Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Monkey and the Camel”*

Posted by jlubans on September 11, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Cool Camel, with sax.

“THE BEASTS of the forest gave a splendid entertainment at which the Monkey stood up and danced. Having vastly delighted the assembly, he sat down amidst universal applause. The Camel, envious of the praises bestowed on the Monkey and desiring to divert to himself the favor of the guests, proposed to stand up in his turn and dance for their amusement. He moved about in so utterly ridiculous a manner that the Beasts, in a fit of indignation, set upon him with clubs and drove him out of the assembly.
It is absurd to ape our betters.”

Smokin’ Joe, depicted, begs to differ. Is there a cooler creature than Joe? Not only does he dance, he plays a mean sax. I’ve met a few in my career. Have you?
My Joes all had kissed the Blarney Stone, so to speak, and could talk a convincing blue streak as to why we should or should not do something. Like so many pols, it was all smoke blown and promises uttered for the incumbent (pol or bureaucrat) to stay in office. Accidentally, Joe might get something done but that was never his/her first intent. Indeed, getting something done – i.e. real work - was to be avoided because in real work is real risk.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

© John Lubans 2015


Posted by jlubans on September 22, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

I’ve written about “real work.” “Un-work”, like the un-Cola, continues my thinking about what makes for real work. Is not all work equal? If not, what is real work?

Levi’s, the jeans maker, proclaims “Real People + Real Work = Real Change.” Well, while Levi’s® Work Wear Collection (“the finest denim fabrics, brass laurel shanks, genuine leather patches and functional waist back cinches”) may make the man, it is the man (or woman) who does the work, real or not.
Levi’s is partnering with the blighted town of Braddock, Pennsylvania to show off its new denim line.
If Levi’s advertising can help Braddock and its social justice mayor, John Fetterman, get some real work done, good for them.

In the meantime, “Let’s get back to work!”
My book, Leading from the Middle, is about the democratic workplace; an underlying theme flows through most pages: when people have freedom to take responsibility for their work, their work becomes meaningful and the product improves.
Yet, I can think of lots of un-work. For example, in the book, I highlight our counter-productive tendency to want to revise other people’s work. Here are a couple more recent examples:
I had to get permission from a government agency. There was, of course, paper work. The young, university-educated bureaucrat reviewed my twenty-page application boldly stamping and emphatically initialing every page! His agency says it is understaffed. It is, of course. I wonder who makes sure my young bureaucrat follows the drill?

Another example: I was one of a dozen people in a professional association who volunteered twice a year from 6-9 hours of sitzfleisch – butt to chair - for what began to feel a lot like rubber stamping proposed programs for the association’s next meeting. While appointed for two years, I must admit I only lasted a year, once I realized we were a “quality control” group that made sure forms were filled out as required. We did not develop or suggest programs; we reviewed the program paper work – essentially we were passport control. If you did not have the papework, the visa, no entry, regardless of merit. We were avuncular and encouraging but a good staffer could have reviewed the paperwork in three hours rather than our 72 – 108 hours!
You get some idea (see the picture) what I think un-work (UW) is.
Here is my brainstorm list of Real Work (RW) qualities I have experienced (Suggestion: Ask your colleagues what’s on their RW list.)
- I have a fundamental liking for the job (RW is my reward after doing the mandatory UW;
- The clock recedes; time becomes less important;
- RW is not easy; it is difficult but doable;
- It is “rewarding” in itself, I feel creative;
- RW offers the likelihood of recognition for a job well done;
- RW may result in failure –there’s a risk, an edge to RW that excites;
- I make a sincere effort in RW – half-ass does not cut it, “good enough” is not good enough.
- RW becomes selfless,
- Someone else benefits from RW more than I do, the job has meaning!
- RW abhors forms and paper work,
- RW is doing;
- RW is the opposite of idleness;
- RW is not about the money.

My list reminds me of Csíkszentmihályi’s “flow” theory.
Here are some flow features not on my list.
We experience a:
- high degree of concentration (focus);
- loss of self-awareness, we become “lost” in what we are doing. (We may get tired and hungry and not be greatly aware of it.);
- direct and immediate feedback & we adjust to the feedback;
- joyfulness in what we are doing, work becomes play.

Real Work

Posted by jlubans on July 27, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

One contributing factor of the financial meltdown, including the Madoff fraud, was the seeming hapless laxity of the Securities and Exchange Commission – the government agency set up to monitor and control the bad guys. The media has set forth lots of reasons why a large regulatory agency could miss what was happening. They of course do not mention their (the business media’s) cluelessness!

What rang a bell for me was reading the report that some - over 30 - SEC staff were staring at pornographic web sites, sometimes for as much as eight hours per day.

This took me back to the time when one of my professors gave our Systems Analysis class a tour of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance, not unlike this stock image from the 1950s
. 20100824-state office.jpg
He took us into a cavernous space with hundreds of desks in perfect rows, as far as the eye could see - an all too real caricature of a bureaucracy. I noticed (unlike this photo) that most of the seated workers were reading books. From a librarian’s perspective, that was great! From a taxpayer’s, less so. When I inquired about this, our professor said that the staff was reading books because it was past tax season. They had no real work to do.

At my Fulbright orientation in Washington DC last week, one of my fellow scholars told me about his experience while working in a state census bureau. There it was understood, when things were slow, you would invent work, and you would pretend to be busy. While they were indeed busy at times, there were long spells of nothing. Why these workers could not be moved to other areas in need of assistance was a taboo topic, according to my colleague. That we spoke about this in a city as if invented to demonstrate Parkinson’s Law made the discussion all that more poignant.

I believe that these workers’ behavior points to what is wrong with many bureaucracies or with any rigid and nonporous organization where staff are prohibited by management and union policy from helping out in other units or departments.

People want real work to do, meaningful work. When wasting one’s day is seen as normal the staff and the supervisors’ behavior becomes pathological - a Kafkaesque reality: "We'll pretend to lead while you pretend to work."

Leaders at all levels could make a huge difference by facilitating and protecting managers and staff who want to collaborate with other agencies, who want to help out where needs are greater. There should be flexibility in every organization to assure every individual has real work to do.

A Conceptual Companion?

Posted by jlubans on October 17, 2010  •  Leave comment (1)

My book, Leading from the Middle, may soon have a conceptual "companion". While not formally related to LfM, a proposed compilation, entitled Managing in the Middle, is taking shape. This self-designated "grab and go” volume, edited by Robert Farrell and Kenneth Schlesinger, will be all about what it is like managing at the center of the library organization, the locus where real work gets done. Their deadline for contributions is November 1, 2010. Contact them at:

Friday Fable: La Fontaine’s “THE (HOUSE) OF SOCRATES.”*

Posted by jlubans on May 24, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20130524-small house for Soc.jpeg
Caption: Reminiscent of Diogenes abode** this house might have appealed to Socrates.

“A house was built by Socrates
That failed the public taste to please.
Some blamed the inside; some, the out; and all
Agreed that the apartments were too small.
Such rooms for him, the greatest sage of Greece!
'I ask,' said he, 'no greater bliss
Than real friends to fill e'en this.'
And reason had good Socrates
To think his house too large for these.
A crowd to be your friends will claim,
Till some unhandsome test you bring.
There's nothing plentier than the name;
There's nothing rarer than the thing.”

No fool celebrity, Socrates knew about the scarcity and evanescence of true friendship. He built his house for his few “real” friends.
And so it goes at work. If all of our friends are from work, then our retirement may well be a lonely one. A few of those friendships do survive, but most do not. Maintaining relationships is a struggle, to be sure. Once absent, the heart may not grow fonder; instead it may grow forgetful.
And that works both ways. Like my retired university friend responded when I asked him why he had moved to a distant retirement community instead of living in the one preferred by his university colleagues: “I had to work with those bastards for forty years!”

*Source: THE FABLES OF LA FONTAINE Translated From The French by Elizur Wright. [original place and date: Boston, U.S.A., 1841.] A New Edition, with Notes by J. W. M. Gibbs,1882.

20130524-LaFontaine HouseDiogenes.jpeg
**Caption: Diongenes who lived in a barrel, is the butt of a practical joke by Max und Moritz (Katzenjammer). The joke backfires, flattening the two mischief makers.

Friday Fable. Lubans’ “Fable of the Ruined Life”

Posted by jlubans on June 24, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)


Once upon a time a woman built a beautiful home on a forested lot. She was proud of it, especially the view from her windows that looked down a gently sloping arboreal hillside, much of it on the adjoining unbuilt lot.
It belonged to someone, who, because of a Crookedness in the system, had kept the lot as an investment rather than building on it per the property rules. More than a few earnest buyers of that lot were chagrined when their offers were spurned.
Of course, the woman with the beautiful view did not complain. For two decades, she just enjoyed the view.
Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end. A real estate boom convinced the holdout owner to sell.
And soon the bulldozers and chain saws were tearing down trees and digging a foundation that ran from one end of the lot to the other. Each day the obscuring walls crept up and up until the view was no more. The anguished neighbor wailed to one and all, “My life is ruined!”
Yes, the new mega mansion ruined her view. But is there not more to a life than a view? Perhaps it was hyperbole on her part.
Moral: Like some realtors forewarn would-be-buyers of mountain homes, “You can’t buy the view.

And so it can be in real life at home and at work. Does our happiness come from outside ourselves or from inside? Where does one’s motivation come from? External or internal? Here’s a telling quote: "The local high school … wasn't of particularly high quality, and I was not intellectually stimulated or motivated there. In fact, I became disinterested, started skipping class and feigning illness to avoid going to school."
Note where the responsibility for stimulation and motivation lies.
As a blogger under the long, long, long tail of the blogosphere, I need to have a better reason for writing than hoping for a large number of clicks to my blog. Indeed, I derive an inner satisfaction from this very personal act called writing. Yes, recognition is very nice, but there have to be other motivators for why one tries to do a good job; it can’t only be because you want a large number of “likes” on Facebook.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Which is incompetent, the job or the boss?

Posted by jlubans on July 22, 2011  •  Leave comment (2)

I've been re-reading an item "Why your boss is incompetent" published in the New Scientist a few years back. It's a re-telling of the 1969 Peter Principle, which holds that each of us will eventually rise to our unique level of incompetence. Many of us knows this is anecdotally true, certainly as it may apply to others! Mark Buchanan, the New Scientist writer, reviews some of the subsequent research and offers this:
“The longer a person stays at a particular level in an organisation, the more most measures of their performance fall - including subjective evaluations and the frequency and size of pay rises and bonuses. It is a finding entirely consistent with the idea that people eventually become bogged down by their own incompetence.”

I don’t agree totally with the notion that each of us will become feckless because of an innate failing. Perhaps we underestimate how the stultifying aspects of administrative work can enervate us, can make us appear incompetent. I’d like to suggest that the job itself might be what contributes to the boss’ seeming incompetence. In my own career as an upper administrator of medium sized organizations (usually with a dozen or more direct reports and other duties) I shuffled through and signed off on hundreds of time sheets, hundreds of multi-page performance appraisals, hundreds of budget requests and reimbursements and hundreds of hiring and promotion recommendations.
I (my position) was the required signature before the paperwork could go further. I had become part of the overhead, an extension of the rules and regs.
Much of the time I had little certainty if the documents demanding my signature were true or not. I would ask now and then, but for the most part I worked on trust.
One thing I noticed among some of my peers in other organizations was that they became masters of detail; it was as if signing off on the paperwork was indeed legitimate work – one could hold up paper work and take several days to explore and make sure. Delay seemed to make the information more credible. (I only wanted the stuff off my desk!)
This mastery of detail carried over into my peers planning and agenda setting for their “real work” responsibilities. They seemed to relish making the proverbial mountain out of an administrative molehill.

