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.

The “Primitive”

Posted by jlubans on November 29, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Woodcut, 1533, from Bartolommeo Cocles' 'Physiognomonia.'

Funny how things come together, how juxtapositions happen.
I recently finished the 1941 book “Kabloona” by Lewis Galantière and Gontran de Poncins which recounts de Poncins 15-month experience living in the Arctic among the Inuit people.
De Poncins, a European nobleman (1900 -1962), unhappy with “civilization” sought a simpler life; and hoped to find it among the primitive Eskimos (his term) in the far reaches of northern Canada.
As I read his fascinating stories of traveling hundreds of miles by dog sled across frozen seas, eating frozen raw meat and living in snow block igloos at -50F, I was reminded of a NYC business owner’s characterizing one of his workers as, “a primitive”.
While this sounded a bit feudal, it was not, I believe, meant as a derogatory term, but an allusion to the worker’s guilelessness, honesty and loyalty to the business.
He’d learned the business on the job and the owner was trusting him to maintain its high-quality customer service.
But is primitive really what we want in an employee? Perhaps there are other ways of looking at the primitive among us.
Maybe the worker’s boss is deluding himself and while he may not mean the term as an insult, that’s how it winds up being, a feudal stereotype of the “noble savage” instead of a unique individual.
Returning to de Poncins, our ice bound Frenchman, he is repulsed by what he sees at the first Eskimo encampment: eating rotten raw fish, the transactional practice of sleeping with each other’s wives, their ignoring (his) schedule, beating their quintessential sled dogs, and helping themselves to de Poncin’s possessions!
As de Poncins odyssey continues north, further and further from Western influences, he slowly comes to terms with himself and the Inuit’s primitive ways.
The far north Inuit differ significantly from the poorer Inuit in the south.
In the unblemished far north – with bountiful seal and fish harvests - there is less guile and cunning among the Inuit he meets. Promises are more often kept, intentions are clearer, less deceptive.
Yet hardly perfect, dogs get beaten, old people get left on the ice to drift away, some crimes go unpunished, wives are abused, etc.
It is in this harsh land that de Poncins begins to shed the ways of Kabloona, The White Man - an uncomprehending outsider – and become more of an “Inuk: a man, preeminently” self-reliant and with dignity among hardship, not driven by a schedule, and accepting his companions as they are. In other words, it is no longer paramount for him to be in charge. He becomes as “primitive” as they are.
Doing so, de Poncins confronts his own pettiness.
He’s no longer the fussy outsider, someone demanding his schedule be kept, someone digging in his heels when something unplanned come his way. Nor is he any longer willing to freeze rather than share his fuel for the igloo’s warming oil lamp.
Ultimately, he came to respect the largely guileless ways of a Stone Age people albeit 20,000 years “behind” in evolution.
Indeed, to survive in the Arctic they are each an Inuk: a man preeminently. Imagine, in a driving blizzard, the skill and courage required to build a windproof igloo shelter, one that will last as long as the storm or longer. You have but one tool: an Eskimo snow knife.
If de Poncins transformation is “primitive” then we need more of it.
How does that happen in the workplace?
First, leadership must model an unwillingness to gossip or take part in scheming.
Cliques and divisions are shunned.
Of the several places I worked only one was free of divisions; it was the only one without regular turf battles over who was to do what work.
Instead, we were on the same page, with no sniping or undercutting. I suppose we were primitive in our willingness to support each other.
Were we guileless? Probably.
Curiously, the state universities I worked in were more transparent that private schools and less likely to engage in “palace intrigue”.
It was mostly in private schools of a certain size where I got to experience first-hand the back-stabbing “perfumed dagger”.
Was this due to the nature of private institutions being less accountable to outsiders?
I’ve come to believe the more genuinely open an organization the better its health.
And, just like de Poncins transformation something like that transformation has to happen for each of us, so we become a supportive group of people wanting what’s best for the group and not just the individual.

