“Leading from the Middle", by John Lubans*, is about freedom and democracy at work, teamwork, and leadership. Philosophy: the best work places empower staff to achieve their full potential; the less command and control, the better the product and service.

“When the Wind Changes”

Posted by jlubans on June 27, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

As I plug away at the" Fables for Leaders" book (pub.date Oct 2016) I am revisiting some of my favorite essays. This is #3 "from the vault." It was first published on January 3 2013.

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The authors of the spiders and starfish book mention Mary Poppins as a fictional example of a starfish leader. This rare type of leader knows when it is time to leave and then, even though it would be easy to stay, leaves. Doing so liberates and strengthens the organization to move on and up.
The Mary Poppins film is rich in metaphor. I use it in my management classes to talk about job announcements and descriptions – the father’s list of required qualities for a nanny, contrasted with the children’s list of desirables, is far more entertaining and instructive than anything I could say about this desert-dry topic. And I use the film in my coaching classes. In the film’s “Spoonful of Sugar” sequence, Ms. Poppins demonstrates to her two charges how a positive attitude can make boring work, like picking up one’s room, fun. In the right hands, this coaching technique can shift the intractable to the engaged.

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Near the end of the film – with the blue bird of happiness a-wing -there comes a literal shift in wind direction. This is important because Mary Poppins has agreed to stay only until the wind changes. With the weathervane’s spin, alas, it is time to leave. “Don’t you love us” pleads the little girl. Mary responds: “And what would happen to me, may I ask, if I loved all the children I said goodbye to?
Of course, that’s the point; she does love all the children, which makes leaving, letting go, that much more painful. And so it may be for the leader who has invested her all in an organization’s well-being and growth. What is the leader’s role once the dragon’s been slain?
Mary Poppins departure is a mix of bittersweet emotions. Julie Andrews’ evocative face mingles the pride of a job well done (the family’s new-found happiness) to a sadness-near-tears about leaving. Of course, Mary Poppins keeps a stiff upper lip: “Practically perfect people never let sentiment muddle their thinking,” she adages. The parrot, who’s been ragging her about the family’s seeming ingratitude, sums it up: “You don’t fool me a bit!”
The bittersweet ending reminds me of an essay by Charles Handy about the sigmoid-shaped curve of corporate life. (See my Chapter 26 in the book Leading from the Middle:: You Can’t Build a Fire in the Rain: Sparking Change in Libraries.)
Mr. Handy offers contrarian wisdom. The reforming leader, one taking a company from bankruptcy to profitability, reversing the organization’s downward direction, may well need to leave after the company has achieved its new upward curve. To stay is to tempt a flattening of the curve, a loss of momentum, an unwillingness to move further up.
I saw something like this when I was part of a long-delayed and frustrated initiative to lift a traditional organization onto a new curve to better serve and to deliver a better product. A new leader, with carte blanche from the central administration, asked me to work with him and his agenda. I did so gladly. After five years of many struggles but good results, we had achieved a genuine turn-around.
And, if we are to believe Mr. Handy, it was probably time for my boss (and for me) to leave. We had gone further up the mountain than any previous administration. There was plenty more to do and there were new challenges but we began to slow down. My boss chose to stay and took on an expanded portfolio of responsibilities. I remained as well. But, circumstances had changed – significantly there was a new leader of the central administration. Moving up the mountain become incrementally more difficult each year. On reflection, a new leadership – new faces - in the 6th year might have been better for the organization. With the positive vibe from the first five years, we might have recruited a new leader, one with an equally innovative and adventurous spirit to reach new heights.
Several years later, my leader departed and the organization plateaued out, if not dipped back to the traditional model, seemingly in reaction to the innovation and achievement of those first five years.
However sad, when the wind changes, it may well be time to leave.

Postscript, June 27, 2016: How to avoid leaving? If you want to be a “lifer” at one job, then hope for minimal disruption and time your retirement for when the business is on its last weary legs.
There are examples of one person leading an organization for decades; that leader may well have founded the organization. Avoiding the meddlesome “founder’s syndrome”, that type of leader’s challenge is to keep the organization at the top, to keep quality and service at the forefront of the organization’s mission. That’s different from having to re-invent the purpose of an organization or to move its compass from north to south.
Still, keeping the organization at the top is plenty difficult – there’s a serious risk of resting on one’s laurels, as the saying goes. It’s different from what I imagine in the above Mary Poppins essay, the rescue of an organization from an untimely morbidity with more than a few “dragons” to slay. A heroic leader who battles and wins may well find herself on the post-victory sidelines.

