Fill in the Blanks: FOLLOWING from the Middle

Posted by jlubans on October 31, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

The word “follower” is weighed down, it seems, with an excess of negative baggage. Why the negative connotation? Maybe because our culture promotes independence above cooperation, above helping others take the lead. Peculiarly - since without followers there are no leaders - some of us regard followers not as partners of leaders but as sequacious subordinates lacking in ambition, critical thinking, perseverance, creativity, and gumption; after all they are behind the leader, they are being led. As a young worker we take pride in being called a “potential leader”. A “potential follower?” Maybe not!
My book, Leading from the Middle, is largely about following.
Indeed, “Following from the Middle”, might have been a more accurate and eye-catching title!
I equate followership with leadership. However, both of these terms describe a process, not a person. Good followership, good leadership requires a symbiotic relationship between leaders and followers. Without that symbiosis, we often have poor leadership (or followership).
Not long ago, one of my students ran across an Internet posting about leaders and followers. That posting assumes leaders are the best and followers are the worst. I’ve edited the list, taking out leader and follower and left blanks for you to complete in each of five couplets. Please answer based on your work experience. Who fits each slot? As social psychologists would have you believe, “there are no right answers.”
1. When a ________ makes a mistake, he/she says, "I was wrong;" when a ________ makes a mistake, he/she says, "It wasn't my fault."
2. A _______ works harder than a _______ and has more time; a ________ is always "too busy."
3. A ________ makes and forgets promises; a ________ makes and keeps commitments.
4. A _______ says, "I'm good, but not as good as I will be;" a _______ says, "I'm not as bad as most."
5. A _______ says, "That's the way it's always been done;"
a _______ says, "There ought to be a better way.”

I can fill in each of these blanks with either leader or follower. The terms were interchangeable based on my experience with good and bad and leaders and followers. How about you?
My point? It’s myopic to assume all leaders are brave, hard working and resourceful and that all followers are slackers, shirkers and dullards. Just as there are good and bad leaders there are good and bad followers. Good leaders cultivate and promote effective followers. Bad leaders, out of envy, often punish the effective follower and facilitate his or her departure.

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE MUSICIAN AT HOME”*

Posted by jlubans on October 26, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: The Musician’s Progress, right to left.
”There was once a musician who had no talent whatsoever but he played his lyre in a room that had thick plaster upon the walls so when he heard the echoing sound, he concluded that he must be an excellent musician indeed. Puffed up with pride, he decided to perform on the stage. But when he made his debut at the theatre, his performance was so dreadful that the audience threw stones at him, driving him off the stage. 
The fable shows that the same is true of public speakers: while they are still in school they may think that they have some talent, but they find out they are worthless when they embark on a public career.”

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Caption: Gestures I often use when speechifying. Really.
And so it was/is with my speeches. I’m called upon now and then to give a keynote talk or to sit on a panel. The organizers suggest the topic and time limit. After some notes, my talk sounds really good in my head. When I rehearse, the spontaneous ad-libs to the text are invariably witty and always relevant and sharpen the focus of the talk. I never lose my place and I always conclude within the allocated time span.
In situ it goes differently. After an off-topic ad-lib, I’ve been known to stumble around like a man lost in the Maine woods. Time-wise, I have learned that the line rehearsed before the mirror, when presented publicly, doubles in time consumed.
My media, neatly numbered and ordered, manage to fall from the rostrum onto the floor or shuffle themselves out of order.
Or, when someone else is handling the media, they jump to illustration 22 when I am on illustration 3. I’d like to do without media, but, frankly, I use them to appear au courant. In rehearsal, the sound is a perfect tone and pitch, the pictures are in focus and big enough and the link is lightening fast. At the venue, my flash drive never matches the local protocol – if it’s AC, I'm DC. When the video lurches up, it has no sound. Those lively links are either dead or moribund. You get the picture (or actually you don’t.)
While nary a stone (or tomato) is thrown and the applause is always polite, I usually feel like much of my message has gone off, un-intercepted, into the ether. Maybe some of the fault rests with the audience. While I will tell a few jokes I do resist being a group’s entertainment. I always hope for some kind of a connection, not a Vulcan mind-meld, but some spark of interest, something other than a pond of blank faces. I mean my talk to be two-way: the audience hears what I say and muses about it, builds on it, spins off other ideas or dismisses it. The listener is a participant.
I recall one speaker showing at least 100 Gary Larson cartoons in the course of a 20-minute talk. I never did figure out his topic but I do recall that he used an awful lot of cartoons; the audience was delighted, at least thru the first fifty.

