“A Captain Since Kindergarten”, Part 2*

Posted by jlubans on July 16, 2017

Caption: Latvia’s Castle of Light A-building, July 2013. Photo by author.

For one sports writer, it is not the super stars but the captains – often not the best players - who create and sustain the greatest teams. Sam Walker, the author of “The Seven Leadership Secrets of Great Team Captains”, elaborates:
“(The teams) all had just one shared characteristic: Their long streaks of dominance either began or ended—and in many cases overlapped precisely—with the tenure of one player. And in every case, this player was … the captain.”
Boiled down, Walker’s captains exhibit these qualities:
Work hard,
Break rules when necessary,
Are pragmatic in speech,
Lead by doing,
Think for themselves,
Are relentless in pursuit of goals, and
Exercise emotional self-control.
How does this relate to Director Andris Vilks of the National Library of Latvia (LBN)?
Of course, the captaincy metaphor is inspired by Andris himself – that’s his quote in the title.
He told me: “I was not the best player, some were smarter, more knowledgeable. I liked to play; so (it was) important to be on field with other players, so I don’t want to be a coach. I want to be on the field and to play”
Being captain, “I took on responsibility for the team.” And that meant normalizing the team through “demonstrating your enthusiasm” to others. It takes an attitude, “I never like losing”, and “I never give up.”
Andris refers to the library as a team (of 400) of which he is the captain, “All (staff and friends) are members of this huge team - formal and informal.“
“A lion”
The building’s 20-year journey from inception to completion – all under Vilks’ guidance – reveals some of the best captain qualities; independent thinking, tenacity in pursuing a mission and a pragmatic approach in convincing others.
Mara Saule of the University of Vermont (USA), who consulted on the construction of the LBN, told me:
“Early on, the concept for a new National Library of Latvia building was little more than a grand idea …. In becoming a reality, it faced a skeptical public and political resistance over many years and through many changes in government. Nonetheless, Andris pushed on as a tireless and persistent warrior …. Thanks to Andris’ steadfast advocacy and relentless focus on the goal, the National Library now rises above the Daugava as a testament to the adage that no mountain is too high.”
At the building’s grand opening in August of 2014 - amidst Latvia’s elite, including the President and invited guests - the building’s architect Gunnar Birkerts termed Andris, a “lauva”, a lion!
Think for Self / Lead by Doing
In 1989, 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 secret police, was a common practice during Soviet times, widely feared 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 this was the period of “glasnost” and “perestroika” a time of frank and open discussion to restructure the Soviet Union.
Indeed, Latvia regained its second independence on August 21, 1991. Still there was risk; hard-core communists inside Latvia and Russia wanted to crush, literally, any national independence-seeking movements. Had the communists prevailed, Andris would have been fast-tracked to Siberia or worse after secret imprisonment, a Torquemada-style "interview", and a forced confession.
Now, many years later, 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.”
Rule Breaking / Team Building
In the transition in the 90s from communism to democracy, many people were forced by economic hard times to leave the library, to look for gainful employment elsewhere.
Andris had to make a choice as to how he was going to re-build: Try to recruit trained staff from other organizations or to “grow our own”. Andris opted for the latter, “to invest in young people, that is my idea.”
Doing so came with a price. “It was prohibited to pay study fees (for staff) – but we did it. (I was penalized) for paying fees for our young staff. Almost everyone (of this group) is still working here ….”
A staff member told me that the LBNs organizational climate is supportive of staff – in other words, Andris’ idea to “grow our own” prevails. There is “not close supervision, mistakes can be made, (and) experimentation is possible”. That open atmosphere has made LBN a magnet for people from other less-open organizations, “If you have a better way at LBN, do it. You can enact….”
“A grizzly”
I asked Andris how the staff regards him. He told me, frankly, “Only an idiot thinks he is ideal.”
“Sometimes I would be happy if I were more patient – my reaction is not always best. I become too angry, not a teddy bear, sometimes a grizzly.”
However, he is “very fast to forgive, but it (his temper) is a weakness; manager should always control behavior. On other hand they know exactly what I think.” His predecessor told him: ‘Everything is seen on your face’.“
However, for him, a poker face is worse than not showing emotion. A neutral face is only important when you “try to solve conflict between two people. Both sides should understand you want to help” resolve the matter (and do not have preconceived opinions).
The most difficult situation for a leader is when his or her assessment is “very different from what your people think of you – then you are in trouble.”
Andris also ventured that he hopes, when asked, the staff would say that one of his qualities is that of “bringing together”.
“No one is hung”
Andris explained how LBN decisions are made. Decision-making is an important part of what he does, “All day I am spending in decision making.”
“A basic rule, always get the other side of discussion.”
“Consensus in important”; normally the most difficult decisions are made by top management. However, he always asks – “Who will it touch?” and those people are consulted about the decision prior to its being made. “Decisions should involve those who must execute the decision.” Failing to involve those people may lead to a poor outcome. Involving people can be the difference between leadership and dictatorship.
“I like horizontal decision-making – so am sure to include several departments (on problem solving groups”.
“If policy is already clear, then lower levels can make decisions”.
“No one is hung” for making a bad decision.
“Punishment is not the main idea”; “I am more concerned with a bad decision being repeated”; only then we might need to take corrective action.
“We analyze the decision; right or wrong. The decision may not be wrong, it may be different.”
“We should realize and analyze wrong decisions carefully; there may be another rationale and I may need to rethink.”
“I need to understand if the decision is conceptually different or if the wrong approach has been taken or the decision maker lacks confidence.
“Sometimes a “wrong” decision reflects a different – perhaps better - concept and we can accept it.”
He tries to convince managers that “humans are not robots, they may not behave always the way you think or do or want.”

Author’s note: I asked Andris to read a final draft of this essay. Prior to posting, I wanted to make sure I had not misinterpreted his answers to my questions. Not hearing from him after a few days, I asked him over lunch if he'd read the draft and did I need to make any changes? His response, with a touch of embarrassment: “Too many superlatives.”
I would add that Self-effacement is yet another’s best captain’s trait.
While multi-lingual, Andris is most comfortable speaking in Latvian; so my abbreviated English quotes (from my written notes) are but an attempt to epitomize his way of leading.
My personal takeaway is that Andris cares deeply about the individual. If someone strays from the organization’s path, I think Andris would tackle the perceived problem early on, face to face, and not delay or avoid. As he told me, the “best way (is) to just talk with someone.”
He would candidly explain to the person what he was observing and then listen to the individual’s response. I can well imagine a discussion - not a condemnation - leading to a mutually respectful and considerate resolution.

Next, Part 3: After attaining the pinnacle of the new library building, is the job done?

* My essay on Andris Vilks is in three phases: Formation, Application, and Future.
Part 1 was about the shaping of his leadership and focused on influences from childhood to the beginning of his career.
Today’s essay, part 2, is about how those early influences shape his actions and leadership.
**Background: Latvia was made into a Soviet satellite under a secret Nazi and Communist agreement 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.

N.B. My next book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in September 2017 as an e-book ($2.99) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($23.99). The print book will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.
ISBN: 978-0-692-90955-3
LCCN: 2017908783
Cover: "Fables for Leaders" PRE-PRINT, 203pp. 2017.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

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