Fables for Leaders includes 100+ short stories of talking animals and trees…. and my ruminations on each. I emphasize the philosophical and ethical aspects in these stories – from across the centuries - to my own on-the-job experiences, - successes and failures - and relate them to our contemporary behavior and decision-making. We relate to stories, we remember stories, and these fable stories may help in thinking through and solving, in untraditional ways, problems on the job.” Whimsical illustrations by international artist and paper cutter, Béatrice Coron, capture the charm of this ancient literature and add to its comprehension and enjoyment. Each entry -in 7 chapters- sets forth the original fable followed by Lubans’ commentary. And, many fable feature a “My Thoughts” space to explore how this fable relates to the reader. The seven chapter heads: “Us and them” “Office politics” “The Organization” “Problems” “Budgeting and strategic planning” “The effective follower” “The effective leader”. Topical sub-heads include: “Perspective makes a difference” “Where is the cooperation?” “Hiring decisions” “Performance appraisal” “Pretenders” “Kindness, loyalty and respect for the boss…or not” “Have you heard of the Tall Poppy?” “Gossip and envy” “Are you leading or am I following?” Etc.


Posted by jlubans on December 13, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Heading headlong into disaster.

A CERTAIN Snake had two Heads, one in the usual place and the other at the tip of his tail.
But while the Head that he had in the usual place was provided with a pair of good eyes, the Head at the end of his tail was blind.
Now there was a constant quarrel between these two Heads, for each of them claimed to be the more powerful Head, and to have mastery over the other.
Now, it was the custom of the Snake as he roamed around, to go with his real Head foremost.
But on one occasion the Head at the end of the Snake's tail seized hold of a wooden stake with its jaws, and by holding on firmly prevented the Snake from going further.
This convinced the Snake that the Head in his tail must be more powerful than the other Head, since it had got the best of the struggle.
Accordingly, from this time on, the Snake roamed about with his blind Head foremost ; and so presently he fell into a pit full of burning rubbish, being unable to see where he was going, and was thus burned to death.
Now, I am usu
ally an advocate for leadership coming from all sources, not just the top down. I even wrote a book about it: Leading from the Middle.
In this fable, the snake’s tail is different from the head since the tail is blind.
Likely, sightlessness (absence of a vision) can lead to disaster. Instead of collaborating, the two ends are in opposition.
How often did I find myself in a splintered and contentious leadership that crashed and burned?
Often enough. Not as bad as slipping and sliding into rubbish fire, but we did not get the job done; we did not move the organization forward.
Instead, the tail dug in and stopped the organization’s progress.
Then, like in the fable, more power was given to the tail and the organization went backwards, reverting blindly to old ways and routines.

*Source: Katha-Sarit-Sagara. Book X, Chapter 63, to be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

“Whatever they tell me.”

Posted by jlubans on December 09, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Of Parkinson’s Law and Marquet’s Flashlight*.

