“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.

Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “A Fly upon a Wheel”*

Posted by jlubans on February 24, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Artist unknown. From a 1590 Aesop.

“What a Dust do I raise! says the Fly upon the Coach-Wheel? and what a rate do I drive at, says the same Fly again upon the Horse's Buttock?”

“This Fly in the Fable, is every Trifling Arrogant Fop in Nature, by what Name or Title soever Dignify'd, or Distinguish'd”.

One of my favorites.
While L’Estrange would add on exhaustive commentaries for each fable – often with in-depth philosophical analysis - I know of no one who translates these ancient truths with more vim and vigor.
How many workplace “Fops” do you know? I knew a few, they were clever enough to keep their jobs, but their narcissism sure had a negative effect on co-workers. And, they opened their supervisors to criticism since it had to be the supervisor's fault, surely, that enabled for the Fly’s selfishness!
More recently, librarians at the National Library of Latvia developed a similar fable from the Latvian proverb: “We have rowed well,” said the flea as the fishing boat arrived at its mooring.”

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

N.B. Both of these fables are in my book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, June 2017.
It will be both an e-book and a soft cover print-on-demand book. The print book will feature illustrations by the renowned artist, Béatrice Coron.
I am now in the process of selecting the on-line vendor, BookBaby or Ingram.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

“No CEO.”

Posted by jlubans on February 21, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Meeting rules. How you will speak and feel.

When I see a headline like that – No CEO! - I take notice.
The story, by the BBC, is about a Swedish software company “where nobody is in charge.”
The company, Crisp, based in Stockholm, has about 40 staff, mostly independent contractors.
In any case, Crisp has gone through a few organizational models - including the usual boss at the top and also a “taking turns” model.
Notably, Crisp has decided to leave the top job vacant. They’ve systematically spread out the CEO’s responsibilities among the staff and the board.
The notion that no one is in charge is, of course, journalistic hyperbole. In reality, with no boss, everyone is in charge. Bosslessness may well be the best part of this model; it should lead to a great deal of job satisfaction and motivation among the people doing the work.
Like Crisp’s organizational coach claims: “Because they are all in charge, workers are more motivated.” That is the case with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra which performs famously with no conductor – if it were not the case; they would not be performing at one of the world’s toughest venues, Carnegie Hall.
Does the No CEO model work?
That’s hard to say. Crisp thinks so. Their annual staff satisfaction survey comes in at 4.1 out of 5. So a “B” or good grade, if an “Excellent” is a 5.
Certainly beats a 2 or a 3, but what about comparable companies? None are cited.
I know of at least one workplace in my experience that scores right up there as a “best place” to work. From my perspective, it is an unimaginative, stuffy and tradition-bound organization, coasting on past glories. It does pay well, however.
So, for Crisp, I’d like to see some numbers, bottom lines and such. I don’t mean to be negative on Crisp; I just would like to see some quantitative assessment of improvements under the No CEO model to the CEO or any other model they may have tried. Complicating any assessment is that this company sees itself as a non-profit. There is no value – they claim – to the company.
Different, for sure.
Crisp’s organizational coach claims that decision-making is greatly sped up. Again, I would like to see some comparable data – however approximate – with the way it was with a boss and the way it is now with everyone in charge. And, can any peer comparisons be made?
Crisp does have all-hands-on-deck meetings – meetings that run for up to 4 days a few times a year. A lot gets hashed out in those meetings. The detailed etiquette rules for those meetings were prominent at the not-so-long-ago Occupy Wall Street demonstrations.
Marathon in length, those OWS meetings - towards the end of the OWS run - became more and more unruly, devolving into violence. Presumably, in pacific Sweden such behavior would not be tolerated.
The BBC write-up quotes a skeptic of the no boss model. His words rang a memory bell for me:
"Often infinite freedom … can be pretty disorientating. It doesn't always feel good, because you no longer know what you're supposed to do, what's important and you're bumping up against other people."
It reminded me when I was leading an effort to turn a hierarchy toward self-managing teams.
Perhaps crazily, I offered that my direct reports, some dozen or more, would no longer report to me directly - I became an unboss.
Some saw this as an opportunity to undermine the self-managing teams effort and to keep the hierarchy. They zealously worked at doing just that.
Some got it right. While I was no longer the immediate boss, I was someone to consult, to talk with, to bounce ideas off of, to seek help from to navigate through unknown waters. I was there to help.
A few were very uncomfortable with the model. They saw my withdrawal as leaving them adrift, not knowing quite what to do.
Had I to do it over, I would be much more explicit about my unboss role – leader, follower, coach. And, for that matter, I'd want to clarify their roles vis-à-vis me.
And I would have tried this approach only with team leaders who were the most promising unbosses; leaders who could step back and empower their teammates.
Just like my self-managing teams experiment, the No CEO model might be too extreme for many organizations. However, it does offer alternative ways of organizing and in its own way gives us insights about what leaders and followers do.
If you have effective leaders and followers, any model will work. If you have a mixed group of staff, some good, some not so good, the hierarchy may still be the best model.
I’d qualify that last statement, because in some cases the hierarchy causes dysfunction. Innovative people are shut down, problem solving becomes convoluted, etc.
So any effort toward less hierarchy, however inept, might benefit the organization and its clients in unexpected positive ways.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Blackberry’s Thorns

