Leading from the Middle" promotes a democratic, empowered organization, based on my leadership experiences and on research. The best work places empower staff to achieve their full potential; the less command and control, the better the product and service.
Library Journal review: “highly recommended”. Book List: “great reading…”
This blog augments my book with weekly notes. In 2011 I was a Fulbrighter and taught in Latvia, Croatia and Lithuania. In 2013 I was a Visiting Professor at the University of Latvia teaching an 8-week class on the Democratic Workplace.
I'm on the Fulbright Specialist Roster to teach about management and democratic organization concepts.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE SOW AND THE WOLF”*

Posted by jlubans on February 27, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Platter produced by Copeland & Garrett around 1833.

“A pregnant sow lay on the ground, groaning with the pangs of labour. A wolf came running up and offered his assistance, saying that he could play the role of midwife. The sow, however, recognized the deception lurking in the wicked wolf's conniving mind and she rejected his suspicious offer. 'It is enough for me,' said the sow, 'if you will just keep your distance!' If that sow had entrusted herself to the treacherous wolf, she would have wept with the pain of childbirth while bewailing her own demise.”

An appended moral declares: “A man should be put to the test before you put your trust in him.”
The sow knows intuitively not to trust the wolf. Humans are less transparent and may require vetting. In the workplace, I have had friends who have fallen away due to absence and distance or a lack of mutual interests. A very few have behaved like the wolf – "absconded", so to speak, “with the goods” and left me “holding the bag.” All understandable to some extent – “it’s bidness, just bidness” - but when it does happen there remains a debt unpaid.
When it comes to “testing” our relationships, the workplace rarely offers stark choices like between the wolfish and the lamb-like – it’s more complicated than that. Work relationships are more - forgive me - nuanced. Our wolves often dress in sheep’s clothing or bow ties. But, there are clues, however tiny, for the observant. Does the new friend want you to join him in malevolent gossip? Does the new friend claim your ideas as hers?

*Sources: Laura Gibbs' Aesop's Fables web site and, her book, Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Note: Leading from the Middle is listed in the “Metro Lib Guide” on Library Management (of the Metropolitan New York Library Council) as one of six books on leadership. Edited by Kimberly Sweetman.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

A Pointed Assist: Dean Smith’s Teamwork Innovations

Posted by jlubans on February 24, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: In a sport crossover, Lionel Messi “soccer’s Michael Jordan” pointing at teammate who gave the assist for his scoring kick.

The justly famous college basketball coach, Dean Smith, died on February 7, 2015. Accolades continue to pour in. A memorial service at the “Dean Dome” (the Dean E. Smith Center) on February 22 drew thousands.
When you played for Dean Smith, many players recalled, it was the start of a friend-for-life relationship. This applied to everyone, stars and bench players. Indeed, one former player said he never made a major life decision without consulting Dean Smith.
I recall his ethical stand against beer sponsors of televised collegiate games. Pretty much a contrarian voice in this big bucks era of college basketball, I admired his courage.
I am most impressed with how Coach Smith influenced teamwork and player relationships; indeed he innovated many of the “scripts” in what has become a highly ritualized game. Below are a few of his – now ubiquitous - innovations. Each was meant to build and maintain team camaraderie; each demanded the player’s commitment to a philosophy of “one for all and all for one”. Seemingly artificial – some might say mechanical – these practices work once they become routine. (It takes repetition to turn these behaviors into habits.) No, none of these alone win games but they contribute to team cohesiveness and cohesive teams win more games than teams of loosely connected individuals.
The reader may be thinking - as many do about sports metaphor - that these sorts of rituals do not transfer to work. But, work does have its customs, its own protocols. A personal bête noire is the annual silliness of performance evaluation – well worthy of a Monty Python sketch. Unproven in its effectiveness, we still invest thousands of hours to get supervisors to talk with subordinates (we hope) at least once a year! Coach Smith offers us some proven and highly effective notions about teamwork.
Along with listing Smith’s innovations, I’ve included a few of my ideas on how these apply in the workplace. By all means, add your own.

