Labas rytas! "Wearing Holes in Borrowed Shoes!"

Posted by jlubans on December 05, 2011

This is the text of my talk from my December 2, 2011 talk in Vilnius Lithuania*.

Labas rytas! (Good morning!)
My talk today is largely based on my new book, Leading from the Middle.
1. Meaning
2. Experience
3. Implications.

I have added a country western song as a sub-title: "I Borrowed the Shoes But the Holes Are Mine." The sub title recognizes what others have done in thinking about the democratic workplace and that I am building upon those ideas. Yet, I am putting my own holes in those borrowed shoes!
You get the idea?
1. What is the Meaning of Leading from the Middle?
My book promotes a democratic, empowered work place. I argue in the book that the best work places give staff the freedom to achieve their full potential. The less command and control, the better. The book also reveals how I lead, how I manage, so it is not all theory. Please do not think that I am advocating anarchy, however interesting it might be to find out how an anarchous library would function.

Frankly, there was some resistance to publishing the book, but what bothers me most is our superficial thinking about good leadership, about being productive, and about managing for best outcomes. It seems like none of this is especially important to us and that good leadership is something that happens somehow without our having to think too much about it. Leadership comes with the title on the door! Right? Where does bad leadership come from? How do bad followers come about? Good followers? Most of us know a few good and many bad leaders. What sets them apart? Is it really all happenstance?

I think the democratic work place – the one espoused in the book – appeals especially to the younger, newer professional. Our new librarians – the best ones in my classes in the US and in Riga - are demanding a say, they yearn for something more. Will we – today’s leaders – give them what they want?

I’d like to talk about my U of L class and how it learned to self-lead. My model for the class was that of a student orchestra learning how to play without a conductor modeled after the conductor-less Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. I have studied this self-managing group for over a decade and continue to marvel at their accomplished playing. Here is a picture. What or who is missing?
INSERT Carnegie Hall pics

My University of Latvia students responded very well. Not only did they excel at three team projects they also made connections between theory and practice, linking lessons and concepts learned in group activities to lectures and readings and to their own experience.
We know the hierarchy prevails in Latvian culture, as it does in the USA and I believe it does in Lithuania. I expect these students when given leadership opportunities will modify work place cultures toward the more democratic and less bureaucratic.
At the end of the class the students told me what worked and what did not: Self-management in a group is no easy task. While pleased with the results, many issues (storming) had to be resolved before the groups could produce an end product, one that met a minimum standard of acceptance.
More than once each group wished for the intervention of a strong leader – deus ex machina- like - to take over decision making, to tell them what to do. Informal leaders did appear and they made a difference.
I asked: Are effective teams more productive than the boss led variety? The answer: It depends.
A quintessential lesson from my students - I did not fully appreciate this until a recent panel presentation by three of my students ( from left, Edite Maliseva, Inara Kindzule, Aija Uzula)
(Insert picture from panel)
at my November 30 Riga workshop: Assign or have groups clearly spell out, early on, individual roles and expectations, including leadership, very much like the concert master that takes responsibility for each piece of music performed by Orpheus.
2. Now, I’d like to talk about the Experience
I have empirical evidence that empowerment, when done in a genuine and supportive way does result in a more creative and productive work place than does the hierarchy. I have seen it happen, I have been involved with it.
Still teamwork is not for everyone. Some of my library groups were unhappy with empowerment and were passive about sharing power.
Real empowerment works. Not just in libraries: in business and in music and there is much research to support the notion of freeing up people to do their best, to be all they can be.
Is Teamwork natural?
Well, apparently so: Harvard biologist Edward O. Wilson was quoted in the, April 17, 2011 issue of the Boston Globe:
“Under certain circumstances, groups of cooperators can out-compete groups of non-cooperators, thereby ensuring that their genes — including the ones that predispose them to cooperation — are handed down to future generations….
(This) is what forms the evolutionary basis for a variety of advanced social behaviors linked to altruism, teamwork, and tribalism.”
(Centuries before, Adam Smith wrote about man’s inherent altruism; now even some Darwinists appear to accept his idea that people like helping others simply for the pleasure derived from their kindness.)

And, the honeybee has much to teach us about collaboration in the workplace. Bees are leaderless – despite popular belief, the queen has no executive role. How then does a swarm of 10,000 bees survive?
How does the swarm select a new home from dozens of options?
How do the bees choose the one best site with an accuracy rate of 80%?
The recent book, Honeybee Democracy – Medus bite Demokratija - offers a fascinating look at democracy in the world of the honeybee.
Scout bees, when home hunting:
1. Identify a diverse set of options,
2. Freely share the information about these options,
3. Aggregate this information to choose the best option.
“Remarkably the scout bees do all these things without working under the guidance of a leader.”
3. So, what are the Implications of the concept of leading from the middle?
Leading from the middle creates new expectations among students and I was obliged to try different ways of teaching, e.g. I used children’s books and other activities
to make points about effective followers, about least likely followers, about resourcefulness, and about attitude.
Likewise, different power dynamics come into play for leaders and followers. Leaders in an empowered organization need people skills (and a strong sense of self value and confidence) to get the most from library staff, to enable staff to reach high levels of achievement.
It’s easy to talk about empowereing staff but much harder to carry out. It can be difficult to turn people loose for real. What happens? What does it mean for a manager, for a leader? When the group takes off – when the orchestra is “unleashed” what happens to the conductor? When I did it, my traditional supervisory leader role changed. It changes vastly for the better in my eyes, but it can be scary and can make a leader vulnerable, something I personally discovered. When followers become leaders, that raises questions about our leadership role and necessity as leaders and managers. Do we have a job? Of course we do. We learn to lead more and manage less.
I have a challenge for you. Be more bee-like!
Thank you!

*NOTE: "Leading from the Middle: ‘I Borrowed the Shoes But the Holes Are Mine’”
was Presented December 2, 2011 at Vilnius University, Vilnius, Lithuania at the conference, "Library science and practice: yesterday and tomorrow", the 80th anniversary of the Lithuanian Society of Librarians.

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