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 TUNNY-FISH AND THE DOLPHIN”*

Posted by jlubans on October 24, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: An etching from the year 1749, after the Francis Barlow original.

“A Tunny-fish was chased by a Dolphin and splashed through the water at a great rate, but the Dolphin gradually gained upon him, and was just about to seize him when the force of his flight carried the Tunny on to a sandbank. In the heat of the chase the Dolphin followed him, and there they both lay out of the water, gasping for dear life.
When the Tunny saw that his enemy was doomed like himself, he said, ‘I don't mind having to die now: for I see that he who is the cause of my death is about to share the same fate.’"

Pretty grim stuff. Another translator (Laura Gibbs) has it: “The fable shows that people readily undergo a disaster when they can witness the destruction of those who are to blame.”
There may be something to that, but I think I’d rather have a kindly shore fisherman gaff the dolphin and toss me back into the sea.
Here’s another moralist’s take, more to my way of thinking:
“‘Tis a wretched satisfaction, that a revengeful man takes, even in the losing of his own life, provided that his enemy may go for company.” Wretched’s the word.
I suppose this is schadenfreude taken to the extreme. the all-too human cheap thrill when hearing of other people’s suffering, especially of those whom we do not particularly like. A colleague of mine serves as a model for me when some former business antagonist slips on the banana peel on the walkway of life: Express condolences and nothing more.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.

What the heck, why not?
Redux a time to crow: My Fulbright Specialist Program grant award is official. Quoting from the October 16, 2014 Fulbright press release:
“John Lubans, Jr., an Independent Scholar, (was) selected for a Fulbright Specialists project in Riga, Latvia, at the University of Latvia, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Information and Library Studies during 2014, according to the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Lubans just completed his award grant, a 6 week class: “Democracy in the Workplace: Self-Managing Teams & Managing Self.”
Lubans is one of over 400 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad this year through the Fulbright Specialists Program. The Fulbright Specialists Program, created in 2000 to complement the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program provides short-term academic opportunities (two to six weeks) to prominent U.S. faculty and professionals to support curricular and faculty development and institutional planning at post secondary, academic institutions around the world.” Cock-a-doodle-do!

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Breaking down the Wall.

Posted by jlubans on October 21, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Berlin, 1989. The physical Berlin wall comes down

As I read one of the assigned solo essays in my Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia, I was reminded of a recent article in the Boston Globe.
The student paper (by Santa Lozda) was an anonymous interview of a Latvian who worked under both communism (pre-1991) and capitalism (post-1991). The person interviewed was asked to contrast the two systems.
The Boston Globe article is about the “massive laboratory for studying human society” created by the building of the Berlin wall in 1961.
The Globe’s report summarizes several sociological studies and in doing so suggests that while the wall’s collapse in late 1989 was a defining event in the 20th century, the people who endured communism and its ways, still are recovering from the documented abuses of the police state. Democratic ways have to be learned and society has to be open to learning. There are psychological walls to be taken down.

Attitudes in what was East Germany have improved toward democracy, but one research team “estimated that it would take between one and two generations—20 to 40 years— for the gap to fully close, and ‘for an average East German to have the same views on state intervention as an average West German.’” Twenty to 40 years!
And, ‘(w)hen … researchers compared survey data collected not long after reunification to data collected in 2002, it was clear that living in a democracy for a decade had not made East Germans significantly more trusting of others.”
Let’s be clear about one thing: No one wants to go back to the euphemistically termed “Soviet times” (in reality those were communist times.) But, democratic reforms and attitudes are slow to come by and many may suffer or be left behind as new institutions develop.
To quote from the student interview:
“I would say, that today people are more scared, because there is no stability in a workplace, prices are growing, and after a year you have to earn more, because of inflation. Employers today can’t provide stable workplace.” (Under communism one’s low-paying job was guaranteed.)
“Personally, I think there is no difference (in the workplace between capitalism and communism.) Because in communism and capitalism (both) you had to work hard, the only one thing has changed – you have an opportunity to grow and choose most preferable workplace. Nowadays there is no one behind your back to control you, you are your own future builder.”
If I or anyone else naively believes that one can switch communism off and turn democracy on, the Berlin studies are large-scale proof that change of this nature will take a long time.
I admire the interview subject for his surviving in both systems; not everyone has achieved that. A few years back when five students did a similar interview, 3 of the 5 people interviewed felt abandoned by the state, by the nation of Latvia.
I was intrigued by this person’s considered views on leadership:
“True leadership is a consensus, not compromise, but total agreement and satisfaction. Leadership doesn’t automatically happen when you reach a certain pay grade. You can be a leader …, all without having a title. Leadership should be built on trust, respect and responsibility for each other. …. An employer should understand, that employees are helping him/her to achieve goals, to earn capital. All together they are a team. They should be equal.”