Black Friday Everyday!!!
The perfect stocking stuffer ONLY a click away, now 40% off until Christmas at BookBaby:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #7 Sheriff Cliff

Posted by jlubans on November 20, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Libraries, regardless of size, have policies that at times put them at odds with clients.
Of what do I speak?
Well, there is - as illustrated - the “Shhhh Quiet” Policy. Libraries are said to be places for calm reflection and quietude needs to be enforced.
Then there are those pesky overdue fines. A nickel a day or more to punish the recalcitrant borrower who returns books late.
And, there is/was the no food and drink policy.
In my experience, our enforcement of no food and drink was one of our most problematic public relations fiascos.
While libraries are now more relaxed and forgiving about clients coming through the door with pizza boxes and super-size Slurpee’s, in my time we were far more prohibitive.
Many of us believed that allowing clients to bring in food and drink would lead to invasions of book-eating vermin, from silver fish to rats seeking out pizza crusts and left-over salami sandwiches and Oreo cookies.
And, we knew with righteous certitude that spilled Cokes on study tables would damage, irredeemably, pages of open books.
In my world of research libraries, we could, for many decades, count on clients being respectful of the printed word. They accommodated, maybe even understood the rationale for no food and drink.
Those students were taught at home and in grade school to respect books, to cherish them. There was a tacit agreement between librarians and clients; we were on the same side.
That changed starting in the 1970s onward.
Why? I have a theory which I will mention a bit further down.
In spite of a burgeoning resistance among the students, we were all the more adamant in enforcing the rules.
Our enforcement efforts were for naught. Food and drink were increasingly smuggled in.
Library staff responded with PR campaigns to convince clients of the importance of the policy. Preservation of library materials – civilization - was at stake!
The deviousness got worse.
One of my staff did a daily tour to confiscate drinks and food. This was our zealous Sheriff Cliff. He even wore a tin sheriff’s badge which he’d flash as he encountered violators in the stacks.
Usually at the end of his tour, he’d stop by my office to show me his harvest.
I wonder if he was shaming me since I was somehow derelict in my administrative duty. He would have been happy to make me a deputy in his posse.
With the exception of zealots like Sheriff Cliff, none of us wanted to be seen as a fussbudget. Many staff began to look the other way. They valued their helping image more than rule enforcer.
And there was more than a little illogical thinking in our behavior. When a client checked out a dozen books for home use did we really think they would not read the books while drinking and eating?
Worse, the library staff brought in food and drink for consumption at their desks. There they were, handling new books and preparing them for the shelves, while chowing down on a burger and fries.
One staffer sauntered daily into the building carrying a heaping breakfast plate from the student union. She’d parade through a study area to her office, wafting waffles and sausages.
One thing I’d do differently, I’d confer with the policy evaders, our clients. Why were they doing this? What had changed? Did they really de-value books? I’d make library staff part of that conversation.
I imagine we’d discover that with incremental tuition increases, the clients were feeling entitled.
They and their parents were paying thousands of dollars to attend the university; yet, the library – a haven from noisy dorms for many students – refused to allow them the simple comfort of a cup of coffee and a candy bar while studying.
And, it was evident that university professors and even library staffers were no longer taking a pay cut to work on campus. With increased tuition and other sources of funding university staff were making decent wages, some very handsome ones.
Ye olde dedicated professors were fading away, replaced by academic entrepreneurs supported by an army of serfs - cheap labor teaching assistants.
Previously, when the clients thought we academics were making self-sacrifices to be on campus, we earned some intangible measure of respect. Once they realized this was no longer the case, they became less deferential.
So, the clients knew they were paying more, much more, and were damned if they would not get more for their money.
I suspect, incidentally, that student grade inflation occurred for the same reasons.
If we had spoken with clients earlier on, the coffee bars and cafeterias now prevalent in many research libraries would have happened much sooner.
Instead of fussers we’d be awesomes.
When well designed and managed coffee bars are a big plus in the overall library “experience”.
One last thing, I’d take away Sheriff Cliff’s badge.

