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.

“I’ll Do It Myself!”

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

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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)

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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)

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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

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE FOX AND THE SNAKE”*

Posted by jlubans on January 16, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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“A Snake, in crossing a river, was carried away by the current, but managed to wriggle on to a bundle of thorns which was floating by, and was thus carried at a great rate down-stream. A Fox caught sight of it from the bank as it went whirling along, and called out, ‘Gad! the passenger fits the ship!’"

Having seen water snakes cross the bow of my canoe, I can well believe the snake’s hitching a ride in the river. And given the snake’s thorny boat, the fox is drolly apt.
Speaking of drollery, I was getting on the M60 bus at NYCs LaGuardia airport, when I saw the luggage rack was full, nowhere to put my bag. While I was puzzling over how to re-arrange the bags so mine would fit, a man kindly volunteered to take away his bag, explaining that he was getting off at the next stop. I thanked him, and asked, since he was standing near a vacant seat, if his offer included my taking his seat. With a bit of mischief in his voice, he said I could have it as long as I did not talk to his wife (an attractive woman in the next seat.) I replied, perhaps with a leer – surely not, but then again … - “I’ll try not to.” Laughter all about.

*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.


@Copyright John Lubans 2015

“A division of angels”

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

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Caption: Field of stones, natural and hierarchized.

Hieroglyphic was a recent Merriam-Webster’s Word of the day. Its etymology sent me to hieratic, “a cursive form of ancient Egyptian writing” as well as “highly stylized or formal”, which, inevitably, took me to hierarchy.
Its initial meaning, “a division of angels” – one that I would struggle to apply to any hierarchies I know - has long been subordinated to its popular use to describe the corporate realm, the office pecking order, the organizational chart, and the top-down chain-of-command.
All this was of interest since I frequently use the word, hierarchy, as the bête noire of freedom at work, indeed, the un-democracy of the Democratic Workplace.
We are immersed in hierarchies, not just in the workplace. Anything “ordered” or “ranked”, is usually a hierarchy.
While mankind, for the most part, will put aside personal interests to help others – when we are free, cooperation is second nature to us - we still organize ourselves into hierarchies under the notion that structure is essential to anything getting done.
Alexis de Tocqueville, writing in his 1835 book, La Démocratie en Amérique has this to say about democracy and hierarchy in the young America: “The population of New England was growing fast, and, while in the mother country the hierarchy of rank still classified men in a despotic manner, the colony increasingly showed the new spectacle of a society homogeneous in all its parts. Democracy, as Antiquity had never dared dream it, emerged large and well armed from within the ancient feudal society”*
For Tocqueville (according to Verdier) “hierarchy (on the one hand) is synonymous with despotism, and on the other it is what endows a civilization with its intellectual wealth….”
How can that be?
In Tocqueville’s eyes, hierarchy - however undesirable - is a natural form of society. (My two cents worth: there are exceptions to this conclusion. For example, bees and other creatures exist without hierarchy. Indeed, there are societies of people that can be classified as un-hierarchical. )
And the “absence of hierarchy only appears possible under a rule of tyranny aiming at the ignorance of the people.” “A despot can have motive to render his subjects equal and leave them ignorant, so as to more easily maintain them in slavery.” Sound familiar? Orwell's Animal Farm explores that from a real world perspective. "We're all equal comrades, comrade. Just a few of us are more equal than others."
So, it would appear, we should seek a balance between the rigid hierarchy of despotism and a looser (more gentle?) hierarchy that permits us to live in constructive ways.
I have come half way in this regard. For me, hierarchies can be useful as long as they permit the maximum freedom for the individual, as long as they do not interfere with a worker’s ability to be an essential part of the organization and to have a strong voice – if he or she chooses - in the running of the business. Hence, I call this a hybrid organization, a melding of
teams and the towering pyramid of boxes, capped by THE Boss. The hybrid requires a different kind of leader, the unboss, if you will, who helps the people who work in the organization make the most their skills and abilities for the good of the concern.

*As quoted by Nicolas Verdier. Hierarchy: a short history of a word in Western thought. Pumain D. (ed), Hierarchy in Natural and Social Sciences, Springer, pp.13-37, 2005.

@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Two Dogs”*

Posted by jlubans on January 09, 2015  •  Leave comment (1)

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Caption: Yesterday, Elvis would have been 80. His music lives on.

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

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

Perhaps, but in this case the blameless child (the dog) knows he should be doing at least something – maybe sharing his bounty with the hard-working hound. But, the housedog has lost his independence, he’s become a smugly satisfied ward of the Man.
On the job, there’s the boss who claims credit for work done by subordinates, never mentioning their names. Only when there’s blaming does he get specific: “You ain’t nothin but a hound-dog!


*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.