Ms Lodza’s conclusions? “We live in democratic society where employees, workers are not protected - that’s the main problem. There is one main positive thing - we have realistic opinion and view. We recognize the problem and that’s the first step of solution.”
At the same time, she cautions, quoting Voltaire: “ the best is the enemy of the good.” Perhaps we need to accept progress made, and keep pushing for more. The ideal, the best, may never be realized – how many years have Americans been building democracy, our “shining city on the hill”? - but that’s no reason to eschew the “good” of progress made.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Hebrew University of Jerusalem Library

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE FOX AND THE CROW”

Posted by jlubans on October 16, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration by Milo Winter (1886-1956).

“A Crow was sitting on a branch of a tree with a piece of cheese in her beak when a Fox observed her and set his wits to work to discover some way of getting the cheese. Coming and standing under the tree he looked up and said, ‘What a noble bird I see above me! Her beauty is without equal, the hue of her plumage exquisite. If only her voice is as sweet as her looks are fair, she ought without doubt to be Queen of the Birds.’ The Crow was hugely flattered by this, and just to show the Fox that she could sing she gave a loud caw. Down came the cheese, of course, and the Fox, snatching it up, said, ‘You have a voice, madam, I see: what you want is wits.’"

“Flattery will get you everywhere”, sayeth the moralist. Or, as another Aesopist has it: “The flatterer lives at the expense of those who will listen to him.” To add another twist to this classic fable, is for the crow to proclaim - dog-in-manger-like - that the cheese is moldy. But, that would be messing with this fable’s simple truth. Consider the source of the praise. Can you trust the source? Might the praise be used to take away something you value? When I interviewed maestra conductor Simone Young, I asked her if she read her reviews – at the time she was riding a wave of popularity where she could not “put a foot wrong”. “No.” She explained: “If I read the good ones, I’d feel obligated to read the bad ones.”
That’s probably an effective way to keep praise in its place. She was not implying she was closed to feedback; she was just not going to be swayed by overly critical adulation or depreciation. She told me that, at the time, one of her most influential observers was her teen-age daughter. A thumbs up or down from that unvarnished source had meaning.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.


FYI: The comments function is up and running. Comment away!

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Wayne State University Libraries, Detroit, MI, USA

One more time to crow: My Fulbright Specialist Program grant award is official. Quoting from the October 16, 2014 Fulbright press release:
“John Lubans, Jr., an Independent Scholar, has been selected for a Fulbright Specialists project in Riga, Latvia, at the University of Latvia, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Information and Library Studies during 2014, according to the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Lubans will be teaching a 6 week class: “Democracy in the Workplace: Self-Managing Teams & Managing Self.”
Lubans is one of over 400 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad this year through the Fulbright Specialists Program. The Fulbright Specialists Program, created in 2000 to complement the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program provides short-term academic opportunities (two to six weeks) to prominent U.S. faculty and professionals to support curricular and faculty development and institutional planning at post secondary, academic institutions around the world.” Cock-a-doodle-do!

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“Old reliable”

Posted by jlubans on October 14, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: “Free fall from a perilous height.”
The “Egg Drop” is one of the most durable and teachable adventure games. But, since most USA graduate students will have done an egg drop in their previous school years, I tend not to use it in America.
However, I have found most Latvian students have not done this activity – much of Latvian higher education (a very high quality one, by the way) is traditional textbook/lecture. Due to the egg drop’s inherent novelty, I can expect good engagement and high interest whenever I go to the “old reliable” – the egg drop activity.
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Caption: Early design process, the clock ticking.