Two books I’ve been perusing lately, one a classic and the other a more recent application of leadership theory; both have links to the seas. The classic is by the naval historian, Parkinson, and the other is by L. David Marquet, a nuclear submarine commander. His book, “Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders” juxtapositions neatly with C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1961 essay, “Parkinson's Law, or The Pursuit of Progress”.
Parkinson pointed out – much to the everlasting chagrin of bureaucrats the world over - that while between the world wars the number of navy ships decreased by two thirds, and (ship) personnel by a third, the number of bureaucrats ballooned approximately by 6% a year.
With fewer people and less work to manage – management was still expanding.
Parkinson concluded that this was due to two influences:
Managers hired two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither was in direct competition with the manager. (I would add that “keeping up with the Joneses” is also a driver.
Jake, a unit head, sees that Jill, a competing manager, has added a staffer. Immediately, Jake wants one and goes all out to add a budget line.)
And, secondly, Parkinson claimed that bureaucrats create work for other bureaucrats. It is here where his Law of work expanding to fit available time comes in. With little real work to do, the newly minted bureaucrat spends time, a lot of it, on making work for others and reviewing that work.
And, of course, the new bureaucrat will be burdened – he will soon tell you – by interminable meetings, signing off on forms and records, approval of paperwork coming from below and going on up, and in assuring compliance with the many rules and regulations promulgated by his bureaucratic counter parts.
All this and more displaces trust in the people doing real work and shifts decision-making authority to upper levels.
Perhaps someone has disproved what Parkinson found. Maybe they have shown that all those extra office workers during peacetime in the British Navy were adding genuine value.
When I spoke with my peers about Parkinson’s findings, they’d chuckle over Parkinson’s humor but they never applied it to themselves – besides it was about the British Navy, not about their exalted work!
And so it goes.
The two books are linked.
Parkinson observed how bureaucracies grew (even absent real work) and Marquet’s book provides a good example of what can go wrong in a multi-layered, top down, bureaucracy.
If you take away an employee’s authority and freedom to do his work, you enervate the employee and befuddle the organization.
Marquet, taking over a demoralized submarine of 135 sailors, found that top down decision-making was the ship’s dominant culture.
Individual initiative was not encouraged. Early in his command, when he asked a sailor, “What do you do?” the response was, “Whatever they tell me.”
Santa Fe’s sailors had learned that waiting to be told was “safer” than going ahead and fixing something – initiative would result in discipline for not following the rules, not getting permission or bypassing the chain of command.
Marquet has made a second career out of his experiences leading the Santa Fe. Aside from his book, he consults for organizations.
I am sure they are mystified when he says Taoist-sounding things like “I practiced less leadership, resulting in more leadership at every level of the command.”
Or, when he says, Don’t “Make inefficient processes efficient” vs. Do “Eliminate entire steps and processes that don’t add value.”
One last quote sure to lead to sputtering conniption fits among old salts and landlubber managers: Don’t “Take control vs. Do "Give control.”
While I practiced much of what Marquet proposes I did it mostly on intuition. I was convinced early on that freeing responsible and capable people would make positive things happen. Like Marquet, we quickly harvested the low hanging fruit that my top down predecessors could not or would not see.
Marquet explains – in detail – his reasoning for his way of leading. I look back now some 25 years, and his rationale makes plenty of sense.
I wish I had had Marquet’s courage and ability to listen to negative views about his leadership and his ability to explain what it was he was doing.
His openness brought along many of the doubters in his command.
Marquet succeeded at turning his ship around. In the Pacific command the Santa Fe gained excellent morale and scored at the highest levels in all the indicators of a battle ready crew and ship. He’d pretty much defeated the negative attitude evident in the “Whatever they tell me to do” way of thinking.

*When Marquet took over command he asked for a flashlight. He needed it to look into the nooks and crannies of the nuclear submarine.
None of the flashlights provided worked, either too dim or broken. He got a new flashlight, one as “bright as the sun”. It worked well in illuminating not only equipment failures but also the failures of a leader-follower model, the hierarchy, which was stifling innovation and independence. Others under his command soon began carrying working flashlights.

ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on November 22, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