Black Friday Everyday!!!
The perfect stocking stuffer ONLY a click away, now 40% off until Christmas at BookBaby:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

“The Menace of Monday”*

Posted by jlubans on November 16, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Back in 1919 Edgar Wallace, the prolific and popular writer (173 books and 17 plays plus movies), included the following screed in one of his usual “the fiend in the coal bin” thrillers, The Green Rust:
“There is a menace about Monday morning which few have escaped.
It is a menace which in one guise or another clouds hundreds of millions of pillows, gives to the golden sunlight which filters through a billion panes the very hues and character of jaundice.
It is the menace of factory and workshop, harsh prisons which shut men and women from the green fields and the pleasant by-ways; the menace of new responsibilities to be faced and new difficulties to be overcome.
Into the space of Monday morning drain the dregs of last week's commitments to gather into stagnant pools upon the desks and benches of toiling and scheming humanity.
It is the end of the holiday, the foot of the new hill whose crest is Saturday night and whose most pleasant outlook is the Sunday to come.
Men go to their work reluctant and resentful and reach out for the support which the lunch-hour brings.”
This sounds more like Karl Marx than Edgar Wallace. Of course, Karl never had a sense of humor, so he would raise his fist and exclaim, “Right on, Bro!” or it’s Socialistic equivalent.
No wonder given the worker's "reach(ing) out for the support which the lunch-hour brings", British pubs opened from Noon to 2.30PM.
Blimey, mate, make that a double!
Wallace was a hard worker, often writing (actually dictating!) several books at the same time. Not a syndicate with a stable of writers, he was a one man show with dozens of dictation takers, typists and clerks.
His books were in such demand in the UK and the USA that they often skipped proofreading, hence plots changed midstream, characters changed names or went missing, and typos abounded.
I’ve been reading Edgar Wallace since finding him in my family’s Maine summer cottage, back in the 1960s. Those books are still there.
Anyway, I think this bit of purple prose may sum up for many their feelings about yet another workweek even though most now get Saturdays off.

*Source: The Green Rust by Edgar Wallace. Get it at Gutenberg.

Black Friday Everyday!!!
The perfect stocking stuffer ONLY a click away, now 40% off until Christmas at BookBaby:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020


Posted by jlubans on November 11, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Caption: Ellie Oryan – “Ivan Krylov Krylov's Fables Vodka Portrait
”, collage, no date. Perhaps produced under the influence of vodka Ellie Oryan (Ellie O’Ryan?) borrows Goya’s celebrated oil painting of Aesop in the Prado and renames it Krylov!

A CERTAIN Merchant built a magazine (warehouse), in which he stored away his stock of edibles; and, in order that the mice should not damage them, he instituted a police of cats.
And now the Merchant lives in peace. His stores are patrolled day and night, and all goes well. Unfortunately, an unexpected contingency occurs.
One of the guardians proves himself a thief. Among cats, as with us (who knows it not?), the police are not faultless.
But then, instead of detecting and punishing the thief, and sparing the honest servant, our landlord orders all his cats to be whipped.
As soon as they hear this ingenious sentence, honest and guilty alike, they all run out of the house as quickly as possible: our landlord remains catless.
This is just what the mice have been hoping and longing for.
They enter the stores as soon as the cats have left, and in two or three weeks they contrive to
eat up the whole of their contents.

The proverb – which I just made up – “Blame Everyone, Blame Yourself” seems to fit. The merchant punishes all the cats, not just the perp and loses his “stock of edibles”. He has only himself to blame.
According to the translator, Krylov’s fable, dated 1811, may allude to the cashiering of all of the officials of Russia’s Commissariat and Victualling Departments during a war with France.
“They were disgraced in a body, and their uniforms taken from them.
The result was that numbers of them retired from the service rather than put up with such a slight.”
Even if you are “sending a message” – to other goof-offs - dismissing a whole unit is foolhardy. Who knows how to do the work? Who knows much of anything about the unit?
While it might gratify the landlord to sweep away the old regime, doing so results in far more of a loss than that from one bad cat.
On the other side, if you truly want to start over, then a whole sale “firing” is one way to do it. Just be prepared to re-design and staff-up for a brand-new way of working. Otherwise, you’ll earn the enmity of all the clients of that now dissolved unit.
In Latvia, once independent in 1991, not all the old communist bureaucrats were dismissed. The place had to keep running and they were the only ones who knew how to do it. However, they brought with them all the old Soviet habits. Yes, bureaucrats are bureaucrats regardless but communist bureaucrats are among the worst – red tape experts extraordinaire.

