“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. Aesop's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “A DOG IN A MANGER”*

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

Caption: The dog: “No food for you (and none for me)!” Illustration ARTHUR RACKHAM, 1912

“A churlish envious Cur was gotten into a manger, and there lay growling and snarling to keep the Provender. The Dog eat none himself, and yet rather ventur’d the starving his own Carcase than he would suffer any Thing to be the better for’t.”

“THE MORAL. Envy pretends to no other Happiness than what it derives from the Misery of other People, and will rather eat nothing itself than not to starve those that would.”

L’Estrange’s appended moral introduces a peculiar and insightful motivation for the “churlish envious Cur”; he’d as soon go hungry, as have others hunger!
Here we have the public servant who denies a client’s application because of a technicality, say something like the wrong color ink; or the pettifogger doubles back on the client with a new, onerous demand for information, one that, of course, has to be fulfilled in order for the application to go forward.
Or, consider the organization that permits the public servant to discriminate in whom to serve well and whom to serve poorly, even though both clients are equal. However this unfair discrimination comes about, it is a failure of the servant’s supervisor.
That servant – in the manger - does willingly as much harm to himself as he does to the client. Indeed, the misery spreads two ways, and soon engulfs the reputation of the organization. It becomes known for its nitpicking, meanness and obfuscation. If reputation matters – when does it not? - these passive micro-aggressions will one day be like the proverbial chickens come home to roost.

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Choosing Leaders

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

Caption: Underway.

How do we choose leaders? There’s an array of techniques – executive appointment, random turn-taking, committee, etc. - but it is only on a rare occasion – even in democratic workplaces - when subordinates or followers choose the boss.
One of the highlights of my drive this August from East to West, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast was taking back roads – staying off the interstates - that paralleled the Oregon Trail, the path taken, from 1843-1870s, by some 200,000 people striving for a new life in the Pacific Northwest.
In August of this year the trip from Missouri to Oregon took me three days. In the 1840s to 1870s, it would take from four to six months. You’d experience spring, summer and fall and hope to high heaven winter would be neither late nor early.
Most traveled on foot alongside heavily loaded horse-drawn "prairie schooner" wagons, across the prairie, the rivers and over the mountains, often accompanied by large numbers of cattle and sheep. One convoy had 1000 head of cattle along.
Caption. Dratted luck!
Naturally, tales of extreme hardship abound (an estimated 20,000 died on the trail) and I have to marvel at the fortitude of these homesteaders who made their way towards their dream of a better life.
How did the pioneer families organize themselves to make this journey? They knew they could not do it solo; the risks, the hazards, the uncertainties were too many for only the most foolhardy to attempt alone.
Most pioneer families left from the gathering place and literal “jumping off” point, Independence, Missouri. Wagon Trains were composed of up to 200 wagons, though more common were trains of 30 or less wagons.
Given my interest in leadership, I was struck by this quote* on how wagon train leaders were elected:
“Candidates (for leadership roles) would take off across the prairie and other men would follow, lining up behind their favorite. The one with the longest line would win.
This practice had its roots in the Midwestern tradition of “muster day,”… using the pretext of practicing “drills”, the muster was an opportunity for male camaraderie and its accompanying singing, wrestling, fighting, racing and gambling. The mustering men would elect their officers by lining up behind their choice.”
How would this play in today’s workplace? Imagine an organization seeking to find a leader for the next year. Those who aspire to lead – including incumbents - take a few steps out and those who support them line up alongside.
Impractical, you say? The lost expertise! The notion of popularity winning over know-how! The public embarrassment for those who “lose”! Envious losers undermining winners!
Perhaps all true. But, the muster worked for the wagon trains. Perhaps it worked because the stakes were urgent and the muster would quickly identify those people most trusted to help get the wagons and people from Missouri to Oregon, to make the soundest decisions for the benefit of the group. One could also say that the pioneers were more than a little informed and invested in the outcome of these selections.
The muster takes away the secret ballot. We know who the candidates are and everyone knows how everyone else voted. Perhaps some spoke up and explained why. Perhaps each candidate made was a succinct statement prior to the vote. Hard to say. But, I would expect that every voter would have to be prepared to explain why he (only males voted) chose the way he did.
This is democracy for governing ourselves, in government and at work. The muster quote underlines something that is forgotten or glossed over. Democracies require informed citizens; you cannot rely on your “party” or your candidate telling you what you should do. You have to know within yourself what you want and why you want it.
The Athenians required most citizens through random selection to be active in local politics, to do the actual work that politicians (the good ones) do. According to Mary Beard, “Many Athenian democrats would have argued that people must learn to do politics, they must learn to be citizens; it is not something that comes naturally. Much of the Athenian political system was about that process of learning.”
Mustering also reminds me of how bees make the life or death decision about choosing a new place to live – their urgency is comparable to that of the Oregon pioneers. In “Honeybee Democracy” we learn that decisions – highly effective ones made among several choices – are made by clusters of bees moving physically to the bee advocating the best future location of a bee colony.
My point in this is that there is more than one way to choose a leader, and we should be aware of these alternative ways. They may be better than what we are doing now; you won’t know until you try out another way.

