make mistakes is a good thing. Yet, cultivating such a culture can be difficult if OP dominates our every gesture and word.
So, how does an organization cultivate open and free communication? How do you eliminate fear of reprisal? Or, do you shake your head figuratively and believe that OP is a given, an imperfect yet prevalent part of human communication?
Recently, some options have been offered to help us cut through the fakery and get to a candid, mutually beneficial, discussion about things that matter in the work place. Rachel Feintzeig surveys corporate efforts to get around OP – to replace it with something like “shameless honesty
- in her article, “’Nice’ Is a Four-Letter Word….
These magic bullets - “radical candor,” “mokita moments*” and “front-stabbing” – do not address the underlying causes of OP – instead they brawl with it, out in the open, mano-a-mano, and seemingly hope for the best. I tend to think this is like putting a band-aid on a broken leg, but at least it is something meant to alleviate and to improve. How will these efforts play out? Will they give us better workplaces or will these attempts at frankness only aggravate misery and spite? My difficulty with imposed solutions – which these are - is that unless you address what is causing the OP, you cannot hope to change it with scheduled confessionals.
Perhaps the most important take away from this article is illustrated by a low-key example of office candor: Feintzeig writes of a VPs taking aside a junior executive and advising her to stop using “uh, uh, uh”, in presentations; those “uh, uhs” make her look less intelligent than she might want. When done one on one, in private, caring and honest feedback is essential to someone’s developing into an effective leader. That’s vastly different from putting someone in the “hot seat” and giving a group free rein (front-stabbing?) to tell that person just how awful he is.
I recall, early in my career, a department head peer who was tingling to tell me just how ineffective I was; all that she needed was my permission. I much preferred the way of my then boss. He was someone to whom I’d go to grumble about work problems. One day he offered up some excellent criticism. “Talk to me about problems, for sure, but, you know what, give me ideas on how to fix the problem.”
Now that little bit of advice, caringly administered, from forty years ago affected me profoundly. I sought, from that point on, to understand problems and to offer solutions.

*Mokita is a New Guinea word for “the truth everyone knows but nobody says”. Some places claim to have mokita amnesty days. In other words, you can speak about the elephant in the room, name the un-nameable, express the unspoken without getting booted.
One consultant suggests going to a bar and getting the company to buy the mojito (a rum drink) to go with the mokita. I can imagine how that might turn out! Cuidado! Excessive mojitos may lead to speaking in Spanish.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Two Dogs”*

Posted by jlubans on January 08, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: January 5, Fat Cat Tuesday.

“A MAN had two dogs: a Hound, trained to assist him in his sports, and a Housedog, taught to watch the house. When he returned home after a good day's sport, he always gave the Housedog a large share of his spoil. The Hound, feeling much aggrieved at this, reproached his companion, saying, ‘It is very hard to have all this labor, while you, who do not assist in the chase, luxuriate on the fruits of my exertions.’ The Housedog replied, ‘Do not blame me, my friend, but find fault with the master, who has not taught me to labor, but to depend for subsistence on the labor of others.’"

“Children are not to be blamed for the faults of their parents.”

Does the pampered pup have a point? A BBC story has it that the “Fat Cat” boss “will have earned more money (in the first week of January) than the average worker will do in a year.”
Does the handsomely-rewarded-and-then-some CEO have the same excuse as the housedog? It’s not my fault.
Well, who’s your daddy?
Indeed, why do boards and shareholders pay some CEO’s so much? At least the fable makes no ludicrous claim that sans the housedog the house will fail and slide into bankruptcy.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886. Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016