Besides the mundane duties, there are new relationships when you no longer work side by side with your team. In less complicated days you could lead by being part of the action, now, rather than doing, you find yourself encouraging and persuading sometimes reluctant staff to participate, share, create, and work together. If you are overseeing multiple and diverse units, these may include people who have little interest in helping each other. What really matters is maintaining the status quo and their turf. So, the effort of getting the uncooperative on board uses up energy and, lacking a détente, can result in all too little accomplished.

I also convened hundreds of individual and group meetings. Some of these were interesting and exhilarating – I was engaged and so were the people with whom I was working. Most meetings, especially after the first few years of good progress, were not as satisfying. We ground to a halt, meetings became pro forma. Where did the excitement go? Were we all now putting in our time, watching the clock? Were we meeting mainly for the coffee and donuts?
The smart staff members, with real work to do, endured – they sat silently during the required meetings thinking about their real work and the satisfaction and recognition it provided. That’s part of the incompetence puzzle. When we supervise, we tend to give up much of the work we enjoy doing, the work that has real purpose and value.
Well, how does one cope with this loss of real work? How do we create supervisory level jobs that have more meaning and less enforcement of the policy and procedures manual?
For me, my research and writing (and teaching) became increasingly important as I progressed from department head to assistant director to associate director. And, just as I gained job satisfaction and recognition from writing about my research, societal work also helped me maintain some balance. These external activities helped me be a better manager and leader in my eyes.
Here are some other ideas on how to get around the routine and how to make sure that bright performer, when promoted, continues to sparkle.
- Loosen up the administrative reins; let people have their turn at the paper work, at administrative tasks and at leading necessary meetings
- Give more authority to the person making the recommendation - trust them.
- Eliminate forms that require multiple signatures.
- Include real work in every person’s job description. Second-guessing, reviewing and double-checking are not real work.
- Of course, flatten the organization. The fewer layers, the fewer signatures, the less time, opportunity and inclination for reviewing others’ work,
- Eliminate all non-action agenda items in meetings.
- Managers and staff at all levels reflect regularly on the direction of the organization. Talk about where we are, where we have been and where we need to be. Discuss the future. What can we do better?

So, I think the job can make us look more incompetent than we really are. Not to get too carried away, I know that what I believe is incompetent behavior may be regarded as good stewardship of an organization’s resources, as an essential enforcing the rules and regs so that things do not get out of hand, so that the organization does not flounder.

“Let’s get serious! Not!”

Posted by jlubans on November 09, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Will Rogers (atop the bull): “Do the best you can, and don't take life too serious.”

How serious are you?* Answer this question:
“If a police officer arrests a mime, should she say he has the right to remain silent?”
a. A stupid question deserves a stupid answer.
b. Stale
c. Kind of funny
d. Hilarious

If you answered a or d, I’d be worried about your seriousness index.
So, what’s brought on my Seriousness fixation? An art house movie, The Driving Lesson. An alleged romantic comedy about New Yorkers and their personal issues, there was the usual marriage break-up; the straying husband and the successful literary wife now left to struggle for independence. The film had some comedic moments but for the most part it was a self-parody – unintended – of affluent New Yorkers all behaving super seriously - with one notable exception – like the denizens of an Upper West Side TV sitcom.
I came away bemused and wondering if less seriousness and more levity might not have made it a better movie.
What about being too serious at work?
My low seriousness index probably did not always serve me well. Even when outcomes went quite well, there was always the insinuation by some that I did not really know what I was doing; that I was more of a fool than I appeared.
When asked about his irreverent way of leading, Southwest Airlines CEO Herb Kelleher called it “management by fooling around”. He explained, “by that I mean taking our jobs seriously, but not ourselves.”
That philosophy is incorporated in SWAs statement of values for cultivating a fun loving
Have fun
Don’t take yourself too seriously
Maintain perspective (balance)
It may be that this permission to enjoy work and to maintain equilibrium between the office and the job is why SWA is the only American airline never to have a losing year. Most other airlines – no doubt very serious at every level - have difficulty competing with SWA. Those that do complete tend to eschew, like SWA, excessive seriousness.
Besides a lack of humor about your importance to the organization, there’s a tendency among the serious to engage in non-work.
What’s non-work? It’s a busyness, which superficially looks like something is happening, but actually you are adding zero to the bottom line or to the output of your team or department. Being so busy leaves you no time or energy to think about what you are doing or to reflect on improving.
Real work adds value, it improves something, and it validates a process. You set aside time routinely to think about what you do and why you are doing it and what you can do to improve.
Want examples of non-work?
Not so long ago, I served, in my professional association, on a program committee. There were a dozen of us. We’d closet ourselves in a windowless meeting room and review, at each annual conference, the proposed programs for the next year.
For 10 hours, strung out over three days, we’d review the stack of applications, page by page, largely making sure that all the blanks were filled in – I never saw a single program proposal rejected by the committee. Nor did this group ever come up with a program idea. That’s 120 hours of very busy non-work. I only lasted through the first year of my two-year appointment.
Similarly, non-work is afoot when you are the third signature on a four signature form (when one signature would suffice).
Or, worse, non-work thrives when an organization insists on supervisors reviewing everyone’s work, even when a person consistently achieves a 99% accuracy rate and the 1% error has a negligible effect on the quality of the product. Those supervisors proudly pin on their “Master Jobsworth” badges and assure you, if you have the temerity to ask, that the review is essential and any steps taken to stop it would jeopardize the quality of the unit’s output. They give no thought to the time that could be gained for real work.
And, let's not forget that annual orgy of seriousness and non-work: performance appraisal!
So, if you find yourself overly serious at work, reflect on why. Is it more non-work than real work? If the former, then take Will Rogers' advice and figure out what can you do to trade out the non-work for real work?

*One of the questions found in Charles C Manz’s essay, “Let’s Get Serious! . . . Really?” Journal of Management Inquiry July 2014 23: 339-342.

© John Lubans 2015

Teaching the Democratic Workplace: Student Comments

Posted by jlubans on April 10, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: After the 90 minute final exam the class reconvened for the Egg Drop activity and the Plus/Delta. Here one team explains why its design is the best. Their egg did survive the launch from a “perilous height” – for about ten minutes until stress fractures became apparent.

My students did an anonymous plus/delta on the last day of class (Day 8 on April 4). Overall, the written comments were positive. Many are brief paragraphs on what they are taking away from this class and what they liked. I am heartened and encouraged by the feedback. Here are a couple brief, unedited, examples. (Please bear in mind English is a second or third language for these students):
“Group discussions; learning many new things and having fun at the same time; many examples from real life; different sources (books, articles, film); B2E. (Books2Eat)”

“I liked the reading texts; one reading text would be useful for my Master work; excellent lecturers; thank you for wonderful time, what we spend together! John Lubans blog; nice pictures from the class exercises; new experience.”

DELTAS (What to improve):
There are several deltas but often these are more about the student’s role in discussion than the course’s content and rationale. Regardless, the students have given me many insights. Below are several that have me thinking already!

Little less home reading.

More examples about libraries.
Discussions in class (not so active of asking of questions)

I would like to work in such democratic library. I would like to try more my library (my workplace) democratic. It depends on people, who will work with me. Democracy would have to be everybody’s necessity, if they want to work in democratic library.

Some more reading texts was hard to understand because in English. We (students) could be more active in class (discussion).

Maybe more theory (from HR or psychology perspective).

It would be nice for the future, one lecture devoted to library experience abroad and in Latvia. It would be very interesting to compare.

I think the group was a little bit passive (no discussion after basketball film); amount of text-some weeks it was OK, some weeks we had to read too much = 80 pages; more reading from your book, it was very interesting.

Sharing ideas and listening to other people are very useful skills. I should train the skill to speak aloud. I noticed that after these classes I do it much (more) often.

Maybe was need some example about how work? How he manage his work members.

We were too passive and didn’t use all possible options to discuss matters we should discuss; some issues are possible only theoretically … there should be more time devoted to ways how to manage changes to happen; I’d like if there were more role games for real situations to find better solutions….

There are no changes only plusses. Only – for exam. It was too difficult.
Only it is sad that there are not many workplaces, where we can find a real democratic workplaces. It would be very, very good, if Latvia’s workplaces would be so democratic, how this interesting course.

The are no deltas -; some texts were very difficult, I did not understand them; the film about basketball I like it, but there is one But: I don’t like basketball. But the film was very good! I like very much the basketball coach. (This could have been Gail Goestenkors or the Coach Gene Hackman played in Hoosiers.)

The students’ and my wish for more democratic workplaces in libraries is, of course, beyond our control. I will try to make more use of the annual list produced by the World Blu “Freedom at Work” organization: You can find its 2013 List of Democratic Workplaces here.
And, I will build on my recent blog about the scarcity of libraries as democratic examples by being more diligent in finding and listing those libraries that are applying democratic concepts. For example, libraries that make extensive use of teams should be mentioned. So would those that make use of rotating leaders. And, I’d count those that have a commitment to being egalitarian and applying the Golden Rule to relationships. While outcomes are important, I think good faith democratic efforts and experiments should be recognized.
If you know of a notable one, please let me know.


Posted by jlubans on September 11, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

This November I dust off my "Attitudes" workshop for a full day session in Atlanta. Whenever I do this workshop, I wonder if the people that are participating have been "sent" - sent in like their boss has told them in a most discreet way, of course, they need to turn around their BAD 'tude. Of course, anyone "sent" knows the score. The thought of all those grim faces gives me pause, sort of like a Christian about to be served up as an appetizer to the lions at the Coliseum.

But, my real reason for posting is to share this charming and highly evocative ad from Southwest Airlines - the book has two chapters on teams at SWA. The flight attendant's bonhomie and posture remind me, inexplicably at the moment, of paintings by Hals, Rubens, or Vermeer. I have not yet found the painting that's in my mind's eye (a laughing woman, in a yellow blouse, head tipped back) but I feel confident it is out there. Help me please if you have an idea. (N.B. I am using this ad with SWA's permission, September 8, 2011. The person pictured is a flight attendant at SWA.)
20100911-Tude SWA medium.jpg

Conversations That Never Were.