@Copyright John Lubans 2015

Disintermediation Rears Its Handsome, if Ungainly, Head

Posted by jlubans on January 06, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Since I am always on the look out for mentions of teamwork and collaboration, I took notice of an essay about innovation.
The January/February, 2015 issue of Foreign Affairs reviews two recent books,
Thinkers and Tinkerers The Innovators Behind the Information Age.” The reviewer, James Surowiecki, has this to say about how inventive advances come about: “… the true engine of innovation is collaboration. The pairing of a creative visionary and a more practical engineer (such as Jobs and Wozniak at Apple) can be enormously productive.” He takes this observation a step further: …“the organizations that have done best at innovating have typically been those that have relied on strong teams made up of diverse thinkers…. These teams didn’t try to quash independent thinking; they welcomed it.”
I would second that conclusion. In my experience, empowered groups do the best work, especially when they share urgency. It isn’t just coming up with something new, it’s being open to always wanting better, never settling for good enough.
Giving independent thinkers – and yes, some of them could be termed “jerks” and others “geniuses” - the freedom to experiment, to venture, to risk is all important in bringing about needed change, any change, not just the creation of some gadget that alleviates boredom.
More important is change that improves our product or service, or how quickly we serve our clients, change that brings a smile to a customer’s face, change that, in libraries, “saves the time of the user.” Few of these changes will be hailed as “the idea of the year” but they make the difference between the humdrum, business as usual and something highly positive and helpful.
As I reflect on my stint in the 9-5 realm, I realize that much of my rationale for more freedom at work was about collaboration and the removal of artificial barriers, a carefully considered disintermediation. Those barriers in my line of work included professionals never talking to support staff. (Librarians are not unique in this negative behavior; doctors and nurses, professors and adjuncts, bank executives and tellers, etc. ) The best bosses, of course do talk to their employees, but the disdain some professionals have for subordinate opinions came up at almost every discussion on how to make the workplace better: seek a genuine mutual respect. To many professionals’ chagrin, I institutionalized the regular exchange of ideas among all levels in my area and the results, over a decade, were more than encouraging – they were conclusive to me about the role of freedom in our working together in “unhierarchical” groups for better outcomes.
Other barriers to innovation include the supervisor – clearly not my unboss -
who must approve a group’s work each step of the way. And, then only after the supervisor has gotten his boss’ permission! How to slow down innovation? I just gave you the recipe! Never assign decision-making authority to the people doing the work.
Oh, if you choose this fuddy-duddy way, you’ll get by – an amazing amount of maintaining the status quo passes for progress – but you will have failed to do your job: improving services by using all your available resources.
Surowiecki highlights another technological improvement, one that is the “closest to being revolutionary” — “namely, the way the Internet has ‘facilitated collaboration not only within teams but also among crowds of people who didn’t know each other.’” A disintermediated communication, if you will. I certainly saw this play out over my career which spanned typewriters, word processors, dial-up online indexes and abstracts, e-mail networks, DVD-resources, the internet and web and e-resources, Wi-Fi and on – an overall disintermediation, usually for the better - a lowering of barriers, an active by-passing of the Middle Man, be it supervisor or service provider.

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Abstemius’ “Wax and Brick.”*

Posted by jlubans on January 02, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration by J. J. Grandville from the Fables of Jean de La Fontaine, published between 1668-1694.

“There was a Question started once about Wax and Brick, why the one should be so brittle, and liable to be broken with every Knock, and the other bear up against all Injuries and Weathers, so durable and firm. The Wax philosophiz'd upon the Matter, and finding out at last, that it was Burning made the Brick so hard, cast itself into the Fire, upon an Opinion that Heat would harden the Wax too; but that which Consolidated the one, Dissolv'd the other.”

“’Tis a Folly to try Conclusions, without understanding the Nature of the Matter in Question.”

The wax candle illustrates the mistakes we make when we leap to answers - conclusions - rather than stop and define what the problem – question - really is. Coming up with a solution is easy once you have successfully defined the problem.
H. L. Mencken is credited with this insight:
“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”
A personal example, I was in a two-person canoe (me in the bow and my friend in the stern) and we were in swift white water. Coming up were a series of boulders, large enough to damage boats and boaters.
We angled around one or two and then - our skills far from Olympic - the water pushed us sideways toward another boulder. Both of us leaned AWAY from the oncoming rock - natural and intuitive, but wrong. Leaning away, tips the boat into the rushing water. Leaning towards the rock, as instructed, would tilt the side of the canoe out of the water and we'd be able to use our paddles to steer around the rock. Instead, the water rushed over the lowered gunwale - sinking the canoe and making us about as navigable as a brick underwater. In a few seconds the force of the rushing water "wrapped" our underwater canoe around the rock - immobilizing it - and we had to be rescued.

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

For more information about Abstemius, our fabulist, see the notes attached to this past Friday Fable.