Lunch figures prominently in at least three workplace proverbs:
Never Eat Lunch Alone
There’s No Free Lunch
Always Pay for Your Own Lunch
Those three, in order, touch on Career Advancement, Microeconomics, and Ethical Behavior
Why never eat lunch alone?
It’s an adage I share with my management students when we talk about budgeting.
You want to know the budget officer and his staff so that you have a beneficial relationship. So that you are not a stranger or an unknown who’s budget can be reduced with impunity. Relationships are built - over time - through social interaction and lunch is a daily opportunity for that.
Career wise, the proverb speaks to networking. As a leader you will need to build coalitions of people who think of you positively and who help you with finalizing ideas. When opportunities come up, they’ll promote your name. When you become an unfair target for dismissal or demotion they’ll defend you.
Most important of all, when you have plans for improving the organization they will support your ideas.
What then does a congenital introvert do? Eating lunch alone was for me getting away from the madding crowd. Lunch on that park bench was when I recharged and reflected; I enjoyed the time to myself. Yet, there is such a thing as being too self-reliant, too willing to go solo.
Well, were I back in the corporate saddle; I would just have to build relationships better than I did.
Maybe I’d set up an informal support group to help me in figuring out to whom I should be reaching out to get to know them better.
Some, clinically or cynically, assess every meal as an opportunity for self-advancement. Better is to build relationships so that you understand your organization and that more people get to know who you are.
What’s the meaning of “There’s No Free Lunch”?
Of course, we know this is a microeconomic principle that implies that whenever someone gives you something for “free” there is an implied expectation that you will reciprocate. Or, for that matter, the lunch never was free. The free lunch provider is covering costs and expects you – while you are gorging – to spend your nickel on other items. The expectation is always there.
It’s the “loss leader” in a store. You come in for the half price item and wind up with other items at double price. So, something given to you for free is never free because of the expectation that you will return the favor, even if it is something as intangible as the emotional “feel good” on the part of the giver or the goodwill engendered by the gift.
The lovely custom of lagniappe in New Orleans may be an exception.
Why should you Always Pay for your Own Lunch?
Linked to no free lunch, some people insist on this to avoid the appearance of being obligated or influenced.
If you pay your own way, no one can say your support for a policy or a product has somehow been bought; that you have received something in payment for your support.
A boss whom I respected very much lived this rule. He never let someone else pick up his check. Doing so, he remained independent and objective about what the other person was promoting. He knew full well that a lobbyist – however bonhomious - treating him to a $75 lunch was getting close to a bribe,
Now this can go too far, but then perhaps I am being naive. A professional group I belonged to worked with a sole provider of an important service. We were all not-for- profits as was the provider. Our group would convene twice a year in distant cities and for many years the sole provider treated us to a feast at a top-notch eatery.
One of our group, when she became chair, stopped this practice for appearance’s sake. Henceforth, and unhappily, we each paid for our own meals.
My colleague was concerned about the ethical implication of our taking “gifts” from the sole provider. For her, it didn’t look good.
Others, including myself, said something like, “Don’t be stupid, we’re not that well paid and why make a fuss about a tiny perk like a free dinner?”
She prevailed, probably for the better.
Certainly, when there’s a re-payment expectation (like in some cases, a male’s buying his date her dinner in hopes of more than a handshake at evening’s end) picking up your own check is a way to avoid any implied obligation (or grappling on the front doorstep).
Well then, what of friendships, professional and personal? What if one friend pays for another with no expectations beyond friendship?
What if you are someone’s “guest”? Is it then impossible to be anyone’s guest without some implied obligation or dependency? It seems to me there are circumstances, where one should be a guest and not worry about some erosion in independence.
When one goes to a friend’s house for dinner does your $14 bottle of wine somehow compensate for the friend’s cost of the meal? Maybe the meal costs less than the bottle of wine. Is your friend/host then obligated to give you something extra?
Finally, and I mean finally, if lunch has become the highpoint of your day - regardless of who’s buying - that may be an indicator of being plateau-ed and you ought to be thinking of ways to rejuvenate your career.

ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Caxton’s Fable Of the Auncyent Wesel and of the Rat

Posted by jlubans on November 19, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-77). Reminiscent of Piranesi’s “atomospheric” prisons and Roman ruins a hundred years later.

Wytte is better than force or strengthe /

As reherceth to vs this fable of an old wesel /
the whiche myghte no more take no rats /
wherfor she was ofte sore hongry and bethought her that she shold hyde her self withynne the floure for to take the rats whiche came there for to ete hit And as the rats came to the floure /
she took and ete them eche one after other /
And as the oldest rat of all perceyued & knewe her malyce /
he sayd thus in hym self /
Certaynly I shalle kepe me wel fro the /
For I knowe alle thy malyce & falshede
And therfore he is wyse that scapeth the wytte and malyce of euyll folke / by wytte and not by force

Every now and then
I like to visit with Mr. Caxton. The olde timey English makes me work but it rewards me with its rich sound and meaning.
For the “auncyent wesel’” point of view he is only doing what weasels do to survive. And, the rat - hardly a favorite of humans - does what he does to keep on – in this case avoid certain death.
“Survival of the fittest” would in four hundred years be the evolutionary’s catch phrase to explain how some species thrive while others wither.
What’s this got to do with the workplace?
One’s wit (understanding and knowledge) will go far in avoiding extinction.
And, if force might be used readily in the barnyard, it won’t get you very far in the workplace.
So, keep your wits about you and look out for those auncyent wesels in three piece suits and bow ties.

