“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.

Friday Fable. Sir Roger L'Estrange’s “AN ANT FORMERLY A MAN”*

Posted by jlubans on October 21, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Jupiter’s Ant, still filching.

“The Ant, or Pismire, was formerly a Husband-man, that secretly Filch'd away his Neighbour's Goods and Corn, and stor'd up all in his own Barn. He drew a General Curse upon his Head for't, and Jupiter as a Punishment, and for the Credit of Mankind, turn'd him into a Pismire; but this Change of Shape wrought no Alteration, either of Mind, or of Manners; for he keeps the same Humour and Nature to this very Day.”

“THE MORAL. That which Some call Good Husbandry, Industry and Providence, Others call Raking, Avarice, and Oppression: So that the Vertue and the Vice, in many Cases, are hardly Distinguishable but by the Name.”

Once more, we meet our friend the ant.
This time in a far less favorable light than the industrious ants in the illustration; they, of course, slam the door on the fiddling grasshopper, leaving him to perish in the wintry wind.
And, so it can be at work. How?
There’s the manager who knows all the rules and reasons not to break them (a form of Raking, if you will) vs. someone who cares less for rules than assuring customers are well served.
Colleen C. Barrett, President Emeritus at Southwest, calls this “leaning toward the customer” vs. leaning away. She told me she was much more likely to forgive a mistake when the agent was leaning toward the customer. Saying that, Colleen was giving permission to break rules when a situation required it – to do what was right - rather than maintaining the rules no matter what.
How many times have I run into workers who have a great idea for improving their work but it is denied because the idea challenges the “way we’ve always done it”? Hence, “the Vertue and the Vice, in many Cases, are hardly Distinguishable”.

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

End of the Line

Posted by jlubans on October 18, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: What organizational entropy can look like.

I’m thinking of using this photo – one I took this month at Opal Creek* – for a Democratic Workplace class discussion on organizational theory.
The picture is what’s left of a lumber mill*. Dozens of people worked here. Given the wild, mountainous location, people likely lived here and may have had families along with them.
Probably there was a dining hall. There were loggers and supervisors and mechanics and other specialists to keep the mill and its gear running. And, there had to be drivers and trucks to haul in supplies and haul out the massive loads of lumber taken from old growth stands, some towering trees harkening back 1000 years.
For me, the scene suggests these folksy metaphors:
End of the road
The wheels coming off
Going off the rails
The end of the line
All done in
Terminal, as in Termination.
Out of Business (OOB)

Maybe the students will come up with similar metaphors, maybe something to do with applying steampunk theory to the workplace.
I’ll introduce the topic with a bit of organizational system’s theory; notions of equifinality, homeostasis equilibrium, and so on.
I hope they’ll consider an important aspect of an organization’s life: it’s imminent death and how to avoid it. The thermodynamic term of entropy is an important aspect of organizational theory. Entropy suggests, as does the picture, that there can be an end to it all, a flying apart of an organization (a nation, a business, a family) as it uses up its energy. I’d like for the students to think about what might delay a group’s demise. We know that the importation of energy (ideas, money, resources, customers) is essential to sustaining a system. What else might keep a system going?
Relate this photo to organizations you know. What comes to mind? What happened to the people (ancient and contemporary) that were on this land, who walked amongst these trees? What does this scene say to you? How does this apply to our class, the Democratic Workplace?

*The Merten Mill – the site of this photo - was a working lumber mill for a short span during America’s Depression, and came to grief (literally going off the rails) when two of the mill’s lumber trucks tumbled off the canyon road. Fortunately, tree huggers and lumberjacks compromised, sort of, so that this area is now protected as a 35,000-acre ancient forest watershed called the Opal Creek Wilderness and Scenic Recreation Area in the state of Oregon in America’s Pacific Northwest.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius’ “A Bear and Bees”*

Posted by jlubans on October 14, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Illustration by Ernest Griset, 1869.