My directions are brief:
Team Mission: Sustained Excellence (I used to pun this as EGGcelence; forgive me!)
Purpose: Design a transportation device that sustains excellence even when egg is dropped in a free fall from a perilous height to a hard surface.
Resources: One egg, Ten minutes, 20 straws, 1 meter of tape, you and your team.
Rules:
1. Use only existing resources (those listed above) to build the transportation device.
2. Choose someone to tell us the name you have chosen for your device and in one sentence, why yours is the best.
3. Choose someone to launch the transportation device.
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Caption. All hands in.
And the fun (and learning) begins.
I am teaching undergraduates, for the first time, in my 2-credit class: “Democracy in the Workplace: Self-Managing Teams & Managing Self.”* (Usually, I teach graduate students and practitioners.) I’ve adjusted the agenda for the undergraduates, assigning fewer readings and adding in more activities including a brief solo interview paper. (More on that assignment later.)
I used the egg drop in the next to last class (yesterday). The students have done several team projects – including the Books2Eat team project - so it seemed right to underscore some of the group and team development theory with a hands-on activity leading up to next week’s final exam.

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Caption: Engagement with task.

If you look closely you will see, I think, very good examples of team work: everyone involved, doing an equal share of work, supportive postures and expressions, high focus on time, task and outcome, manifest creativity, and group accountability.
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Caption: Team presentation prior to drop.

Well, you might be asking, this looks like a positive team experience, but how does it teach anything more? What do the students learn?

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Caption: Lessons from "failure".
For one of the students the most important take away was that each group used a different design approach and that, since none of the eggs survived the drop, perhaps the best elements of each design could be integrated into a new design, a collaboration. I’ll take that insight as a pretty significant learning easily transferred to workplace teams.

Please note that the comment’s mechanism has been repaired. Comment-away!

As previously alluded to, my Fulbright Specialist Program grant award is official. Quoting from the October 16, 2014 Fulbright press release:
John Lubans, Jr., an Independent Scholar,
has been selected for a Fulbright Specialists project in Riga, Latvia, at the University of Latvia, Faculty of Social Sciences, Department of Information and Library Studies during 2014, according to the United States Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
Lubans will be teaching a 6 week class: “Democracy in the Workplace: Self-Managing Teams & Managing Self.”
Lubans is one of over 400 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad this year through the Fulbright Specialists Program. The Fulbright Specialists Program, created in 2000 to complement the traditional Fulbright Scholar Program provides short-term academic opportunities (two to six weeks) to prominent U.S. faculty and professionals to support curricular and faculty development and institutional planning at post secondary, academic institutions around the world.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE MOON AND HER MOTHER”*

Posted by jlubans on October 10, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

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“The Moon once begged her Mother to make her a gown. ‘How can I?’ replied she; ‘there's no fitting your figure. At one time you're a New Moon, and at another you're a Full Moon; and between whiles you're neither one nor the other.’"

I have to admit, my main reason in selecting this fable is Arthur Rackham’s poignant illustration; the mildly exasperated seamstress-mom with the adolescent daughter. As for a moral, well it may have to deal with not knowing who you are, generally an attributable quality of any teenager. More pertinently, changeable personalities are the dickens to deal with at work. A moody boss is not an easy person, especially given the power relationships. Give me the unflappable leader, rain or shine, whose imperturbability calms and lets reason prevail.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.

Please note, if you want to comment on this or past blogs the comments function is now enabled.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Of Sweats, “Pirts” and Leadership.

Posted by jlubans on October 07, 2014  •  Leave comment (1)

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Citation: The steps down to the “pirts” at “Laimes Ligzda”.
An unplanned event at August’s Leading Change seminar took me back in
time. The unscheduled event was a “pirts”, a group-sweat in a wood heated sauna with its Latvian cleansing protocols and rituals. It brought to mind a long-ago Cherokee sweat lodge out by a pond in rural North Carolina. And, adding humor to the recollection, I was also reminded of an amateurish effort one night by my men’s group to re-enact the Cherokee sweat. That’s a story all in itself: a teetering and drafty “lodge” in a river bed, the sputtering fire and the spitting and splitting heated rocks. And, topping everything off, when we finally called it quits, we got lost in the surrounding forest.