Caption: Pinkerton Academy (Maine) Astros bench and fans cheer the team on towards the end of the game. They lost. By Carl Russo (2010).

Standing and cheering teammates: Bench players were expected to stand and to applaud their teammates after every score and when they returned to the bench, coming out of a game.
Workplace app: Praise team members; show that you appreciate their efforts. Recognize everyone’s effort. Sure, have the annual recognition dinner but acknowledge good stuff as it happens. Do this during and at the conclusion of a project. Encouraging teammates is important especially when the team hits a rough patch; continue to recognize people for their efforts. External recognition triggers the most powerful internal motivators. Not to get overly sententious, but do it daily.

Diving for loose balls: when a ball got loose, Smith made clear everyone was expected to dive for it, not just the ball handlers or the guards. Smith’s teams were known for unrelenting hustle and coming up – out of the scrum - with the ball. If you avoided floor burns, you did not play.
Workplace app: No cherry picking of assignments. Everyone does an equal amount of work and shares in the hard stuff as well as in the easy. As the OKC Thunder's Coach, Scott Brooks said:
"The dirty job, garbagepail mentality is not for Perk and Nick Collison (bench players); it's for Kevin and Russell (stars)." If they're not defending and they're not getting on the floor for loose balls and they're not trying to win every free throw block out, and they're not trying to win every jump ball, why is it important for the other guys to do it?”

Tired signal: Players who needed a break were encouraged to hold up one fist – that was the tired signal. When a player gave Smith the tired signal, he would put in a substitute, and, most importantly, the player would decide when he was ready to get back in the fray. When Smith had to “sit” a tired player, it was Smith’s decision as to when he would return, a subtle difference not lost on players who cherish every minute played.
Workplace app: Communicate when you are unable to help the team, when you need a break. Ask for help when you need it. Make clear how you are feeling about a team issue. Take a break from a tense moment, come back to it after sleeping on it.

Huddle before free throws: Tar Heel players were taught to huddle before free throws. This huddle – within the rules of the game - gave players the effect of a 5- to 10-second meeting without sacrificing a time out. “There were no coaches in the huddle setting up offenses or defenses of course, but signals could be relayed from the bench to the point guard or team leader. Above all, these huddles ensured all players would be on the same page.”
Workplace app: So, huddle with your team. You don’t need a group hug, but do stop the action and say what needs to be said. What needs doing, what’s worrying you, what needs to get better? And, as needed, clarify any disagreement. Speak to it when it happens. How much can you possible say in 5-10 seconds? Paradoxically, a whole lot more than you can say in a formal hour-long meeting.

Finally, Smith would recognize his senior players by starting them in the Senior Day game. He wanted to credit publicly the players’ contribution, whether as starters or bench and practice players. Once, legend has it, when his team included six seniors (one over the game limit of 5), “he put all six on the floor at the beginning of the game – drawing a technical foul. He did that rather than leave one of them out.”
Workplace app: Sometimes it's justified and good to break the rules.

NOTE: Chapter 8 in Leading from the Middle is about Gail Goestenkors’ coaching of a women’s basketball team: “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team.”

@Copyright 2015 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Aesop’s The Lion and the Shepherd.*

Posted by jlubans on February 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A Roman relief. One kind shepherd, one happy lion.

“A LION, roaming through a forest, trod upon a thorn. Soon afterward he came up to a Shepherd and fawned upon him, wagging his tail as if to say, ‘I am a suppliant, and seek your aid.’ The Shepherd boldly examined the beast, discovered the thorn, and placing his paw upon his lap, pulled it out; thus relieved of his pain, the Lion returned into the forest. Some time after, the Shepherd, being imprisoned on a false accusation, was condemned "to be cast to the Lions" as the punishment for his imputed crime. But when the Lion was released from his cage, he recognized the Shepherd as the man who healed him, and instead of attacking him, approached and placed his foot upon his lap. The King, as soon as he heard the tale, ordered the Lion to be set free again in the forest, and the Shepherd to be pardoned and restored to his friends.”

