Fables for Leaders includes 100+ short stories of talking animals and trees…. and my ruminations on each. I emphasize the philosophical and ethical aspects in these stories – from across the centuries - to my own on-the-job experiences, - successes and failures - and relate them to our contemporary behavior and decision-making. We relate to stories, we remember stories, and these fable stories may help in thinking through and solving, in untraditional ways, problems on the job.” Whimsical illustrations by international artist and paper cutter, Béatrice Coron, capture the charm of this ancient literature and add to its comprehension and enjoyment. Each entry -in 7 chapters- sets forth the original fable followed by Lubans’ commentary. And, many fable feature a “My Thoughts” space to explore how this fable relates to the reader. The seven chapter heads: “Us and them” “Office politics” “The Organization” “Problems” “Budgeting and strategic planning” “The effective follower” “The effective leader”. Topical sub-heads include: “Perspective makes a difference” “Where is the cooperation?” “Hiring decisions” “Performance appraisal” “Pretenders” “Kindness, loyalty and respect for the boss…or not” “Have you heard of the Tall Poppy?” “Gossip and envy” “Are you leading or am I following?” Etc.



Lessing’s THE BEAR AND THE ELEPHANT*

Posted by jlubans on May 25, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: The Cake Walk Dance

WHAT incomprehensible creatures men are!" said the Bear to the Elephant. "What will they not expect next of us superior animals?
I am forced to dance to music, I, a serious-minded Bear! Yet they know quite well that such foolish capers are un-suited to my dignified nature.
Otherwise why do they always laugh when I dance?"
I also dance to music," replied the wise old Elephant," and I consider myself quite as sedate and honourable as yourself.
Nevertheless, the spectators never laugh at me; all that can be read in their faces is a pleased wonderment. Believe me, friend Bear, the people laugh at you, not because you dance, but because you look as though you felt so silly."
____________
The bears in the illustration
are doing the cakewalk, a slave parody of the Big House’s white folks’ minuets and promenades.
The dance’s exaggerated movements (prancing, strutting, low bowing, waving canes, doffing hats, and high kicking) lampooned the white folks dancing.
It was a tacit way for the powerless slave to ridicule the enslavers.
Lessing’s elephant retains a modicum of self-respect over having to dance. He dances so well that the audience is amazed. Instead of laughing, the audience admires and marvels.
At work, how do you deal with adversity, with being treated shabbily?
If your boss is a passive-aggressive priss, do you turn in on yourself and suffer like the pitiful bear? Or, do you rise above and still do your best for yourself?

*Source: Lessing, Fables, Translated by G. Moir Bussey in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