*Source: Krilof and his fables, by Krylov, Ivan Andreevich, 1768-1844; Ralston, William Ralston Shedden, 1828-1889. Tr. London, 1869

Black Friday Everyday!!!
The perfect stocking stuffer ONLY a click away, now 40% off until Christmas at BookBaby:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #6: Fake Self Esteem

Posted by jlubans on November 07, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


This is the latest in my series on What I Would Do Differently, what I would change if I could.
Have you ever been given an award for “Participation”? These are all the rage in junior sports leagues. Win or lose, you get an award. Whether a starter or water boy or girl, everyone gets a first-place blue ribbon or a gold star.
The “experts” assure us this is the sine qua non for developing a child’s self-esteem.
Not really.
Let me relate how it went for me.
For several years I wrote a column for my professional association’s magazine. I enjoyed doing it and writing on fresh topics benefited my work and my teaching.
Reader comments were consistently positive. The occasional reader survey pointed out that my column was the first thing looked at in the magazine.
I thrived on the feedback and polished each essay.
So, when the editor nominated me for an award, I was flattered and said, Sure!
Well, as the annual convention approached, I learned that the magazine’s three other columnists were to be recognized as well.
Of course, I immediately saw what this was; someone thought my being singled out for an award would somehow diminish the other columnists. Therefore, to avoid the anticipated ruffled feathers, ALL of us would get an award.
I went along.
But, what had a been positive recognition of my writing’s consistency and quality had now become a participation award. Everybody is a Winner!
My writing was no longer deemed outstanding.
What would I do differently?
I’d ask the editor Why? Why the change from recognizing my achievements to celebrating all the columnists? Based on the readership surveys, we were not all producing the same quality work.
If he told me something along the lines of, Well, we (I’d like to know who the We were) thought this would be a great time to recognize everyone for their participation.
Or, that the organization did not want to pick favorites. You know, if Sleepy gets new pajamas at Christmas, so do Dopey, Sneezy, Grumpy, Happy, Bashful and Doc.
In either case, I’d now skip the ceremony at the annual members meeting.
I see this keeping-the-peace-at-all-costs behavior in my perennial bête noire, Performance Appraisal or PA.
PA suffers annually from several errors and a couple of those blunders apply in this instance. There’s the Leniency Error. In other words, grade inflation, a boss’ tendency to give very generous ratings. It’s the bell curve with one horn.
By giving high scores, the boss skips the hard mental work of individual assessment, and avoids confrontation and the difficult task of explaining to someone why and how he or she needs to improve.
And, there’s the Self-serving Bias Error. Inflated ratings make the rater look good. His or her employees are all above average, obviously due to careful and wise leadership.
Anyway, this distribution of pseudo esteem rankles still. In short, if you want to give positive reinforcement go ahead; just don’t do it at my expense.
If I truly have done a good job, I want to be recognized for the accomplishment. I do not want my deserved accomplishment to be grouped with undeserving work. And, it’s not just my hurt feelings; this type of pseudo award diminishes the organization.
Black Friday Everyday!!!
The perfect stocking stuffer ONLY a click away, now 40% off until Christmas at BookBaby:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #5: Penelope

Posted by jlubans on November 03, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Caption: Nothing to celebrate

This the fifth installment in my "What I Would Do Differently" series.
Penelope was a clerical worker in a three-person unit in my division. Besides Penelope, there was Joan, the unit manager, and Naomi, Penelope’s immediate supervisor along with numerous part time staff.
She was a proud person and reluctant to be directed. Her face revealed strength, suffering and dignity.
She had some physical disabilities but they did not interfere with her work.
But, she also possessed a sharp tongue and used it on occasion toward clients and her coworkers.
Naomi, as I recall, had some of the “mean girl” temperament. The more Penelope resisted Naomi’s guidance; the more Naomi persisted.
Joan, the unit head, deferred to Naomi.
Ultimately, Naomi and Joan came to me wanting to fire Penelope because of repeated insubordination. They had the documentation.
I met with Penelope to hear her side of things; but in the end I approved the termination.
Penelope went to labor court.
I believe the judge was going to reinstate her, but when she refused to sign a court document, he upheld the termination; her pride defeated her
A few days later Joan and Naomi came to my office with a bottle of champagne to “celebrate” the “victory”.
I believe this was orchestrated by Naomi. Before we had opened the bottle, my boss tapped on the door and called me out. He told me, in a few terse words, we should not be doing any celebrating, right or wrong.
What would I do differently?
Since the unit head was deferring to Naomi, I would have met with Penelope early on and explained to her what was happening and what had to happen to avoid termination.
Would this have made any difference? Probably not but it would have been fair.
Also, I would have tried to better understand Naomi’s motives. Was the discipline a pretense to get rid of a “problem employee” or a sincere attempt to help Penelope?
Finally, I’d not allow even a hint of celebration about this firing. It was an organizational failure.
Instead of celebrating, I’d ask Joan and Naomi to join me in a review of the outcome and how we could have done better. What went well and what did not?