One moralist has it: “When a man acts righteously, he can never be defeated by the punishments inflicted on him by his enemies.”

Maybe. I’d say this story of the good shepherd shows how kindness can pay unexpected dividends. The shepherd, selflessly, helps the lion, but he is not motivated by personal gain. He simply helps - one being helping another. While the lion does pay back, acts of kindness are not Newton’s Third Law about reciprocating actions. A reciprocated kindness is nice, but it cannot be anticipated. Our helping a parent with a pram down a subway staircase likely has no reciprocal action beyond a heartfelt thank you. Helping a man on crutches in a drenching rain cross a busy intersection is kindness; the young woman I saw doing this did so because she felt something, she knew intuitively what to do – it is our innate Golden Rule, if we let it be.

Note: This story is also known as “Androcles and the Lion” and was made into a film starring the beefy Victor Mature based on the G.B. Shaw play of that name.

*Source: AESOP’S 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.

If I can’t be there, my book can be, virtually. Friday’s Leading from the Middle Library: Bermuda College Library. (To find the book click on the Catalogue.)

Copyright John Lubans 2015

Trading Jobs

Posted by jlubans on February 17, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: One benefit of job swaps – fresh ideas.

One basketball coach has his players swap roles. He changes “player positions in practice so they can understand each other.” Swapping jobs “helps them appreciate each other's role.”
OKC Thunder's Scott Brooks shares this and other coaching insights in an interview.
This tip reminds me of my experience in doing something similar when I was a supervisor. It always seemed like a good idea for the same reasons that Mr. Brooks has. It’s putting a Native American adage into practice: “Walk a mile in the other man’s moccasins” (or Adidas!) before criticizing. As Mr. Brooks' players concluded: "It's not as easy as I thought."
Yes, a good idea but not always welcome in the workplace. Why?
Here are a few quotes from memory when workers objected:
“My work won’t get done.”
“Exchanging jobs is not in my job description.”
“My work, my desk, my computer.”
And, as interpreted through body language, “No one else can do what I do!”
When job exchanges worked, it was invariably within a smallish unit or a team. These groups valued helping others and learning how to help. Doing so was important to the success of the unit. And, importantly, learning the other person’s job was manageable, doable, within that team’s boundaries. Teams that work in close proximity - that touch the same “product” -probably are more able to share in jobs than can groups far apart in expertise and location.
When I proposed an organization-wide job sharing – at least in the 100-person division I supervised – as a means to gaining the “big picture”, I ran into a lack of support even among the teams who practiced job sharing! Looking back, I wonder if it is achievable at the macro level?
In a previous post I talked about basketball’s seemingly unique process of “switching” – one player taking over for another – under certain game conditions. That was something I saw happening in the units or departments that shared jobs when necessary. And, of course, the group norm of “helping each other out” resulted in good team dynamics; ones that led to outstanding production and achievement.
OKCs Scott Brooks offers another tip: “I tell the players all the time, "I don't have the answers, you don't have the answers, but let's figure them out together." That’s another positive result of swapping jobs – gaining new perspectives for problem-solving. And, studying film of the last game is an advantage sports teams have over the workplace – taking a close look at why they won or lost, reflecting on what might have been. In OKCs case, it is not just the coach or his assistants providing analysis; Mr. Brooks calls on key players to help with the review.
Caption: Thunder’s Scott Brooks and Russell Westbrook.