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

PS. If you are in Nashville, you can get a copy of Leading from the Middle at the public library.

A Different Democracy: The 99% & Boulder (CO) Remembered

Posted by jlubans on October 24, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

In last week’s post I spent time with Henry David Thoreau on Walden Pond contemplating anarchism. I also visited Walden Two, the BF Skinner utopia book and commune, which, to these eyes, is more dystopic than utopic.
Well, today from Thoreau’s Walden I have shot, boots and all, into the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) movement***.
You may recall last year, after only a few weeks of protest, many heralded OWS as a new and preferable way of governing, a “(l)eaderless, consensus-based participatory democracy!” That’s what the Economist insinuated in an October 19th, 2011 article.
The article points to the economist David Graeber as the “Anti-Leader” daddy of OWS. Mr. Graeber did anthropological work with the people of a mysterious 10,000-person Madagascar commune, Betafo, who rule themselves through "consensus decision-making.” Business Week summarized Mr. Graeber’s version of Betafo: “an egalitarian society where 10,000 people made decisions more or less by consensus. When necessary, criminal justice was carried out by a mob, but even there a particular sort of consensus pertained: a lynching required permission from the accused's parents!” (Emphasis added.)
Less than two weeks later, the Christian Science Monitor enthused about OWS:
“Is this the era of leaderlessness? Their politics may be diametrically opposed, but the Occupy Wall Street protesters and the tea party activists have one thing in common: a deep distrust of leaders. Are they onto something?”
The article continues: “(OWS) has developed
into an ongoing micro-society with a micro-government that directly exemplifies a principled alternative to the prevailing American order!” Again, emphasis added!

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Caption: Unhappy campers?
A year later.
On September 17, 2012, APs Meghan Barr tolled: “Occupy movement in disarray ….”
What happened?
Ms. Barr describes the turmoil: “(OWS) began to disintegrate in rapid fashion last winter, when the weekly meetings in New York City devolved into a spectacle of fistfights and vicious arguments. Punches were thrown and objects were hurled at moderators' heads.”
I unearthed a couple of online accounts corroborating an imminent demise of OWS. These suggest to me that the “disarray” may have been caused by OWS veering from its sole purpose of protesting the very rich into a hundred and fifty other directions.
My previous posts about democratic ideas may be of interest when we think about the OWS democracy and how it might have had better success.
The humble honeybee offers up advice about collective decision-making.
Collaborating Bees have: No dominating leader; A strong incentive to make a good decision (survival); One problem to solve; An agreed upon process; and, Agreement among all. Which of these must-have elements were present or missing in OWS deliberations?
And, as another model, there is the highly democratic New England town meeting.
An early critic of the town meeting, James Madison, groused: "In all very numerous assemblies, of whatever characters composed, passion never fails to wrest the scepter from reason. Had every Athenian citizen been a Socrates, every Athenian assembly would still have been a mob."
It does appear, given Ms. Barr’s report, that the OWS “Assembly” devolved into a “Mob” and that passion wrested the scepter from reason. To stay ruly and on track, The New England town meetings use the very available Robert’s Rules of Order. These Rules of Order, (deemed too hierarchical by OWS) when fairly applied by a neutral moderator, might be more efficacious than up or down “twinkles”.