“A Bear was so enrag'd once at the Stinging of a Bee, that he ran like mad into the Bee-Garden, and over-turn'd all the Hives in revenge. This Outrage brought them out in whole Troops upon him; and he came afterwards to bethink himself, how much more advisable it had been to pass over one Injury, than by an unprofitable Passion to provoke a Thousand.”

“Better pass over an Affront from one Scoundrel, than draw the whole Herd of the Mobile** about a Man's Ears.”

Griset’s enraged bear moves me to repeat this; it first appeared here in 2013. I cannot imagine a more evocative drawing of the damage inflicted by the bees on one highly agitated bear. Along with the new illustration the rendering of the fable is different from 2013. This time it is by Abstemius, librarian to Duke Guido Ubaldo, circa 1500 and the translation is by the redoubtable Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1692.
This fable’s moral offers wise counsel to leaders and followers, at home, in the military, in the workplace, and for any executive level office holder. Don’t overreact.
Back in 2013 I concluded: So, let’s break this cycle; move the nest far up into a tree hollow. If the bear wants honey, he’ll have to climb for it.
At work, if we are in a predictable negative cycle, stop and ask why. Then move to change the circumstances. If it’s due to a lack of support for some service, get the necessary support. Or, drop the service.

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

**Mobile, my guess, is not a medieval phone but a lengthier version of today’s mob, as in the mob protested the loss of the football game by tearing up the stadium seats and breaking into the Doritos storage shed.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Fifty Shades of Jerkiness

Posted by jlubans on October 11, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Where one goes for rehab.

Sometime ago, the Media Lab at MIT worked on something called the Jerk-O-Meter app. No, it was not something to alert a jerk for talking too loudly on his cell phone, or to screech at someone’s rudeness in taking a phone call in the middle of a tête-à-tête.
No, too bad, nothing like that. Rather the J-O-M was to listen in on your yakking with someone and to signal whether you (and eventually the person at the other end) were paying attention to the conversation. The app would message you: "Stop being a jerk!" or "Wow, you're a smooth talker!" depending on your degree of jerkitude.
Alas, the J-O-M never lifted off. However, some progress is been made in understanding jerkiness, jerkitude, or how jerks come into being.
This is not a new topic for me:
Of Jerks, Bozos, Dorks, Fatheads, Nincompoops, Dunderheads, Twerps, Bamboozlers, Fakers, Hornswogglers, et al.”
Genius and/or "Competent Jerk"?
Gender in the Workplace: Getting to Effective Teamwork
Weird at Work.
Just revisiting the topic populates my mind with instances of jerk behavior. Indeed, under some circumstances, I’m the jerk.
But, usually it is other people’s jerkiness that I sputter about.
I can rattle off example after example, as can the reader:
- My directional question – in English - being dismissed in rapid incomprehensible Italian at the Milan train station’s Information kiosk.
- The Dean of a University office lambasting me on his speakerphone in front of his students.
- To show that widespread jerkiness can be ameliorated, there’s the NY subway stationmaster colorfully cursing me, a clueless out-of-towner, for asking about the subway fare. Since NYC’s near bankruptcy, the subway staff almost always respond in helpful and courteous ways and never with a muttered, “Go to hell!”
Whence jerkitude? What motivates, inspires the jerks among us? One’s jerk may be a hero to another. Some celebrate the political bureaucrat who undermines an opposing faction's effort.
And, the jerk who “Destroys People’s Selfie Sticks with a Branch Cutter in NYC” (if not a phony story) might be viewed as a quixotic hero by many.
One researcher is exploring the topic, getting to the source of what is defined, vulgarly, by the Oxford Dictionaries’ as a “dickhead”. In other words, “a stupid, irritating, or ridiculous person, particularly a man.” Hmm, why are jerks often men?
In two articles, the researcher Eric Schwitzgebel guides us to a better understanding of jerkiness. His articles explore the finer points:
A theory of jerks: Are you surrounded by fools? Are you the only reasonable person around? Then maybe you’re the one with the jerkitude.”
And, “How to Tell If You’re a Jerk: If you think everyone around you is terrible, the joke may be on you.”
Dr. Schwitzgebel suggests there is a jerkiness continuum; the extreme jerk at one end and the sweetheart at the other. Where are you on the continuum?
His definition: “To be a jerk is to be ignorant in a certain way—ignorant of the value of others, ignorant of the merit of their ideas and plans, dismissive of their desires and beliefs, unforgiving of their perceived inferiority."
As for the sweetheart: “… habitually alert to the needs and interests of others, solicitous of others’ thoughts and preferences, liable in cases of conflict to suspect that the fault might lie with them rather than with the other party.”
It comes down to this, your regard for others. “It is your basic moral comportment toward the people around you.” The jerk has zero or low regard and the sweetheart has 95% or more. Perhaps it’s something to do with a deficiency in EQ, emotional intelligence? A certified jerk may be unwilling or even unable to see his/her jerkiness. “What? Me a jerk? Never!”
So, how do you, a wise leader, deal with jerkitude? More on that later. How I dealt or did not deal with jerks in the workplace.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable: H. Belloc’s “The Frog”*