*Source. The fables of Aesop, as first printed by William Caxton in 1484, with those of Avian, Alfonso and Poggio, now again edited and induced by Joseph Jacobs. London:1889
England’s first printer, the illustrious Mr. Caxton, lived from 1422-1492.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

A Persian Fable: THE RAIN-DROP*

Posted by jlubans on November 14, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Oyster Bay Morning Rain byTerrill Welch

A RAIN-DROP fell from a spring cloud, and when it saw the wide expanse of the ocean it felt ashamed.
"At best," it said, "I am only a Rain-drop,—but compared with the ocean I am nothing at all!"
But just at the moment that the little Rain-drop was judging itself so humbly, an oyster opened her shell and took it to her bosom.
And fate so shaped its course that in the end it became a famous royal pearl.
It’s easy to feel insignificant, a “drop in the bucket”. Yet, one never knows the influence he or she might have or what actions will be set in motion.
So it can be in the workplace; the most humble worker may offer insights into a complex problem.
As a good leader/follower it is to our benefit to be open and encouraging of ideas from any source, not just the alleged experts or the most vocal.
Creating that climate takes some doing – you cannot have it both ways. If you are closed to all ideas but your own, you can count on everyone clamming up when you are stumped.
If you are seen as a listener and unafraid to admit a mistake, then others may well step up to help out.

*Source: Sadi, The Burstan, to be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

More nifty fables ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Letting Go, Déjà Vu All Over Again

Posted by jlubans on November 10, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

An October essay/exhortation in the Wall Street Journal, “Bosses, Get Out of Your Employees’ Way” concludes, “wise bosses know that, sometimes, the best management is no management at all. Unfortunately, most bosses aren’t that wise.”
Reading it reminded me of my own efforts at getting out of the way.
In 1992, over 25 years ago, I wrote about what I termed “letting go” to improve one organization’s performance.
That bit of writing* confirmed for many of my professional peers that I was a silly ass, besotted and/or a traitor to their class.
For me, it memorialized a unique and successful effort to turn around a beleaguered organization. In other words, my getting out of the way worked.
What did I mean by letting go? I was not psycho-speaking about letting go of broken relationships or of burying workplace hatchets followed by a group hug.
No, my letting go was about changing how the boss (me) worked with subordinates, from department heads to front line staff.
Orders from the top down were no longer de rigueur.
I explained I was no expert when it came to what they did. Indeed, I confessed I knew very little and needed their help.
There was nothing phony about what I said; if they wanted a micromanager, I was not it.
Shortly after our first all-hands-on-deck meeting, the group gave me a three-page list of changes/improvements they’d been trying to implement for several years.
My predecessors - all expert leaders - had wrinkled their noses, sniffing, “How could workers know anything about improving what we tell them to do? I mean, really!”
Scanning the list, with a big smile on my face on seeing this bountiful harvest of low hanging fruit, I told them to go for it. All of it.
So my letting go introduced a democratic dynamic, a new trusting relationship between the boss and the staff. I trusted them fully in identifying problems, redundancies, dead-ends, and bottlenecks. And, most importantly the new dynamic gave them permission to act.
So, in letting go, my leadership role was to inspire, to make urgent, to lead competent people into making good decisions for the betterment of the organization.
However, don’t get the idea I was opting into some kind of hands-off laissez faire leadership. Hardly.
I was still the boss, or you might say, the democratic un-boss.
What did I bring? A willingness and ability to ask questions, some naïve and some taboo, such as “What happens if we stop doing this?”
And, as already alluded to, when obvious good ideas came my way, I took delight in saying: “Do it!”
Many staff found this freedom and enthusiastic support to their liking, especially those who thought about their jobs and wanted to improve, to make complex things simple and to speed up services to clients. They did, reducing turn around times from several months to a few weeks or days.
Of course, letting go may not work all the time or in all settings.
As the WSJ author declares, “the best leaders don’t hesitate to exert top-down control when quick decisions and immediate actions are essential.
And they switch gears and ‘flatten’ hierarchy when they need to solicit everyone’s opinion, develop employee buy-in, and make it safe to discuss uncomfortable truths....”
But, perhaps intentionally, the article infers most bosses are inflexible and won’t or cannot let go. Given this prevailing disability, the unaccommodating boss needs to be corrected or ignored by followers.
But, the boss is not always the villain; sometimes it’s the staff that’s seemingly intractable.
Not all staff are equal. Many want to be left alone to do their jobs – they have no interest or time to deliberate on how to do a better job. Their lives are full up with family and other matters.
And, in many organizations there’s a fair number of alienated staff – they do not agree with the leader’s vision and passively or actively seek to undermine and defeat that leader.
The WSJ article suggests five employee strategies when dealing with micromanagers.
The first of the five is commendable: be honest. Explain with examples to him or her how you would like more freedom and less micromanaging, less intervention. Be clear about what you offer in return!
If that fails, employ sabotage (my term):
Token obedience
Foot dragging
Constructive defiance, and
Malicious compliance!