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Caption: Mr. Stephen Gaskin
*** The OWS camper images of dancing, drumming, doping, communing, and protesting take me back to late summer of 1970 when I landed in Boulder, Colorado at a new job. This was the Woodstock-Berkeley-Timothy Leary-era of “drop out, tune in, and turn on” and peace and love.
An estimated 5000 “flower children” populated the town’s student zone, The Hill. Boulder welcomed/accepted/ignored/despised the hippies and pretty much left them alone. However, there were numerous angry business owners who refused street people the use of their toilets. (Instead they came to CUs Norlin Library, where I was in charge of public services, to bathe and toilet.)
I do not recall a leader or parliament or general assembly of this rag-tag, ever-fluctuating, group of 5000. Once, the followers of the prophet “Stephen” did come to town in 50 rainbow school busses. These hippies were organized and had a cause presumably as set forth by their leader, Stephen Gaskin.
Nowadays, Mr. Gaskin (born 1935) is a founder of the The Farm, a community and enterprise in Tennessee. He lists his politics as “Beatnik” and his religion as “Hippy”. His multi-page resume confirms my Boulder memories: (I was) “Convenor of the Caravan, a speaking tour of the United States with engagements in 42 states with a Caravan of 50 School buses and forty or so other vehicles and up to 400 hippys. We were the largest hippy community in the US before we parked in Tennessee…." The price of gas back then was .36 cents per gallon!
Mr. Gaskin offers insights on how The Farm is organized: “The way we work has always involved a lot of talking and arguing through many forms (forums?) and committees. We currently have a seven-person board that is elected for three-year terms. I am not now and have never been a member of this board.“

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE BLACKSMITHS AND THE MOUSE”*

Posted by jlubans on October 19, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“A mouse was carrying away the corpse of another mouse who had died of starvation. The blacksmiths stood there and laughed when they saw this. The mouse who was still among the living addressed the blacksmiths through his plentiful tears, 'Shame on you: you cannot even manage to sustain a single mouse!' 
Do not laugh at the calamity that befalls your neighbour.”

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The mouse gets one back on the jeering blacksmiths. The epimythium (the trailing moral) admonishes us not to laugh at others’ suffering. That is a constant truth, but the mouse adds something more. He suggests that the blacksmiths are so cheap and so unproductive that they cannot keep a single, harmless wee mousie! Indeed, the blacksmiths’ failings may have contributed to the mouse’s demise.
And so it once was for me back in my 9-5 days. One supervisor took great delight in taunting me over the failure of a project. For him, it was a flawed idea, a bad process and deserved dismissal. I saw it differently, since I had had outstanding success when I applied the same project in my area of supervision. My critic, from the start, had resisted the necessary changes, never invested any of his resources, undercut the good efforts of others, and, frankly, came up short on the creativity index. So, his jeering served to underscore his failings more than any genuine flaw in the project. (The project was stopped after a new, unimaginative administration took over. They preferred the old ways.)

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Governing Not

Posted by jlubans on October 12, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Danny Heitman’s essay on Henry David Thoreau,
Not Exactly a Hermit", skips the enviro clichés and brings fresh insight to the life of the American intellectual and political theorist. Thoreau has had a global influence on political thought, persuading the likes of Gandhi, Tolstoy and King. While not a consistent hermit, he was hardly a social butterfly, eschewing the party scene for one-on-one conversation in which he voiced blunt opinions. Emerson remarked “‘I love Henry, but I cannot like him; and as for taking his arm, I should as soon think of taking the arm of an elm-tree’ ” Probably not the best team player!
Heitman adds a new perspective - Thoreau as the quintessential American writer: “(W)hat he advanced by constant example, is a style of writing that’s characteristically American—often colloquial, routinely direct, and with a suggestion of plain talk that sometimes, on second reading, reveals a deeper complexity.” I like that.
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Caption. One of many Thoreau books still in print.
Why am I going on about Thoreau? Because of the following quote from his essay, Civil Disobedience, which I will use as a discussion starter in my Democratic Workplace class this winter:
“I heartily accept the motto, ‘That government is best which governs least’; and I should like to see it acted up to more rapidly and systematically. Carried out, it finally amounts to this, which also I believe– ‘That government is best which governs not at all’; and when men are prepared for it, that will be the kind of government which they will have”.