Posted by jlubans on October 07, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by B. T. B. (Basil Temple Blackwood), 1896.

“Be kind and tender to the Frog,
And do not call him names,
As 'Slimy skin,' or 'Polly-wog,'
Or likewise 'Ugly James,'
Or 'Gap-a-grin,' or 'Toad-gone-wrong,'
Or 'Bill Bandy-knees':
The Frog is justly sensitive
To epithets like these.
No animal will more repay
A treatment kind and fair;
At least so lonely people say
Who keep a frog (and, by the way,
They are extremely rare).
Oh! My!”
Pursuant to last week’s Friday Fable, THE BOYS AND THE FROGS”,
Belloc’s poem is more than a little apropos. Why? Belloc was a declared anti-Semite. If I “read between the lines”, so to speak, I can well believe that Mr. Belloc is pooh-poohing the name calling of any species, be it frogs or people we do not like.
Unlike last week’s lessons of kindness and tolerance, Mr. Belloc insinuates that insulting frogs is no big deal.
I suggest the reader take the poem literally. All of us are sensitive flowers; so, be kind, be gentle, offer no insults. Respect the frog; besides, he or she might be a prince or princess.

*Source: The Bad Child's Book Of Beasts (1896) by Hilaire Belloc

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Weird at Work (again).

Posted by jlubans on October 04, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

In doing research for an upcoming blog on Jerks, Jerkitude, and the Jerk-O-Meter, I revisited a blog from last year, “Weird at Work”. Here it is again.
Caption: Time deliquescent. Section from Salvador Dali’s* “Persistence of Memory” 1931.