TQM

Posted by jlubans on May 21, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Not that long ago, Total Quality Management (TQM) was the bee’s knees, the cat’s pajamas, the fox’s socks in management theory and practice with adherents in business and among not-for-profits.
Nowadays, one rarely hears of it. Was TQM then a flash-in-the-pan, a 9-day wonder, a fad (gasp)?
Hardly.
TQMs components were of hardy stuff and are still in use today. You can thank TQM for the high quality of most manufactured goods. Wm. Deming, the name most associated with TQM, brought statistical rigor to quality control in the car industry and, by extension and adaptation, to many other industries.
TQM was radical. It sought to upend the traditional bureaucratic model of organization and to de-activate heavy-handed top down decision-making.
Hence, its mandate to “drive out fear” in the organization; its emphasis on high functioning teams; the use of data for decision making; and its underlying respect for all staff members, not just those in the corner offices. When teaching, Deming was famous for giving all of his students As. He made clear he had no interest in judging other human beings.
And, it was expected for all staff to be on the lookout for and to make improvements daily (continuous improvement).
Another key to TQMs success is listening (in compassionate and action-taking ways) to the client, the patient, the user, the customer.
The organizations that listen – ones in which golden rule customer service is king – have reaped positive benefits for decades.
One of the biggest users of user feedback and statistical analysis are hospitals and doctors’ offices to the benefit of patients. Where do you think all those improvements have come from? TQM.
Conclusively, there’s one ubiquitous organizational pillar that TQM sought to demolish: performance appraisal.
Eschewing PA symbolized the different mindset behind TQM vs. the hierarchy. If fear was to be driven out, well then one annual fear-inducer was performance appraisal.
In a PA-less organization, managers and employees are to address problems together. Feedback between the two is to be immediate. If a boss observes odd behavior she is obliged to communicate to the employee immediately not consign it as a cryptic note to the evaluation folder for Evaluation Day.
So, under TQM there’s no PA.
Want a clue about an organization’s real (not the frippery in its mission statement) philosophy? Do they have performance appraisal?
If not, you are looking at an organization vastly different from the hierarchy.
Once you remove the annual ritual, managers and staff are obliged to talk about what they are doing and what they would like to be doing. The manager has the responsibility to engage the worker and talk through issues.
By implication, the manager has to cultivate social skills by which to empower his subordinates to communicate openly.
When successful there’s an honesty and a trust among staff not to be found in most hierarchies.
Reflecting on my career, I was early involved in systems analysis (even co-authored a book on it). Also, I have always been keen on getting the customer’s viewpoint on how we were doing, Indeed, in every job I conducted several what I called “user surveys” that provided good information on how we were doing and how we could improve.
Apart from my interest in management topics I also had a strong interest in service delivery and once I left my first job, I began to promote services to our clients and customers.
Again, I edited (and wrote 40% of) a major book on the concept.
Then, taking time off to get a second master’s in public administration with a strong emphasis on organizational development I began to focus on leadership and organizational structures.
That’s about when I connected with TQM and was able to make major improvements at my next job, improvements that had been denied or delayed for two decades. My boss advocated for TQM concepts, as did his boss.
That tangible support made for a safe environment in which to experiment.
We reorganized into teams and that was a positive in many cases but of course there were holdouts.
As always, when a new system of doing business comes about, there are holdouts, nay sayers, and the “resistance”.
Change can be painful, so some prefer to dodge it completely.
When we made sincere efforts to develop teams and to free up staff to think about their jobs, we got very good results.
When some supervisors only gave lip service to TQM and pretended to empower staff, they got mediocre results, as expected.
Of course, that was never admitted; I saw it in the production statistics!
When TQM fails it is not due to TQM but to the entrenched office holders who benefit from the status quo. Why should they change – especially if wedded to tradition and not overly imaginative or up for risk taking – or give up any of their power? I mean really!
There are many managers who believe “both management and leadership have got to come from the top (emphasis added), from those who hold and exercise programmatic responsibilities, specifically administration.”
With all due respect, this view mistrusts subordinates. Do you really believe the work force is largely made up of people who do not think?
If you rule an organization of sheep followers, people unwilling and incapable of thinking for themselves then top-down is the only way.
Indeed, unless you understand why you are doing what you are doing you cannot possibly have an opinion of much value.
That job is best left to the professionals, presumably the only thinkers in the organization!
Many - not all - of my support staff, the followers, were quite capable and imaginative and once given freedom to experiment and to comment on goals large and small, I would have been a fool to ignore their very good ideas and advice.
There were those who offered nothing, but there were many who enjoyed the freedom (power) and made the workplace better for customers, the organization and themselves.
___________
As an afterthought, I'd like to comment on the difficulty of adapting someone else's ideas. For example, Wm. Deming knew clearly what he meant by TQMs mantra of "drive out fear". The rest of us may not know, but we do the best we can.
At one time I had great respect for consultants who claimed to know a new system of organizing, like TQM.
My admiration has diminished.
Often the consultant's done a quick study of the principles and you wind up getting a Reader's Digest précis. Fairly accurate, but much left out.
And rarely do consultants speak from having personally applied TQM (or any other new system) to an organization.
I remember leading a so-called "Future Search" of some 100 staff at a large university. There were three of us serving as consultants, and two of us had done such an event for our own organization.
However, the FS was based on Marvin Weisbord's writings and directions.
We adhered as closely as we could, but on the second day we found ourselves stuck without a conclusion, an overall inability to come to terms on how to achieve the stated goal. In other words what was the organization willing to give up to get to the Promised Land?
While many good things happened, we could not point to a clear direction into the future.
I believe Mr. Weisbord would have had a bit more to show for those two days of hard work than we three consultants did. Or, he might well have declined the invitation to lead the search!


© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Lessing’s THE WOLF ON HIS DEATH-BED*

Posted by jlubans on May 15, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: A fables Trading Card, ca. 1920

A WOLF lay at his last gasp, and recalled the many events of his past life. "True, I am a sinner," said he, "but let me still hope, not one of the greatest. I have done harm, but also much good.
Once, I remember, a bleating Lamb, which had strayed from the flock, came so near me that I could easily have throttled it; yet I did not harm the Lamb.
At the same time, I listened to the jeers and jibes of an old Sheep with the most surprising indifference, although there were no Sheep-dogs there to be feared."
"I can explain all that," interrupted his friend, the Fox, who was comforting his last hours.
"I remember distinctly all the circumstances. It was precisely the time that you so unfortunately got a bone stuck in your throat, which the kind-hearted Crane afterwards drew out!"
_____________
Like most of us sinners on Judgment Day, the Wolf portrays himself as a kindly and generous soul.
His friend, the Fox, admits the accuracy of the wolf’s sparing a “bleating lamb” but fills in with some damning details, ones to be found in another fable.
That’s the fable in which a crane extracts a stuck bone from the wolf’s throat. Prior to the extraction, the wolf can’t pillage and plunder so the lamb gambols off happily.
Post surgery, Surgeon Crane asked for a reward. “The Wolf grinned, showed his teeth and said: ‘Be content. You have put your head inside a Wolf’s mouth and taken it out again in safety; that ought to be reward enough for you.’”
So, there you have a fable within a fable.

*Source: Lessing, Fables, Translated by G. Moir Bussey in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.
From the Britannica: Lessing, Gotthold Ephraim (1729-1781) published in 1759 some masterly prose fables, largely social criticism, and with them an essay on the fable form.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

“I remember it well”*

Posted by jlubans on May 12, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Hermione Gingold and Maurice Chevalier in Gigi.

I can see that meeting still. There I was with my administrative colleagues around the table with the bowl of M&M candies (pre-viral but icky just the same).
All of us - with the exception of the new boss - were like Kim Jong Un’s minions with note pads and pencils at the ever ready.
Sometime during that meeting, I scratched a personal note on my pad, “The (blank) have won”. No, I did not write "blank". The blank represents a forgotten word, a noun.
What was it?
I did have a pretty good idea of what prompted that penciled note and its meaning: concession and surrender, a figurative "hands up!”
But, like the song in the title suggests, the mists of time can fog over even the most pleasant or unpleasant memories. Anyway, the fog around my missing word was as thick as ye olde pea soup.
For the longest time I could not remember that missing word; I’d wake up in the dark and start tossing out words that might fit, a sort of counting of sheep. I came close a few times, but the word never bubbled up.
Was it “the fastidious”? Getting warm.
Was it “fussbudgets”? "Pussycats"? Getting close.
Maybe “traditionalists”? Close but not close enough.
How about “the punctilious”? Getting warm but a tad too fancy plus I would not have known how to spell it.
So, let’s put me back in the meeting and try to remember the faces and the topics,
Certainly, the weekly executive meetings had become more formal and conservative than previously, and humorless for the most part. Wording was careful and selective. There was an unwelcoming atmosphere for any “pushing of the envelope”.
What was on our agenda? Well for one thing, that enervating, soul sucking, exercise, the strategic plan was again front and center.
And, speaking of e. and s.s., we were to envision the new, improved performance appraisal system.
Appearances now mattered more. My gleeful, free wheeling days of “let’s try it and see what happens” were no more.
It was now our intent to keep up with the Joneses, our peers. No longer were we to differ from our peers; rather it was quintessential for us to blend in.
And, if you know me you know I was feeling out of synch with my colleagues, all of them.
I was like the red-haired stepchild
Aha! Prisses, that was the missing word. “The prisses have won”.
From that point on the writing was on the wall (besides on my notepad!) for me.
Words like “appropriate” and “proper” took on new meaning especially since my leadership could be categorized as inappropriate and improper even if the results were stellar.
Professional instincts - another nod to appearances, - now mattered more than data and statistics.
Likewise, annual improvements over previous years were nothing to point to. And, any dilution of the inherited tradition by allowing non-professionals to take on new responsibilities was highly suspect.
Hence my tacit sending up the white flag with “The prisses have won”.
Ah, yes, I remember it well.