*Source: Susan G. Butruille, Women's Voices from the Oregon Trail: The Times that Tried Women's Souls and a Guide to Women's History Along the Oregon Trail (Women of the West) Illustrated by Kathleen Petersen.
Boise, ID: Tamarack Books, Inc 1993, pp. 95-96

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Sir Roger L'Estrange’s “AN APE AND A FOX”*

Posted by jlubans on September 16, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. A disdainful fox by ARTHUR RACKHAM, 1912.

“An Ape found many Inconveniencies by going bare-arse, went to a Fox that had a well spread bushy Tail, and begg’d of him only a little Piece on’t to cover his Nakedness: For (says he) you have enough for both, and what needs more than you have Occasion for? Well, John (says the Fox) be it more, of be it less, you get not one single Hair on’t; for I would have ye know, Sirrah, that the Tail of a Fox was never made for the Buttocks of an Ape.”
“THE MORAL. Providence has assign’d every Creature its station, lot, make and figure; and ‘tis not for us to stand correcting the Works of an incomprehensible Wisdom, and an almighty Power.”

Imagine, if you will, the little readers in 1906 chortling over the “bare-arse” mention (plika dirsa in Latvian) as it appeared word for word in Everyman’s Library Children’s Classics.
The fashionable fox would have lost nothing by sharing a bit of his tail for the embarrassed ape. Nor would our fashion industry be anywhere if it abided by L'Estrange’s admonition “that the Tail of a Fox was never made for the Buttocks of an Ape.”
Then again, maybe none of us were ever meant - by heavenly design - to go about in Lycra pants!