This paragraph about self-government is the curtain raiser on Civil Disobedience.
The footnotes in the link suggest that Thoreau may have been referring to the motto - "The best government is that which governs least," - of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, 1837-1859 or to "the less government we have, the better" from Ralph Waldo Emerson's "Politics", 1844.
For me, these quotes bring to mind the earliest anarchistic writings found in Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (The Book of the Way, ca. 500 BC).
Thoreau wrote Civil Disobedience in protest of a government at war and still enthralled by slavery. Mr. Thoreau was not happy with the status quo and called upon others to join in with his disobeying. He himself refused, in protest in 1846, to pay a mandatory poll tax and was jailed for a night before family bailed him (unwillingly) out.
I do wonder if Mr. Thoreau really meant what he said about dispensing with government. While he lived an idealistic (and reclusive) life in a way that others might only wishfully talk about, he may be overstating the case for a different kind of government, substituting one with his ideas transcendent. He did participate in productive and inventive ways in his family’s pencil factory, but there does not seem to be any record of how he worked with others on-the-job.
Thoreau hedges his self-governance option with the condition that it comes about only “when men are prepared for it”. When will that be? I would argue that people have always been prepared for it and that political thinkers have always managed to figure out some way to keep government going, more or less depending on the critic’s philosophy. For example, below is Lenin’s charming propaganda about self-governing children. We know how that dystopia played out!
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Caption: Lenin’s "Self-government for Children”
All that aside what does no government look like? How do decisions get made? Why group decisions? I doubt if Thoreau asked for any advice from anyone during his 2 years and 2 months on Walden Pond. He made all his own decisions and did not have a single group vote a la OWS consensus voting. In BF Skinner's Walden Two, the story of a rigidly controlled utopian commune, the "members" have no say in decisions. They, the founder assures us, want it that way. It's the "Planners" (an elite) that run the place and tell the willing many what to do.
I will pair – in my class - Thoreau’s quote with Lincoln’s words from his Gettysburg Address:
“that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
For me both quotes relate to aspects of self-government, of personal responsibilities, and management of self in organizations.
Freedom at work is a theme I began to develop in Leading from the Middle, for example, Chapter 32: Productivity in Libraries? Managers Step Aside
I am looking forward to where the class discussion of these concepts and ideas - when applied to the workplace – takes us.
And, I hope a few of my students take me up on an extra credit project: to interview a Latvian worker with experience in both the Soviet (pre-1991) and Democratic (post-1991) eras. I’ll write about the results.
Since I am not a Thoreau scholar anyone that knows more about Thoreau's No Government or Walden as Utopia or Thoreau and Utopic thought, please comment.

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE ARAB AND HIS CAMEL*”

Posted by jlubans on October 12, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: The high road or the low road?
“An Arab loaded up his camel and then asked whether he preferred to take the uphill path or the downhill path. With a burst of inspiration, the camel replied, 'So the level road is blocked, is it?'”

When I had a particularly dumb, yet enthusiastic, idea at work, my staff, like the camel, would remind me that there were other ways, more efficient and easier, of getting the job done – the level road.
Fresh out of graduate school as Junior Science Librarian – yes, that was my title - at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, I thought we could automate our lending system.
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Caption. The IBM 029 Key Punch (heels required).
My bright idea was to use the manual checkout cards – the kind that were in the backs of library books - and, nightly, key in borrower’s information, the book’s number, and the due date onto 80 column IBM cards.
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Caption. Hollerith punched cards.
We’d sort these punched cards mechanically and produce printouts. So, we had an “automated” circulation system – sort of. The print out sat alongside the old check out card file and was rarely consulted. We had not saved anything through automation; rather I'd added more work to the system.** The circulation staff humored me - I was a lot cuter then (hah!) - especially the patient young woman who did all the keying of some 200 to 300 items every day. After a few weeks, her good humor began to wane. In my lust to automate she saw something I did not! Namely, that she was doing a lot of repeat work and that we got nothing from the effort, beyond a pile of useless print outs. One day she asked me point blank how the print out was superior to the old manual card file. I had to admit – with some chagrin – that maybe the dual files were not that great! We went back to the manual system.
*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
**This turned out to be an important lesson. Afterwards, whenever I was involved in automation I insisted that we not add work to the system and, that if automation required more people rather than fewer - as my colleagues frequently claimed - then I would want to know why. From my punched card debacle onward, I believed automation had to save time, money and staff, not the other way around.