(See my “Tips for Wrecking an Organization. Free!”)
This, shall we say, “resistance”, is potentially very destructive. I understand the resistance. Not everyone in my shop was on board with my approach or ready to join me on the barricades.
Of the 100 staff an alienated 20% were going to resist and they did – they’d been part of the telling others what to do and they were unhappy with my enlarging the pool of decision-makers.
Another 20% were keenly interested, appreciative, and all in. They were quintessential to our success.
The 60% in the middle were willing to go along but took a wait and see attitude. They’d been ignored for so many years they were rightly suspicious this letting go fancy of mine was another passing fad.
Many of this middle group, I think, eventually trusted what was going on and became a positive force.
What of the alienated 20%? They used each of the four sabotage
strategies mentioned above in attempting to short-circuit what I was trying to do. They declared streamlining to benefit clients was sacrificing quality for quantity. They believed “perfecting” – i.e. making more complex - our work process was more important than improving service to clients.
Albeit sidelined, the alienated hunkered down, stirred the rumor pot, and waited for a traditionalist rescuer. I’m sure they regarded themselves as heroic partisans saving the organization from ruin.
So, while some bosses never will let go, let’s not forget the staff determined to keep the status quo, however much in need of reform.
If I were to do it all over, I’d double my efforts to explain to the key alienated members what I was doing and why and to try to understand their opposition.
For that matter, I would spend much more time communicating to everyone what we were doing.
In any case, I’d be careful not to spend too much time with the gripers informing me of how awful I was. To counter this I’d invest even more time on working side by side with those wanting to improve the organization.
And, I’d reflect some more on my role in an organization when the employees can rightly claim “We did it ourselves!”
Maybe that’s the real reason why managers avoid letting go: becoming superfluous. Besides, top management may already see them that way! If you are the only one getting out of the way in a top down traditional organization, it’s unlikely you will survive without a CEOs support.