He will stop the film at some point and say, "’Hey, Russell (Westbrook), what do you think about this right there? Is this guy in the right spot?’ And he'll say, ‘No.’ And I'll say, ‘Add to that. Tell him what he needs to do.’” (This is remarkable – a coach having the self-confidence to ask a player to coach!) Mr. Brooks goes on: “Our guys are pretty sharp that way (giving constructive feedback), … they'll say, ‘Come on, man, that's your man, quit trying to look for an out.’"
I’ve long advocated for brief reviews after any team effort, a quick reflection of how we did and how we can improve. I do this in my classes after team projects. The exercise helps cement key points about team work and group dynamics.
Sports require – to learn and to be competitive -a team's taking the time to review. In the workplace we appear to be reluctant to take the time and to display candor. If we did it’d be time well spent and the more honesty we brought, the greater our mutual respect and understanding.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Ahead-of-His-Time Carpenter Bee.

Posted by jlubans on February 13, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: In sunny times.

Long ago, when animals could talk, a drowsy carpenter bee emerged from his tunnel-nest. While winter, this afternoon was unusually warm.
He breathed in the warm air, buzzed around a bit, did a somersault in the sunshine, and happily droned off looking for nectar.
Then winter clouds slid across the sky, chilling the air. Our bee’s movements slowed and slowed; his zooming efforts to get home sputtered. It was too late. As he collapsed onto the deck below the nest, he was heard to mutter:
“Being first is not all it’s made out to be!”
That night a gentle snow blanketed the bee.

And, so it can be at work. While there may be glory in being first, you may find yourself all alone. What was urgent for you may not be so for anyone else.
In the late 90s, I did one of the first studies on student Internet use – at least for library-land. I thought the results were pretty dramatic - suggesting a seismic shift in information use - so I decided against publishing my conclusions in the conventional print way; instead I made the draft report and data available on my web page – it is still there.
For a while my approach worked, earning a mention in the NY Times and some speaking engagements. And, since it was on the Internet at the peak of the dotcom boom, lots of non-library types expressed interest – what I had to say mattered more to them than to my librarian colleagues who did not share my urgency.
Not long after, others joined in the research and my humble early efforts were pretty much forgotten. I have to wonder if I had waited and published in a “legacy” print journal, indexed and abstracted, whether the research would not have had more of a wider and lasting impact.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Naked in the Democratic Workplace

Posted by jlubans on February 10, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: Shoeless, almost, in San Pedro, BZ.
No, this is not an appeal for an extreme kind of Casual Friday. Nor, anything like a Thong Thursday!
And, I am not calling for a “clothing optional” office!
Rather, while unwinding last week under the palms in a gentle tropical breeze, it came to me that Nudism is somewhat like talking about the democratic workplace. Many are curious, but there are few adherents. There are voyeurs and prurient observers, but there are relatively few practitioners. Social inhibitions apply, if not equally, to both. No one wants to be pantless in a pantsuit town.
So, while nudism and the DW have their appeal, it’s limited. But, their influence is considerable. Nudism influences fashion, moving us from head to toe beach coveralls to what Will Rogers said in the 1920s: “I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do now.”
Likewise, I do believe the democratic workplace can help re-clothe, if you will, the hierarchy, a sort of “Sartor Resartus” for how we organize for work.
Speaking of Carlyle’s philosophical novel – which I presumably read in my Victorian Literature class at my alma mater, Lebanon Valley College - its premise, some say, comes from Jonathan Swift’s 1704 question:
“What is Man himself but a Micro-Coat, or rather a compleat Suit of Cloaths with all its Trimmings?” For Carlyle, civilization and its institutions – including the workplace – was shabbily clothed, frayed, and in need of retailoring, a makeover.
That makeover is achievable today through reflecting about the democratic workplace. Doing so need not be an anxiety dream. In the light of day we can consider and apply some or all of these elements to how we organize for work:
Many leaders.
De-centralized power.
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
Planning involves everyone.
Team-based, flat organization.
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
Managers do “real work”.
No formal performance appraisal.
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
A proactive organization.

Hardly anarchy, these qualities can result in improved conditions both for the workplace and society.

@Copyright 2015 John Lubans

Friday Fable, Abstemius' “An Impertinent and a Philosopher.”

Posted by jlubans on January 30, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Sir Roger L’Estrange, 1616 – 1704. Translator of Fables of Aesop, and other Eminent Mythologists (including Abstemius): with Morals and Reflexions (1692).