“Weird is good”, says Suzi McAlpine, a leadership coach, in a recent article. Her subtitle: “Why dissonance fosters innovation”.
She proposes that instead of rejecting that which strikes us as weird, we try to understand its meaning and why it effects us the way it does. That acceptance and reflection may result in indirect solutions to problems or inspire us to move in another direction, away from the same old, same old way of doing something.
She provides an example, “The Rite of Spring” ballet. When first performed, it was so upsetting, so weird, that half the Paris audience threw vegetables at the orchestra and shoved and punched those who disagreed with their opinion. Figuratively, I see something similar occurring whenever an organization of people confronts radical change. The Rite was different yes, and only a few – if any - knew they were part of a wrenching separation from the past to the modern. “(For) many who saw it on that balmy evening a century ago, it was nothing short of scandalous.” A hundred years later, at the anniversary performance in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées - the same theater in which it was first performed - one critic anticipated the audience will “convene to celebrate ‘one of the great aesthetic monuments of Western art — completely assured, startlingly original, brutal, tender, and altogether wonderful.’"
Well, ever the contrarian, I have to ask what’s happened to make this audience more accepting of what was “weird” a century ago; how did this audience move from denial and refusal to being demure and appreciative? Or, is the audience – we - any better now in dealing with change? Or does change so different, so weird, require a century before it is seen as something other than "puerile barbarity"?
I doubt that Ms. McAlpine is suggesting that simply courting weirdness is an “open Sesame” to a new way of looking at things. Some weird is best ignored – the bare chested man in the city park with the snake coiled around his neck is just what he is – there’s little there to inspire creativity, more likely creepiness.
Now that’s not what I would say about the depicted Salvador Dali’s art. While Dali exploited shock and awe as effectively as any artist in his lifetime, his genuine art did change our perspective, and I would suggest in a largely positive way. McAlpine’s point I think is that we need to be sensitive as to why we are repelled by the weird and try to move past the initial response – like the knee jerk violence of those music fans at the first performance of The Rite – to a greater understanding and appreciation for what is happening and why. The challenge is knowing when to accept and reflect since some weird is just weird, just like some radical change ideas are delusional. A metric I use is whether the outcome from a revised perspective will result – in organizational speak – in better customer service and greater productivity. Doing something so that the staff feels better about their jobs – with no tangible improvement - is not worth doing.
Some readers might say I am no stranger to weird. Yes, I am happy to go with the eccentric any day vs. staying in the safety zone, in the comfort zone. Leaving the safety zone, accepting the unknown, has often resulted in highly positive results.
Most of my essays, training workshops, and teaching incorporate the “strange”. That can backfire, as one dis-satisfied participant in a Texas team-building workshop let me have it with both barrels. I had the group do something with balloons and several in the group were not following the rules, but no one, including me (deliberately), was calling the presumably unethical behavior. The disgruntled participant upbraided me later and demanded why I did nothing about the cheating. She signed herself a “Tall Texan.” No doubt she saw me as little more than a “burbling pixie”** since I failed in her eyes to repair years of dysfunction in this organization in my 7 hour workshop. What she saw was weird to her. More weird to me was her not calling what she saw as chronic cheating, not only in the workshop, but, as she explained to me, throughout the organization. A little reflection on her part might have resulted (from this weird little game) in the organization’s first-time-ever honest discussion about its ethics.
I rely on experiential learning to explain and augment leadership, management, and teamwork concepts. I am among a very few teachers of management in library schools to use experiential activities. Certainly, many use team projects but I know of no one else who uses group activities, at least not to the extent I do.
I’ve culled and adapted my problem-solving adventure “initiatives” from the many “new games” created dating from the 60s: Egg Drop, Bibliofoon (now Book Chain), Mirage, Pyramid, and Frenzied Fun and Facts.
Each of these activities can be done and discussed inside 30 - 40 minutes. (A note of caution: these require space and movement. And these activities are often “strange”, even weird, in a university culture that is hard-wired for lectures and textbooks under a highly formal relationship between student and professor.)
The value is to be found in the “debrief” following each activity; that’s where we overcome the “weird”. Step by step we look at the activity and what happened; then we explore “What I learned about myself and the group during the activity”; and, finally I try to get answers to this question: “What will I use/apply personally from what I did and saw?” As these types of teaching/learning experiences are new and fun (and weird for a few like the Tall Texan), it is important to emphasize the learnings, to allow students time to think, reflect, and discuss what has been learned. That’s how the weird becomes less off-putting and more familiar so that personal lessons can be learned.

*Caption: Maestro of weird

**A denigrating appellation assigned to P. G. Wodehouse, by an un-amused critic of “serious” literature. Wodehouse, perhaps the greatest humorist writer of the 20th Century, used the “burbling pixie” to good effect in contrasting the two genres and ridiculing the critic’s pettiness.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015 & 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE BOYS AND THE FROGS”*

Posted by jlubans on September 30, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Milo Winter, 1919

“Some Boys were playing one day at the edge of a pond in which lived a family of Frogs. The Boys amused themselves by throwing stones into the pond so as to make them skip on top of the water.
The stones were flying thick and fast and the Boys were enjoying themselves very much; but the poor Frogs in the pond were trembling with fear.
At last one of the Frogs, the oldest and bravest, put his head out of the water, and said, ‘Oh, please, dear children, stop your cruel play! Though it may be fun for you, it means death to us!’"