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Letting Go

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


It’s always been an issue for me. No, not letting go; that’s my natural inclination. Rather, it’s about achieving desired results by letting go. While I believe in the concept, I have failed at times to consider what those “let go” think or want.
I let go - expanding a team’s leader’s authority and responsibility - because I expect that the department/team would be more responsible and would do better work without having to check with me on everything. By taking my foot off the “brakes” - the solid lines and boxes of the org chart - I expected prolonged bursts of energy and innovation.
Early on, I discovered that not everyone was comfortable with the dotted line that replaced the solid reporting line; and, some were largely clueless, even resistant, to the idea of self-management. We further complicated things by moving toward the notion of self-managing teams.
Nor was it clear to some what my role would be once I let go. Honestly, it was not all that clear to me!
I could have been far more explicit about what my role was or what I expected my role to be, somewhere between hands on/hands off or micro/macro managing.
I should have explained: “Here is what I need when I meet with you. I do not need to shoot the breeze with you (if that is all we are going to do when we meet); give me something we can both work on. Don’t leave me guessing; don’t leave me out of the decision-making aspect or the innovating aspect.”
Of course, for that to happen, you have to have an organization that recruits and supports innovators, decisive workers, dreamers, and not mostly journeymen; the more traditional an organization the more journeymen; the more mantras of “It’s a job”.
No doubt any clarification on my part would have helped those who did not intuit my role. In hindsight, letting go meant for me to be the group’s coach, a close adviser, a giver of objective advice and, importantly, a finder of funding and defender of the group’s efforts.
Letting go worked in some cases, it limped along in others and, for some it was DOA. The former were a special breed of manager. I’d term them “star followers”; doers, critical thinkers, with a personal vision not much different from mine.
For them, freedom was an opportunity to push for change and bring it about rapidly, not to have to wait for approval from me or from a strategic plan committee. I met with each of the managers in this elite group several times a week to go over their ideas – and mine on occasion – and for me to listen and to make suggestions.
A WSJ headline had me reflecting about the letting go process: “College Football’s New Coaching Strategy: Coaching.
The story is about head coaches at football programs with 100 player platoons, a dozen assistant coaches and a squad of trainers, nutritionists, and therapists, and dozens of administrative staff. And, with the pressures of satisfying the fan base, the media, and of recruiting dozens of new players each year, and managing the entire business end of the football program. The result is that many head coaches feel like they are no longer coaches. “With an offensive coordinator responsible for calling plays on offense and the defensive coordinator doing the same on defense, many head coaches say they find themselves with little to do after kickoff other than call timeouts. Mostly, they spend three-and –a-half hours stomping up and down the sidelines and yelling at people.” I could relate to that.
The article claims that more than a few head coaches are resurrecting their primary reason for being on the field: coaching. Some will either coach special teams, call plays, or otherwise take a more active, hands-on role in the their team’s performance. A bit of micromanaging, in other words. I can identify with what they’re trying to do, but I think it is misguided.
I suppose they miss what a former teacher, now a superintendent of schools, longs for. Or, a physician promoted to CEO of a hospital and waxes nostalgic about seeing patients.
Perhaps looking at the other side of letting go – where the workers, and middle managers sit - might help define the new role. How do we develop their skills and give permission to self-manage? What is our role in that happening?
Start with a frank discussion about new roles and what’s missing. Is the only solution a micromanaging one? Or is it best for the head coach to define his or her new role - like I should have done – and to create a structure in which the head coach brings insights from his/her experience and helps the coaching staff improve. I’d have the head coach elicit ideas, and seek to improve the team every week with a sit down (led by the head coach) on what went well, what did not and what to do next time. Truth-seeking. This would be a venue for constructive feedback, never blaming. That’s the beginning of the new role.
My story on the Cēsis New School shows how children learn to self-manage; it is not an easy intuitive task, self-management has to be learned because we live in a hierarchical world. There may be some clues for all of us in observing the changing teachers’ role in helping students self-manage, to help them take full responsibility for a project. The video I link to in that story is worth studying to see what roles there are for this different kind of teacher and by extension for this different kind of manager/leader/coach. A democratic leadership can only thrive when all participants share responsibility.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. La Fontaine's “THE LION GROWN OLD”*

Posted by jlubans on September 09, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration from 1900 by Benjamin Rabier (1864-1939).( As you may guess from the artistic style, Hergé, of Tintin fame, was greatly influenced by Rabier).

“A lion, mourning, in his age, the wane
Of might once dreaded through his wild domain,
Was mock'd, at last, upon his throne,
By subjects of his own,
Strong through his weakness grown.
The horse his head saluted with a kick;
The wolf snapp'd at his royal hide;
The ox, too, gored him in the side;
The unhappy lion, sad and sick,
Could hardly growl, he was so weak.
In uncomplaining, stoic pride,
He waited for the hour of fate,
Until the ass approach'd his gate;
Whereat, 'This is too much,' he saith;
'I willingly would yield my breath;
But, ah! thy kick is double death!'”