“A Certain Pragmatical, Senceless Companion would make a Visit to a Philosopher. He found him Alone in his Study, and fell a Wond-ring how he could Endure to lead so Solitary a Life. The Learned Man told him; Sir, says he, You are Exceedingly Mistaken; for I was in very Good Company till You came in.”

“Good Thoughts and Good Books are very Good Company.”

Interesting use of capital letters and the utilitarian term pragmatic.
Maybe the philosopher's put down was meant as a joke. Maybe not. If not, he may find his solitary life less a choice and more a condition. History tells us Aesop insulted one too many who took umbrage and was hurled over a cliff to his death.
There’s little doubt as to the truth of the Good Books moral, but all in balance. I may prefer thinking in solitude, but then I want to talk to someone about it. That’s to hear my thoughts expressed and, more importantly, to get another’s opinion.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

“I’ll Do It Myself!”

Posted by jlubans on January 27, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The Schiphol Airport Fly

I am told when I was little kid, say around 5 years old, my Aunt Ilda gave me a Latvian nickname, "Jāpacis". It meant “Jānis yourself”* and referred to my being a very independent tyke, wanting no help from others. At least until I had exhausted my own efforts and then maybe, just maybe, I might ask for help. How I survived in life is no doubt a mystery to many.
This story dates from when my family and I were in a Displaced Persons camp in Germany, probably at Augustdorf from 1946 – 1949 near Detmold in what was then West Germany.
This character “flaw” – it could be called that – is not unique to me; lots of people, men mostly, share it. When confronted with a challenge we like to figure things out for ourselves and may resent an authority telling us what to do.
The management philosopher Charles Handy tells of offering unwanted advice to his daughter. She was starting her own business. A doting father, he wanted to help. And, he had much experience to share with her to avoid all the pitfalls she would face. Well intentioned, he went on and on. Finally, she called a halt, put down her foot, and exclaimed: “Dad, I want to make my own mistakes!” What do you think she meant?
It’s like there are two kinds of people in the world. Those that have advice to offer and those who should be taking it. Unfortunately for the eager former, the latter may not want their advice.
Enter the fly in the porcelain. This bit of behavioral psychology did not quite take off like some would have it. Supposedly a man, spying a porcelain fly in the urinal would of course, being a man, want to hose down the fly, thereby reducing splish and splatter. How this improved on the pretty humor of thumb tacked signs like “We aim to please, you aim, too, please” has never been tested, at least not by Harvard economists. While said economists with their dismal assumptions about humankind take umbrage and claim they are most certainly not trying to control human behavior -after all, what's a little nudge or two? - little Jāpacis knows better. He knows exactly what to do to avoid any unnecessary clean up. Avoid making the mess in the first place. It has something to do with taking responsibility for one’s self.

*Jānis = John

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “APOLLO AND THE SNAKE”

Posted by jlubans on January 23, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Ruins of Apollo’s temple at Delphi, Greece.

“A creeping snake who had been stepped on by many people made his way to the temple of Apollo and went inside. Apollo immediately explained to the snake, 'If you had simply killed the first person who stepped on you, no one would ever have dared to step on you again!'“

"The story shows that if people who have previously committed a crime are swiftly punished, then others will become afraid on their account."

Apollo suggests an unforgiving response. When someone insults you or threatens you, do not turn away. It is probably better in any case to confront that person. Of course, your “sting” must be one that “kills”, metaphorically speaking. You can ask for clarification and explanation to maybe reach a resolution, but, if your only recourse is one-upmanship or bluff and bravado then silence is the better option. This fable does imply a different view of how to deal with conflict; none of this “turning the other cheek” stuff for Apollo! It does show how Christian philosophy (if not practice) differs from the “eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth” of an earlier time.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Playing with Quality*

Posted by jlubans on January 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