“Always stop to think whether your fun may not be the cause of another's unhappiness.”

My question: When beseeched by the Frog, do the “dear children” cease and desist?

One re-telling of this fable is explicit about the boys’ malice: “The boys began to throw rocks at the frogs and even competed against each other as to who could hit the most frogs. Sometimes the rocks hit the frogs so hard that they died.”
That interpretation suggests we humans will do nasty things to fellow beings. No surprise. History offers much evidence about our cruelty especially when led down paths of iniquity by unethical, heartless leaders – we appear to be powerless against tyrants, so much so we too become heartless.
Yet, like in the first telling, I believe it is far more natural for us to stop doing whatever harms another.
What is the source of these kindly impulses?
Compassion for and collaboration with others is essential to our social survival. With temperate ethical leadership, we - as a group - seek to do no harm.
Still, we run daily into invective and hatred in social media. Is anonymity – the refusal to take responsibility for one’s words - the driving factor for digitized intolerance? Maybe it’s true: spite loves a loner.

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available at Project Gutenberg.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “A DOG IN A MANGER”*

Posted by jlubans on September 23, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The dog: “No food for you (and none for me)!” Illustration ARTHUR RACKHAM, 1912

“A churlish envious Cur was gotten into a manger, and there lay growling and snarling to keep the Provender. The Dog eat none himself, and yet rather ventur’d the starving his own Carcase than he would suffer any Thing to be the better for’t.”

“THE MORAL. Envy pretends to no other Happiness than what it derives from the Misery of other People, and will rather eat nothing itself than not to starve those that would.”

L’Estrange’s appended moral introduces a peculiar and insightful motivation for the “churlish envious Cur”; he’d as soon go hungry, as have others hunger!
Here we have the public servant who denies a client’s application because of a technicality, say something like the wrong color ink; or the pettifogger doubles back on the client with a new, onerous demand for information, one that, of course, has to be fulfilled in order for the application to go forward.
Or, consider the organization that permits the public servant to discriminate in whom to serve well and whom to serve poorly, even though both clients are equal. However this unfair discrimination comes about, it is a failure of the servant’s supervisor.
That servant – in the manger - does willingly as much harm to himself as he does to the client. Indeed, the misery spreads two ways, and soon engulfs the reputation of the organization. It becomes known for its nitpicking, meanness and obfuscation. If reputation matters – when does it not? - these passive micro-aggressions will one day be like the proverbial chickens come home to roost.

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Choosing Leaders

Posted by jlubans on September 20, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Underway.