Ever the contrarian, for me this is more about feckless followers than about the last days of a tyrant. Should not followers challenge and question the boss when he or she pushes a bad idea, or insinuates an unethical course, or loses sight of what is best for the business, for the client and for the worker? Do not bad followers (uncritical and subservient) enable bad leaders?
Now, the lion is what the lion is, no changing that. But, on a rare occasion a good follower can save a bad leader from himself, can guide that person back to the high road. The risk is huge. (Take a peep into any dictatorships, old and new, to see how dissent is abruptly and brutally dealt with.) Yet, if the effective follower is to remain true to herself, she has only two options: speak up or leave.

*Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882. Available at Gutenberg.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Lubans’ How the Blackberry Got Its Thorns

Posted by jlubans on September 02, 2016  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: The lonely blackberry.

Like Jupiter’s Bee, which dies when it stings an enemy, some solutions are more painful than others.

Once upon a time, when plants could talk, and the blackberry was without thorns, he appealed to Zeus:
“O Zeus,” he said, “I am mightily tired of people thanklessly stealing my fruit. As soon as my berries are sweet my canes are yanked on and, even if some of the fruit is green, clusters of berries are torn away. The worst are the children who come and play under my canes and spend the day gobbling my fruit. They are noisy and they wipe their hands and mouths on my lustrous leaves. Can you stop these outrages?”
“Hmmmm,” said Zeus, twirling his scepter while perusing a catalog of remedies for complaining plants.
“What if I gave you thorns? They will keep humans away by piercing their thin skin, drawing blood; the prickly thorns will keep deer away and birds won’t land on your canes. Is that what you want? Consider carefully.”
“Yes, oh yes,” said the blackberry skipping the consideration part. From that time on he lived in a fortress-like isolation; avoided by all but the most daring, those willing to pay a bloody price.
After a few blissful days of peace and quiet, the blackberry began to suffer a "great loneliness of spirit" as Chief Seattle said. No longer did the deer poke their noses into the bush, nor did the birds sit and chatter on his branches, nor did the children play underneath.
And so it can be at work, or among one's neighbors. The prickly person is left alone, but over time, becomes lonely and wonders why people avoid him; why people fail to include him for a staff lunch or why no one sits down with him for coffee. Worst, few trust him not to lash out and sting; that alone harms teamwork and collaboration.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

When Disaster Strikes, Some Take Action

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

Caption: Helping in the great Louisiana Flood, 2016.

The following post, “The Cajun Navy, Part Two” first appeared on November 14, 2012.
In light of the Cajun Navy’s recent resurgence in Louisiana’s floods, I am posting it again. The Cajun Navy’s been revived, joined by the Cajun Army, no less, helping Louisiana flood victims. It is being done, as the Wall Street Journal opined*, in the finest sense of democracy; people helping each other, a need so urgent one does not wait for the government or other agency to come to the rescue: “Somewhere Alexis de Tocqueville is smiling. In “Democracy in America,” the Frenchman famously pointed to the American genius for coming together in voluntary common purpose as perhaps our nation’s greatest strength.”
Read the WSJs editorial* and then read the comments, some 125. Most point with obvious pride to this latest example of how people are instinctively motivated to help each other – doing as necessary and using existing resources – rescuing 30,000 (yes, thirty thousand) flood victims.
My blog post from 2012 follows. The question at the end of that 2012 post remains valid. Why do some of us wait for help or “let George do it” while others take direct action?