Copyright John Lubans 2012

"I have begun to love the rain."

Posted by jlubans on October 10, 2012  •  Leave comment (2)

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Caption. Grits are NOT Grit!
The college admissions industry of high school counselors and admissions administrators is abuzz, we are told, with the concept of grit (not the hominy corn version pictured above) and using measures of grit to predict whether a prospective student has what it takes to stay the distance. The grit test may be the Holy Grail for predicting personal qualities not demonstrated by a perfect SAT score. Of course one might suggest that it is best to avoid (for multiple reasons) students who ace the SAT – but I digress. You can take the grit test yourself. “Be honest”, the test compilers beseech us, "there are no right or wrong answers!” I doubt if that generous perspective will hold amongst the admissions folks.
At this late point in my life, I scored a grittiness of 4.33 some degrees away from the extreme grittiness of 5.0. What’s your score?
As you can imagine, there is no consensus on the use of the test. Presumably, our colleges would want to admit mostly 4s & 5s. Would there be fallback institutions for the 1s, the “not at all gritty”? Quien sabe?
It all reminds me of my women’s basketball chapter in Leading from the Middle.
At season’s end I asked the team, “What’s been the difference-maker in this team’s growth? What’s caused the greatest improvement among the players?”
“Losing games” and “team unity”, they said. You see it’s not just having an adverse situation; more important is how you respond – that’s grit.
One player eloquently added:
“…there is a reason for rain. Sunny days are always desirable,
but if there were no rain I would have no basis for comparing sunny days. Sunny days are so much brighter after it has rained. I have begun to love the rain”.
The basketball team reference brings the notion of grit around to the concept of teamwork. I have always admired my gritty team members – when they used their grittiness to help others - and would want to include them on future teams. One does wonder, however, if the extremely gritty might not be best as solo performers, kind of like Andrew Summers Rowan who got his "letter to Garcia" through enemy lines.
One of the reasons I included, for several years, outdoor adventures in our staff development program was to introduce staff to a controlled adversity. More often than not those that volunteered to rock climb, trek overnight, or do a variety of “high ropes” found they were up to the challenge. They met it head on and overcame it. Some were surprised and most came away with raised confidence levels about taking on impossible challenges at work. Best of all, having faced adversity with other staff, they now had stronger relationships and perspectives of each other.
Speaking of grit, real grit, I can recommend the story of running star and war hero, Louis Zamperini, “Unbroken”. I am not sure there’s a high enough grit score for what Mr. Zamperini endured and survived.
Finishing on a culinary note, for those readers outside of the Southern United States, I can recommend highly this version of the classic dish, Shrimp ‘n Grits, especially for intaking on rainy days.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “HERACLES AND THE DRIVER*”

Posted by jlubans on October 05, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“An ox-driver was bringing his wagon from town and it fell into a steep ditch. The man should have pitched in and helped, but instead he stood there and did nothing, praying to Heracles, who was the only one of the gods whom he really honoured and revered. The god appeared to the man and said, 'Grab hold of the wheels and goad the oxen: pray to the gods only when you're making some effort on your own behalf; otherwise, your prayers are wasted!'”