*"Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside!", Journal of Library Administration, 17: 23-42, 1992.
Reprinted as Chapter 32 in my Leading from the Middle book.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on November 03, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: This delightful illustration is by Sophia Rosamund Praeger, 1908

Two frogs lived in a marsh. The marsh having been dried up by the heat of the summer, the frogs made up their minds to leave it and look for another home. After travelling for some time they came to a very deep well.
"Oh," cried one of the frogs, "now we shall perhaps be more comfortable! There is surely water here.
Dear friend, let us both leap to the bottom and see."
"No," answered the other, who was wiser and more thoughtful than his friend; "the water in this well may be dried up too, and if this is so and we leap to the bottom, how are we to climb up again?"
So it can be with career choices.
When one job path becomes a seeming dead end, another may open. Is that the one to take?
Like this fable’s deep well, it may hold promise of safety and security or maybe it is nothing more than a mirage; actually a dry hole.
Worse, once in its depths, how will you get out?
Reflecting on one personal career decision, I should have been more like the “wiser and more thoughtful” frog when deciding to leave a public academic job for something in the private sector that paid more and came with a higher status.

*Source: Aesop's Fables by Lena Dalkeith with pictures by S. R. Praeger, published in 1908.
More “wiser and more thoughtful” fables ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on October 25, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Oliver Herford 1921

A lazy dog that sleeping lay
Outside the farmyard gate, one day,
Woke with a sudden start, to see
A fierce Wolf glaring hungrily,
Gruesome and grisly, gaunt and grim,
And just about to spring on him.
"O Wolf!" exclaimed the frightened Pup,
"One word before you eat me up!
Observe how very small and thin
I am; 'twould really be a sin
To eat me now. indeed I'm quite
Unworthy of your appetite.
Tomorrow Master gives a treat,
And I shall have so much to eat
That if you'll wait a day or two
I'll make a bigger meal for you!"
The Wolf agreed and went away;
But when on the appointed day
He came again to claim his right,
He found the farmyard gate shut tight,
And Doggie on the other side.
"What does this mean? Come out!" he cried.
Loud laughed the Dog, "It means," said he,
"I'm wiser than I used to be."
Poor Wolf, allegedly “gruesome and grisly, gaunt and grim”, he forgoes the ready made meal in hopes of something juicier and fatter a day or two away.
While I believe Herford's sleek and well nourished wolf depicted above, might take a raincheck, I doubt this other leaner and meaner wolf
Caption: Illustration by R., Caldecott and J. D. Cooper (so that’s what happened – he changed his name from D. B. and went back in time☺) 1883.
would for a moment consider the Doggie’s proposal; he’d gobble up on the spot the four legged Happy Meal!
And what might this fable offer us for the workplace? Possibly it serves to point out how organizations respond to situations. In halcyon times the organization – sleek and fat – is slow to anticipate what may be around the corner, while in dyspeptic times, the organization may over react and miss out on the “bigger meal” coming up.

The Herford Aesop, written and illustrated by Oliver Herford. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

The More Equal Animal

Posted by jlubans on October 20, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