© Copyright 2013, 2016 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Lubans’ “Fable of the Ruined Life”

Posted by jlubans on June 24, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Once upon a time a woman built a beautiful home on a forested lot. She was proud of it, especially the view from her windows that looked down a gently sloping arboreal hillside, much of it on the adjoining unbuilt lot.
It belonged to someone, who, because of a Crookedness in the system, had kept the lot as an investment rather than building on it per the property rules. More than a few earnest buyers of that lot were chagrined when their offers were spurned.
Of course, the woman with the beautiful view did not complain. For two decades, she just enjoyed the view.
Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end. A real estate boom convinced the holdout owner to sell.
And soon the bulldozers and chain saws were tearing down trees and digging a foundation that ran from one end of the lot to the other. Each day the obscuring walls crept up and up until the view was no more. The anguished neighbor wailed to one and all, “My life is ruined!”
Yes, the new mega mansion ruined her view. But is there not more to a life than a view? Perhaps it was hyperbole on her part.
Moral: Like some realtors forewarn would-be-buyers of mountain homes, “You can’t buy the view.

And so it can be in real life at home and at work. Does our happiness come from outside ourselves or from inside? Where does one’s motivation come from? External or internal? Here’s a telling quote: "The local high school … wasn't of particularly high quality, and I was not intellectually stimulated or motivated there. In fact, I became disinterested, started skipping class and feigning illness to avoid going to school."
Note where the responsibility for stimulation and motivation lies.
As a blogger under the long, long, long tail of the blogosphere, I need to have a better reason for writing than hoping for a large number of clicks to my blog. Indeed, I derive an inner satisfaction from this very personal act called writing. Yes, recognition is very nice, but there have to be other motivators for why one tries to do a good job; it can’t only be because you want a large number of “likes” on Facebook.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Beating Bias, Inhibiting Groupthink.

Posted by jlubans on June 20, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

From the vault #2, a republication of some of my favorite essays while I work on the e-book, Fables for Leaders.

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I recently wrote about why some groups are smarter than others, at least in a laboratory setting.
Researchers have come up with predictors of group success or failure; something called Factor C, with its three measures:
participant emotional or social IQ;
the number of engaged participants;
and, interestingly, the number of women on the team.
Those same elements influence the inevitable biases to be found in groups. What do I mean by bias? It’s that very human tendency to go with an emotional rather than a factually objective perspective. Bias insinuates; a subtle, convivial partner to the do-nothing of “happy talk.” Some biases are so common they have names; here are four: Confirmation Bias, Post-Decision Rationalization, Status-Quo Bias, and the Bandwagon Effect. I have seen all of these in action; they’ve influenced me and led me into errors. Likewise, I’ve seen groups fall short of their best because of an irrational predisposition.
1. Confirmation Bias
This happens when I listen only to people who agree with me. If someone else believes what I believe, then that adds certainty and confidence to my view. If someone disagrees with my worldview, then I dismiss that opinion – What does that person know! I might make it personal; you are either with me or against me.
Some say that the most pathological aspect of confirmation bias is how it influences a group’s end position. Likeminded, moderate people, when mixed in a group containing more than one extreme view will tend to adopt the extreme view. I know only a few people who have the ability to remain open-minded –to think for themselves and keep their predilection at bay – and make a decision that most closely meets what they believe is the best way. I know many people who are pretty set in their ways – indeed their behavior is predictable when confronted with change. It is as if they willingly suspend their critical thinking skills in favor of a preconceived notion.
2. Post-Decision Rationalization
Having made a bad decision, I resist owning up to the mistake and changing direction. A personal example: I have always had a strong preference for Apple computers but there was a spell when Apply nearly failed – their products were no longer cutting edge and they lost the educational market to PCs. I decided to buy Apples for the organization in spite of PCs being competitive and at the time probably more reliable than Apple. I should have been more open to PCs. Had I listed out the pros and cons and maybe looked at costs/benefits I might have had a more tenable position.
3. Status-Quo Bias
If we are apprehensive about change, it is easy for us to reason that if something “ain’t broken, don’t fix it.” We prefer to leave things the way they are rather than look for how to improve. I discovered that a different mantra helped us get past resistance: “If it ain’t broke, break it.”
4. Bandwagon Effect
If everyone is doing it, I want to do it too. The bandwagon effect is huge in my line of work, sometimes for the good, often for the not so good. Instead of blindly copying what the fellow down the road has, we should do a rigorous analysis of our own needs and decide whether what the other guy has even works like it is supposed to and whether it will it help us. Just because X, Y and Z organizations are doing it is no guarantee that it will work in your organization. But, then that is the way of fads, of bandwagons. We surrender our objective appraisal to opinion and emotion.
So, how do we keep bias under control? The predictors of group success – those three measures mentioned above – are a good start for countering bias in-group decision making.
The honeybee also suggests ways to stop bias. Research reveals that bees make good decisions when choosing a new location for a nest. Eighty percent of the time the bees choose the best site, an uncanny batting average of .800. Bee decision-making – democracy – gives us insights about preventing bias.
First, bees have a shared interest in and mutual respect for choosing the next nest. It is a life or death decision.
Second, there is no dominant leader. “Yes” men and “Nodders” need a boss to respond to. Absent the dominant leader, the group is free to debate openly and substantively. In this egalitarian group, there is no automatic deference to the gray heads in the hive or toward the alleged experts. Bee democracy is all about debate among well informed equals.
Third, seek diverse solution to the problem. Everyone may “speak” his or her mind but everyone listens for the most convincing idea. It is through this respectful exchange that the group identifies a diverse set of options, freely shares the information among participants and considers and chooses the best option.
Bees may have limited social and emotional IQ but they do appear to respect other views; there’s no excluding a good idea because of a hidden agenda or a personal antipathy. When we operate the way the bees do – an urgent decision to be made, mutual respect, open debate on different options among many engaged participants – bias cannot get a foot in the door.