Posted by jlubans on November 30, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


I usually have a “What I Would Do Differently” moment when I think about my leaderships vis a vis what I have learned since leaving the 9-5 world.
Now, I could do a Willy Nelson, that dear reprobate, and come out with, “No Regrets”, but it’s not that easy for me.
I’ve got some second thoughts, some regrets. Instead of Willy, give me Jo Dee Messina’s “A Lesson in Leavin’”, those painful learnings that only come to us upon reflection from experience.
Not too long ago, the WSJ had a piece on employee retention.
The author, John Sullivan, a management professor, offers up a formula for keeping the best staff. He terms it a “stay interview”, “a one-on-one conversation that’s scheduled every 6–12 months when there are no current emotional retention issues.”
It’s a planned intervention before a crucial employee decides to leave for greener pastures. Note well, this conversation is not about the boss – at least not overtly – it’s all about the employee: her value to the organization or his contribution to the smooth running of the shop. No platitudes or bromides, please. A valued employee deserves well-considered praise and critical insights from you, the team leader. Then, ask about what the star staffer needs in order to keep doing what he or she is doing so well. The boss’s job is to listen and to offer real support. Always keep in mind that this conversation is meant to retain the outstanding performer.
When I read Sullivan’s piece, I thought about all the conversations, real ones, that I never had with some very good people – I called them organizational “spark plugs” – the folks who made things happen and inspired others. I assumed they understood – tacitly - how they were doing and that I appreciated them, so I did not need to do anything special about it. Wrong.
I’d now spend far more time thinking about what the employee is doing and registering to them not only my approval but also how they make a difference; how they stood out from the mundane, the day to day.
And, importantly, I’d want to hear what was most on their minds, job-wise; What do they want to do more of and what do they want to do less off? And, what about me? Should I be more available, what can I do less of, more of?
One thing Sullivan does not mention is preparing the employee for this conversation. I’d do so by clarifying in my verbal invitation what we’ll be talking about and what questions I'll want to raise. No need to have this serious and real talk without some forethought.
OK, OK. You might agree but then you are one busy person. “How could I possibly find the time?” Easy. Trade those wasted hours of performance appraisal, that annual paper shuffling ritual, for this real conversation.
End the conversation with a plan that addresses the issues raised. You’ll fix what you can fix and the employee will know you support them – you know what they are doing - and you have their back.
I’ve been fired a few times (not counting the several times I deservedly got the boot when I worked in construction for my father!). First was when I was a clueless bus boy in a cafeteria, then for insubordinate behavior - once again as a bus boy! - at the elegant Hershey Hotel, and much later when I was an administrator. When I got the ax at the latter, I told the boss showing me the door it was the first time we’d had any kind of serious conversation. That did bring to mind a passable country western song: “The only time you looked me in the eye was to let me go.”
Avoid being that kind of sorry boss.
Why this departure (the last paragraph) from the happy task of praising star performers to the shabby dismissal of alleged underperformersl? Because, as a good leader you do not avoid counseling the errant employee; you guide and advise in an imaginative, constructive way and the best leader sometimes even changes her mind.
Caption: Too many conversations go like this. (Oil by Zack Zdrale,1977)

Off topic, maybe, but here’s a link to my comfort foody article, “”, on an unlikely source for Latvia’s traditional potato pancakes. Please note that only the first two pages will come up. Be sure to click on the “OPEN ARTICLE” tab and scroll down to get to all of the pages, photos, recipes & notes.
Speaking of the Riga airport, I’ll be returning in mid February 2016 to teach my 8-week Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia. This will be my fifth time doing so! Only in Latvia.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
University of Victoria Library, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. La Fontaine’s “The Ploughman and his Sons”*

Posted by jlubans on March 01, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A hand colored Steinhowel illustration. University of Munich

“The farmer's patient care and toil

Are oftener wanting than the soil._
A wealthy ploughman drawing near his end,

Call'd in his sons apart from every friend,

And said, "When of your sire bereft,

The heritage our fathers left

Guard well, nor sell a single field.

A treasure in it is conceal'd:

The place, precisely, I don't know,

But industry will serve to show.

The harvest past,
Time's forelock take,

And search with plough, and spade, and rake;

Turn over every inch of sod,

Nor leave unsearch'd a single clod."

The father died.
The sons--and not in vain--

Turn'd o'er the soil, and o'er again;

That year their acres bore

More grain than e'er before.

Though hidden money found they none,

Yet had their father wisely done,

To show by such a measure,

That toil itself is treasure.”

Is the notion of work as treasure merely quaint? In an age of connectivity, of electronic entertainment and diversion for every waking minute, of never being “alone”, of endless sessions with Angry Birds or other games, the idea of digging in a field may not be among your favorite apps. But, that is to miss the point.
An assigned reading** in my Democratic Workplace class is about Taoism, the philosophy with the quirky conundrums, like this one:
“Shape clay into a vessel;
 It is the space within that makes it useful. Cut doors and windows for a room;
 It is the holes which make it useful. …. Usefulness comes from what is not there.”

Another one is “Practice non-action. Work without doing.” I’ll ask the class to suggest what that means. “What is ‘real work’ to the Taoist?”
We know there is drudgery, a type of work that appears to accomplishes little if anything. Fortunately, there is another kind of work, the real thing, that challenges us enough to keep our interest and focus on alert. We may even achieve a sort of “flow” in doing interesting work. And sometimes, we have to pass through the drudgery to come out with a renewed appreciation for work. The sage farmer tricks his sons into working and they learn about the benefits of hard work, of caring for your resources, of having the daily discipline to work and stay on task. Tricked our not, they are the better for it.

*Source: "A Hundred Fables of La Fontaine" by Jean de La Fontaine, London; New York: John Lane Co., 1900

** Marshall, Peter. “Taoism and Buddhism” excerpted from his book, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, London: HarperCollins, 1992. Pp. 53-60. Please note this excerpt only discusses Taoism. For further background read: “The best leader leads least.

The Quiet People

Posted by jlubans on April 13, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Actor Dick York, the “Shy Guy”, overcoming shyness (1947).

A poignant piece on shyness in the Paris Review set me to thinking about the quiet people in any group, in any meeting, in any organization. Shyness can range from agonizing discomfort in a social setting to a passing reluctance to engage with a stranger at a dinner party. I do not dismiss it as simply something to get over; I can testify to it on a personal level.
But, I am especially interested in how to bring in those not speaking up at meetings.
Now, I understand that for some meetings are a waste of time. The process of sharing ideas and opinions is of little interest; their immediate desire is to get back to doing “real work”, not this sitting around and chitchatting.
It may make a little difference if there’s meat in the agenda, a real issue – not the sort of fyi pablum usually served up – but, even then “real work” beckons them back; it’s where they find satisfaction and provide value to the organization.
If someone wants to be doing instead of meeting AND actually does real work, (not “busy work”) then let him. Skip the meeting, elicit his ideas in one on one conversation.
Quiet people are another matter. A quiet person may be bursting with ideas but is reluctant, hesitant, indeed, shy to express ideas. Often, the quiet person is an independent thinker – and there’s safety in being quiet.
The challenge is for the group leader and active participants to engage the quiet person so that his or her unarticulated ideas can be heard and added to the mix. I am assuming the group does not have a dominant, self-centered boss, someone who resents any challenge from a lesser being. When that happens, that’s a profoundly serious organizational problem. Ignored, the effects will take years of recovery.
In more normal circumstances – where there’s some security for those who offer contrarian views - then hearing from everyone matters. I’ve written of collective intelligence – the so-called “C” factor which contributes to group success at problem solving – why else would a group meet if there were not a problem to solve? Probably a good question to ask at the top of any habitual gathering is: “Why are we meeting?” That question will probably result in silence and a bit of squirming, but might lead to fewer meetings and greater personal productivity.
But, to get back to C. One of its three components is the “number of engaged participants”; the fewer engaged, the less success in problem solving, the more engaged, the greater success, at least in laboratory studies. So there’s some evidence that it’s unwise to leave out the quiet people; far wiser to invite them in. There are all kinds of suggestions on the Internet about how to do this - how to pry open the reluctant participant – but first and foremost the organization has to recognize and value dissenting views. If a person is an organizational survivor – as many are – she may be that way because she has learned personally or by observation that independent thinkers are punished. To survive in the organization – to keep her job – she has learned to keep her mouth shut and head down. Sure, there’s the mask – the happy talk – but when the discussion is for real, the survivor stays quiet and peers around only to see which way the wind is blowing. Then he may go along with the prevailing view even if it is contrary to what he thinks. Survivors have learned that the price of speaking up is too high. So, even if you are the new open minded and emotionally insightful and secure boss, you will still have to convince survivors that you really mean it when you ask for diverse discussion. When the boss asks for “shameless honesty” during a hard conversation or meeting, will her staff know their jobs are not on the line?
One suggestion I make to my students when in groups is to include everyone in the discussion. But, I make clear it is not enough to just encourage that; the more active students have to solicit input from their quieter counterparts. To do so, means the engaged participant may have to step back and allow airtime and air space for the quiet person. This can be difficult if you are a “let’s get it done” type. Or, if you are not very good at reading group behaviors you may not see any problem. In any case, you (an engaged participant) may want to think about what you are doing to encourage group engagement. My previous blog on fear and loathing included the suggestion that the boss occasionally lets the executive team meet without her. The dynamics should change and may promote greater engagement. Of course, if the organization is closed to and does not value varied viewpoints the boss’ absence will only lead to participants’ guessing what the absent boss would do, not what they would really do.
Obviously, there is an implied social finesse that needs to be acquired or to be refined. Confronting a quiet person with “You’re awfully quiet! What do you have to say?” is not the same as reading that person’s expression that she is thinking deeply about the topic and may indeed have an interesting viewpoint. That’s applying the emotional intelligence part of “C” to help the individual and the group come up with good ideas.
Another strategy is to assess group progress with an anonymous vote. Even if discussion does not increase, you will have a reading of how far apart viewpoints may be. Depending on the gap, you may need to double your efforts in eliciting opposing views. The quiet people will note what you are doing, by the way, and that may bring along a few to speak up.
Finally, there’s the “check in” at the start of each meeting with a go around of what is of most consequence at the moment in a person’s life or job (e.g. “What is a high, and a low, from your week? Where do you need help?”) should reduce reluctance to speak up. The check in makes everyone a bit more human, raising the comfort level of all, the engaged, the shy and the quiet.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Clackamas Community College Library, Oregon City, Oregon, USA

© John Lubans 2015

“Error 404 — Democracy Not Found”

Posted by jlubans on October 05, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


Democracy is said to derive from the failure among the gods to resolve the complex issues (all of which end in “cide”, as in patricide) among Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Orestes, et al. The gods, throwing up their hands, appointed Athena – reason’s goddess – to come up with a resolution. She appoints a citizen-jury to develop an “arrangement that can set all these contesting demands in some kind of balance that accommodates all sides. In so doing, (Athena) founds democracy.” In Athens, no less.
Which brings us to the “Error 404”. Modern Greeks grimly grin, like tragedians, when asked about democracy in these dark days of loan defaults and peremptory demands from the European Union. Greece is hardly unique in her dismay.
While we may cherish democracy it seems like the world’s 120 or so democracies are always slip-sliding toward the autocrat, the command and control boss, even the despot, elected or self-appointed. Low voter participation contributes. We want democracy but do not seem willing to take the time and effort demanded by real democracy.
Frank M. Bryan*, who researches Vermont’s democratic towns and their annual meetings, defines democracy: “Real democracy occurs only when all eligible citizens of a general purpose government are legislators; that is, called to meet in a deliberative, face-to-face assembly and to bind themselves under laws they fashion themselves.” But, “real does not mean good.”
And that is borne out by our workplace cartoon, with the big-hearted boss giving us permission to make suggestions. At best, our NGO can only be a partial democracy. Although I suspect there are genuine democratic workplaces – with “a deliberative, face-to-face assembly” and everyone having an equal vote and abiding by the outcomes of those votes - but I have not found them. Several come close, but most in my experience, including my own self-managing teams, have been partial.
Still, because of the success of many of these partial democracies - including a few of the ones I worked with - they are worth far more than a passing glance.
Keeping with the Greek motif, it might take a stage comedian, à la Aristophanes, to josh us into understanding what it takes for democracy to work. September’s Southwest airline magazine has an article, “Comedy of Errors”, which lays out the participant’s role in workplace democratic teams.
One of the author’s key points** from her experience as a comedy writer and performer is that you should “Just do it.” No, she’s not shilling for Nike; she explains: Doing it means getting on board and saying “Yes” to the people on your team. “You must show up.” And, you need to come with a good attitude.
Saying Yes to your team – in other words joining in the work of the team – means “respecting the people you are with.” And, listening.
But, just saying yes is not enough; you need to “bring your voice, your point of view and your own unique experience.” If you don’t have one, “shut up and listen until you get one.”
In my experience the best egalitarian teams were made up of people who participated fully – they had ideas or knew a good idea when they heard it. No team member held back information. And everyone was able – as peers “in a deliberative, face-to-face assembly” - to offer up a perspective, to help the group arrive at solutions superior to any autocrat’s idea.
Like the townspeople of Vermont when they pass the town budget and agree to “bind themselves under laws they fashion themselves”, being democratic means knowing the issues, having an informed point of view, being willing to hear contrary ideas and sharing your own ideas. It’s not helpful to be against something without explaining why and offering alternatives. Showing up for the annual town meeting is not enough – even if you have nothing to say, you need to know the issues so that you can cast an informed vote. The same applies to workplace teams as well as my classroom project teams.
Without full participation by all team members the best you’ll get is a lame team. Of course, a team is not a government – that quintessential requirement of all democracies – but a work team can behave like a democracy in letting people have their say and letting them take responsibility for what they say and do. Each team member should be thinking of ways to improve and be willing to share those ideas in order to derive greater value for the organization and its clients.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: , Santa Rosa, CA United States