Black Friday Everyday
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And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, while not discounted, is available at Amazon.

Copyright all text by John Lubans 2020

Sir Roger L’Estrange’s APPLES AND HORSE-TURDS*

Posted by jlubans on October 27, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Caption: Not All Apple

In a time of political flood, this fable from the 17th century seems apt and worthy of reposting from its first appearance here in March of 2019.
We are inundated with promises, prevarications, legerdemain, deception, obfuscation and plain old weasel talk.
No doubt your candidate is an apple and mine is a turd, but then again, perhaps all is not as we may want it. Who will finish the mill race? Will it be an apple or a horse turd?
Upon a very great Fall of Rain, the Current carried away a huge Heap of Apples, together with a Dunghill that lay in the Watercourse.
They floated a good while together like Brethren and Companions; and as they went thus dancing down in the Stream, the Horse-Turds would be every foot crying out still, “Alack-a-day! How we Apples swim!”
THE MORAL. Every thing would be thought greater in the World than it is; and the Root of it is this, that it first thinks itself so.

Like braggadocious fishing boat fleas claiming as the boat comes into harbor, “We have rowed well!” here we have Horse turds along for the ride.
They’re in the flood with Apples like “Brethren and Companions” regaling all who will listen, “How we Apples swim!”
So, the moral would have us be mindful of humankind’s (yours and mine) impression that we are more important than we really are.
In other words, practice humility, be humble, lest ye look foolish like the Horse-turds claiming to be something they are not.

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

Copyright all text by John Lubans 2020

Books, Crooks and Punishment

Posted by jlubans on October 23, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Book Thief, REALLY?

Usually I write about leadership and followership and other items of organizational life.
But, now and then I stray into different pastures.
Today’s blog is about book crime and punishment; specifically, about how judges sentence book thieves.
I last wrote about book thieves in 2013, “Book Thieves and Other Library Scoundrels” and "More Scoundrels, Knaves and Varlets.
Invariably, victims (librarians, teachers, cultural leaders) who testify against book thieves, call for harsh penalties – at least for some jail time.
Just as invariably, judges tend toward leniency regardless of how egregious the crime.
A recent story about rare book thievery (an inside job) at the Carnegie Library in Pittsburgh epitomizes this judicial attitude: one of the two thieves was sentenced to three years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation and the other received four years’ house arrest and 12 years’ probation.
In California there was a similar outcome: the crook’s six-month sentence to county jail, was suspended, and he was placed on probation and ordered to pay restitution to the University of California and to booksellers he had tricked into buying stolen goods.
So, none of the “perps” went to jail.
Why all this judicial forgiveness? Why are jail sentences often suspended and fines reduced?
Is it because the crooks come clean and offer to return not just the "caught red-handed" loot -but other thefts yet to be found out?
In other words, prosecutors make a deal with the criminal in order to retrieve as many stolen books as possible.
Or, is it because book thieves tend to be sad sacks; misfits on society’s fringes thereby earning judicial empathy?
Or, does the judge buy the thief’s story that he was never in it for the money; rather he succumbed to a psychological need, however twisted.
In the case of the Pittsburg heist, the thief used the money to pay his children’s private college tuition.
What a dad!
Did that evoke judicial sympathy?
Or, is stealing a book - snatched in the dark with no weapon beyond a cheese sandwich and a thermos of coffee while hiding in the toilet, waiting for the library to close – far removed from an armed stick-up?
And, then there’s the laxity of the victimized library along with the complicity of the buyers of stolen books which might pressure the judge into not making too big a deal of it.
Sure, some collectors buy the offered item and believe it to be an honest transaction.
Others - especially antiquarians - can smell a rare book, can sense rarity by its heft, can tell in a single glance at the binding and paper that something is too good to be withdrawn, as purported, and serendipitously found in a Friends of the Library Booksale.
Indeed, is the rare book collector truthful when he claims the stolen book was stamped as “Withdrawn” from X Library? Is the presence of that simple rubber stamp – easily purchased at any office store - truly exculpatory?
It’s one thing to believe the “Withdrawn” stamp for books like some of mine – yes, I have run across, with tears in my eyes, a few of my books withdrawn and offered up for .50 cents.
It’s totally another to believe in the “Withdrawn” stamp inside what is likely a unique book. A knowledgeable book collector might want to confirm that book’s provenance. Due diligence in such a case is easy: call and ask the withdrawing library to confirm.
So, it gets complicated for the judge.
While balking at judicial leniency the letters to the court never spell out what the “harsh” punishment should be.
Here are some suggestions about the degrees of severity and implied incarceration.
An Inside job, a betrayal of trust, should result in a greater punishment.
I'd add a year for the “Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing” insider. Such a disguise may manifest itself as either a fuss budget or an oleous priest of high culture who keeps readers away from precious books to do his dark deeds with a free hand.
Mutilation (slicing out of pages, illustrations, maps, tearing off book covers and otherwise disturbing the integrity of the book), should increase the punishment.
There’s a difference between a shlub who steals from a provided list of books and an antiquarian who knows the library’s ins and outs and who may have carte blanche to library vaults. Judicially, the former gets off with probation while the latter goes to jail.
The professor who steals a book deserves a greater punishment than the undergraduate thief of a textbook.
Finally, book theft damages the public good. There should be a cost assessment of the societal damages – from inconvenience to intellectual loss – and figured into the sentencing.