© John Lubans 2016

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

Posted by jlubans on June 17, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Braggin' Bear Illustration by ARTHUR RACKHAM, 1912

“A Bear was once bragging about his generous feelings, and saying how refined he was compared with other animals. (There is, in fact, a tradition that a Bear will never touch a dead body.) A Fox, who heard him talking in this strain, smiled and said, ‘My friend, when you are hungry, I only wish you ‘would’ confine your attention to the dead and leave the living alone.’"
“A hypocrite deceives no one but himself.”

The bear’s self-delusion is reminiscent of a newly translated fable by Laura Gibbs. That fable (below) will be included in my “Fables for Leaders” book:
Odo of Cheriton’s “The Weeping Man and the Birds
“You need to beware of hypocritical politicians, as this fable shows. There was a man who used bird lime for catching birds, and the bird lime made his eyes water. As he was killing the birds he had caught, one of the birds remarked, ‘Look at that man! He is so good and pious.’ Another bird asked, ‘How can you tell?’ And the first bird said, ‘Don't you see his tears? He is weeping with pity.’ A third bird chimed in, ‘And don't you see his wicked actions? A curse upon that man and his tears: he is weeping while he slaughters us.’
So it is with the mighty men who go to church and pray and give money, weeping piously all the while. Yet they exploit and slaughter the poor and those less fortunate than themselves. The prayers and tears of men like that are an abomination.”**

Alice in Wonderland remarked after the Walrus and the Carpenter scarfed up all the little oysters: (Of the two), "I like the Walrus best," said Alice, "because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
Odo’s story reminds me of a boss who fired a worker and then waxed solicitous about the ex-employee’s well being. It was meant to come across as a most magnanimous gesture, shedding rays of empathy and (crocodile) tears upon the displaced and downsized!
It was instead, all a scam, a persona cultivated for the environment in which this boss worked.
Some people regarded this boss as a kind person and an effective leader – indeed, he was foremost in volunteering to promote the institution, the quintessential “Yes man” to his boss. Like the first bird said, he was “so good and pious!” A few, especially those that were slaughtered by a boss “weeping with pity”, penetrated the “good and pious” veneer and saw the magnanimity for what it was: a politically cultivated strategy for self-advancement.

*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.

