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.

“You’re not the boss of me!” Or, “Is this whole bossless thing bullshit?”

Posted by jlubans on July 22, 2014  •  Leave comment (2)

Vadim Liberman’s Fall, 2013 article, “Who’s in Charge Here?”, surveys and assesses self managing organizations - bossless workplacecs.
No, it’s not a soapy infomercial; rather it’s a well balanced and critical assessment of the knitty-gritty of self management. He makes effective use of Socratic counterpoints switching between the pros and cons, the lows and highs of bosslessness. Apart from his passing mention of the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, there are no other not-for-profits in his survey. Regardless, I think the article will be of use in my Democratic Workplace class. The concepts applied in the for-profit world are extractable and applicable to the not-for-profit sector, a point I try to make everytime I discuss the un-hierarchy.
Liberman’s subtitle makes a similar point for all of us working in hierarchies: “Bossless organizations can teach you how to be a better boss.” That evokes what a conducting student told me about observing Orpheus’ conductor-less rehearsals: “I learn more about conducting than from any conducting class!”

“Who’s in Charge Here?” Is divided into seven sections preceded by a lengthy introduction.
Decisions, Decisions
In It Together
Leaders Without Bosses
Avoiding Chaos
Building Pyramids
Fitting In—or Not
Peer Management

Here are a few quotes from some of these sections, including one from the introduction taken from Ricardo Semler:
“Bureaucracies are built by and for people who busy themselves proving they are necessary, especially when they suspect they aren't. All these bosses have to keep themselves occupied, and so they constantly complicate everything.”
(My experience would confirm that, perhaps more so than others. What about you?)

Decisions, Decisions
“Superpowers held by a relatively few individuals at conventional corporations are everybody's powers at (bossless) businesses: No one is a boss; everyone is a boss.”
“Richard Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, often speaks of how his 8-year-old daughter remarked that Daddy was ‘really important’ when he brought her to work at his former company one day because people kept asking him to make decisions. ‘I realized I was a bottleneck.’”

In It Together
“In reality, while employees at bossless firms decide for themselves, they rarely decide by themselves. Often, they work in teams and solicit information and advice from many other, especially experienced, colleagues. Of course, the same happens at your company.”
“Dana Ardi says, is that ‘this isn't about creating a democracy—it's about democratization of the process. You don't always need consensus. You need consideration.’”

Leaders Without Bosses
“Nevertheless, some critics worry that it's not high school that a bossless workplace risks resembling but Lord of the Flies.”

Avoiding Chaos
Valve’s CEO, as depicted in the Valve Employee Handbook: “'Gabe Newell—Of all the people at this company who aren't your boss, Gabe is the MOST not your boss, if you get what we're saying.' You get it: Newell isn't but kind of is but not really but sort of is boss, but let's be real—only a boss can declare that he isn't a boss.”
“’If you're a big company, you don't blow up all the bosses.’”
“In other words, trust your people so they trust you. Your company may not go bossless, but you can still boss less.”

Peer Management
“The Morning Star organization struggles to ensure that co-workers don't dodge giving negative feedback. “It probably happens less often than it should,” he says—just like at your own company.”

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: Washington County Cooperative Library Services, Hillsboro, Oregon, USA.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Lubans’ "The Proud Blackberry"

Posted by jlubans on July 18, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

20140718-Berry med.jpeg

One day a fox made much, in French, over July’s first ripe blackberry. As usual, the berry was at the tip of the cluster, out ahead of all the others, yet green. The blackberry basked in Reynard's praise and remarked how proud he was to be the first, and such a magnificent first, shiny black, super sweet and juicy. The fox nodded and in a flash gobbled up the blackberry. The fox remarked, “Mon chérie, why do you take such pride in being the first. Have you not heard the tale of the tall poppy? For all his eminence, he’s the first to be cut.”

Therefore, don’t be like the candle that brags on its flame only to see it put out.

A contrarian moral: On hearing the fox , a voice gurgled deep inside: “Au contraire, mon ami, my destiny is to be eaten and I have the honor to be the first of my brethren. You, Monsieur Reynard, are a mere vehicle, a bus d'auto. Next, when you hear the call of nature, I will fall onto the earth and soon reappear as a new cane to snag your raggedy tail with my thorns.”

Caption: Gone!

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Team Building? What Not to Do.

Posted by jlubans on July 15, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The infamous fire walk. A few beers and a quick step help.