*Bryan, Frank M. Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How It Works. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 2004. 320 pp.

**Katie Rich offers up four other points for effective teams:
“Know your role. See the whole picture. Don’t try to fix everything. Goshdarnit, be good to each other.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

“Stealing People’s Choices Is Wrong.”

Posted by jlubans on May 30, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)


I have a micromanaging friend; let’s call him Sam. He’s a boss and at the top of his field - well regarded by external peers - but I’d say Sam’s organization is working far below capacity. His inability to trust, his lack of confidence in subordinates is all-pervasive. One staffer likens Sam to Kim Jong-Un – the ultimate micromanager.
Over a period of years, many of this organization’s best people have gone elsewhere. Unfazed, Sam pats himself on the back; his people are in demand because of the high quality experience they have gained by working for him!
Perhaps worse, since everything has to go through Sam, a lot is left undone; new outreach programs, new uses of existing resources, remain in suspense.
I pick up on the notion that since he is not ever satisfied, that even competent staff do lackluster work; which of course fulfils Sam’s expectations. Why bother to do your best if whatever you do is always nitpicked to pieces?
I like Sam, he’s a good friend, but then I do not work for him. (By the way, most micromanagers are not likeable because their mistrust foozles relationships. And, some are mean and petty – they enjoy finding fault and taunting; Sam’s not one of those).
Were he to ask me for advice about improving his leadership I’d start the conversation with a valuable bit of democratic work place philosophy from Charles Handy: “Choices, in fact, are our privilege (our right), although they come disguised as problems, and stealing people’s choices is wrong.”
If Sam mulls that over and wants more, I’d recommend Rebecca Knight’s article from August, 2015, “How to Stop Micromanaging Your Team”.
Why is micromanaging harmful? Knight responds: It “displaces the real work of leaders, which is developing and articulating a compelling and strategically relevant vision for your team.”
In my experience, leaders who did this “real work” developed highly productive and successful organizations.
Ms. Knight prescribes several ways by which to bring about a change in how Sam looks at people and what he expects of them. She would ask: “What can you do to give your people the space they need to succeed and learn? How should you prioritize what matters? And how do you get comfortable stepping back?”
She recommends “undertaking a cross-evaluation assessment.” Gather confidential data from your people—or better yet, have a third party do It with a guarantee of anonymity. What Sam hears may be sobering – remember the Kim Jong-Un comment? - “but it’s critical to understanding the broader patterns and reactions and the impact [your micromanaging has] on your team.”
Looking back on my own career, that cross-evaluation assessment would have benefited me, an extreme macromanager, (sometimes, “hands off” is worse than “hands on”!)
And, I could have been a better boss for my direct reports had I asked each of them these questions:
“How can I help you best? Are there things I can do differently? Are our overall objectives clear to you and do you feel you have the support and resources to accomplish them?”
I always assumed that my highflying objectives were clear to others. Bad assumption.
So, there’s a balance to strive for. Obviously the newbie employee needs direction and supervision, the veteran less so. It comes down to knowing when to let go. I do not know if Sam ever will know? Do you?

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Tom Sawyer’s Fence

Posted by jlubans on June 08, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


A while back there was a story on how the state of Utah was re-assigning 250 state workers to help in tracing those exposed to the virus.
Why did I notice?
Because this was a “man bites dog” story. Every other state is saying how they need, urgently, to hire thousands of tracers and is in dire need of supplemental funding in the millions of dollars.
None but Utah mention deploying existing state workers to help trace. Why? A pertinent question since thousands of state workers are on paid furlough.
Yesterday’s (June 6) story about the situation said nothing, again, about deploying existing resources but only about having to find and pay for one or two hundred thousand contract workers!
What is it about an organization that gets in the way of one department helping another?
I was in one organization where we put out an “all hands on deck” call to deal with a large backlog. It was obvious to everyone – I thought - yet the response was reluctant and minimal.
While I felt the urgency few others appeared to. The tacit consensus from most was to: ”Let George do it”. In other words, somebody else should do it. They (other departments) were too busy to help out.
What could I have done differently?
How did Tom Sawyer get his chums to paint his aunt’s picket fence? (White-washing the fence was his punishment for sneaking out of the house.) How did he convince his cohorts to pitch in while he supervised?
Mark Twain explains: “If (Tom) had been a great and wise philosopher, like the writer of this book, he would now have comprehended that Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and that Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”
“(Tom) had discovered a great law of human action, without knowing it—namely, that in order to make a man or a boy covet a thing, it is only necessary to make the thing difficult to attain.”
Surely there are lessons in Tom Sawyer that could be applied to the well-known inability of organizations to shift gears, to move people into another role without resistance but with energy and a can-do spirit.
I’ve also seen how some departments had units that would help internal units, but never offer aid to anyone outside their department.
That said, I have seen organizations with just the opposite culture. The spirit of helping out was in the air when I wrote about Oregon’s Department of Motor Vehicles. This agency job shares all the time and staff are encouraged to fill in at other locations when those DMVs are short of staff. It is expected and normal to help out.
Long ago, one of my professors gave our Systems Analysis class a tour of the New York State Department of Taxation and Finance. He took us into a cavernous space with hundreds of desks in perfect rows, as far as the eye could see - an all too real caricature of a bureaucracy. I noticed that most of the seated workers were reading books. (Nowadays, they’d be internet surfing.)
From a book lover’s perspective, that was great! From a taxpayer’s, less so. When I inquired about this, our professor said that the staff was reading books because it was past tax season.
They had no real work to do.
Yet, it was taboo to talk about moving idle workers to areas in need of help.
People want real work to do, meaningful work.
Leaders at all levels could make a huge difference by facilitating and protecting managers and staff who want to collaborate with other agencies, who want to help out where needs are greater. There should be flexibility in every organization to assure every individual has real work to do.
ONLY a click away, now 40% off all summer long only at this link:

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

The Not-So-Big-Dance: Performance Appraisal

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

It's that time of year. In many workplaces across our fair corporate landscape, that old chestnut, Performance Appraisal, unlike that "gentle rain from heaven," bonks us on our heads. It certainly is raining not mercy but chestnuts at my friend's job; in his case, like at many others, the process involves a multi-page form, chock-full of corporate-speak with expectations of much introspection and deliberation by the incumbent and the supervisor.

While the two of us commiserated, the term “dance-like ritual” popped into my head. Whether I was the reviewer, the reviewee, or the 5th signature on the sign-off sheet, I had little faith PA was worth the negligible result. (In fact, Chapter 34 in Leading from the Middle, “I've Closed My Eyes to the Cold Hard Truth I'm Seeing: Making Performance Appraisal Work” describes what happened when a large organization, letting go, gave up performance appraisal: NOTHING, except we had higher productivity, a lot more time for real work and real conversation between leaders and followers!)

I googled “Dance and performance appraisal” and several hits came up with "the dance" used to describe the ritual engineered by Human Resources departments around the globe. While the source pages did not elaborate much on the meaning of that use of the term, I sensed a Dilbertean sarcasm and that PA is no happier an event than what it was in my time: a contrived corporate event.

My humorous brain wave of “dance” was triggered in large part by images of the “waggle” dances put on by scout bees when describing and recommending a hive’s next home. (See my honey bee write up here.) It’s a serious, democratic process, a joyful one. (We’ll, with all that buzzing, curveting, and tail shaking the bees do look joyful!)
The scout bees let everyone know what they have been up to and what has gone well and, by omission, what has not gone so well. And, each of the scouts recommends a new home site, the future for their organization.

If bees use dance to describe their aspirations, why not us cleverer humans? Let’s use dance to replace the frowsy form.

How would it work? Each person in the organization invents a dance to show how things are going and where they want to be in the next year. Interpretive dance, straight from the 60s.

Kindly judges are poised to dish out high praise:
What dance will claim the gold cup, the 10? What would reap the highest score for ingenuity and expressiveness?

A stately minuet? Tepid tango? Or, fevered fandango? Or, from the executive suite: a boss-led conga line? Maybe a square dance is more apt?

Or, for those rare self-managing teams, an updated Hokey Pokey (It really is what it’s all about! Or, is it?)

I’m for adapting what the bees do. I envision a swarm of wagglers, earnestly shaking their backsides, giving us coordinates for the future and telling us what’s good and what needs change.

A requisite: Since it takes two to tango - you can quote me - the PA dance has to be a partnership between those who supervise and those who are supervised. I almost said “those who need supervision”, but thought better of it.

Like Leah Long, my dance instructor, says:
“On the dance floor, good leaders initiate the movement they want from their partner and then follow the movement they've created.” Apply that concept of leading and following in lieu of the traditional PA process and see the difference.

But, remember:

Now, where did I leave those castanets?


Posted by jlubans on September 29, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The Ever Curious George and a firefly

ONCE upon a time
a troop of Monkeys were wandering through a wood. The weather was cold, and when in the twilight they came upon a Firefly they mistook it for the embers of a real fire.
Accordingly, they placed dry grass and leaves around the Firefly, hoping to warm themselves; and one of the Monkeys fanned it with his breath, trying to kindle it into a blaze.
A little Bird, named Suchimukha, was perched above in a tree; and when he saw the Monkeys wasting their time and efforts, he called down to them,
"That is not a real fire, it is only a Firefly. Do not waste your breath."
Although the Monkey heard what Suchimukha said, he paid no attention but continued to blow steadily.
So the Bird flew down from the tree, and once more began to advise and argue with the Monkey.
Presently the latter became angry and picking up a stone flung it at Suchimukha and killed him.
It is foolish to waste good advice on those who do not choose to listen.
When I was five years old an aunt-in-law gave me a Latvian nickname: Japatis! (John, myself!) It meant, “Leave me alone! I’ll do it myself!”
Even then, I brooked no interference.
Some would say my mulishness has only gotten worse!
Charles Handy, the famed management consultant, tells the story of his daughter’s starting up a first business and his inundating her with well-intentioned advice.
The daughter, after dutifully listening to him, fixed him with a halting gaze and declared: “Stop, Poppy! I know you mean well, but I want to make my own mistakes!”
Maybe the monkey wanted to see where his harmless efforts would take him.
While a do-gooder might have a better way, it matters not to the person wanting to solve something on his or her own. It may be plain old stubbornness or sometimes going down the wrong path opens up other doors, ones you would never pass through if you did things “by the book”.
In this fable the kibitzer dies.
Maybe one should wait to be asked before giving free advice. In advice giving, timing is everything.