Posted by jlubans on February 17, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)


A long time ago when trees and flowers spoke to man, it was not always wisdom they uttered. Usually, but not always.
Let us, on this spring-like day, follow a Farmer with his pruning shears into the blackberry thicket.
Have you ever heard such malevolent and spiteful muttering? Such tangy language? Well, not exactly tangy, unless you are among those that believe x-rated cursing is a sign of creativity and high intellect.
If you do, join in as the blackberry canes and thorns tear away, verbally and literally, at the Farmer while he prunes the winter’s deadwood.
Bloodied but unbowed, the Farmer seeks to sooth the blackberry; explaining that the dead canes will impede the blackberry’s flowering in the summer, but to no avail.
The blackberry canes see the growing pile and vow they will never give up – even pruned, they will strike and do harm, “You m---- f----- s. o. b.; you w-‘s son, you maggoty pile of s- ….”
Job done, the Farmer calmly balls up the canes (the canes and thorns cling to each other) and prods it out of the thicket into a brush pile for burning.

Don’t misuse your weapons or words, lest they be used against you.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Teamwork vs. Going-It-Alone

Posted by jlubans on February 14, 2017  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: Tenting for Tickets.

I’ve written before about how many organizations emphasize
teams only to reward individual performance.
We profess working together but reward star performers. I’ve done it myself.
In teaching the Democratic Workplace, all about collaboration and how group effort can be more productive than soloing, I reverted to the traditional model of final exam to test for individual’s achievement.
Then, it dawned on me, Why not a group final? As my several workplace critics would complain - to think it is to do it for me – I asked the students, on the last day of class, if they wanted to take the test in groups and to accept the group score for their exam grade. They readily agreed.
An experiment, I’ve done this now three times and see no reason to stop. Here’s a quote from my blog about the group final:
“The results – the scores - were excellent - and should serve to drive home a central class notion that group work – when everyone is prepared to do their best – can often be superior to individual effort, to going it alone. These scores (on a scale of 10) seem to confirm this: 10.0, 9.5, and 9.3.
The previous three classes used a similar exam, with much greater variation among individual scores, ranging from lows in the 6’s to high 9’s.
And, I saw that the students learned from each other in coming up with answers. There was much animated discussion during the 50 questions final. And, given the course content and class objectives, the students saw for themselves that group work can be more effective than individual – on average - if everyone is prepared to bring their best.”
So, it was interesting to read in the Wall Street Journal of something like a group final occurring in the tent city erected for the big game between two rivals, the Duke Blue Devils and the University of North Carolina Tar Heels.
Due to fanatic fans and limited seating for students – much more demand than supply - students have begun a self-monitoring tradition of tenting outside the arena, often for weeks, - in rain, snow and ice - to be sure to get into the big game.
Indeed, the tradition has become so entrenched; tenting has had to be limited to space available.
So, tent space is rationed by basketball trivia testing. Only those with the highest scores are allowed to put up their tents.
And, because not all seats in the student section are equal, they’ve added a second trivia quiz to determine the order in which the students enter the arena to take their seats – actually, the students never sit down - in the reserved student section.
Some groups are happy just to get in the building; others want to be as close to the sidelines as possible, as close to the action as they can get, providing a “6th Man” to the five players on the floor.
The WSJ elaborates about what sounds like a group final:
“One of the tents that did better (testing wise) had a simple plan. ‘All of us studied as much as we could possibly study,’ said Duke sophomore Rachel Sereix. When the exam began, her tent ripped apart pages to pass around and check each other’s work, and they turned in their answers at the last possible second.
Their strategy worked. They scored 86%—and Tent 5. They knew enough about Duke basketball to know in advance where they’ll be standing for the biggest game of the season: in the front row.”
So, all fun, but another example of how group effort – when shared among aspiring and committed team members can produce better results than going it alone.