* One stanza from the song, I remember it well:
“That carriage ride, (you walked me home)
You lost a glove, aha, (it was a comb)
Ah, yes, I remember it well
That brilliant sky, (we had some rain)
Those Russian songs (from sunny Spain?)
Ah, yes, I remember it well

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

“It has come to my attention …”

Posted by jlubans on May 07, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: By Shannon Wheeler in New Yorker magazine ca. 2010. "It has come to my attention that some of YOU are sleeping on the job".

Those of us in American management like to think we are direct in our language and interactions. After all, we live in “the land of the free and the brave”.
Some of our colleagues in Europe point out that candor is not always our M.O.
Indeed, they observe American managers avoiding conflict and seeking to accommodate rather than going directly to the source of the problem.
The cartoon illustrates one of our most popular avoidance techniques: The “It has come to my attention” memo to all staff.
Be it tardiness or sleeping on the job (like the cartoon cats) or leaving a mess in the staff lounge microwave we too often opt for the all-points-bulletin to correct some observed misbehavior.
It’s a bit like Mother Goose’s Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe solution to her many children: (She) “whipped them all soundly and put them to bed.” The ones misbehaving deserved the whipping and the innocent would be guilty of some future transgression.
I call this the HR response.
HR advises managers not to single people out. Be they minorities or just regular folks; it is safer for the organization to imply a widely spread guilt rather than to discipline the transgressor at the point of commission.
Even if we know full well the names of the people who arrive late, take a two-hour lunch and leave early we are advised to address the whole including those who arrive early, eat at their desks and leave late!
Why?
Perhaps our European colleagues – hardly paragons of management – have found a weak spot.
The effective worker who reads the “It has come to my attention” bulletin knows who is goofing off and not being called out. The conscientious worker is bothered by this indirect approach to shoddy behavior and will be less inclined to keep up the good work.
And, of course, that same worker knows some bosses who arrive late, take long lunch breaks and leave early.
The indirect approach achieves the opposite of what is intended. Instead of fairness, the effective worker sees a two-tiered system, one for support staff and one for the professional staff.
In short, a shotgun rebuke lowers morale and may lead to artful skiving.
I use case studies in my management workshops. Often they are based on a personal experience in which I have avoided conflict.
So, I am often surprised by how the participants would deal with the case’s conflict.
Indeed, they see the avoiding manager (me) as feckless and they would address the issue head on, no lolly gagging about!
I am bemused, because while the response is exactly what I would want it somehow falters in practice.
There must be other underlying reasons for our behavior on the job; well worth reflection: in any case, avoid the HR response!

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Phaedrus’ A THIEF PILLAGING THE ALTAR OF JUPITER*

Posted by jlubans on April 28, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: What's left of a Temple of Jupiter in Lebanon.