A week ago, NPR did a story onTeam Building Exercises Gone Bad.
Real bad. Yuki Noguchi, the reporter, uses three anecdotes to get her point across, team building - with flying piñatas, paintball projectiles, and hallucinogenic mushrooms - is a dud. While the report is largely negative – and the 120 comments only aggravate the pessimism – I have to agree that misguided adventure based team building can go awry. I’ve been part of a few team building episodes that crashed, went nowhere, and no one learned anything except they really, really did not want to be there. And, I have been part of highly successful ventures in which participants expanded horizons, challenged assumptions, and made productive transfers to the workplace.
But, back to the story.
While the three anecdotes in the NPR piece sound well embellished - like the larger and larger fish that got away - I do not doubt something like what’s purported did happen. While I do not personally know anyone in the adventure education business who would do what’s described, I know there are rogue operators or that circumstances can lead to nightmarish outcomes. There are documented disasters – even deaths. One river raft adventure for executives resulted in five dead.
But, in fairness, river rafting is not team building – I’ve done it for a work group and would never do it again. We were more challenged to get through the pre-river stormy night – with the wind and rain blowing tents around like puff balls - than we did all day on the river. River rafting, like going on a roller coaster, is an entertainment. The guide is in charge – the ride operator - and you are a passenger. That changes when you mistakenly venture into a raging river far beyond the guide’s technical ability. Likewise, fire walks (depicted), pamper poles, maybe even shaman-lead sweat lodges can go wrong or they can be life-changing for the individual, but there’s no team building.
Noguchi’s Anecdote 1. Paintballing is a war game; it might work for Special Forces’ team building or if you and your work group never got past playing cops and robbers, but it’s a bad idea for your usual office demographic mix. In the NPR story someone’s shooting a paint ball into the boss’ crotch, accidentally, of course, made this already bad idea worse. The fragging that followed - subordinates shooting supervisors on their own teams - suggests the group needed PTSD counseling more than a day in the woods with weapons.
Anecdote 2. The exploding piñata. The first blindfolded batter smashed a home run – slamming the piñata (labeled with a much hated competitor’s name) with such violence the stuff inside (metal coins) shrapneled around the room injuring several. In shock, no one picked up any of the so-called “blood money”. My advice: save the piñata for kid birthdays and then only fill it with soft candy
Anecdote 3. The magic mushroom adventure. This CEO had his own ideas on team building. He passed out hallucinogens to the participants. Everybody got high. Amazing. Getting stoned did have a bonding effect among the staff; after the company failed – do you wonder? – the staff continues to stay in touch with each other.
If you want adventure learning to be effective and useful, then recruit only volunteers. The outdoor team building I did was for volunteers only. Expect about 20% to be interested. But, that’s enough to introduce change into an organization. The 20% will have a camaraderie, a risk taking perspective, a “Yes, I can” attitude that most of the stay-at-home 80% lacks. That 20% returning to the office – with a supportive leader – will lead change for the better.
When someone volunteers to spend a day in the woods, there’s a pre-disposition toward individual growth. And, that’s the secret team building companies do not want you to know. Adventure based learning is not about team building; it is about the individual seeing himself or herself in a new light. It’s about the open-minded individual thinking about what is happening and how what happens relates to him or her, how what they fail or succeed at can be transferred to work relationships.
So, if you have a disdain for adventure-based learning don’t go - the group’s better off if you are not there. And, you wouldn’t get in the way of another person’s decision to go, would you?

@Copyright 2014 John Lubans

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE TRAVELERS AND THE PURSE”*

Posted by jlubans on July 11, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Two men were traveling in company along the road when one of them picked up a well-filled purse.
‘How lucky I am!’ he said. ‘I have found a purse. Judging by its weight it must be full of gold.’
‘Do not say 'I have found a purse,'’ said his companion. ‘Say rather 'we have found a purse' and 'how lucky we are.' Travelers ought to share alike the fortunes or misfortunes of the road.’
‘No, no,’ replied the other angrily. ‘I found it and I am going to keep it.’
Just then they heard a shout of ‘Stop, thief!’ and looking around, saw a mob of people armed with clubs coming down the road.
The man who had found the purse fell into a panic.
‘We are lost if they find the purse on us,’ he cried.
‘No, no,’ replied the other, ‘You would not say 'we' before, so now stick to your 'I'. Say 'I am lost.'"

“We cannot expect any one to share our misfortunes unless we are willing to share our good fortune also.”