Happy End Note: The Duke Blue Devils earned bragging rights over their Tobacco Road rivals inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. The Blue Devils won 86-78.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

The Barnacle Bureaucracy

Posted by jlubans on February 10, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: In need of a scraping.

While along for the ride on a snorkeling expedition in the Bay of Cortez at La Paz, Baja, Mexico, I heard the guide’s advice for swimmers getting back into the boat. One thing he said stuck with me. Keep you feet out from under the boat to avoid getting cut by the barnacles.
All ocean going craft are aggravated by barnacles. Periodically, boats have to have their hulls and keels scraped to get rid of these crusty free loaders. They slow down the boat and they can harm you.
It brought to mind, metaphorically, my experiences in some bureaucracies - in my case, large libraries - which seem to be encrusted with barnacles, impeding progress and doing damage to the workers
Back on shore, when I did an e-search on my invented phrase, the “barnacle bureaucracy” I found one article, "Barnacles",that used the two words but never paired them up. So, I am claiming a primacy of sorts for “barnacle bureaucracy”.
The article is enlightening because it elaborates on the metaphor and provides numerous parallels.
No, I am not claiming all bureaucracies are barnacled; some are sleek and speedy in helping people navigate not-for-profit agencies.
Some, however, are less so and do take their time, wallowing like an encrusted coastal steamer from port to port, and maybe or maybe not arriving on time with its cargo.
Here in my temporary home of Salem, Oregon I’ve been an observer of how some county agencies behave. Let’s just say I have seen some “inefficiencies”. Perhaps inefficiencies are barnacles. My Marxist friends would, no doubt shrug a collective shoulder and make excuses for that’s the way it is; deal with it. It is after all the pursuit of the public good – the intended good - that’s important.
Tell that to the person who’s not been paid for two months because the payroll office does not talk to the service agency. Or, counsel the job seeker who’s been cleared to get a job but has to wait an additional two months because the vetting done by one agency will not be used by another agency; it “must” do its own.
Redundancies are barnacles. Tradition-bound ways of doing things are barnacles. Non-work (e.g. checking of other people’s work) is a large impeding barnacle.
I could go on – and so could most of us – but I won’t.
Now and then, all “boats” need to have their bottoms scraped clean.
Caption: Thanks, Russ, the sailor man.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Gone fishing!

Posted by jlubans on January 24, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

No, not really. The mountain streams are still frozen over.
I am on a push to complete the "Fables for Leaders" book in time for an early March release.
The text is done, as is much of the design work. I've begun proofreading and a few other items remain to be done, along with choosing a platform for the e-book and print-on demand-versions.
Did you know each format takes a separate design? The e-book requires a simple one and the latter can be much more like what one can do on paper. From the start I have wanted a beautiful book - in appearance and content - and that is how this book is shaping up.
I may continue with the Friday Fables part of this blog but only if we are making good progress toward the March deadline.
We have a name for the publisher: Labi! Labi! Press. It derives from the Latvian expression one overhears on Riga streets: Good! Good! or OK! OK!
More than a bit of the fable project derives from and makes mention of Latvia so the name feels just right.
And, the mailing address will be Gopher Valley Road; how appropriate for a book of fables.
So, labi!, labi!

The Unfinished Work*

Posted by jlubans on January 20, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Interestingly enough on the day before this eventful Friday in which the USA government transfers leadership, I got my copy of a book in which I have a chapter about democracy: “The Unfinished Work”: Organizational Democracy.
The chapter is one of several in this brand new book: “International Librarianship: Developing Professional, Intercultural, and Educational Leadership”.
My chapter describes the “Democratic Workplace” class I have been teaching at the University of Latvia in Riga since 2012. This Spring I will teach the 6th iteration of the class.
Aimed at librarian practitioners and graduate students, the class introduces democratic concepts to how people (not just librarians) organize to pursue their cooperative mission.
I discuss how the class came into being, its goals, and provide a brief discussion of content and methodology. The latter may be of interest to anyone engaged in training initiatives because my approach is more of the “flipped” pedagogy than the lecture/textbook variety. I rely heavily on the students teaching themselves and their peers – if you will, I expect the students to “coach” each other and to take responsibility for their learning. In other words, it models democracy in action.
So, have a gander. The Amazon listing permits a peek.

*Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, November 19, 1863 spoke of the “unfinished work” (democracy); that it was up to us to confront this “great task”, ensuring “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Overdue Book Notice

Posted by jlubans on January 17, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: East Lake County Library, Florida: Crime Scene

Like something out of Carl Hiaasen’s Everglades comes a tale of librarians gone rogue.
No, nothing to do with Medicare, the story tells of three staffers who invented a phony patron with a library card (Chuck Finley*, by name) and used the bogus card to check out thousands of books. Why?
To save, they claim, unused books from the trash bin. Supposedly, little used books - "How to Make Your Doll's House Special," "The Duct Tape Book", "Pugs for Dummies" and, Steinbeck’s classic, Cannery Row - were targeted by an automated weeding process – with little or no human interaction – and trashed, indiscriminately.
The perps say they intervened to “save the books” and, resourcefully, to save the library money from having to re-purchase the books fingered by this robotic inventory app.
A man bites dog story, it’s been re-cast and written about dozens of times. Most suggest the library staff are more to be sympathized with than to be condemned.
Some even see this as a Luddite reaction to dataism: “Is datification ruining the American library?” Hyperventilating, an article suggests, “it’s the blind adherence to data over human judgment, the use of data as a shackle rather than a tool.”
I’ve rarely heard such a positive assessment of human judgment. I thought, according to the latest elite thinking, we were mostly irrational creatures and would benefit greatly from robotic nudges now and then.
Back to East Lake. With little evidence, we are asked to believe there is rampant, unchecked decision-making by machines, decisions best left to humans.
Others see the shenanigans as the little guy (Ned Ludd type) getting one back against the brutal anonymity of the bureaucracy.
I’ve seen similar monkey business – much more duplicitous than pumping up borrowing statistics - when Google began to siphon off thousands of questions from libraries, their bread and butter, so to speak.
As I explain in “Google, the World’s Information Desk”,
only a few libraries, at the beginning of the decline, confronted and capitalized on the amplified need – due to un-vetted sources on the Internet (fake news is hardly new) - for robust information seeking and finding skills.
Mysteriously, after a marked drop off, the tallies of questions continued to rise.
Looking back, libraries lost about 40% of market share to Google.
The lost opportunity cost had to be staggering, but this is nothing new. Too many of us resist change until we are exposed, laughed at, and finally asked to justify what we are doing.
Ethically, the skullduggery in the East Lake Library is seen as good guys trying to beat the bad, King Data. What’s the harm, these forgiving types ask, the pettifoggers were not in it for personal gain?
Well, how different is this, apart from scale, from the flimflam of Wells Fargo workers opening up unwanted banking accounts for customers? No harm done.
How different is this monkey business from automaker VW surreptitiously installed software to defeat emission checks? No harm done?
Or, is it all A-OK as long as others are doing it? The lead perp at East Lake claims that many libraries use dummy cards. That is probably true but those cards are not used to falsify library statistics but for work arounds to expedite service.
At least I hope so.
From a leadership aspect, I have to ask, “Why, if it mattered so much, did the culprits not talk with the head of the system and demonstrate that indeed little used valuable books were being sent to Siberia only to soon be back in demand?”
What was in the way of that open discussion?
A bad boss? Bad followers? Hard to say. Like the Hiaasen character trying to stuff a live roach into a partially opened Pepsi in vain hopes of a big legal payday, what a waste of human effort, of human ingenuity, of human communication.

*A baseball player (pitcher) of some renown, but more likely an appropriation (what else?) of a character’s alias in Miami’s "Burn Notice" TV spy show.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE THIEVES AND THE COCK”*

Posted by jlubans on January 13, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Sauntering thieves; 17th century woodcut.

“Some Thieves broke into a house, and found nothing worth taking except a Cock, which they seized and carried off with them.
When they were preparing their supper, one of them caught up the Cock, and was about to wring his neck, when he cried out for mercy and said, "Pray do not kill me: you will find me a most useful bird, for I rouse honest men to their work in the morning by my crowing.
‘But the Thief replied with some heat, "Yes, I know you do, making it still harder for us to get a livelihood. Into the pot you go!’"
One moralist has it: “The safeguards of virtue are hateful to those with evil intentions.”
If you’ve been woken at dawn, after a late night carouse, by a neighbor’s rooster cock-a-doodling, that might be reason enough to throw a shoe in its general direction. But, that’s unlikely if you live on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. If you live in Sheridan, Oregon, on Gopher Valley Road, that’s pretty much the daily drill.
For the workplace, this fable illustrates how declaring against the boss’ agenda, albeit for good reasons – often results in reproach, not praise. Kelley’s study on leadership (and my personal experience) finds that the odds are even that a star follower will be punished for speaking the truth. Half the time it will be a KITA (kick in the ass) or a POTB (pat on the back.)
Like the thief, the bad boss (insecure, petty, jealous, etc - take your pick) will find a reason to punish you for questioning her actions and intentions.
With those 50-50 odds, it’s understandable why workplace “survivors” never speak up. Good leaders seek the painful truth and deal with it; bad leaders do not.