How do we choose leaders? There’s an array of techniques – executive appointment, random turn-taking, committee, etc. - but it is only on a rare occasion – even in democratic workplaces - when subordinates or followers choose the boss.
One of the highlights of my drive this August from East to West, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast was taking back roads – staying off the interstates - that paralleled the Oregon Trail, the path taken, from 1843-1870s, by some 200,000 people striving for a new life in the Pacific Northwest.
In August of this year the trip from Missouri to Oregon took me three days. In the 1840s to 1870s, it would take from four to six months. You’d experience spring, summer and fall and hope to high heaven winter would be neither late nor early.
Most traveled on foot alongside heavily loaded horse-drawn "prairie schooner" wagons, across the prairie, the rivers and over the mountains, often accompanied by large numbers of cattle and sheep. One convoy had 1000 head of cattle along.
Caption. Dratted luck!
Naturally, tales of extreme hardship abound (an estimated 20,000 died on the trail) and I have to marvel at the fortitude of these homesteaders who made their way towards their dream of a better life.
How did the pioneer families organize themselves to make this journey? They knew they could not do it solo; the risks, the hazards, the uncertainties were too many for only the most foolhardy to attempt alone.
Most pioneer families left from the gathering place and literal “jumping off” point, Independence, Missouri. Wagon Trains were composed of up to 200 wagons, though more common were trains of 30 or less wagons.
Given my interest in leadership, I was struck by this quote* on how wagon train leaders were elected:
“Candidates (for leadership roles) would take off across the prairie and other men would follow, lining up behind their favorite. The one with the longest line would win.
This practice had its roots in the Midwestern tradition of “muster day,”… using the pretext of practicing “drills”, the muster was an opportunity for male camaraderie and its accompanying singing, wrestling, fighting, racing and gambling. The mustering men would elect their officers by lining up behind their choice.”
How would this play in today’s workplace? Imagine an organization seeking to find a leader for the next year. Those who aspire to lead – including incumbents - take a few steps out and those who support them line up alongside.
Impractical, you say? The lost expertise! The notion of popularity winning over know-how! The public embarrassment for those who “lose”! Envious losers undermining winners!
Perhaps all true. But, the muster worked for the wagon trains. Perhaps it worked because the stakes were urgent and the muster would quickly identify those people most trusted to help get the wagons and people from Missouri to Oregon, to make the soundest decisions for the benefit of the group. One could also say that the pioneers were more than a little informed and invested in the outcome of these selections.
The muster takes away the secret ballot. We know who the candidates are and everyone knows how everyone else voted. Perhaps some spoke up and explained why. Perhaps each candidate made was a succinct statement prior to the vote. Hard to say. But, I would expect that every voter would have to be prepared to explain why he (only males voted) chose the way he did.
This is democracy for governing ourselves, in government and at work. The muster quote underlines something that is forgotten or glossed over. Democracies require informed citizens; you cannot rely on your “party” or your candidate telling you what you should do. You have to know within yourself what you want and why you want it.
The Athenians required most citizens through random selection to be active in local politics, to do the actual work that politicians (the good ones) do. According to Mary Beard, “Many Athenian democrats would have argued that people must learn to do politics, they must learn to be citizens; it is not something that comes naturally. Much of the Athenian political system was about that process of learning.”
Mustering also reminds me of how bees make the life or death decision about choosing a new place to live – their urgency is comparable to that of the Oregon pioneers. In “Honeybee Democracy” we learn that decisions – highly effective ones made among several choices – are made by clusters of bees moving physically to the bee advocating the best future location of a bee colony.
My point in this is that there is more than one way to choose a leader, and we should be aware of these alternative ways. They may be better than what we are doing now; you won’t know until you try out another way.

*Source: Susan G. Butruille, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail: The Times that Tried Women's Souls and a Guide to Women's History Along the Oregon Trail (Women of the West) Illustrated by Kathleen Petersen.
Boise, ID: Tamarack Books, Inc 1993, pp. 95-96

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Sir Roger L'Estrange’s “AN APE AND A FOX”*

Posted by jlubans on September 16, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. A disdainful fox by ARTHUR RACKHAM, 1912.

“An Ape found many Inconveniencies by going bare-arse, went to a Fox that had a well spread bushy Tail, and begg’d of him only a little Piece on’t to cover his Nakedness: For (says he) you have enough for both, and what needs more than you have Occasion for? Well, John (says the Fox) be it more, of be it less, you get not one single Hair on’t; for I would have ye know, Sirrah, that the Tail of a Fox was never made for the Buttocks of an Ape.”
“THE MORAL. Providence has assign’d every Creature its station, lot, make and figure; and ‘tis not for us to stand correcting the Works of an incomprehensible Wisdom, and an almighty Power.”

Imagine, if you will, the little readers in 1906 chortling over the “bare-arse” mention (plika dirsa in Latvian) as it appeared word for word in Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics.
The fashionable fox would have lost nothing by sharing a bit of his tail for the embarrassed ape. Nor would our fashion industry be anywhere if it abided by L'Estrange’s admonition “that the Tail of a Fox was never made for the Buttocks of an Ape.”
Then again, maybe none of us were ever meant - by heavenly design - to go about in Lycra pants!

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2016