Copyright (all text) John Lubans 2020

WIWDD #4: The Specialist

Posted by jlubans on October 17, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Caption: In Admiration of the First Celebrity Specialist, Lem Putt

The Specialist continues my reflections on What I Would Do Differently (WIWDD) in my career.
Most organizations of a certain size feature specialists. These are usually one or two person units with an often-esoteric focus, not unlike Lem Putt who specialized in outhouse construction: one holers and up.
Now, most specialists, like Lem, earn their keep. They provide good service and benefit the organization. But, and this is a big but, a few specialists are in it more for themselves than the organization. Of course, we all put ourselves first - which is healthy - but we make sure what we do ultimately benefits the organization.
One time I was asked/assigned to supervise a specialist. I knew full well this was a problematic individual. He used his position for self-aggrandizement and he had, if not an unsavory reputation it was a sketchy one.
He could be charming, yet prickly and nasty, and could “go musicologist” (like “going postal”) viciously fighting over minutiae. He had made enemies but, to his credit, he did have some supporters.
Since our environment was higher education, part of how he operated was much like many other professors. Those with tenure have a great deal of freedom and, if they engage in wrong doing, are rarely held accountable.
My new supervisee was a quasi-faculty member, so some of his behavior emulated the professoriate. Bear in mind that the faculty member is a solo player. She may collaborate on research and publication but she remains a soloist.
My specialist failed to make his specialty relevant to the students and other professors; instead he focused on narrow research topics.
Often he would be invited to do research at exotic locations. (I found out that many in his circle of specialists – including influential donors - played a round robin of inviting each other.
(Certainly, this goes on at many campuses not just for my specialist and his international cronies.)
However, there is a certain shamelessness, I’ve discovered, in a small segment of the faculty. They count on not being called out and if put on the spot, wriggling out of any accountability.
Ambiguity can be a scoundrel’s best friend.
WWIDD: I should have questioned this new assignment much more closely than I did. I’d ask, Why me?
Why is the previous supervisor unable to continue?
I should have had a frank talk with my boss to get answers to:
What was he expecting me to do?
When the specialist again did something ethically questionable, what was I to do?
How much support would I have from the boss?
Fundamentally, I should have gotten an answer as to how important was what the Specialist supposedly was doing. Did what this person do matter to the organization? How much did it matter?
I had learned over many years that higher education avoids being embarrassed. If push came to shove, as they say, would my boss back me in disciplining my new charge?
And, I should have spoken with the “old” supervisor.
What was his experience?
Why was he willing to give up this direct report?
Too blithely, I accepted this assignment.
My supervision of the specialist was how I worked with all of my two dozen or so direct reports. Regular meetings and no micromanaging. Instead I modeled what was expected: high quality and respectful treatment of clients with careful attention to new initiatives and technological applications. Given freedom, some of my direct reports soared.
Others, had a hard time lifting off. They obviously needed far more guidance and direction than I provided.
The Specialist, as it turned out, continued his self-serving ways. Marginally, what he did was beneficial but generally he was the beneficiary more than the organization.
Dismayingly, as soon as I took over, his previous supervisor began to carp about the Specialist’s performance. That criticism was aimed at me as much as the Specialist! I was judged guilty by association!
While the Specialist did some of his job, it was never really what I was hoping for. The Specialist and I should have had a frank talk early on. I should have provided more direction and been clearer about expectations. Instead we muddled along.
I don’t recall reviewing a job description. That might have helped. My expecting him (and others) to figure it for themselves, was not always the best strategy.
Probably I should have refused to take on the Specialist job; I had plenty to do.