OTJ (on the job), the unboss, never claims sole credit for organizational accomplishment nor blames others when things go bad. The unboss understands he is as much responsible for an organization’s failure as he is responsible for its success. As a result, the salary multiple for the unboss is not 200 times the lowest paid worker; it’s a much smaller multiple, permitting a greater share for everyone in the organization.
It should be noted that a prime factor in humankind’s evolutionary survival is our widely distributed desire to cooperate and to be considerate of others. Aesop’s selfish traveler comes up short on the cooperation gene.

*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 4th of July Marriage: More on the Un-Hierarchy

Posted by jlubans on July 08, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Flag flying near a July 4th wedding in SoHo, within walking distance of New York’s 9/11 Memorial.

A few days after my essay on “The Un-hierarchy” I was in New
York for my granddaughter’s July 4 wedding.
Now, you may be thinking what does a wedding – especially one on a celebration of national independence - have to do with the un-hierarchy. Actually, quite a lot.
One of my recent readings is “The Good of Government” by Roger Scruton. Scruton addresses the mistaken perception that conservatives desire no government; indeed that any and all government is THE problem. While liberals might say “What’s new?” to that, in reality conservatives – when they really think about it – want a good government, one in which all of us are thinking partners, not subservient participants. As I read Scruton, I got the glimmer of a new and fresh kind of toast for the bride and groom at their wedding banquet.
The 4th is more than an opportunity to blow a finger off with fireworks; it is a heartfelt celebration of American independence and the astonishing philosophy behind it: We are a society of free individuals. What does this mean? What does it mean to be a free society? “People become free individuals by learning to take responsibility for their actions.” And, good government and good organizations and good marriages develop through this mutual accountability.
When we hold each other accountable – to the best of our ability – then we have a free and growing, mutually respectful, relationship.
Scruton: “When, in the first impulse of affection, one person joins in friendship with another, there arises immediately between them a relation of accountability. They promise things to each other. They become bound in a web of mutual obligations. If one harms the other, there is a “calling to account,” and the relation is jeopardized until an apology is offered. They plan things, sharing their reasons, their hopes, their praise, and their blame. In everything they do they make themselves accountable. If this relation of accountability fails to emerge, then what might have been friendship becomes, instead, a form of exploitation.”
So, then what is a hierarchy? I suspect the hierarchy is less about individual freedom and mutual accountability than it is about top down domination. However you dress it up or down, the autocratic boss is regent. And, as individual freedoms must of necessity be limited in a regency, we may wind up with an organization based on exploitation rather than a mutually accountable partnership. Scruton explains the leader in good government is bounded by those governed, one is not subordinate to the other. In our complex world, we relinquish necessarily some responsibilities to the good leader (the unboss), but we never surrender our right to self-government and self-responsibility. Hierarchies function on domination, on creating a dependent class; the un-hierarchy thrives on partnership, collaboration, and individual acceptance of responsibility and a wide distribution of mutual respect. I can hardly think of a better definition of a marriage between two free and abundantly affectionate individuals.
So, there was my toast of to Tom and Te’sa on the day we celebrate a wedding and freedom for a nation and its individuals.

@2014 Copyright John Lubans

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Cat And The Fox”*

Posted by jlubans on July 04, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

20140704-cat fox best.jpg

“The Cat and the Fox once took a walk together,
Sharpening their wits with talk about the weather
And as their walking sharpened appetite, too;
They also took some things they had no right to.
Cream, that is so delicious when it thickens,
Pleased the Cat best. The Fox liked little chickens.

With stomachs filled, they presently grew prouder,
And each began to try to talk the louder--
Bragging about his skill, and strength, and cunning.
‘Pooh!’ said the Fox. ‘You ought to see me running.
Besides, I have a hundred tricks. You Cat, you!
What can you do when Mr. Dog comes at you?’
‘To tell the truth,’ the Cat said, ‘though it grieve me
I've but one trick. Yet that's enough--believe me!’

There came a pack of fox-hounds--yelping, baying.
‘Pardon me’, said the Cat. ‘I can't be staying.
This is my trick.’ And up a tree he scurried,
Leaving the Fox below a trifle worried.

In vain he tried his hundred tricks and ruses
(The sort of thing that Mr. Dog confuses)--
Doubling, and seeking one hole, then another--
Smoked out of each until he thought he'd smother.
At last as he once more came out of cover,
Two nimble dogs pounced on him--All was over!”

20140704-cat fox RIP.jpg

“Common sense is always worth more than cunning” is how one moralist put it.