And, at Gutenberg, you can read an 1841 translation by Elizur Wright of La Fontaine’s version of the Wax and Brick fable.


@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Under “the Long Tail”: A Reflection on E-writing.

Posted by jlubans on December 30, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: The “long tail” illustrated.

The long tail theory seeks to upend Pareto’s simple 80/20 rule: Twenty percent of the literature – on any topic – satisfies 80% of the need. So, four out of five library books sit like wallflowers waiting to be asked to dance. I have experienced the 80/20 in libraries. Indeed 20% of the collection is used frequently and 80% is used less frequently or never. Internecine strife may still erupt when advocates for Use come into conflict with advocates for Conservation; the just-in-time gang vs. the just-in-case mob.
Very likely, in our age of e-resources, the use of the legacy print collections (books) has slipped from 20% to possibly below 10%. One study conducted by a reputable agency discovered use of print collections at 6% of holdings.

The long tail advocates hold otherwise: To paraphrase the theory, in the digital world, when large number of users are given access to large numbers of items (books, DVDs, shoes, garden hoses, underwear, etc) to choose among, a wide variety of items will be chosen. In other words, the user's choices will encompass the obscure and esoteric, like a merciful rain that falleth gently on all below. The serendipity of finding what you did not know you were looking will rule!

Google is great except when it’s not.
Well, ubiquitous choice may apply to refrigerators and rubber boots, or any commerce in which one can pay to “improve” search results - but it surely does not apply to the blogosphere. We are told there are now over 152 million blogs. And that, “Goosh!” 172,800 blogs are added daily!
Their age, frequency of use and other demographics are largely undetermined. How many of these millions are under the very long tail of our dinosaur friend? I would modestly suggest that well over 99.9% of all blogs are indeed under the long tail – a very long tail. And this blog is clearly one of those.
As someone said, “never have so many written so much to be read by so few.” Unless you are in the top .01% of the blog universe, your message is just one of millions in millions of corked bottles, bobbing in a boundless sea. Yes, Google will pick you up from time to time but it is not a given and highly unlikely you will achieve the blogger’s apotheosis, going “viral”.

Well then, why blog?
I do so for two reasons: discipline and for potential print publication. Twice a week blogging requires discipline. I rarely miss my self-imposed deadline. And, blogging – putting stuff out there for even a few to see - is a way of distilling my thoughts about the underlying concepts of this blog: freedom at work, the democratic workplace, teamwork, collaboration and cooperation, and, the unboss, among a few others.
And, I do see producing a book or two based on these now several hundred entries. So, for me, these writings are so many drafts eventually to be gathered and edited into a paper format.

Books are better.
Yes, that sounds contrarian given some of the above – did you expect anything else? - but if one is to reach a larger audience than those few regular blog readers, books are still vastly superior. For one thing when vetted prior to publication and then reviewed by discerning readers (for better or worse) a book gathers an audience of interested people. Word gets out.
One’s ideas in ink on paper just look better than pixels on a screen. Hardly viral, an audience of 500 individuals and libraries willing to pay for the book is certainly superior to remaining under the long tail.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Abstemius’ “Capons Fat and Lean.”*

Posted by jlubans on December 26, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: A is for Abstemius, a fabulist from the 1500s.

"There were a great many Cramm’d Capons together in a Coop, some of ‘em very Fair and Fat, and Others again did not thrive upon Feeding. The Fat Ones would be ever and anon making sport with the Lean, and calling them Starvelings; ‘till in the End, the Cook was order’d to dress so many Capons for Supper, and to be sure to take the best in the Pen: When it came to that once, they that had most Flesh upon their Backs, wish’d they had had less, and ‘twould have been better for ‘em."

"Prosperity makes People Proud, Fat, and Wanton; but when a Day of Reckoning comes, They are the First still that go to Pot."

So, unless you have friends at court, try like the dickens to avoid having the fattest salary, playing the cramm’d capon – however unintentional - at your organization, less you become a marked man among the envious and devious when the Day of Reckoning arrives. Wear camo; take benefits that do not appear in your salary line. Once the envious are in ascendance, they’ll use your prominent salary against you and your job will be in jeopardy, regardless of past, current (or potential!) accomplishment. Like the Australians, say, the tallest flower in the field is the first to be cut.

*Source: Translation by Sir Roger L’Estrange available here.
Professor Laura Gibbs has this to say about Abstemius:
“Laurentius Abstemius (Lorenzo Bevilaqua) was a fifteenth-century Italian scholar. Although he was the author of various scholarly works, he was best known for his Hecatomythium Secundum, a collection of “original” Aesop’s fables inspired by the classical tradition of Aesop’s fables, (Venice, 1499 )It is a truly marvelous collection of fables, marked by sharp social satire, including satire directed against the church. Aesop himself would definitely approve!”
He was librarian to Duke Guido Ubaldo under Pope Alexander VI.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014