*Source: Katha-Sarit-Sagara. Book X, Chapter 60, adapted from the German of F. Brockhaus. To be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.
ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Leading from the Middle is on Christmas and New Year’s Break

Posted by jlubans on December 21, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

“Don’t pay the ransom, honey; I’ve escaped” and other lamentable excuses/apologies of 2017.
“Harry, the Aggrieved”. An original Friday Fable in the style of George Ade. A tale of self inflicted woe and an organization held hostage.
And, an essay on EQ (emotional intelligence) and Empathy among work teams with a look at the Scandinavian practice of workplace saunas - “working while naked”, so to speak.
Not to mention - which I just did - the Phaedrian fable of two villains accusing each other of wrong doing.
More praise for Fables for Leaders:
“An inherently fascinating read from cover to cover … unreservedly recommended.”
"Fables for Leaders" is a “Reviewer's Choice” at Midwest Book Review (MBR) December, 2017:
“A unique and exceptional approach to developing problem solving attitudes and skills, "Fables for Leaders" is impressively well written, organized and presented.
Thoroughly 'user friendly' and an inherently fascinating read from cover to cover, "Fables for Leaders" is impressively entertaining, informative, thoughtful and thought-provoking, making it unreservedly recommended for personal, professional, community, and academic library collections.”

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

No Bean Bags Here

Posted by jlubans on May 29, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: SWA’s Ramp Team RDU on a cold and rainy day. Photo by J. Lubans

Two articles, the BBCs “Why ‘cool’ offices don’t always make for a happier workforce” and the Wall Street Journal’s “” stirred up a couple memories. The first was my friend Don Riggs’ strong opinion that his beautiful new library building provide for closed spaces for professional staff. I quote from my 2016 blog entry:
“… Don Riggs at Nova Southeastern University, insist(ed) - over the architect’s objections – that all professional staff have private spaces - with doors - in his new building. He intuited, correctly, no one really wanted to be always on display (and never alone) when working.
Supposedly, the Open Office was to lead to better collaboration.
Stop and think. Was there a factual basis for this idea or was it something imagined by an architect based solely on his nostalgia for the sweet camaraderie he experienced with his project team on all-nighters, (most likely barefoot), in architecture school?”
Another memory was that of my first encounter with the perked office: free lunch and free child care and free dry-cleaning and free onsite fitness workouts, etc. This glimpse came during the DotCom boom when I was invited to visit a start-up NYC software company office pitching for Web business.
While all the perks, including a barista!, were there, I was left wondering if they were not masking a particularly grueling and uncertain business. And, based on the DotCom crash, it appears many of these companies were burning through their start-up money at mach speed. The free gourmet lunch (along with an ever lengthening list of Herzberg’s hygiene - non-motivating – factors) was paid for by investor’s money not by real revenue.
My 2016 “Play at Work” essay cited Fred Emery’s solid-as-a-rock guidance on what people want from work:
Adequate elbow room for decision-making
Opportunity to learn at work
Variety in work
Mutual support and respect
A desirable future.
The BBC article is among the first to penetrate past the gimmick aspect of the fun office.
The author asks the serious "So, What?" Question. What does this type of office get you? He concludes: “It’s a false narrative. Happy workplaces don’t need beanbags, barbecue stations and ball pits.”
While nice, like pleasing and comfortable furniture and decor, what people really want is what Emery put forth decades ago.
It is of course easier to put in a ball pit then to assure your organization provides meaningful work and a desirable future for employees. That takes real leadership – thinking and compassion - but then orgs have all too often gone with the superficial, the hygiene factors, like performance appraisal.
I recall a behind the scenes visit with a ramp team at SouthWest Airlines (See my chapters on SWA in Leading from the Middle). No bean bags here.
Yes, there was a Weber grill, on the tarmac, just outside the operations room, but hardly anything to compare with the haute cuisine at the NY software company.
Heck, the ramp team provided the meat and buns and the camaraderie was real. These folks worked together on every incoming plane, often more than one, unloading luggage, provisioning, and then reloading luggage, all as quickly and safely as possible. All the while helping each other.
They were, and I continue to believe are, the best in the business. Take a look at SWA corporate values; the corporate commitment to those values is what makes this company click.

N.B. My next book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in September 2017 as an e-book ($9.99) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($25.99). The print book, pictured, will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.

Cover: "Fables for Leaders" PRE-PRINT, 203pp. 2017.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

Red, Yellow or Green? Making the Most of the Plus/Delta

Posted by jlubans on January 03, 2017  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: Patagonia Crucible Team.

I’ve found the plus/delta – the quick debrief of a group’s work - to be quite helpful in my teaching. I’ve blogged on it several times, most recently here.
Were I in charge of work teams again, I would do some things differently. One of those would be to do a plus/delta after every meeting to help get at things unsaid needing to be said. I’d want to find ways to assess the health of the team. Are we on target? Are we together?
Red, Yellow or Green? Stop, Idle, or Go?
And, I would try to find out team member commitment to the group’s goal and what we are doing to achieve it. Now, in group development theory, all this “buy-in” is to happen in the “Storming “ phase. Yes, in theory; in practice, hardly ever, at least in the workplace where we select teams based on expertise or turf or agenda; genuine Storming is dodged.
My son-in-law, Clay, recently of the US Army’s Special Forces, is active in veteran activities. Some of those are about helping vets adjust to civilian life. An event of a different kind, in which he was a participant, was a mix of military and business leaders, the “Patagonia Crucible”, a several day trek across a glacier in Patagonia.
The expedition had several objectives, including providing raw insights into teamwork, leading and following.
Whenever I used adventure learning - “days in the woods” - to build teams and self-reliance among team members, I would get considerable static. It rarely came from the volunteer participants, but almost always from those who chose not to participate.
Imagine the yowl if I announced to a department: “Listen up, everyone. We’re going to Patagonia. Bring crampons. We’ll have a great time on the glacier!”
Well, moving beyond that fantasy, you can see Clay and his team in a 25-minute documentary. Beautifully filmed, I can recommend it to you for far more than its production values.
No, they were not met at day’s end with martinis and steak dinners. Every item: clothing, food, bedding, was carried by the team, each member with an equal load. (Remember one of the principles of highly effective teams: Every one does an equal amount of real work? Here it’s for all to see.)
The Patagonia group took daily turns at leading. The leader for the day was in charge of the daily debrief – the group assessment of how the day went, what issues there might be, what was needed. Akin to the plus/delta, this process is termed the AAR, “After Action Review”.
I am thinking of using a modified version of this for the individual project teams in my Democratic Workplace class; the AAR offers more guidance to the debrief than does the plus/delta and it may be better at guiding novice teams to more openness and honesty.
The Patagonia team made use of another quick go-around to assess everyone’s commitment level: Red, Yellow or Green? The day this was asked was probably the hardest one of the trek on the glacier’s ice, a day of being tethered together at 15-foot intervals, on crampons, in windy and cold conditions.
While everyone was fatigued, some nursing injuries, all in need of Aleve - each responded, one by one, “Green”. The explicit individual commitment made by being there was maintained.
Clay told me, had a “Red” come up, there’d be an immediate exploration as to the obstacle and then a determination, by the team, of what needed doing.
Redistribute the load among the team? Maybe. Or, maybe just recognition of someone’s distress. That alone – admitting “weakness” – would be a major concession and expansion of boundaries for some leaders.
As for the all green response, unlike the workplace, everyone knew what he had signed on for. The Patagonia team was screened (no toxic trekkers) and selected for wanting success (positivity not negativity) with the understanding that there would be real hardship.
That’s the plus of adventure learning – even if your team does not develop, you as an individual certainly can. It became for me the real reason to offer those Days in the Woods, to help individuals challenge his or her limits. The metaphor of hardships met and overcome outdoors was not lost on participants on their return to the workplace.
One of the major obstacles in effective group work occurs when the group goes silent; when individuals begin to look inward, and despair seeps in. Challenges loom, false ridges multiply. That applies to the workplace just as much as it may on an icy, sleepless, windy trek.
The learning is in what team members do to help each other. Being self-reliant is not just looking out for number 1. Being self-reliant includes looking out for team members. You keep your head up so you can see how others are doing. It is what good leaders and followers do. It is not what bad leaders and followers do.
In one instance in Patagonia, the day’s leader was faltering; it was probably the hardest day of the expedition and this leader was the least physically fit. Clay told me, “his head was down, his steps were slowing – he was withdrawing into himself.” At a break, one of the team stood by him and recited the Ranger Creed, rallying the leader
back to his individual commitment to the quest. After hearing a few phrases, his head came up. He later said: “That poured so much energy into (me) — just what (I) needed to hear at that exact moment.”
What’s your Ranger Creed? For me it’s often been the 23rd Psalm. Does your organization/profession have core values that inspire you to keep on undaunted? Can you recite them?

© Copyright John Lubans 2017


Posted by jlubans on April 18, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Engraving by Marcus Gheeraerts (1521–1636) done in 1567 or ,more likely, 1617

A SOCIABLE Nightingale found among the other songsters of the grove plenty of birds who envied her, but not a single friend.
"Perhaps," thought she, "I may find a friend in some other branch of the bird family," and accordingly flew confidingly to the home of the Peacock.
"Beautiful Peacock! how much I admire you!" she said.
"No less than I admire you, lovely Nightingale," returned the Peacock.
"Then let us be friends," declared the Nightingale, "for we need never be envious of each other.
You are as pleasing to the eye as I am to the ear."
Accordingly the Nightingale and the Peacock became fast friends.

The fable suggests we can be fond of people with whom we have differences, as long as those differences do not detract from who we are.
In other words, it may be that a beautiful someone (a screeching peacock) will accommodate someone with a melodious voice (a drab nightingale).
The nightingale, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-1781) tells us, has no friends. He does not explain why.
Is the nightingale’s voice envied by one and all of the “songsters of the grove” to the exclusion of friendship?
And the peacock, other fables tell us, is often too much of a strutter and preener.
Yet, the nightingale says, “let us be friends” and, voila,
the two form a mutual admiration society.
I am reminded of a real life couple; the woman is a renowned soprano of considerable beauty and the husband is a maestro orchestral conductor.

*Source: Lessing, Fables, Translated by G. Moir Bussey in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Friday Fable. “Diogenes Cup”*

Posted by jlubans on July 22, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Rube Goldberg, Muse of bureaucrats.

“One story … tells us that Diogenes was walking along one day, carrying all his possessions with him as usual, when he happened to see a child who was drinking from a stream of water. The child scooped up the water with his hands and drank it happily. ‘This child is far more wise than I am!’ Diogenes exclaimed, and he then threw away the drinking cup he had been carrying with him. ‘Why should I burden myself with this drinking cup, when it is a simple matter to use my hands instead?’"