In a previous story about team development
I mentioned the spontaneous teams that came together for a week during the aftermath of the New Orleans flood and hurricane Katrina: the Cajun Navy. I used them to illustrate the positive side of disasters; that the challenge is immediate, it is tangible, and it calls out for humans to help other humans (along with dogs, cats and parakeets!) Sometimes we regular folks reject the status quo and take action.
Jefferson Hennessy’s story, “The Cajun Navy: Heroic Louisiana Volunteers Saved Thousands of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees”, describes how an array of organizers (leaders) and a myriad of volunteers (followers) came together to help a city in desperate need during a time when the city, state and federal leaders and governments - with the notable exception of the US Coast Guard, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement (DWFE) and a few state politicians and other official agencies - seemed incapacitated, unable to do much more than to wait for help, for permission, for the starting bell, for someone to shout DO IT! The volunteers did not wait - no hand wringing for them!
When the volunteers rolled into New Orleans there was considerable uncertainty among even helpful agencies on what to do with them. Hennessey’s account includes examples of how the hundreds of volunteers with their hundreds of boats circumvented officials who were opposed to the amateur rescuers or who were so disorganized and ill-equipped they saw the volunteers as problems not helpers. For example:
At 6:00AM Wednesday, August 30, 2005, Gautreaux (who was mentioned in my first blog) and his citizen flotilla volunteers arrived in New Orleans. They were told to wait. Ryan Mathers, a citizen flotilla volunteer from Maurice, Louisiana recalled, "We sat and waited for about four hours." (The high that day was 98.2F!) Mathers struck out on his own to find a DWFE agent who would give him a mission; he was directed by a DWFE agent to follow him and a group of 15 Cajun Navy volunteer boats to various staging areas throughout the 9th Ward, perhaps the hardest hit of all of the N.O. neighborhoods.
In volunteer Deacon Leger's case, his group of volunteers also tired of waiting outside the city for an official green light and decided to find their own way into the city. Once in, they were told by a Louisiana State Police officer, "We don't need you." Some volunteers turned around and left, but Leger and those who stayed were adamant about completing their mission. They found a sympathetic City of New Orleans police officer that guided Leger and 40 boat owners across the breeched Industrial Canal levee into St. Bernard Parish to launch their boats and rescue efforts into the poisonous water. Leger and many other volunteers defied the “No Pets” policy of the N.O. Police. They believed that after what these victims had endured – hunger, fear, hopelessness – the last thing to do was to abandon their pets
Another major organizer, leader, in the Cajun Navy was Ronnie Lovett . (He, one source says, spent $200,000 of his own money on the rescue operation). Lovett’s initiative and compassion are illustrated in how he helped evacuate a chaplain's two elderly and frail hospital patients in need of immediate medical attention. They would die if left to wait along the road in the blazing sun and soggy heat. Lovett jumped off his boat, went up on the highway and flagged down a military vehicle. The Navy personnel listened to Ronnie and agreed to take the two patients to a functioning medical facility in Baton Rouge.
These stories of humans reaching out to the afflicted further confirm for me our potential for heroic action. I have a few wonderful friends who would do what the Cajun Navy did. What is it that makes them – those friends - so ready to help - even when opposed by officialdom - while some of us stand by and leave it to the “agencies”?

*“The Great Cajun Navy: A voluntary private flotilla comes through in flooded Louisiana

Friday Fable. Sir Roger L'Estrange’s “AN ASTROLOGER AND A TRAVELER”*

Posted by jlubans on August 26, 2016  •  Leave comment (3)

Caption: Illustration by Grandville for La Fontaine's retelling of Aesop’s fables (1855).

“A certain Star-gazer had the Fortune, in the very height of his celestial Observations, to stumble into a Ditch; a sober fellow passing by, gave him a piece of wholesome Counsel. Friend, says he, make a right Use of your present Misfortunes; and pray, for the future, let the Stars go on quietly in their Courses, and do you look a little better to the Ditches.”

LaFontaine offered this moral:
To an astrologer who fell
Plump to the bottom of a well,
'Poor blockhead!' cried a passer-by,
'Not see your feet, and read the sky?'