A blowout girl’s basketball game got national attention this past week.
Arroyo Valley High School (CA), the winning team, scored 162 points, the loser, Bloomington H.S., 2. Yes, two points. As a punishment for unsportsmanlike conduct, the winning coach was suspended for two games for the egregious and embarrassing run-up of the score.
I’ve used sports as points of departure for commenting on teamwork and collaboration, so this story joins previous blogs**, one about offering a hand-up to a downed opponent, another about aiding a fellow runner to cross the finish line, and a third about literally carrying an opposing team’s player to victory - all which might qualify as “man bites dog” stories. That’s because popular sports opinion and practice is never to help your opponent. You don’t win by helping the other guy.
So it is not surprising that the winning coach’s suspension enraged many fans. Their view: fire the loser coach. Many see nothing wrong in running up the score. After all, it’s good for kids to experience defeat. The losing coach obviously did a lousy job in preparing his team; if you can’t run with the big boys, don’t play.
You get the idea.
"People shouldn't feel sorry for my team," the losing coach said, "They should feel sorry for the (winning) team, which isn't learning the game the right way."
So, there’s supposed to be a tacit understanding among players and coaches that when the score is one-sided, the stronger team needs to let up – show some mercy (and class). Not doing so is poor sportsmanship. Or, is this sentiment-soaked wimpiness, a caving in to the “everyone’s a winner” self-esteem crowd?
I’m on the side of the former – always be the gracious winner or loser. If you’re in a mismatch - an athletic team with veteran players vs. an inexperienced team - then you need to resist the temptation to be the bully. In this high school game the winning coach used a full court press for the entire first half. Then, relentlessly switched from full court to “trapping” – 2 or 3 players surrounding the player with the ball, forcing a time out or a held ball or literally ripping the ball away. There’s also something to be said about the common practice in basketball conferences, of all levels, of playing very weak teams out of conference. Supposedly, these are “tune-up” games prior to beginning conference play. I’m the last person to say there’s no value in getting trounced by a better team – it’s why women teams in college use men practice players –to get better. The beating can ramp up one’s game, but not if you’re in shellshock! Some say these easy games are simply for empty Ws and boosting player statistics, dubious reasons if true.
And, there’s a downside. Easy wins give the illusion of invincibility. Once in conference play, the team may lose a game or two because of that surfeit of confidence.
What about the winning players and their development as leaders and followers? Did any of the winning players confront the coach: “This is embarrassing me. Can we quit hammering them and play this like a varsity/JV scrimmage?” Or did the players delude themselves, “Wow! Look at my stats!” The winning coach admitted: "the game just got away from me." That’s not all. I’d say leadership got left in the locker room.
What does this have to do with workplace teams?
Plenty. Remember, it is indeed “always more than a game.” Respect for other work teams matters; how you compete and “play the game” matters in the organization. Treating other teams with kindness and in a cooperative spirit will advance the goals of the organization further than focusing on only one team’s goal. A shared achievement is better for the organization than one team claiming the trophy (recognition and reward) at the expense of others. A team that talks trash about other work teams is acting unethically and like a bully – taking advantage of circumstances that may hinder another team from doing its best. Instead of destructively mongering rumors to undermine reputations, air your differences with that team, in private, and once you’ve made your point – and heard their side - offer to help that team in real and supportive ways to get past whatever is impeding them.
OK, but what to do when you are up against a terribly weak team, one that is pulling down the organization? I think this has to be met with the same openness, listening and consideration. The outcome may well be different – the team may need to dissolve - but at least the decision is made in an upfront, caring and cooperative way.
Arroyo’s winning coach had this to say: "It wasn't a good feeling (afterward)," … "It's not something I would put on a mantel.” Maybe, just maybe, a lesson about fairness – other than being more cunning when thrashing weak teams – has sunken in.

* As in a Gentlewoman or Gentleman of Quality.

** A few other of my sports blogs:
“Altruism in Sports and Work”
“Aiding the Enemy?”
“What’s Fair?”

@Copyright John Lubans 2015