*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 2017

Leadership vs. Gizmos, Gimmicks & Gadgets

Posted by jlubans on January 10, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)


A recent story, “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives”elaborates on apps and ideas to help workers be more efficient. It surveys what’s been done before, including Taylor’s classic time and motion studies.
The author, Oliver Burkeman, explains that Taylor was the first scientific manager to devise ways to improve individual production and to get more effort and product - for the same cost - out of a “goldbricking” workforce.
While that is the usual academic, unbalanced view of Taylor, I get the author’s point.
Since Taylorism’s heyday, computers have only furthered the notion of somehow getting more out of an over-worked and over-stressed work force – or in some eyes, applying a well-placed kick to the smug posterior of an unmotivated workforce.
Some believe that improving work “tools”, can improve how we work and how we feel about our work.
Taylor streamlined many tools and processes to help workers be more productive and to be paid more money for their work. Unfortunately, in Taylor’s world the worker was seen as less a thinking, contributing being, but more of a machine to be tinkered with.
Similarly, if one is inundated by e-mail, then there’s an app to manage the avalanche. Too many meetings, ditto. Too much paperwork, ditto. .
Some suggest these apps have helped. Others say nothing has changed or things have gotten worse. Harkening back to Stakhanovism, the more productive you are, the more is expected. If you have a good idea and double your work output through working “smarter”, then, says the Taylor-channeling manager, “let’s double it again”. And so it goes.
This is the difference between using an app to manage your work and working in an organization that, through its leadership, recognizes individual workloads and helps individuals and teams come to terms with getting the job done.
The end is not every individual working to capacity, but for the overall organization to be productive and to have a free flow of ideas to help the organization improve daily.
Burkeman, to his credit, includes the conclusions of a management consultant: “The best companies I visited, all through the years, were never very hurried, … Because you don’t get creativity for free. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think…. good ideas do not emerge more rapidly when people feel under the gun – if anything, the good ideas dry up.”
So, slackerism has some virtue after all!
Good leaders know that workers need more than an app to improve their work. They know workers need time away from routine and a work environment in which to consider how they work; they need time to think about the Why of their work and how it can be improved for the organization.
Dale Carnegie Training just released the results of its Global Leadership Study. (Yes, this is the organization that furthers the work of the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” man). The study polled 3,100 workers at all levels in 13 countries.
U.S. employees identified the top five motivating and inspiring attributes of supervisors:
“Encouraging improvement (79 percent)
Giving praise and appreciation (74 percent)
Recognizing performance improvement (72 percent)
Admitting (supervisor) shortfalls before criticizing (68 percent)
… These leadership qualities also have a positive effect on employee retention and satisfaction.”
The report suggests the leaders need to close the perceived gap between what the worker wants from the boss and what he sees the boss doing. For example, workers value “Truly listening to Employees” at 88%, but the behavior, as practiced by bosses is observed at 60%, leaving a gap of 28%.
Valuing an employee's contribution” comes in at 86% importance for the worker, but it is observed 60% of the time among supervisors.
Sincere appreciation” is valued at 87%, but displayed among supervisors 61%.
“In the most striking example, 84 percent of U.S. employees said it is important for supervisors to admit mistakes, but according to these same employees only 51 percent of supervisors exhibit this behavior often – a gap of 33 percent.”
The Wall Street Journal’s conclusive look at this study: “Attention, supervisors: You may be the reason your staffers want to leave.”
So, I would argue that effective leadership and followership have more to do with job satisfaction and performance than any performance-improving gizmo or gadget. While an app may boost individual performance, real job satisfaction and real lasting improvement come from a work environment that promotes the best leadership and followership.

UPDATE: An item from NPR with a stopwatch illustration, no less, discusses personal productivity. A cerebral take on the matter. Different from mine. Predates my essay by about three or four hours. Great minds, you know.

© Copyright 2017 John Lubans