Perhaps aware that gazing into the future might be hazardous to one’s well-being, most contemporary prognosticators make predictions well beyond their estimated death dates!
I recall the part time "wizards" in my profession who offered much expensive advice to solve my workplace’s problems.
When I inquired what they were doing at their own “shop”, it turned out they rarely followed their own advice, or if they were, the results were hardly impressive.
Pontificate they could, but bring about productive change they could not.
I found it far better to locate on my own “best practice” institutions and then ask the people who were doing it to show me how they did it. More often than not the secret was to let the people doing the work figure out how to best do it. That took a hands-off leadership, a way of leading the wizards would never credit.

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

On the Road

Posted by jlubans on August 19, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: In Idaho, Craters of the Moon Monument.

I am on the road, literally, from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific coast, 3000 miles, 4828 kilometers.
The blog resumes, Friday, August 26.
John Lubans

Exemplary Follower: Olympian Lilly King

Posted by jlubans on August 15, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Lilly King Wins

I often write about followers. After all, leading from the middle is as much about being a good follower as it is about effective leadership. So, I took notice when a 19-year-old swimmer went public with her disgust of athletes who dope to gain unfair advantage (and, indirectly, her disgust with the governing agencies failure to firmly discipline for doping).
Way back when, the East Germans were the most blatant dopers; women transmogrifying into men from steroid use. And, now an investigation reveals that Russian athletes, just like during the old USSR, have been doping for years, doing whatever it takes chemically to make the “Bear” rampant over all.
Lilly King was motivated to speak out when a previously banned athlete, Yulia Efimova, was permitted to compete in the 100-meter breaststroke event. Ms. King, a participant, understood better than most what that decision meant: a deserving “clean” athlete would be excluded from the Games. She explained her decision: “I’m not this sweet little girl, that’s not who I am. If I do need to stir it up to put a little fire under my butt, or anybody else, that’s what I’m going to do.”
No “Yes, man” or a Sheep, she’s an effective follower.
But, as you may know, Robert Kelley, the premier researcher of followership, found that followers who make a difference get taken to the woodshed 50% of the time for being impolitic by speaking the truth.
I suspect the Olympic agencies that suppress anti doping sanctions will find a way to punish her. For the moment, she’s raised valid questions and is riding tall. Her winning the gold medal helps keep the “Make No Waves” mob at bay. May her reform banner keep waving on high!
Lilly demonstrates all the characteristics of an effective follower: a mind of her own, high personal values with fairness paramount, an action orientation to righting wrongs, and fearless in dealing with consequences.
I can well imagine her bosses pleading with her - if she asked for permission – to say nothing. Diplomacy will prevail, the cheaters will be punished, eventually. If not, then karma will catch up with them. In any case, the individual cheater will be guilt-ridden. Really?
A doper feels no guilt, everyone else is doing it, so why not she or he? As many ethically challenged politicians will tell you, the end (staying in office) justifies the means.
Ms. King’s stand against doping exposes how traditional organizations - is there any group more traditional or more bureaucratic than the Olympics? – can drift away from fairness into wrongdoing. Despite the loftiest of ideals, Olympic agencies succumb to media dollars, to state demands for medals, and to just plain corruption, X dollars for Y results.
No wonder they prefer to shove talk of doping under the rug, to emulate the “best” political obfuscation, to ameliorate, to lie, diplomatically of course.
Does Ms. King’s calling out Ms. Efimova make her a Russophobe? Hardly. “Do I think people who have been caught should be on the (USA) team?” King asked. “They shouldn’t. It’s unfortunate we have to see that.” Justin Gatlin, the U.S. Olympic sprinter, take note.
Ira Chaleff in his book “The Courageous Follower” states that a “good follower is able to ‘stand up for and stand up to’ the leader. What that means is supporting the leader when he or she is on the right path, and having the courage to let the leader know when she or he is making a mistake, doing something unethical, or potentially harming the group or organization.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2016