Or, as Occam had it: “When you hear hoof beats, think horses not zebras.” The simple answer to a problem is often the best answer. Tell that to my admininstrative contemporaries for whom complexity trumped simplicity. They never believed the corollary that simple is difficult, complex is easy. For them, a simple solution always improved by adding a few curlicues here and there. More important is understanding the problem. The cat understands and survives. The fox, offers up his 100 ruses and dies.

*Source: Larned, W. T., Jean de La Fontaine, and John Rae. Fables in rhyme for little folks: adapted from the French of La Fontaine. New York: P.F. Volland. 1918. At Gutenberg.
Also, here is the 1841 Elizur Wright translation.

of La Fontaine’s verse. In the bucolic background, birds chirp and bees buzz.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

The un-hierarchy.

Posted by jlubans on July 01, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Why you may hate your job.

Decades ago, Fred Emery summarized what people want from work:
Adequate elbowroom for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
A desirable future

Pretty straight forward and I’ve had no reason to question his conclusions. These elements, when present, make for a great place to work, whether in a hierarchy or not. However, in my research, I’ve found these elements most often present in un-hierarchical structures. I think in Emery’s day he was a proponent of team-based organizations.
On June 1, the New York Times published research on why people hate working.
The researchers concluded that there were four needs, when met, which make employees feel better and work better: Renewal, Value, Focus, and Purpose.
Renewal refers to taking breaks, short and long. The fewer breaks taken and the more people work beyond 40 hours, the worse they feel and become less engaged. (Engagement is a measure of effectiveness – of doing a good job or not.) A supervisor’s encouraging the worker to take breaks doubles the employee’s sense of health and well-being and they are more likely to stay with the company.
Value is about supportive supervisors who care about the employee’s well being. As a result the worker feels better about his work and wants to stay at the job.
Focus relates to the ability to work on one thing at a time rather than experiencing an Internet-fueled burnout. Probably more so than in the good old BI days, (before the net) the worker is pulled in multiple directions at all hours and days of the week. Multi-tasking detracts from focus. The more “focus” the more the worker feels engaged and does a good job.
And, just like Emery found, staff work best when they regard their work as meaningful, that what they do is for a good purpose.

A good friend asked me to comment – in absentia - on an upcoming discussion at the Las Vegas meeting of the American Library Association (ALA) this week. A sub, sub, sub-group of the 60,000 member ALA will take on the question of what library organizational structure (management model) is best for 21st century libraries?

One could ask, why bother? Isn’t it a given that the boxed in hierarchy is the one and only way to run your business? If you agree, then let me ask you, “Why?”
“Well, It’s obvious, it’s all around us, it works!”
But, even if that were true – which I doubt - where’s it written that the best way to organize is the way we’ve got it now? Here are just a few of the inherent assumptions about the hierarchy: People want and have to be led; workers do best when their work is structured and controlled. Supervisors add value by making sure work gets done; the supervisor shepherds the largely unthinking worker. Left to his or her own devices, the worker will dither.

What assumptions can we make about the un-hierarchy. Well, for starters rewrite, as opposites, the stated assumptions for the hierarchy.
How do those opposites sound, how would they play out in the real work world? What organizational structure best serves those opposites?
Here are the discussion questions I sent to my friend:

1. Does your current organizational arrangement get in the way of what you want to do?
2. Do you need freedom to do a good job? How much?
3. Would genuine empowerment make a difference in how well you do your job?
4. Would you prefer less freedom, more being told what to do?

I look forward to what my friend discovers in Las Vegas.
What are your answers to my four questions?

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Monkeys and Their Mother”*

Posted by jlubans on June 27, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

20140627-monkey twcolor*.jpeg
Caption: Hand-coloured wood engraving by Joseph Swain, in Charles Bennett’s The Fables of Aesop, p.23. 1857

“THE MONKEY, it is said, has two young ones at each birth. The Mother fondles one and nurtures it with the greatest affection and care, but hates and neglects the other. It happened once that the young one which was caressed and loved was smothered by the too great affection of the Mother, while the despised one was nurtured and reared in spite of the neglect to which it was exposed.”

“The best intentions will not always ensure success.”

A very Victorian moral (from Charles Bennett) further impugns the parent: “A plant may thrive better by the roadside than in a hot-house where a Fool is a gardener.” Harsh! It’s the mother’s fault one of the two twins is a delinquent, copped by the canine copper, as depicted above.