A Thief lighted his Lamp at the altar of Jupiter, and then plundered it by the help of its own light.
Just as he was taking his departure, laden with the results of his sacrilege, the Holy Place suddenly sent forth these words: “Although these were the gifts of the wicked, and to me abominable, so much so that I care not to be spoiled of them, still, profane man, thou shalt pay the penalty with thy life, when hereafter, the day of punishment, appointed by fate, arrives.
But, that our fire, by means of which piety worships the awful Gods, may not afford its light to crime, I forbid that henceforth there shall be any such interchange of light.”
Accordingly, to this day, it is neither lawful for a lamp to be lighted at the fire of the Gods, nor yet a sacrifice kindled from a lamp.
No other than he who invented this Fable, could explain how many useful lessons it affords.
In the first place, it teaches that those whom you yourself have brought up, may often be found the most hostile to you: then again, it shows that crimes are punished not through the wrath of the Gods, but at the time appointed by the Fates: lastly, it warns the good to use nothing in common with the wicked.
___________
However labored,
the point is made. Don’t filch from the church.
Remember what happened to Bernie Madoff? That’s the Fates at work for his theft from St. Mary’s poor box when a wee lad.
But, there’s more.
The temple says good riddance to “the gifts of the wicked” yet in real life we know that some institutions are glad to accept tainted money.
When exposed, the response is “'taint enough!”
A gift of stolen money may well do good and/or it may act as a salve to a guilty conscience. Yet, unable to resist temptation, the beneficiary may mis-use the gift.
Finally, to whom is Phaedrus alluding when he says “those whom you yourself have brought up, may often be found the most hostile to you.”

*Source: THE COMEDIES OF TERENCE AND THE FABLES OF PHÆDRUS.
TRANSLATED By HENRY THOMAS RILEY, B.A.
TO WHICH IS ADDED A METRICAL TRANSLATION OF PHÆDRUS,
By CHRISTOPHER SMART.

LONDON: GEORGE BELL & SONS, 1887.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Of Hand washing, Cleaning up after Fido, Distancing and Organizational Change