Prior to 2010, I’d visit Latvia for stays of one to two weeks. When I started to teach there for months at a time I became more of a resident and less of a myopic tourist. And, some of the local political issues became more apparent.
I heard (and still hear) of the Latvian Oligarchs. No, this is not a Riga soccer team.
Rather, these are powerful and wealthy individuals. Hardly savory, yet largely legal, they somehow cornered the market on goods and services of all kinds.
In 1991, after 50 years of totalitarian tyranny, they landed on their feet deep in clover.
You may wonder, how did anyone acquire wealth in an economy routinely pillaged by Russian occupiers?
Latvia’s oligarchs, by hook or by crook, shoved their way to the front of the line at the privatization trough and proved themselves trenchermen second to none.
They are the quick of the “quick or the hungry” adage.
A connected insider could purchase, say, a Soviet factory worth millions for $1.
And, once you - a newly minted oligarch - started production, voila! “Happy Times Are Here Again!”
If anything, the Latvian oligarchy is a case study in Animal Farm’s “All animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others.” They’re the “more equal animals” shoveling down the larger share, deservedly so!
Not in the least embarrassed, oligarchs often conspire - yes, conspire - to influence decisions made by elected legislators.
How do they remain in power? Big bucks and the old ways help. Due to a glacial judiciary, it takes years for flagrant cases of corruption to get to a jury.
In the meantime, the indicted oligarch steps far, wide and handsome.
There are even gossip magazines – in a nation of less than 2 million - that cover the soap operas of the most flamboyant.
German sociologist Robert Michels claimed in 1911 that rule by an elite, or oligarchy, “is inevitable as an ‘iron law’.”
While he studies political groups he believed that any organization, “including those committed to democratic ideals and practices, will inevitably succumb to rule by an elite few”.
So what’s this got to do with the workplace, especially a democratic one?
Well, most top down hierarchies qualify as oligarchies.
An organization leans toward an oligarchy once its legitimate leaders claim or are said to possess superior knowledge, skills, and status.
Like the above graphic of the blindfolded man, I remember at one not-for-profit job feeling like I was battling shadows.
My oligarchy, composed of those with legitimate power would make secret decisions that affected the overall organization.
While not wealthy like our Latvian oligarchs, this group had cornered decision-making and believed it knew best.
An oligarchy may include “influencers” or people with expert power who insinuate their way into the inner circle of decision makers.
The nominal leader – the boss - is usually part of the oligarchy, but not always. A weak or sidelined leader has reason to fear her oligarchs; they’ll figure out ways to get rid of that leader.
In my experience, one effective strategy for purging an unwanted leader was to undermine the leader through connections in the parent organization – in other words conspire to influence the boss’s boss.
What to do?
To counter the oligarchy, a leader committed to democratic values should assure that the general staff remains active in the organization and that leaders not be granted absolute control. (This is no small task since every organization includes many people - sheep and "yes men" followers- who want direction and no more.)
The more open the lines of communication and the more frequent the use of shared decision-making processes, the more difficult it becomes for an oligarchy to gain power.
In other words, keep decisions out of the shadows.
Truly independent followers – effective, self-starting and loyal to the organizational good - are quintessential in keeping the inevitable oligarchy at bay. It’s the leader’s do-or-die role to encourage and to protect these followers.
The harm oligarchies do:
If you deprive individuals of the power to make decisions (self-rule) that affect their work lives, employees may give up, become apathetic and withdraw into passive rules enforcement.
Worse, the oligarchy will seek to stifle those followers who question their wisdom and authority. Someone who excels outside the oligarchy may be perceived as a threat and will be targeted for removal.
Top down rule can erode individual innovation, initiative and risk taking. This centralization of power in the hands of the few may well account for low voter participaiton in democratic elections. Why vote if those in power do not hear or represent you?
Customers, if they have a choice, will take their business elsewhere.
Are there oligarchs where you work? Maybe you are part of an oligarchy? If you regard yourself as indispensable and more knowledgeable than those you serve, you are well on your way.
If you do not lust to be an oligarch, what can you – as an effective follower or leader – do to beat back those who would centralize decision-making?
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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019


Posted by jlubans on October 13, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)


A Woman that lay under the Mortification of A Fuddling Husband, took him once when he was dead Drunk; and had his Body laid in a Charnel-House.
By the time she thought he might be come to Himself again, away goes she, and Knocks at the Door.
Who's There? (says the Toper)
One, says the Woman, that brings Meat for the Dead.
Friend, says he, bring me Drink rather. I wonder any Body that knows me, should bring me one without T'other.
Nay then, says she, the Humour I perceive has taken Possession of him; he has gotten a habit, and his Case is Desperate.
THE MORAL. Inveterate Ill Habits become Another Nature to us, and we may almost as well be Taken to Pieces, and New put together again, as Mended.
Most of us wa
king up in a morgue after a night of one-too-manys would be more than a little “fuddled”, we’d be scared out of our besotted selves.
Not so for our Dead Drunk of a Husband.
L’Estrange (1616 – 1704) implies a renovation is the only answer. Ahead of Freud, our “Mending” will only come if we are figuratively taken apart and put together anew.
In the workplace, I’ve seen “Ill Habits” so pervasive as to render an organization incapable of positive progress.
Only a major jolt to the system (no, not yet another feckless “re-organization”), a genuine renewal of purpose and function and a sidelining of those managers and staff responsible for the morass, will bring a “Mending”.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019