Well, what could Diogenes (the Cynic and Ascetic rolled into one) have to say to us in these technologically superior times?
A lot.
I remember one organization – indeed it was a network of similar organizations - which had over time come to prefer the overly complex in doing its work instead of taking un-layered, direct action. Rube Goldberg would have been impressed with some of their designs and machinations.
Unlike Diogenes, these organizations acted as if the shortest distance between two points was not a straight line. Baroque might have stylistic appeal but its complexity - however pretty to some - hinders real work.
A child shows the way and Diogenes sees the underlying timeless message: “Keep it Simple”.

*Source: Laura Gibbs’ “The Un-Textbook of Mythology and Folklore” for students enrolled in MLLL-3043-995, University of Oklahoma.
Laura Gibbs is the go-to person for anything and everything to do with fables and myths the world over. See more about her work here.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “The Ass's Wish”*

Posted by jlubans on June 19, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Weary Ass in Winter.

“An Ass was wishing in a hard Winter, for a little warm Weather, and a Mouthful of fresh Grass to knap upon, in Exchange for a heartless Truss of Straw, and a cold Lodging. In good time, the warm Weather, and the fresh Grass comes on; but so much Toil and Bus'ness along with it, that the Ass grows quickly as sick of the Spring, as he was of the Winter. His next Longing is for Summer; but what with Harvest-Work, and other Drudgeries of that Season, he is worse now than he was in the Spring and then he fancies he shall never be well 'till Autumn comes: But there again, what with carrying Apples, Grapes, Fewel, Winter-Provisions, etc. he finds himself in a greater Hurry than ever. In fine, when he has trod the Circle of the Year in a Course of restless Labour, his last Prayer is for Winter again; and that he may but take up his Rest where he began his Complaint.”

“The Life of an unsteady Man runs away in a Course of vain Wishes, and unprofitable Repentance: An unsettled Mind can never be at rest. There's no Season without its Bus'ness.”

I’m exploring ways to teach leadership in other than the usual, lecture on theories, assigned readings and such. The Friday Fables could address - in an indirect way - what we often encounter in workplace relationships and leadership.
We’d not have any acronyms to memorize, or, anything particularly pragmatic or formulaic to take away. Instead I’d emphasize the philosophical and ethical aspects in these stories - from across the centuries - as they may relate to our contemporary behavior and decision-making.
What, I would ask the class, is your perception of the appended moral to today’s fable. Is it unduly harsh in its blaming the “unsteady Man” for his “vain Wishes”, his “unprofitable Repentance” because, after all, “There's no Season without its Bus'ness.”

This fable (from the 15th century) suggests a variety of Herzberg's Motivators and (mostly) Hygiene Factors. His theory, as you know, concludes that organizations do too much of the hygiene and too little of the motivator factors. The ass’s dissatisfaction is literally due to negative hygiene factors as he vends his way around the “Circle of the Year in a Course of restless Labour”. So, would introducing a few positives (vacations, a pail of water, sick leave, weekends off, a retirement plan) make for a more creative and happy Ass? Or, would there be only less dis-satisfaction and no real satisfaction for the Ass?
How would the class address the tribulations of the “unsteady Man”?
Would students seek ways to influence the “unsettled Mind” in a co-worker or subordinate? I could use my Melanie case study:

You meet Melanie for coffee everyday. Lately, Melanie is telling you she is desperate to leave her job. It’d be the first thing she would do, only if… Melanie has lots of reasons why she can’t leave. You concur entirely with Melanie’s desire to leave – anyone this unhappy needs to try something else. But, the only action she takes is to complain to you. Today, she tells you, “I despise this job!”

What do you advise Melanie to do? Is she not a bit like the unhappy Ass dealing with his “Drudgeries”?
Envision a scenario that makes for an improved view of life for Melanie.
How can an organization help make things better for its employees? Or, is mankind never to be free of “restless Labour”? Should we just buckle down and slog on?

So you see, we could spend a class session or more discussing just this one fable. The outcomes, insights from this should be a better understanding of staff grievances - real and imagined - and what to do about them. Possibly, I’d add in a required reading, my chapter in Leading from the Middle: “’I’m So Low, I Can’t Get High’: The Low Morale Syndrome and What to Do about It.” An assigned reading, as a counterpoint to the fable, could help students make transfers from the story to the workplace.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: . Bremerton, WA United State

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s The Widow and Her Little Maidens*

Posted by jlubans on December 30, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Illustration by Walter Crane, in his . 1887, page 16.

“A WIDOW who was fond of cleaning had two little maidens to wait on her. She was in the habit of waking them early in the morning, at cockcrow. The maidens, aggravated by such excessive labor, resolved to kill the cock who roused their mistress so early. When they had done this, they found that they had only prepared for themselves greater troubles, for their mistress, no longer hearing the hour from the cock, woke them up to their work in the middle of the night.”
What’s the Moral? Just in time for the making of New Year's resolutions, Crane's is “Laziness is its own punishment.”
Sometimes when we exchange the predictable for the uncertain we can complicate our otherwise simple lives.
At work, we may stop doing some procedure –which is inconvenient and boring - but once absent we see our mistake. Without that procedure, we accomplish less and satisfy fewer customers.
So, maybe the lazy maids should have thought through what could happen once the source of their misery was gone; had they, they might have spared the rooster.
That said; do not hesitate to eliminate redundant checking of other people’s work (in some ways what the mistress does to the maids). Nothing is gained by it – no real work gets done, time is lost and workers are infantilized.

*Source: FABLES By Aesop Translated by George Fyler Townsend (probably from this edition): “Three hundred and fifty Aesop’s fables”. Chicago, Belford, Clarke & Co., 1886.
Available at the Gutenberg Project.

Copyright © John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Three Latvian folksongs (dainas), ahead of July’s quinquennial Song and Dance Festival in Riga.

Posted by jlubans on April 19, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: All the world’s a stage; a Latvian landscape.

“Song, my song, I sing you
as I sing you,
It’s not me who discovered
Grandmother taught you to me
As she was sitting behind
the stove.”

Folk songs define the Baltic peoples better than land surveys, coastlines, rivers or lines on maps. Each of the three countries has a strong and unique song and dance culture dating back centuries and surviving numerous occupations. Once the people stop singing, like in the opera, it’s over.

20130419-daina outdoor.jpeg
Caption: Often outdoors at a dozen venues, the singing can last into the morning hours. At the finale, the chorales and the audience sing together all night.

“Scan songs to me, girl of
the woods,
You know many songs,
The nightingale taught them
to you,
Sitting in a bush.”

The songs spring from the farms, the forests and the waters.

20130419-daina kids.jpeg
Caption: All sizes take part in song and dance.

And, lest we forget the philosophy of leading from the middle, here's the third folksong:
“I’m puzzling over great thoughts,
Where do the masters get /their/
They neither plough, nor harrow,
Nor plant hops.”

I’ve heard the same sentiment expressed about inhabitants of executive suites. Ask yourself, if you are not doing “real work” what are you doing? Thinking “great thoughts”?

*Source: Latvju Dainas: Latvian Folksongs “favorites” in English, Russian, German & Latvian. Compiled by Krišjānis Barons (1835-1023) Riga, Latvia, Writers Union of Soviet Latvia. 1984.

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE MAN AND THE LION”*

Posted by jlubans on March 27, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

20140328-lion hercules book.jpg
Caption: Hercules bringin’ it on. Book Cover, 2005.
“A Lion and a Man chanced to travel in company through the forest. They soon began to quarrel, for each of them boasted that he and his kind were far superior to the other both in strength and mind.
Now they reached a clearing in the forest and there stood a statue. It was a representation of Heracles in the act of tearing the jaws of the Nemean Lion.
‘See,’ said the man, ‘that's how strong we are! The King of Beasts is like wax in our hands!’
‘Ho!’ laughed the Lion, ‘a Man made that statue. It would have been quite a different scene had a Lion made it!’
It all depends on the point of view, and who tells the story.”

Indeed, there are two sides to most stories. Nor do we celebrate the times when the tables are turned and the lion scarfs up Bwana, the Great White Hunter. (A pretty monogram for your Abercrombie & Fitch Safari Jacket that, GWH, what?)
BTW, if you want to show Aesop’s lion who’s Bwana (boss), an unimpeachable source on the Internet reveals what you will need: “Any large caliber weapon with a well-placed shot, but I suggest a short knife for a REAL thrill.”

*Source: Aesop for Children (translator not identified). Illustrations by Milo Winter (1886-1956). Chicago: 
Rand McNally & Company, 1919. Available online at Project Gutenberg.

Friday’s Leading from the Middle Library: Tarrant County College Library, Ft. Worth, TX. USA

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Trying/Not Trying: the Unboss.

Posted by jlubans on December 23, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: To intervene or not.

“Just don’t do it” goes one so called Zen tip-of-the-week. Zippy, it suggests one of the alternatives to the Taoist’s admonition to act/not act. Some would say, wrongly, this is the hippie/hedon's way - “turn on, tune in, drop out." Not doing is far more.
John Tierney’s “A Meditation on the Art of Not Trying
probes the concept of “wu wei”; an allegedly anarchist idea. I use it in my classes on freedom at work. It’s gnarly, appealingly paradoxical. Here’s what I said about the notion in a previous blog on canoeing and letting go:
“I slide the paddle into the water; I yield to the water. Bossing not bossing; unbossing! When I lead, I let go, I yield to the staff.”
Tierney reviews a new book by Edward Slingerland, “Trying Not to Try: The Art and Science of Spontaneity.”
Slingerland argues and illustrates how Chinese civilizations have tried for millennia to use virtue to help people cooperate and get along. Slingerland is inspired by ancient texts – bamboo slips - discovered in 1993 in the village of Guodian in central China. The text reads like a Taoist paradox (it may well be): “If you try to be filial, this not true filiality; if you try to be obedient, this is not true obedience. You cannot try, but you also cannot not try.” Engaging, at least to me, but what does it mean?
Like the best Theory X practitioners, the Confucians took the pursuit of virtue to the extreme, very likely laying the ethos for generations of Chinese bureaucrats who rigorously adhere “to rules, traditions and rituals, the makings of a Confucian ‘gentleman’”.
I ask my students to consider the Taoist view - the opposite of Confucian micromanaging – that seeks “to liberate the natural virtue within.”
The Taoist’s worldview is as much Theory Y as the Confucian’s is Theory X. Here are a few questions my students discuss among themselves (of course!):
1. The Taoist believes that “the best government does not govern at all.” How can that be?
2. Lao Tzu (a 7th Century BC librarian) recommends “Practise non-action. Work without doing.” What does that mean? What is “real work” to the Taoist?
3. Lao Tzu teaches that the “best ruler leaves his people alone to follow their peaceful and productive activities.” Is it true that “People left to themselves will follow peaceful and productive activities and live in harmony with each other and nature”?