**(Laura Gibbs’ translator note: For a more literal translation, see Jacobs Odo 15; see also Oxford Aesop 297.)


Copyright © John Lubans 2016

From the vault #1. The Mustard on the Hot Dog

Posted by jlubans on June 13, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

While putting the finishing touches on the “Fables for Leaders” e-book – along with travel to and from Oregon over the next two months - I’ll be re-publishing some of my favorite blog pieces. So instead of blogging a new topic each Monday I’ll be going to “the vault” to gain some time to work on the e-book.
Friday Fables will continue unchanged; expect a new one each Friday.
Today’s repeat is from September of 2013.
Democracy: “The mustard on the hot dog.”*
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I’ve been going on about the democratic workplace, as if I knew what democracy is. E. B. White – in wartime England – was asked to write a statement on “the meaning of democracy.” His entertaining – indeed Australianesque** - response appears in full below. For my immediate purposes, I have separated out and annotated those defining points I think especially relevant to the democratic workplace in hopes of illuminating some of the concept’s nooks and crannies.
The meaning of Democracy:
“It is the line that forms on the right.”
Egalitarian, democracy is. If you break into line, someone will mention it to you, probably not in the kindest of words.
“It is the ‘don't’ in don't shove.”
Mind your manners; say please, thank you, and would you mind? As a boss you have no inherent right to push people around. In stressful times, keep a sense of humor.
“It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which sawdust slowly trickles.”
Ahhh, probably my favorite. Democracy anchors the easily inflatable, like a boss, down to earth. The boss who claims full personal credit for the people doing the day-to-day and making the wheels of industry hum, does so at his own ego-tripping risk. The stockholders will believe the stuffed shirt in good times, but the workers – no sycophants, they - know better, much better.
“It is the dent in the high hat.”
You bet; enjoy your high hat; just don’t expect everyone to think you are somehow above the rest of us, the hoi polloi. If you do, your hat – in a democracy - becomes a magnet (and target) for the stray slingshot walnut or biscuit.
“Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time.”
In the workplace, the best boss knows her idea can only get better if she shares and builds on it with ideas from the staff – the people doing the work.
“It is … the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.”
Libraries have changed but when you go into one and think about it, yes, there is a communion in the hallowed purpose and tradition of the “people’s university”. As for vitality, that’s in scarce supply these days. However, I did observe plenty of vitality (and a surfeit of communion), at a recent Vermont town hall meeting, a walking, talking, breathing example of democratic decision-making.
“It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet.”
Lincoln’s unfinished work at Gettysburg comes to mind: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.” Democracy in the office is also unfinished work.
“It's the mustard on the hot dog.”
That’s the piquant sense when people feel equal and effective, when they stress “We” over “Me”, and mean it. It’s when the group achieves what no individual can and everyone concludes, “Wow, we did it!”

*SOURCE: E. B. White as quoted by ROBERT KRULWICH in his essay
“Democracy, My Mother And Toast” on National Public Radio on July 02, 2013: “Surely the Board knows what democracy is. It is the line that forms on the right. It is the "don't" in don't shove. It is the hole in the stuffed shirt through which sawdust slowly trickles; it is the dent in the high hat. Democracy is the recurrent suspicion that more than half of the people are right more than half of the time. It is the feeling of privacy in the voting booths, the feeling of communion in the libraries, the feeling of vitality everywhere.
Democracy is the letter to the editor. Democracy is the score at the beginning of the ninth. It is an idea which hasn't been disproved yet, a song the words of which have not gone bad. It's the mustard on the hot dog, and the cream in the rationed coffee. Democracy is a request from a War Board, in the middle of a morning in the middle of a war, wanting to know what democracy is.”

**By Australianesque I refer to that nation’s healthy anti-authoritarian bent. Yes, they have rules, some silly – which few obey – and while the population can be quite dependent on government services they hesitate not to cut down the tall poppy or deflate the overblown boss.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE TRAVELLER AND HIS DOG”*

Posted by jlubans on June 10, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption. Bridger In “Come on, let’s go!” mode. (Author photograph)

“A Traveller was about to start on a journey, and said to his Dog, who was stretching himself by the door, ‘Come, what are you yawning for? Hurry up and get ready: I mean you to go with me.’
But the Dog merely wagged his tail and said quietly, ‘I'm ready, master: it's you I'm waiting for.’"

And likewise in the picture, Bridger’s tail’s a-wag, waiting for me to catch up.
Sometimes in the workplace when I’d make a suggestion for a new way, I’d be pleasantly surprised when a team member would smile and say, “I'm ready; when do we start?"
My teammate anticipated my suggestion and was ready to move on, no holding back. And, so it is with the best effective followers; they are quintessential to any leader’s initiative and accomplishment.
Wisdom from the Tao: “If you want to govern people, you must place yourself below them. If you want to lead the people, you must learn how to follow them.”
Maybe the dog in the fable (and my wise friend in the photograph) knows a bit more about leadership than most. To lead, let go. That’s almost impossible in a hierarchy; instead it’s more like the managers in the old Soviet factory joke when responding to a mandated Central Plan: "We'll pretend to lead while you pretend to work."