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Caption: A not untypical sweat lodge, path, and fire circle.
Hawk Littlejohn, a Cherokee shaman, master flute maker, school of medicine lecturer, self-proclaimed “savage” - yet, the most civilized in our midst - was the unforgettable leader of my North Carolina sweat.
We, too, had a wood fire to heat the river rocks. We hauled the wood and made the fire – I recall this especially since I had the misfortune to carry, bare-chested, pine logs with poison ivy roots still embedded in the bark. Once heated the stones were rolled or carried by shovel into the tarp-covered lodge and placed in the center. We crawled into the lodge and sat, cross-legged, on the ground around the hot rocks; if there was any light it was that emanating from the white-hot rocks. Hawk led the solemn ritual with prayers and chants. He ladled water onto the rocks, releasing clouds of steam to the roof just above our heads. The steam tingled, the heat settled on our heads, shoulders and legs. It became increasingly hot. Hawk’s voice guided and helped us focus; passing around a tobacco filled pipe, he asked us to join in and to say what was uppermost in our minds or to think in silence in the heated dark, perspiring freely, next to friends and colleagues. The world becomes finite, a circle; it is hard to pretend in the lodge, to stay closed and not speak truthfully.
We had, as I recall, three rounds inside the lodge. After each round we’d crawl out and quietly stand in the night air, then return. A few of us did not get through the third round – too hot.
After the final round we swam in the pond to cool off, followed by a convivial feast in the kitchen of Hawk’s nearby farmhouse.

How does this relate to leadership? What did I come away with besides a bad case of poison ivy?
Like so much of experiential or adventure learning the sweat has its greatest effect on the individual, on one’s self-awareness. While you listen to others and you hear and offer support to others, the cleansing of body and mind is deeply personal. And, sweats, whether in a Latvian pirts or in a tarp-covered lodge are rich with metaphors for leadership. A sweat is egalitarian – there’s no corporate uniform, you’re naked or near naked! And, there’s meaning in the heating and cleansing process. The three levels inside the pirts, from warm to hair-burning-hot, might represent a challenge, just how much “heat in the kitchen” can you stand? And, there’s the cooling off and adjusting between the rounds, returning to and re-engaging the heat. And, after the last round, there’s slipping into the pond for a swim with little regard for the misted cool evening. My super heated skin insulates me and makes me akin to an otter, as I slide in solitude through the silver, silken water.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

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

Posted by jlubans on October 02, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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"Early one morning a hungry Wolf was prowling around a cottage at the edge of a village, when he heard a child crying in the house. Then he heard the Mother's voice say:
"Hush, child, hush! Stop your crying, or I will give you to the Wolf!"
Surprised but delighted at the prospect of so delicious a meal, the Wolf settled down under an open window, expecting every moment to have the child handed out to him. But though the little one continued to fret, the Wolf waited all day in vain. Then, toward nightfall, he heard the Mother's voice again as she sat down near the window to sing and rock her baby to sleep.
‘There, child, there! The Wolf shall not get you. No, no! Daddy is watching and Daddy will kill him if he should come near!’
Just then the Father came within sight of the home, and the Wolf was barely able to save himself from the Dogs by a clever bit of running.”

“Do not believe everything you hear.” Or, quoting the disappointed wolf: "’As for the people in that house, you can't believe a word they say!’”

And, as for work, what does this story suggest?
Like the gullible wolf, don’t get taken in by promises from someone who has always avoided conflict. When a supervisor promises you to discipline a poor performer - “He’ll get the message, no worries” – but nothing changes maybe the supervisor is caving, opting out of her obligation to provide guidance. If so, you’ll be like the wolf, lying under the window waiting for the baby to get tossed out (with the bathwater, to mix fables with adages.) In any event, if you want this scenario to change, you will need to help the inept supervisor. Help him with having those difficult conversations. Help her with reaching a successful resolution. If nothing changes, then you will have two problems on hand: the timid supervisor and an intractable employee. Eventually, someone will catch on that you, too, are part of the problem. Get ready to do a “clever bit of running.”

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

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“A deeply human interaction.”

Posted by jlubans on September 29, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: St. Paul Chamber Orchestra Cellist Joshua Koestenbaum talks with his new stand partner, Julie Albers.

As readers of my book and blog know, I am a fan of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra; they play without a conductor and do so with a unique sound and verve, performing equal to or better than if led by a conductor. Full disclosure, as they say, I am only an “I Know What I Like” music listener but I do have some expertise in observing groups and identifying teamwork and collaboration and translating those observations into other realms. A musical performance – for all to see, out in the open, the organization in the same room as the “customers” - is a sharply focused, 1-2 hour look at how humans work together toward achieving a goal. And, the partnerships on display in musical sections (wind, string, brass, etc) present us with additional organizational microcosms.
Also, as part of my “creds”, I’ve explored the conductor’s role more than once. Among my favorites is Simone Young, the Australian maestro, now conducting in Hamburg, Germany. She invited me to sit in the Sydney Opera orchestra pit while she conducted a performance of Verdi’s Il Trovatore opera and I got to see her as musicians see her. I marvel at her joy and “boots and all” commitment to orchestral music - in rehearsal and in performance - and how she brings her musicians along. You can read about her in Leading from the Middle.
And, while I was in Riga as a Fulbrighter in 2011, one of my Fulbright partners was the saxophonist Chris Beaty who now teaches saxophone at Texas A&M University - Commerce. He’s given me numerous insights into how jazz players interact.