*As immortalized in Charles “Chick” Sale's best seller of 1930, The Specialist.

Copyright all text John Lubans 2020

WIWDD*, #3: Avoiding Conflict

Posted by jlubans on October 06, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


Caption: A corner of the “Thomas-Kilmann Conflict Mode Instrument

The first two of my WIWDD* reflections are here and here.
This third reflection is about avoiding conflict.
I made a case study of it to use in my teaching and titled it Jack and Jill.
Like the nursery rhyme, it did not work out well: Jack “fell down and broke his crown and Jill came tumbling after.”
Jill was a department head who had long used her negativity to get what she wanted. Jack was me, her supervisor.
I’d gone along with Jill because – her dog in the manger attitude aside – she and her department did a good job. Unlike some aggrieved bureaucrats, she did not punish her clients.
I stayed pretty much silent on her negative views and of her victimhood cultivation. I largely ignored the real possibility that her negative attitude permeated the work of the department and her peer relationships.
Let’s be honest, I obviously was avoiding a “difficult conversation”.
At least I could have made an effort to help, and not wait until it was too late to do anything.
I think Jill trusted very few people and – based on her gloomy interpretations of others’ actions – very likely had a touch of paranoia.
Alas, I said nothing.
If I thought about it, it was that probably things would get better. Given my strong support for her department and its mission, surely she would gain a sunnier disposition. Dream on.
Jill firmly believed, I think, it was her whining and complaining that got things for her department.
And, my avoiding a difficult conversation was encouraging the bad behavior.
Finally, I did take action when I found out she’d been fudging her production statistics.
Following a department heads meeting about our organization wide budget crunch in which she displayed a pit bull territoriality and offered no help, I asked for her to come speak with me.
Exasperated, I told her that I was disappointed and embarrassed with how she constantly complained in meetings. I then asked her since this job was so difficult whether she would like to step down and let someone else do it.
I had no one in mind, but thought maybe she’d opt for a break.
Given her probable paranoia, she thought I was attacking her unfairly and that I was wanting to fire her. (I suppose I was.)
Afterwards, I learned that she complained bitterly about me to my boss.
What would I do differently?
First, I should have asked my boss for guidance before having it out with Jill.
I should have known there was no easy fix and that my confronting her would have repercussion.
Nor should I have held the meeting while angry.
Years earlier, when I hired her, I should have made clear what I expected from my direct reports. Namely, I did not want to hear complaints unless they came with solutions. And, if there were no solutions, then we needed to move on and focus the discussion on the doable.
If I had started giving Jill feedback sooner, maybe we’d not have had the blow up.
For example, I could have asked her early on if she would be open to my observations on how she interacted with her peers.
If she agreed, I’d tell her what she did well and what she could have done better.
No telling the outcome, but maybe we would not have had this unhappy ending. A year later she left for another organization and rarely spoke to me except when obligated to do so.
Interestingly, when I used the Jack & Jill case study in a management workshop the participants sided with Jill and blamed Jack for the problem.
I can see why.
But, what I found a little hard to believe was that they (unlike Jack) would confront Jill immediately and give her guidance on how to improve the relationship.
Most managers – not just Jack -have a hard time with conflict; of the five conflict modes - competing, collaborating, compromising, accommodating and avoiding - the latter three see a lot more use than does the best option, collaborating.

Caption: Don't we all?

*WIWDD=What I Would Do Differently

Copyright All Text John Lubans 2020