Posted by jlubans on April 24, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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What do these tiny tasks have to do with large or small organizational change?
As we know, new behavior can be coerced externally through the threat of punishment, in other words, a kick in the ass (KITA).
That kind of change is rarely permanent unless you live in a police state with an ever-vigilant police and compliant population.
The best change is internalized as a regular habit, one that we no longer rail or bristle at. We willingly wash our hands and we willingly pick up after our dogs. We willingly, if dolefully, shelter in place. We understand why we are
doing so, not just because we are told to do so.
But how do we get to that happier state?
Two recent articles suggest the challenges inherent in any behavioral change.
One of the two is about hand washing:
The reason why some people don't wash their hands: There are millions of non-hand-washers hiding among us. Why won’t they adopt this simple hygiene habit – and how can we change their minds?
The article suggests a multitude of reasons as to why people do not practice good hygiene. And, it suggests a variety of approaches that might encourage hand washing. The most favored are posters in toilets featuring feces on a bread roll!
In other words, using disgust to encourage hygiene. Is this not ye olde, ineffective external KITA wrapped up in a glossy ad?
Much like autopsy photos on European cigarette packs, the intent is to induce revulsion and to make us refrain from a particularly nasty habit.
But, do these methods work?
The proponents aver so, but there’s little evidence beyond wishful thinking.
The other article suggests a formula for successful change, large and small:
How to Change Anyone’s Mind: People instinctively resist being forced to do things differently. Instead of pushing, try removing the barriers that stand in their way.”
A change expert, Jonah Berger, offers five strategies:
Reduce Reactance
Ease Endowment
Shrink Distance
Alleviate uncertainty
Find Corroborating evidence.
I have written about one change effort here in Oregon – “Dog Poop and Problem Solving” - to influence dog owners to pick up after their dogs while out on walks in Oregon forests.
The foresters probably used every one of Berger’s five strategies and achieved improved trail conditions.
How lasting this improvement was I do not know, but I was taken with how well thought out the effort was and how it likely made a lasting difference for many regular users (human and canine) of the forest trails.
What is reactance and how it may result in our refusing to change a behavior?
Reactance theory has it that when people are restricted in some way – with few options - they feel a strong need to resist and fight back to gain their fundamental freedom.
In short, people who are told not to do something often feel an urge to do the very thing they're denied.
I posted a humorous item on this, “Getting Someone To Do What He Should Not Do
I see reactance playing out currently with the protests against state mandated shelter-in-place policies. While some see these protests as selfish and harmful to public health, those protesting are angry about what they believe is governmental overreach.
Most of them get the distancing notion but they are maddened by incongruity: if I can buy a can of paint in my city in Oregon why should not a citizen of a small town in Michigan be allowed to do so?
These are less protests about being cooped up forever; but more about irrational and inexplicable policies from leaders who do not listen.
In any case, there is a gap of understanding – all the noise aside – between what the protesters want and what the government wants. Berger’s steps “Ease Endowment”, “Shrink Distance”, and “Alleviate uncertainty” all could fill in that gap.
If the government were to offer corroborating evidence then some of the protesters would cease and desist. Without that evidence the gap remains.
It reminds me of a long ago time when food and drink were prohibited in academic libraries. Most students from past generations would never – out of learned respect - eat or drink in the library. That changed with the onset of the coffee culture and other evolving social norms.
Students now wanted to eat and drink while studying. Some bookstores were already featuring full size cafes with lattes to sip and sweets and savories to munch.
Offended librarians said “No way!” And offered highly unconvincing reasons why not, e. g. insects and other vermin were literally eating the books! Annually they’d mount an exhibit of the one library book half eaten by silver fish, (but maybe it was helped along by a borrower’s dog, we’re not sure).
Bizarrely, of course, when a student borrowed a book from the library for dorm use they could read it while munching a meatball sandwich, smoking a joint, or playing beer pong.
The librarians were wrong and wasted thousands of hours in enforcing unpopular rules, not to mention – but I will – gaining much ill will and reinforcing the fuddy-duddy stereotype of the librarian.
Years later, libraries surrendered to what people wanted and began to introduce coffee shops – very successfully - and stopped trying to control people’s study habits. There are far more books eaten by man’s best friend at home, than by cockroaches in the rare book room.
Still, we are left with the age-old question of how best to get people to do what is good for them?
In my career, a frequent blunder was failing to include the client in confirming a change was desired, a change that the client would regard as positive. Instead we knew best – like some in government – and proceeded with the change only to have it fail.
Had we consulted our constituents we’d have found whether the change was even necessary or if another idea would work better. Another plus, the client’s involvement would help the clients and their peers internalize the positive behavior.
__________
ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Lessing’s “THE NIGHTINGALE AND THE PEACOCK*

Posted by jlubans on April 18, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Engraving by Marcus Gheeraerts (1521–1636) done in 1567 or ,more likely, 1617

A SOCIABLE Nightingale found among the other songsters of the grove plenty of birds who envied her, but not a single friend.
"Perhaps," thought she, "I may find a friend in some other branch of the bird family," and accordingly flew confidingly to the home of the Peacock.
"Beautiful Peacock! how much I admire you!" she said.
"No less than I admire you, lovely Nightingale," returned the Peacock.
"Then let us be friends," declared the Nightingale, "for we need never be envious of each other.
You are as pleasing to the eye as I am to the ear."
Accordingly the Nightingale and the Peacock became fast friends.

____________
The fable suggests we can be fond of people with whom we have differences, as long as those differences do not detract from who we are.
In other words, it may be that a beautiful someone (a screeching peacock) will accommodate someone with a melodious voice (a drab nightingale).
The nightingale, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) tells us, has no friends. He does not explain why.
Is the nightingale’s voice envied by one and all of the “songsters of the grove” to the exclusion of friendship?
And the peacock, other fables tell us, is often too much of a strutter and preener.
Yet, the nightingale says, “let us be friends” and, voila,
the two form a mutual admiration society.
I am reminded of a real life couple; the woman is a renowned soprano of considerable beauty and the husband is a maestro orchestral conductor.

