Changing the culture, Pt. 2

Posted by jlubans on May 23, 2016

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Caption: KGB Interrogation desk, “House on the Corner”*, Riga, Latvia.

As promised in the “Shining the Boss’s Shoes” blog about changing an organization’s culture, this vignette comes from my recent interviews with Andris Vilks, the director of the National Library of Latvia. It relates how as a young, newly appointed director – under Communist rule – he took steps to change the predominant culture of secrecy and fear at his institution.
While relating to me the influences on his way of leadership, he recalled an incident from his school days. It was 1968, a time when one had to be careful with saying anything other than what was expected of all good citizens of the Soviet Union*.
Andris’ teacher asked the class for the date when Latvia became free. Andris responded, much to the chagrin, I’d imagine, of the teacher, “November 18, 1918” - the date of the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, its first true Independence.
What he was supposed to parrot was: “November 7: Long Live the Soviet Union, Fortress of Peace and Nations Fraternity!”
Subsequently, he was informed upon by one of his classmates and was hauled up before a board and castigated, just short of expulsion.
“From that moment,” Andris told me, “I was against the Soviet Union and I began a passive resistance to the Soviet way.” While an adolescent, he understood very clearly what had been done to him; dissent – in any form and at any time – was a punishable offense.
Years later, when he was promoted to the directorship of the National Library Andris was aware of the ten or more “informers” – his word - in the library. Informing, including to the KGB, was a common practice during Soviet times, widely accepted, and expected. Informers received intangible and tangible rewards from the ruling/enforcing culture.
So, on his first day as director he told each of the ten to never come to him with gossip or “information”. This action made clear to everyone this practice was over and done with; it was not going to continue under his leadership.
He was able to do this, he believes, because by 1989 he was well respected (protected) in many quarters for his knowledge and work in the profession; and, because these were the last days of the Soviet Union. Latvia regained its second independence on August 21, 1991. Still there was risk; hard-core communists inside Latvia and Russia wanted to crush the independence-seeking rebels. Had the communists prevailed, Andris would have been fast-tracked to Siberia or worse, after a KGB "interview" and secret imprisonment.
Now, many years later, after bringing about the splendid, iconic national library building (the “Castle of Light”) on the banks of Riga’s Daugava River, he still avoids the “whisperers” and people trying to share a secret. “If I feel a negative vibration (at work), I talk directly with the people involved - I do not go around collecting opinions from people - If something is wrong I try to intervene directly or delegate to the person in charge of the involved unit.”
Are you that kind of leader/follower? Someone who “walks his talk” and does not succumb to the easy temptations of office politics? If more organizations adopted Andris’ values of genuine transparency and direct action, the workplace would be far better for it.

*Background: Latvia was made into a Soviet satellite by a secret agreement between the Nazis and the Communists prior to WWII. Inexplicably, the Yalta conference, with America’s ailing President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, England’s Winston Churchill and Russia’s Joseph Stalin, upheld this secret pact and continued the enslavement of several million people in the Baltic countries, not to mention other nations subordinated to the communist way.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

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