*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.

© John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Lion and the Boar”

Posted by jlubans on June 03, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Painting by Jan van Kessel, the Elder (1626 -79). Oil on copper.

“ON A SUMMER DAY, when the great heat induced a general thirst among the beasts, a Lion and a Boar came at the same moment to a small well to drink. They fiercely disputed which of them should drink first, and were soon engaged in the agonies of a mortal combat. When they stopped suddenly to catch their breath for a fiercer renewal of the fight, they saw some Vultures waiting in the distance to feast on the one that should fall first. They at once made up their quarrel, saying, ‘It is better for us to make friends, than to become the food of Crows or Vultures.’"

So, one moralist proclaims, “Those who strive are often watched by others who will take advantage of their defeat to benefit themselves.” Sort of like Caesar’s: “That Cassius over there has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much. Men like him are dangerous.”
Another moralist mangles the flies, honey and vinegar proverb: “You can catch more vultures and flies with carcasses than with vinegar.” I have to ask, “Why would you want to catch vultures, let alone flies?”
Roger L’Estrange says it best of all. From 1692:
“When Fools fall out, it shall go Hard but Knaves will be the better for't.”
Something to dwell on.

*Source: 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 2016

“Stealing People’s Choices Is Wrong.”

Posted by jlubans on May 30, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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I have a micromanaging friend; let’s call him Sam. He’s a boss and at the top of his field - well regarded by external peers - but I’d say Sam’s organization is working far below capacity. His inability to trust, his lack of confidence in subordinates is all-pervasive. One staffer likens Sam to Kim Jong-Un – the ultimate micromanager.
Over a period of years, many of this organization’s best people have gone elsewhere. Unfazed, Sam pats himself on the back; his people are in demand because of the high quality experience they have gained by working for him!
Perhaps worse, since everything has to go through Sam, a lot is left undone; new outreach programs, new uses of existing resources, remain in suspense.
I pick up on the notion that since he is not ever satisfied, that even competent staff do lackluster work; which of course fulfils Sam’s expectations. Why bother to do your best if whatever you do is always nitpicked to pieces?
I like Sam, he’s a good friend, but then I do not work for him. (By the way, most micromanagers are not likeable because their mistrust foozles relationships. And, some are mean and petty – they enjoy finding fault and taunting; Sam’s not one of those).
Were he to ask me for advice about improving his leadership I’d start the conversation with a valuable bit of democratic work place philosophy from Charles Handy: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege (our right), although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”
If Sam mulls that over and wants more, I’d recommend Rebecca Knight’s article from August, 2015, “How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team”.
Why is micromanaging harmful? Knight responds: It “displaces the real work of leaders, which is developing and articulating a compelling and strategically relevant vision for your team.”
In my experience, leaders who did this “real work” developed highly productive and successful organizations.
Ms. Knight prescribes several ways by which to bring about a change in how Sam looks at people and what he expects of them. She would ask: “What can you do to give your people the space they need to succeed and learn? How should you prioritize what matters? And how do you get comfortable stepping back?”
She recommends “undertaking a cross-evaluation assessment.” Gather confidential data from your people—or better yet, have a third party do It with a guarantee of anonymity. What Sam hears may be sobering – remember the Kim Jong-Un comment? - “but it’s critical to understanding the broader patterns and reactions and the impact [your micromanaging has] on your team.”
Looking back on my own career, that cross-evaluation assessment would have benefited me, an extreme macromanager, (sometimes, “hands off” is worse than “hands on”!)
And, I could have been a better boss for my direct reports had I asked each of them these questions:
“How can I help you best? Are there things I can do differently? Are our overall objectives clear to you and do you feel you have the support and resources to accomplish them?”
I always assumed that my highflying objectives were clear to others. Bad assumption.
So, there’s a balance to strive for. Obviously the newbie employee needs direction and supervision, the veteran less so. It comes down to knowing when to let go. I do not know if Sam ever will know? Do you?

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE FLEA AND THE MAN”*

Posted by jlubans on May 27, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Charlie tap-dancing; Finnegan, on left, coaching. Moguls looking on.