*Source: Lessing, Fables, Translated by G. Moir Bussey in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Posted by jlubans on April 18, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

“Wake up, leader!”

Posted by jlubans on April 15, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Two Latvian icons: The poets Ojārs Vācietis (L) and Imants Ziedoņis

Recently I came across a tantalizing mention of Ojārs Vācietis (1933-1983), an acclaimed Soviet-era Latvian poet. The note referred to the daringly iconoclastic magazine Avots. In 1987, it published
Vācietis banned poem “The Resurrection of the Leader”.
Written in 1967 in five parts with numerous stanzas, it imitated, grotesquely, a faux-impassioned Stalinist monologue. The monologue invites the “father and leader” to rise up and rescue the world.
In doing so Vācietis named and ridiculed he-who-shall-not-be-named nor blamed.
Consider the time when he wrote the poem: 1967. While Stalin was dead many years, there were many Stalinists treading the Kremlin (there still are!)
At the time, the Soviet Union was locked in a cold war with the West; the Soviets were keen to show communism superior to capitalism.
Of course, there was no private property; no freedoms of travel or of assembly or of speech but if that’s’ what it took to defeat capitalism and consummate a Workers Paradise, we’re all in. As the poem goes:
"Wake up, leader,
I am born a slave,
and there is nothing more terrible for me
than (to) live without you.
With me (do) whatever can be done,
I can be led, where wanted,
But I -
Have to be led!”*
Publishing the poem was indisputably a courageous act but one which cost him dearly. No longer a celebrated literary figure among the Soviet ruling elite, he’d now be shunned and his poetry suppressed. Bear in mind, that Baltic poets in Soviet times published in editions of 30,000 or more!
Vācietis had turned, like George Orwell, against Stalinism and other manifestations of totalitarianism: He declared, “Down with those who / lost a father with Stalin’s death / And feel like orphans!”
Khrushchev’s secret speech, (February 25, 1956), - a four hour long expose and diatribe against Stalin - was given in a closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Later that same year, Khrushchev demonstrated a ruthlessness equal to Stalin: his bloody suppression of the Hungarian uprising in the fall of 1956**
So, the risks for anyone challenging communism were still very real. Khrushchev’s rule ended in 1964.
Then Leonid Brezhnev ran the Soviet Union until his death in 1982.
Gorbachev and his perestroika and glasnost were still years away.
I plan to use the poem in my class this fall on Leadership & Literature at the University of Latvia as an illustration of followership/leadership (good and bad) and how literature can inform our understanding.
I’ll ask the students to consider what type of follower is Vācietis?
He certainly is not a sheep, nor a yes man, nor a go-along survivor, nor an alienated follower.
The poet is the very opposite of the poem’s cringing flatterer who yearns for the good old days of gulags and executions and resents any loosening of communism’s shackles:
“Raise up, leader!
(The) ones to be lead scream for you.
Sadists scream for enjoyment,
Abusers scream for power,
Careerists for a position,
And cowards for reckoning.”
And, the monologist would offer a chilling assistance to Stalin’s corpse to punish those who removed it from Lenin's Mausoleum:
“I have a little notebook,
And there are from place
Words, words and words -
Who carried,
Who tugged,
Who laughed,
Who said
And also all who did not say.
With all children,
And relatives, and relatives' relatives.”
I hope my students will find personal and historical insights into this courageous follower, Ojārs Vācietis. What would they do were they in the poet's shoes? Is the poem a foolish artistic suicide? Why don't followers of bad leaders speak out?
Khrushchev worked with Stalin, yet never spoke out. Why? Presumably, had he gone against Stalin, he'd have earned a bullet in the brain. To survive, why then wait until 1956 (three years) to tear the mask off?

*English translations provided by my cousin, Dace Lubane.
**I remember buying and reading a special editions of the USAs LIFE Magazine with dozens of photographs of the uprising and the Soviet reprisal. America was no longer confused about communism.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020