Tik un tā (anyway), Chris’ wife, Eileen MacNaughton, an accomplished violinist, and their three musically gifted children were also in Riga. So, I took notice when Eileen linked on Facebook to a story about musical “stand partners” written by Max Raimi, a violist at the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Mr. Raimi tells us that string partners are the only musicians to share a stand - and the musical score - with a partner. You may think that is interesting but … well, inconsequential. Yet, how it plays out offers us numerous insights about our relationships with partners at work, how well we get along or not or why. Who turns the pages, who gives up a few notes while turning the pages, how far or near is the stand, how supportive are we of each other are just a few of the pieces of the stand partner relationship that can easily apply to us. There is, according to Mr. Raimi, a protocol to be followed between stand partners, just like there may be an evolved protocol between work colleagues. Do we defer to our partner or go solo, like the timpanist, or do we share in the music and the “how” of playing it - the tone, the color, the sound, and the interpretation - or do we dominate?
The best stand partners display these qualities:
1. Make sacrifices for the good of the partnership. “Page turning is an acquired skill. Turn too soon, and your partner may miss a few notes at the end of the page. Too late, and the notes on the next page aren’t visible in time. A good page turner may have to sacrifice a few notes to make sure that the stand partner doesn’t miss any.”
2. Be diplomatic in all you do. “When stand partners don’t get along, life can be miserable.” Just like in the 9-5 work realm, “you will be ‘sitting together’” – working together - “again and again in the course of your careers. If issues are not settled peaceably, they may result in an exhausting feud….” Amen.
3. Ask permission, a simple courtesy, before marking up the score or to trying a new technique in your playing. Don’t leave your partner in the dark.
4. Be supportive, not judgmental. “(O)n occasion there can be an acoustic quirk whereby you hear your stand partner’s playing more clearly than you hear your own. If you play a passage particularly well, often your stand partner is the only person who knows it. And if you miscount, or play a wrong note, or play something dreadfully out of tune, your shameful little secret is entrusted to your stand partner.” So, offer your support, not your judgment. Your partner knows full well she could have done better.
5. Listen well and give feedback to your partner. If he or she has played a part especially well, let them know it. “Etiquette usually requires that your stand partner acknowledge your artistry with subtle applause,” like a light tap on the music or a faint foot shuffle. What variations on “subtle applause” can you bring to the workplace?
6. Be in tune with your partner. “Good stand partners are very sensitive to each other’s playing. But still, you each have your own musical styles. If you are both attentive,” – listening to each other – “you find yourselves in a wordless conversation about how the music should go.”
7. Understand the partnership’s role in contributing to the success of the overall organization. “I particularly enjoy passages in which we play different lines in harmony. We are at once blending together in our own little duet and contributing to the whole orchestral texture.”
8. Problem solve with your partner. “It is one thing to work out a difficult passage on your own. But if the two of you can play it together, …, you approach it with far more confidence at the concert.”
9. Be a companion to your partner. “It may seem strange, but to play in an orchestra can at times be a lonely endeavor…. A sympathetic stand partner can be a lifeline.” Through companionship, “(e)ven without a word being exchanged, you enjoy a deeply human interaction.”

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE TREES AND THE AXE”*

Posted by jlubans on September 25, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: The woodman pleading his case. Illustration by A. Rackham, 1912.

“A Woodman went into the forest and begged of the Trees the favour of a handle for his Axe. The principal Trees at once agreed to so modest a request, and unhesitatingly gave him a young ash sapling, out of which he fashioned the handle he desired. No sooner had he done so than he set to work to fell the noblest Trees in the wood. When they saw the use to which he was putting their gift, they cried, ‘Alas! alas! We are undone, but we are ourselves to blame. The little we gave has cost us all: had we not sacrificed the rights of the ash, we might ourselves have stood for ages.’"