“A Flea bit a Man, and bit him again, and again, till he could stand it no longer, but made a thorough search for it, and at last succeeded in catching it. Holding it between his finger and thumb, he said—or rather shouted, so angry was he—‘Who are you, pray, you wretched little creature, that you make so free with my person?’ The Flea, terrified, whimpered in a weak little voice, ‘Oh, sir! pray let me go; don't kill me! I am such a little thing that I can't do you much harm.’ But the Man laughed and said, ‘I am going to kill you now, at once: whatever is bad has got to be destroyed, no matter how slight the harm it does.’"
“Do not waste your pity on a scamp.”

The minuscule Charlie, pictured above, another flea in durance vile, takes an alternative path, reinventing himself, as they say in the office, into a performing flea. Managed by the hapless Finnegan in the cartoon, Charlie’s repertoire includes singing and tap dancing. He Looks Like Your Ordinary Flea - Until He Opens His Mouth! You Won’t Believe What you hear!
Remember Jose Cura's “Norma”? Charlie does it better.
Alas, the cartoon ends tragically. The bartender slaps the bar and inadvertently ends Charlie’s Hollywood career. Finnegan, the man, is desolated. His dreams of swimming pools, chauffeur driven limousines, starlets on each arm - the really good life is not to be.

*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 2016

Changing the culture, Pt. 2

Posted by jlubans on May 23, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: KGB Interrogation desk, “House on the Corner”*, Riga, Latvia.

As promised in the “Shining the Boss’s Shoes” blog about changing an organization’s culture, this vignette comes from my recent interviews with Andris Vilks, the director of the National Library of Latvia. It relates how as a young, newly appointed director – under Communist rule – he took steps to change the predominant culture of secrecy and fear at his institution.
While relating to me the influences on his way of leadership, he recalled an incident from his school days. It was 1968, a time when one had to be careful with saying anything other than what was expected of all good citizens of the Soviet Union*.
Andris’ teacher asked the class for the date when Latvia became free. Andris responded, much to the chagrin, I’d imagine, of the teacher, “November 18, 1918” - the date of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, its first true Independence.
What he was supposed to parrot was: “November 7: Long Live the Soviet Union, Fortress of Peace and Nations Fraternity!”
Subsequently, he was informed upon by one of his classmates and was hauled up before a board and castigated, just short of expulsion.
“From that moment,” Andris told me, “I was against the Soviet Union and I began a passive resistance to the Soviet way.” While an adolescent, he understood very clearly what had been done to him; dissent – in any form and at any time – was a punishable offense.
Years later, when he was promoted to the directorship of the National Library Andris was aware of the ten or more “informers” – his word - in the library. Informing, including to the KGB, was a common practice during Soviet times, widely accepted, and expected. Informers received intangible and tangible rewards from the ruling/enforcing culture.
So, on his first day as director he told each of the ten to never come to him with gossip or “information”. This action made clear to everyone this practice was over and done with; it was not going to continue under his leadership.
He was able to do this, he believes, because by 1989 he was well respected (protected) in many quarters for his knowledge and work in the profession; and, because these were the last days of the Soviet Union. Latvia regained its second independence on August 21, 1991. Still there was risk; hard-core communists inside Latvia and Russia wanted to crush the independence-seeking rebels. Had the communists prevailed, Andris would have been fast-tracked to Siberia or worse, after a KGB "interview" and secret imprisonment.
Now, many years later, after bringing about the splendid, iconic national library building (the “Castle of Light”) on the banks of Riga’s Daugava River, he still avoids the “whisperers” and people trying to share a secret. “If I feel a negative vibration (at work), I talk directly with the people involved - I do not go around collecting opinions from people - If something is wrong I try to intervene directly or delegate to the person in charge of the involved unit.”
Are you that kind of leader/follower? Someone who “walks his talk” and does not succumb to the easy temptations of office politics? If more organizations adopted Andris’ values of genuine transparency and direct action, the workplace would be far better for it.

*Background: Latvia was made into a Soviet satellite by a secret agreement between the Nazis and the Communists prior to WWII. Inexplicably, the Yalta conference, with America’s ailing President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, England’s Winston Churchill and Russia’s Joseph Stalin, upheld this secret pact and continued the enslavement of several million people in the Baltic countries, not to mention other nations subordinated to the communist way.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016