What do the antics of these Aesopian simians have to do with work? Well, if I have a boss who, with the “greatest affection”, is more friend than supervisor, then I could suffer from a lack of challenge and discipline. It might be better to be the one neglected and have to fend for myself, something Bennett’s contemporary, Charles Darwin, would have espoused.

*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 Gutenberg.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

“Bar Rescue”: Model for Change?

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

Preparing for my Leading Change seminar in August, I’ve been looking for ways to show how the change process works.
“Bar Rescue” is a TV show I’ve seen a few times. It may sound unlikely, but Bar Rescue is about organizational change, in this case, the process of saving an organization (a bar) on the skids, in a downward spiral, on self-destruct. The star of the show is Jon Taffer, an abrasive, bar business consultant. He may be in the first percentile on the jerkitude chart, but he appears to get the job done: saving your bar, business and job.
Before Mr. Taffer appears on the scene, the desperate owner(s) give Taffer full access to the financials and the staff. He glowers, in the dramatic, always-confrontational all-staff meeting at the top of the show: “For the next seven days, you work for me!”
Taffer knows his stuff and brings in experts in marketing, architecture, building renovation, interior designers, mixologists – drink makers – and chefs.
The show features badass customers, thieving wait staff, absentee – often drunk - owners, and incompetent, grasping and groping managers. Not exactly your cheerful neighborhood pub, nor the congenial “third place”. Rather most of Taffer’s bars are the type that ruined the corner tavern’s once wholesome reputation.
The language is coarse, loud and usually degenerates into shoving matches or in a few cases fists flying. Taffer would do well on a show like “Cops”; while not wearing a gun or armor, he spouts, machinegun like, verbal bullets, sometimes at hapless targets.
20140624-bar rescue.jpg
Caption: Mr. Taffer making himself felt in the kitchen

There’s a formula – a method to the madness:
Observe. Give feedback. Provide a vision. Train. Stress-test. Collapse. Re-group. Excise corruption. Re-train. Re-design. Transition. Stress-test again. Succeed.
Maybe that’s akin to Lewin’s highly distilled three steps for change: un-thaw, change, and freeze. Or, you could apply Kotter’s 8-step change process, (create a sense of urgency, recruit powerful change leaders, build a vision and effectively communicate it, remove obstacles, create quick wins, and build on your momentum) but the one change model that fits like a glove is Kubler-Ross’s. Bar Rescue displays, for all to see, the raw denial, depression, rebellion, and resistance when sudden change is thrust upon us. You might not see the Bar Rescue extremes in businesses like libraries, but (from the library-rescues of which I have been part) the emotions are there - muted, restrained - but just as real as those on violent display in the bar. We tend to come out OK at the end of the change, but the journey's been brutal.

20140624-BAR RESCUEcalm.jpeg
Caption: Mr. Taffer in a calm moment.
By show’s end there is some appreciation by an owner and his staff of what they have been through and how far they have come. Sort of like what I expect occurs at the end of basic training in the military under a tough drill sergeant.
On a rare occasion, a boss or a staffer expresses a genuine respect for Mr. Taffer and an appreciation for the essential change Taffer’s helped bring about.
Will I use a Bar Rescue episode in my seminar? Probably not, but, having seen the show, and now written about it, I have a deeper understanding of what change is like and what aspects promote effective change. That’s what I will try to communicate.

@ Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Bald Man and the Fly”*

Posted by jlubans on June 20, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Fly in rebuttal.

“A Fly settled on the head of a Bald Man and bit him. In his eagerness to kill it, he hit himself a smart slap. But the Fly escaped, and said to him in derision, ‘You tried to kill me for just one little bite; what will you do to yourself now, for the heavy smack you have just given yourself?’ ‘Oh, for that blow I bear no grudge,’ he replied, ‘for I never intended myself any harm; but as for you, you contemptible insect, who live by sucking human blood, I'd have borne a good deal more than that for the satisfaction of dashing the life out of you!’"

Well, keeping to my contrarian ways, the fly may have a point. Why be thin-skinned about a tiny insult? Some criticism isn’t worth a response. I recall an insinuation against me that while no longer employed by an institution I was still trading on its “good” name. This was absurd; since my departure that library had returned to its smug and conventional ways. If anything, I was embarrassed about the numerous (and inevitable) google links. What did I do? Nothing. I figured my professional work – separate from any institution - would speak for itself and the rumor-monger and the google links would diminish.

*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 2014