In my 9-5 working days, some of what I did – like streamlining and reducing complexity - was viewed akin to the trees giving an ax handle to the woodcutter. One of my daily battle cries was to reduce backlogs. “He Never Met a Backlog He Liked” would serve well as my career’s epitaph. Many of my peers would do well under another: “They Never Met A Backlog They Didn’t Like.” If librarians had anything like “pissing contests” one of them was for bragging rights to the largest backlog, some numbering in the millions of unprocessed materials. They believed, among a multitude of lofty reasons, that a backlog was a good thing, a positive like inventoried factory orders; a guarantee there’d be work (and a raison d'être) into the next millennium. My take was that backlogs were a burden to the library and soured our relationships with readers and administrators. Backlogged, unavailable books, and other bottlenecks, congested access lanes, tied up beaucoup bucks in maintenance, created delays for readers, and harmed the image of the library and librarian as information provider.
I was not arming the woodcutter. In my day, every improvement, every backlog eliminated, resulted in freed up budget dollars for other library purposes; you see, we got to keep the money we saved. Not long after I'd left library land, higher powers applied mandatory budget cuts and forced previously unwilling managers to reduce expenses. The forced streamlining – a form of hostage taking: reduce costs, keep you job - did result in improvements, but the savings were surrendered to the central university budget to pay for more “with-it” programs, like an Olympic-size hot tub for the student union. While many of my former peers kept their jobs, the woodcutter was now loose in the library.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, 4400 Forbes Avenue, Pittsburgh, PA

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Genius and/or "Competent Jerk"?

Posted by jlubans on September 23, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Thomas Alva Edison’s cast iron marker stands in a public square for all to see in downtown Memphis, Tennessee (the home of Elvis Presley’s Graceland). The bottom half of the historical marker’s text caught my eye: “Trying to invent an auto-repeat key, he managed to connect New Orleans with New York directly for the first time after the war. As a result he was discharged by a jealous superior, and he left Memphis.” (Emphasis added.)

I could identify with that statement; I’ve seen, in my career, jealous and petty supervisors make life unbearable for the better than average worker; someone the paranoid boss thinks is stealing his thunder. And, reading the Memphis marker, I get the impression that the bad boss cost this at times forlorn Mississippi city, the associated prestige of the remarkable Edison, the inventor of the incandescent light bulb and a thousand other marvels including, a “cock-roach shocker”!

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Caption: The young Thomas.
Now, we’ll never get the unnamed “jealous” superior’s story, but as I dug a little deeper into Mr. Edison’s history I sensed that maybe the story was not as simple as an outclassed boss’ back- stabbing an overachieving subordinate. It may have been rank insubordination. One biographer sums up that young Edison’s cocky attitude “… must at times have been unbearable.”
By 1876 Edison was famous and prospering. He started a research lab in West Orange, New Jersey and staffed it with engineers and others eager to tie their wagons to Edison’s star. These were Edison’s “muckers”, as he called them. He was the self-designated “chief mucker.” When Edison had an idea – and he had thousands - the muckers would start testing, experimenting and trying to make the idea work, to bring it into production. The average workweek was six days for 55 hours and muckers were paid workmen’s wages. But, when hot on the trail of some idea, the days stretched far into the night, aptly illustrating Edison’s most famous quote: "Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent perspiration."
What was it like to work with Edison? “(A) mucker said that he (Edison) ‘could wither one with his biting sarcasm or ridicule one into extinction.’” But, another mucker stated, “'The privilege which I had being with this great man for six years was the greatest inspiration of my life.’"
I wonder if Mr. Edison was somewhat like Apple’s Steve Jobs?

As we say in Latvia, “tik un tā” (anyway), it is interesting to reflect on famous people and their taking untraveled paths – bushwhacking new trails to unforeseen vistas. I recall an insightful and bright young collegaue at work who never could see himself as anything less than the center of all things . When I asked him to draw a picture of a team, he was in the center – no doubt, the team captain - directing others. When I asked him to draw the department as circles, his was always the largest. He reminds me of Edison. This colleague moved on from the library realm into another industry and did well – or so I think. Some might have termed him an “incompetent jerk”*, but at worst, in my mind, he was a “competent jerk” and, if you got on his right side, he could be a charming “star” performer.

*The jerk terms are discussed in Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

@Copyright John Lubans 2014