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Caption: Lodewyk Toeput’s, Landscape with Heracles and the Ox-Driver, 1598. Full screen version here.
Akin to the proverbial “The Lord helps those who help themselves”, I, too, have seen wishful thinking (consider strategic planning) sometimes replace purposeful doing. Often, it seems – given the miniscule results - we do planning exercises since it beats working. Or, we may find ourselves paralyzed by a gargantuan project. I recall having to lead an effort not unlike our Hero’s cleaning out the Augean Stables. Where I worked had huge and historic backlogs; many believed these logjams were too large to deal with without more staff and time, as much as five years. I told the staff there would be no new staff and that we needed to start today to do something, indeed, anything! So, we broke the project down into monthly goals – reasonable and measurable – and then started doing. Not surprisingly, we exceeded the monthly goals and after a year and a half we’d mastered the backlog beast. A cause for celebrating – and we did – leavened a bit with the resentment exhibited by some of the people most responsible for the backlogs. (See Aesop’s “Fox and the Grapes” fable.)

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.

Altruism in Sports and Work

Posted by jlubans on October 03, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

A friend sent me the video link to an unusual occurrence of sportsmanship. It happened April 26, 2008 in a softball game – during a championship playoff series - between the universities of Western Oregon and Central Washington. Sara Tucholsky, of Western Oregon, smashed the ball out of the park, her first homer in a four-year collegiate career. With two runners on base, her blast scored two runs. Sara, once she rounded the bases, would be the third score against Central Washington. But, Sara in her excitement over-ran first base, then turned abruptly to go back to touch the base. She crumpled to the ground, a torn knee ligament, barely managing to crawl back to the base. Play stopped.
The coaches and umpires considered the alternatives and declared -erroneously - that if Sara stayed at first then her home run would become a two run single. No homer for Sara!
Her own teammates could not touch Sara or she would be disqualified.
Then Mallory Holtman, a star senior on the opposing team, asked the umpire: “Can we carry her around the bases?” The umpire scratched his head and said he saw nothing against it.
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Caption: Sara Tucholsky, of Western Oregon, scores a homer with help from the opposing Central Washington team!
In this parent-made video while-it-happened, you can see Western Oregon’s Sara being carried by Central Washington’s Mallory Holtman and her teammate, shortstop Liz Wallace.
When asked why she did this surprisingly altruistic act, Holtman declared: “She hit it over the fence,” … “She deserved it. Anybody would have done it. I just beat them to it.” She said she had been taught by her coach, Gary Frederick, that ‘winning is not everything’.”
Once the news got out, discussion touched on Holtman’s remarkable demonstration of the best kind of sportsmanship. Some saw this as limited to women’s sports, declaring that men would never do this. A few thought helping an opponent was wrong. They asked, "Are not sports a metaphor for evolution, the survival of the fittest, the devil take the hindmost? Isn’t life like NASCAR, “If you’re not cheatin’, you ain’t racin’!”
According to evolutionary biologists, it is our kindness towards each other that has helped us survive and evolve. There are atavistic throwbacks amongst us – you know some, I’m sure - but for most of us helping others (cooperating) has gotten us to where we are. We have a long way to go, but without our genuine instinct to help we’d still be battling Neanderthals.
One story that ties this softball game to the workplace – it’s always “more than a game” for me - is of a boss who befriended a homeless man and gave him an opportunity for a decent life. This simple altruism was not so simple. The job was in North Carolina and the homeless man was in Chicago. My boss did not let that get in his way. This surprising act of decency was admired by some and dis-liked by a few. “Why should this homeless man get special treatment?” asked the critics. “There are plenty of people right here that need help!” they harrumphed.
My boss was not to be denied. What he did was remarkable and clearly made a difference in the homeless man’s life and, just as importantly, it affected those of us who would be reluctant to help someone “down and out”. I learned from that boss’ courage and decency.
Speaking of courage and decency, I am reminded of LaVerne Thornton's guest column on Servant Leadership. His new book, "You Ain't No Moses", with more examples of helping others drawn from life and business is forthcoming.