These philosophical notions all relate to the “unboss,” a term I first used in 2006 and have been exploring ever since.
The boss controls, the unboss less so. Tierney includes a quote from psychologist Jonathan Schooler: “Particularly when one has developed proficiency in an area, it is often better to simply go with the flow. Paralysis through analysis and overthinking are very real pitfalls that the art of wu wei was designed to avoid.”
So, if you know your “stuff” - you are as one with your subject - going with your instinct makes good sense, “just do it” (to coin a phrase!). “(A)ctual success requires the ability to transcend our training and relax completely into what we are doing, or simply forget ourselves as agents.”
That’s what really good teams achieve when individuals look out for others and subordinate to a group goal; personal glory is an incidental and often irrelevant after thought, a non-motivator.
Slingerland refers to the 4th century Chinese philosopher Mencius, “who combined the Confucian and Taoist approaches: Try, but not too hard.” Mencius used parables to suggest a middle road. One story is about a micromanager - the heavy handed boss - specifically a farmer who weeded his fields so much, he yanked all the wheat shoots, destroying his crop. “Something natural … requires gentle cultivation. You plant the seeds and water the sprouts, but at some point you need to let nature take its course. Just let the sprouts be themselves.”
The unboss farmer.

A note from Santa: There is no better Christmas gift for your favorite unboss than a copy of Leading from the Middle. Free shipping at Amazon.

Each book comes with two free weekly blog posts at Leading from the Middle.

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Friday Fable. Lubans’ “The Rope and the Cleat”.

Posted by jlubans on September 27, 2013  •  Leave comment (1)

20130927-nice boat small.jpeg
Caption: Well berthed boat, ship/shape, rope and cleat.
“(Sittin' On) The Dock Of The Bay”, the cleat was berating a rope tied to a boat: “You are such a wuss, you give in and surrender to the waves; you are a real slacker! And you, unlike me, are easily cut in two. An iron bar between me and the boat would be much stronger and safer; anything would be better than a slinky like you to face the storm’s winds and waves!”
A fisherman, overhearing the cleat’s tirade, began to think (not his strong suit) that the cleat was right. With the coming storm a rigid iron bar would be better than a flimsy rope. While he should have known better, he went ahead and cast aside the ropes and replaced them with iron bars, secured with D-rings to the boat at one end and to the cleat at the other.
A storm came up that night and was gone by the morning – along with the boat! When the sad fisherman looked down into the murky water dockside he saw his sunken boat with its starboard side impaled by the two iron bars. The cleat, torn out when the boat sank, was still attached with its D-ring to the iron bar.

And so it is at work when the adamant change opponent finds herself slowly sinking below the waves, going down with the boat instead of working towards change. We should aspire to be like the rope and dip with the waves, emulate the movement of the wave, judiciously accommodating and riding out the storm. Be able - like we are advised in the Thirty-six Stratagems -to win without battle, “use the enemy's own strength against him.”

Library of the Week: Foley Center Library, Gonzaga University.
Leading from the Middle is featured in the library’s 2013 "Organizational Leadership Guide" (to resources).
Link to it here.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Days in the Woods

Posted by jlubans on April 24, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Adventure-based education (aka “experiential learning”) can be helpful in creating high performing teams. However, going out in the woods, doing “trust falls”, or rappelling down a cliff does not result automatically in world-class teams. From years of personal experience with adventure-based learning, I have found that these elements are essential:
1, Willing participants. Just because your boss says you must is not enough of a reason to be enthused about a treetop “high ropes” course or any other adventure program. All of my adventure learning activities, personal and organizational, were voluntary. Of course, being there does not suggest an uncritical acceptance nor that your experience will be superior to a traditional indoor class - it is very much up to the open and willing individual learner to take what he or she learns and make the transfer from the woods to the workplace.
Reminiscing over a group photo from my former employer’s first adventure event - an overnight rock climb at Hanging Rock State Park - I see several faces of people who were instrumental in leading our successful change initiative. They were open and willing to look at how we worked and how we could do better. I like to think that what happened at Hanging Rock influenced us in positive ways; maybe it was only to confirm how we were going to work together, but I think we did see each other differently – in good ways - after that weekend at Hanging Rock.
Caption: Established new relationships in this wildly fun activity, everyone getting up on a two-foot square platform. Try doing this while maintaining the hierarchy!

2. Tuned-in facilitators (the people leading the event.) These leaders have to focus discussion so it addresses the reasons for being there – backpacking or the rock climb or the “low ropes” is not the real reason. Mastering the two person “Wild Woozy” – something I have never done – is an accomplishment, but it is not the end reason for the activity.
How you and your partner worked together is the learning. In my rock climb example, the real reason was to give permission to try out new ways, to support each other, to take risks and to realize there were multiple ways of doing something. And, it was important for peers and supervisors to see each other in ways different from an office setting.

3. Peers as participants. The people with whom you work need to be present. In my case, while the adventures were offered to the organization at large, most of the participants were my co-workers and divisional supervisors. On a rare occasion, we would have a participant from an external group; that was good, but I realized the limitations of one person’s being able to do much of anything – beyond personal growth - with what she learned from our day(s) in the woods.

4. The leader as participant. This is risky. The boss might slip and fall into a bog hole and be left wet and feeling like a doofus. Or the leader might struggle up the cliff acrophobically, for all to see.
Caption: I had a hard time making it to the top.
A junior staff member turned out to be a prodigious rock climber and did the climb twice; stopping both times to relish the open landscape view 2500 feet below. Here’s another picture of one joyful participant reaching the top. I wish I’d felt that way!
Or, the boss’s idea for solving a problem might be ignored by the group. You, the boss, have to be ready for that to happen. When group members see the leader supporting an idea, regardless of source, they understand the boss appreciates good ideas from all over, not just from the titled. Once the staff see you more as a colleague and less a supervisor, the more likely they will become active participants in your change initiative.

5. A real challenge. There has to be a manageable and meaningful challenge for every participant. You may relish dangling from a rope against the cold granite of a cliff face; but you might not be the happiest camper when waking up in a wet sleeping bag, in a drenching rain and figuring out, with the group, how to start a fire, keep dry and get hot food.
And challenges do not always require a win. Whether a participant makes it to the top or not is less important than for the difficulty encountered and dealt with along the way. Adventure learning adds challenge through perceived risk.
Caption: The safety drill before rappelling into the Hurricane Island quarry.
In the rock climb, we’re harnessed in, wearing helmets, with belayers at the top and bottom of the climb; injuries - beyond scrapes and bruises - are highly unlikely. Most of us will be challenged – to the point of trembling legs - and if we make it, we’ll be exhilarated (I did it!) and happy it’s over. We may be surprised at our meeting the challenge head on; even better if we thought we could not!
What made the difference? It’s something to think about the next time we find ourselves up against it at work.
And, if we do not make it up the cliff – “failure” - we’ll also have something to think about. What got in the way? What would I do differently? Did I use all available resources?
20130424-kayaks from hellTulle.jpeg
Caption: Setting forth into the unknown. An open water crossing, Penobscot Bay, Maine Coast.

6. Team-based adventure. Being there has to be more about the team, the group than the individual. That is why the “Wall” activity, which cannot be performed solo, is a better team builder than is the infamous Pamper Pole.
While I learned a great deal about myself from my Outward Bound expeditions (with strangers) I also learned about how groups evolve and about leadership and followership and about how a group may fail to develop. I learned how unusual it is for a group to “click”, to feel good about itself and not worry about who’s top dog or if everyone is doing his or her fair share of cooking or rowing or cleaning up.

7. A continuum of learning. Finally, your adventure has to be part of a staff development program that builds on and reinforces what is learned with each adventure. Our organizational approach to staff development was, alack, more hit and miss, with few offerings – we did not have a training platform on which to build. Follow up seminars could have introduced theories and discussion about group dynamics, conflict resolutions, team development, and communication. Another time.

For more on this topic, see Leading from the Middle’s Chapter 19: “A Gift from the Woods” and Chapter 4: “Letting Go: A Reflection on Teams That Were.”


Posted by jlubans on March 25, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)


A BBC report, “How to leave a family business
brought to mind a story I’ve long thought about writing.
Before we go there, a little bit of personal perspective.
My father ran a small construction company; it was very much his company - his reputation for quality work and absolute honesty were integral to the success of the company.
I worked for him several summers and we mutually, if tacitly, concluded this was not the business for me.
While I could swing a hammer with the best and I could shovel more dirt and gravel than most, when it came to the finer points, like measuring angles and running a straight line of shingles or bricks, I lacked the aptitude.
Also, I did like my sleep and just could not emulate my dad’s 5AM rising, at least – interestingly - not for this calling.
I valued the opportunity to work with him especially since it finally sank into my hard head that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I would need to go to college.
My point is that I never had to leave a family business!
That said, I have studied numerous organizations from orchestras to restaurants, several of which are written about in my book, Leading from the Middle.
The BBC report suggests leaving a family business is a fraught step.
I saw this up close and personal at a business I often visited as a customer and eventually as a researcher.
Over time, I befriended the boss, Fritz by name and he gave me carte blanche to study his organization. (Note: I have changed names since I do not wish in any way to sensationalize what I observed. I remain fond of this business and of the many people I met, including Fritz.)
The BBC report identifies common problems and sources of failure in family businesses: communication style, future vision and strategy, and balancing the needs of the family versus the needs of the business.
And, per the BBC, if you are the heir-apparent, 21.8% said communication style was the leading cause of conflict. As for the family boss, just 13.3% listed communication as the leading cause of dissent.
Now, Fritz’s is a very successful retail operation in a large city. Fritz, the owner, works very long hours and pretty much micromanages the business.
He runs it like a big family with him as the idiosyncratic patriarch with a large flock of children, some of whom he regards as “primitives” (his term).
An example of Fritz’s leadership style: An employee pushed another employee down some rickety stairs. Instead of dismissal for assault, Fritz told the two to shake hands and make up.
Another example: When a floor manager got fed up with Fritz’s butting in, he told Fritz to back off and to let him do his job. Fritz fired him on the spot.
An hour later, Fritz was on the phone with the employee apologizing and asking him to return to the business. He did, only to have this repeated every year or so.
Indeed, some department heads soon learned not to take any bluster from Fritz. Instead, they’d walk out. Invariably, he’d plead with them to return.
At Fritz’s there was one genuine heir-apparent, a daughter. Let’s call her Diane.
When I interviewed her – a calm, intelligent and confident young woman - she thought her dad could share more information with her – she worried that he knew so much that would be lost were he unable to work.
The implication was that he was holding back the real inside scoop on the business and was essentially unwilling to trust her fully.
Treated like a junior partner, she had little decision-making authority, if any.
Still, she was expected to work long hours (this is retail, remember).
She had recently married a wealthy man and they were expecting a first child.
And, there was a mother (Fritz’s wife) behind the scenes. A soap-opera-ish personality from whom – I concluded - Diane would be desperate for some separation, in space and time.
While I never interviewed the mother I did have several social visits with her and Fritz, some of which gave me insights into her mercurial personality.
I spoke to Fritz about what Diane had told me, about her wanting a real role in the business. He may have heard what I said but, as far as I could tell, he did little to improve Diane's role.
About a year or two later, I was back in town and went by to see Fritz in his office.
Heart broken and literally in tears, he told me that Diane had resigned and was moving into the suburbs.
Not long after Fritz stopped taking my calls. It’s now been years since I last saw him.
I suspect he – possibly encouraged by his wife - thought I was somehow responsible for the estrangement between him and his daughter; that I had helped, by asking questions, Diane articulate her discontent.
In any case, I imagine Diane had a hard time making the decision to let go.
Could this separation have been avoided? Would Diane (and her new family) stay on had Fritz been willing to treat her as a full and responsible partner?
Probably yes, but hard to know.

© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Friday Fable. Aesop's Fables: Sir Roger L'Estrange’s “A DOG IN A MANGER”*

Posted by jlubans on November 20, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: "Chromolithograph" from a McLoughlin Brothers children's book, New York, 1880.

“A churlish envious Cur was gotten into a manger, and there lay growling and snarling to keep the Provender (food). The Dog eat none himself, and yet rather ventur’d the starving his own Carcase than he would suffer any Thing to be the better for’t. “

“THE MORAL. Envy pretends to no other Happiness than what it derives from the Misery of other People, and will rather eat nothing itself than not to starve those that would.”

You’ve arrived 20 minutes early at the building permit agency. All the required forms are complete and ready to hand in. The clerk looks over your file and asks, “Where’s Form 530?” You have no clue. “When I called, no one told me I needed Form 530.” “Sorry, you’ll have to make another appointment once you have it.” Arf, arf!

“Hmmmm,” goes the examiner, “You’ve filled out the application in blue ink. It has to be black ink. Sorry.” Grrrr, Grrrr!

The clerk is fastidiously studying your application. The last time you applied, the agency said you needed a bank authorized financial statement. It’s on the top of the file. She’s frowning and shaking her head, “No, this won’t do. The bank official has initialed her name by the bank’s stamp. It has to be a full signature. Sorry.” Woof, woof!

And so you can see how someone - with very little real power - can frustrate, like Aesop's classic barking dog, the most humbly compliant and well intended among us.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Olympic College,
Haselwood Library
, Bremerton, WA, USA.

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

© Copyright John Lubans 2015

Un-democracy flipped

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

As you know, my in defining the democratic workplace was to list out what it is not.
Today’s post is the flip side of the Un-democracy; it is the definition I will use in my teaching.
By flipping the negatives – for example, “closed books” becomes “open books” - I get to the positive workplace.
In my eyes, it is natural for people to cooperate. Uncooperation is the abnormal. Humans prefer – with some noted competitive exceptions – to collaborate. The democratic workplace is indeed a natural environment. It is our evolved inclination – with language - to help each other that separate us from other species. “You will never see two monkeys carrying a log” is just as true as that when most of us see someone in need we want to help. Finally, the quintessential reason for a democratic workplace is that we get better at what we do, more so than under any other scheme.

Many leaders.
(There is a head leader, but leadership is delegated and distributed throughout the organization. Workers take initiative and cross boundaries to improve services and production. Team leaders, consulting with workers, meet to set goals and iron out production needs. (The “many leaders” concept was recently discussed in the Wall Street Journal,
Who's the Boss? There Isn't One.))
De-centralized power.
(Workers make decisions about their work. Units within the organization make decisions and spend money relevant to their work in concert with other units.)
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
(No secrets. Workers see financial and personnel records and take part, as relevant, in personnel budget decisions and in the recruitment and hiring of new staff.)
Planning involves everyone.
(Workers participate in planning; they are stake-holders equal to managers. Decisions are made in a collaborative process that may include anonymous voting.)
Team-based, flat organization.
(No non-working supervisors. Team members, including team leaders, do their fair share of real work. A flat organization promotes communication across the workplace. There is a “grape vine,” but it is an informal network among workers and no longer the main source of knowing. The democratic ethos is clear: no back stabbing, differences are settled face to face.)
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
(While some workers are less-able followers, all have the freedom and peer-expectation to move from dependent and uncritical thinking to thinking independently and to taking action.)
Managers do “real work”.
(With increased worker responsibility comes a reduction in the need for managers to supervise. Managers take part in doing what needs to be done and take the lead in thinking about trends, improvements and challenges for the organization.)
No formal performance appraisal.
(Performance appraisal is replaced by regular conversation and guidance among team members and managers. As necessary, discipline and guidance is addressed immediately by leaders or peers. Goal setting – Why are we here and what can we do better? - is a natural discussion among leaders and followers. )
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
(Workers, collaborating with managers, set fair salary levels and other compensation.)
A proactive organization.
(Most staff act like owners. They look to improve what they do; they are alert to trends, new ideas and they are free to carry out new initiatives. The organization has the highly developed capacity to anticipate change and to take on new challenges.)

There you have it. Let me know what you think.
There are, of course, some who question the advisability or feasibility of the democratic workplace. If you have doubts, you might derive comfort from an essay by Phillip J. Jones and George J. Fowler,
Then again, you might be thinking about how much fun it would be to work in a productive, proactive workplace instead of a hunkered-down bureaucracy.
Apart from the Wall Street Journal article linked above – with its several examples of democratic workplaces – there is another one-of-a-kind success
story out of Brazil.
Leading from the Middle, of course, applies many of these democratic workplace principles at work.

And, the blog went over 200,000 hits (quien sabe?) on September 4, 2012.

Leadership vs. Gizmos, Gimmicks & Gadgets

Posted by jlubans on January 10, 2017  •  Leave comment (0)


A recent story, “Why Time Management Is Ruining Our Lives”elaborates on apps and ideas to help workers be more efficient. It surveys what’s been done before, including Taylor’s classic time and motion studies.
The author, Oliver Burkeman, explains that Taylor was the first scientific manager to devise ways to improve individual production and to get more effort and product - for the same cost - out of a “goldbricking” workforce.
While that is the usual academic, unbalanced view of Taylor, I get the author’s point.
Since Taylorism’s heyday, computers have only furthered the notion of somehow getting more out of an over-worked and over-stressed work force – or in some eyes, applying a well-placed kick to the smug posterior of an unmotivated workforce.
Some believe that improving work “tools”, can improve how we work and how we feel about our work.
Taylor streamlined many tools and processes to help workers be more productive and to be paid more money for their work. Unfortunately, in Taylor’s world the worker was seen as less a thinking, contributing being, but more of a machine to be tinkered with.
Similarly, if one is inundated by e-mail, then there’s an app to manage the avalanche. Too many meetings, ditto. Too much paperwork, ditto. .
Some suggest these apps have helped. Others say nothing has changed or things have gotten worse. Harkening back to Stakhanovism, the more productive you are, the more is expected. If you have a good idea and double your work output through working “smarter”, then, says the Taylor-channeling manager, “let’s double it again”. And so it goes.
This is the difference between using an app to manage your work and working in an organization that, through its leadership, recognizes individual workloads and helps individuals and teams come to terms with getting the job done.
The end is not every individual working to capacity, but for the overall organization to be productive and to have a free flow of ideas to help the organization improve daily.
Burkeman, to his credit, includes the conclusions of a management consultant: “The best companies I visited, all through the years, were never very hurried, … Because you don’t get creativity for free. You need people to be able to sit back, put their feet up, and think…. good ideas do not emerge more rapidly when people feel under the gun – if anything, the good ideas dry up.”
So, slackerism has some virtue after all!
Good leaders know that workers need more than an app to improve their work. They know workers need time away from routine and a work environment in which to consider how they work; they need time to think about the Why of their work and how it can be improved for the organization.
Dale Carnegie Training just released the results of its (Yes, this is the organization that furthers the work of the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” man). The study polled 3,100 workers at all levels in 13 countries.
U.S. employees identified the top five motivating and inspiring attributes of supervisors:
“Encouraging improvement (79 percent)
Giving praise and appreciation (74 percent)
Recognizing performance improvement (72 percent)
Admitting (supervisor) shortfalls before criticizing (68 percent)
… These leadership qualities also have a positive effect on employee retention and satisfaction.”
The report suggests the leaders need to close the perceived gap between what the worker wants from the boss and what he sees the boss doing. For example, workers value “Truly listening to Employees” at 88%, but the behavior, as practiced by bosses is observed at 60%, leaving a gap of 28%.
Valuing an employee's contribution” comes in at 86% importance for the worker, but it is observed 60% of the time among supervisors.
Sincere appreciation” is valued at 87%, but displayed among supervisors 61%.
“In the most striking example, 84 percent of U.S. employees said it is important for supervisors to admit mistakes, but according to these same employees only 51 percent of supervisors exhibit this behavior often – a gap of 33 percent.”
Wall Street Journal’s conclusive look at this study: “Attention, supervisors: You may be the reason your staffers want to leave.”
So, I would argue that effective leadership and followership have more to do with job satisfaction and performance than any performance-improving gizmo or gadget. While an app may boost individual performance, real job satisfaction and real lasting improvement come from a work environment that promotes the best leadership and followership.

UPDATE: An item from NPR with a stopwatch illustration, no less, discusses personal productivity. A cerebral take on the matter. Different from mine. Predates my essay by about three or four hours. Great minds, you know.

© Copyright 2017 John Lubans


Posted by jlubans on December 13, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Heading headlong into disaster.

A CERTAIN Snake had two Heads, one in the usual place and the other at the tip of his tail.
But while the Head that he had in the usual place was provided with a pair of good eyes, the Head at the end of his tail was blind.
Now there was a constant quarrel between these two Heads, for each of them claimed to be the more powerful Head, and to have mastery over the other.
Now, it was the custom of the Snake as he roamed around, to go with his real Head foremost.
But on one occasion the Head at the end of the Snake's tail seized hold of a wooden stake with its jaws, and by holding on firmly prevented the Snake from going further.
This convinced the Snake that the Head in his tail must be more powerful than the other Head, since it had got the best of the struggle.
Accordingly, from this time on, the Snake roamed about with his blind Head foremost ; and so presently he fell into a pit full of burning rubbish, being unable to see where he was going, and was thus burned to death.
Now, I am usu
ally an advocate for leadership coming from all directions, not just the top down. I even wrote a book about it: Leading from the Middle.
In this fable, the snake’s tail is different from the head; it's blind.
Likely, sightlessness (absence of a vision) can lead to disaster. Instead of collaborating, these two ends are in opposition.
How often did I find myself in a splintered and contentious leadership?
Often enough.
It was not fatal, like slithering into a rubbish fire, but we did not get the job done; the organization did not improve.
The blind tail is a prototypical example of the "alienated follower" theory. While an independent thinker an alienated follower disagrees with the leader’s vision and seeks to undermine, to sabotage, to derail.
The alienated follower – stubborn and consumed with envy - prefers the status quo to striving to achieve something better.

*Source: Katha-Sarit-Sagara. Book X, Chapter 63, to be found in Cooper, Frederic Taber, editor (1864-1937), “An argosy of fables; a representative selection from the fable literature of every age and land”. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1921.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

“Whatever they tell me.”

Posted by jlubans on December 09, 2019  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Of Parkinson’s Law and Marquet’s Flashlight*.

Two books I’ve been perusing lately, one a classic and the other a more recent application of leadership theory; both have links to the seas. The classic is by the naval historian, Parkinson, and the other is by L. David Marquet, a nuclear submarine commander. His book, “Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers into Leaders” juxtapositions neatly with C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1961 essay, “Parkinson's Law, or The Pursuit of Progress”.
Parkinson pointed out – much to the everlasting chagrin of bureaucrats the world over - that while between the world wars the number of navy ships decreased by two thirds, and (ship) personnel by a third, the number of bureaucrats ballooned approximately by 6% a year.
With fewer people and less work to manage – management was still expanding.
Parkinson concluded that this was due to two influences:
Managers hired two or more subordinates to report to them so that neither was in direct competition with the manager. (I would add that “keeping up with the Joneses” is also a driver.
Jake, a unit head, sees that Jill, a competing manager, has added a staffer. Immediately, Jake wants one and goes all out to add a budget line.)
And, secondly, Parkinson claimed that bureaucrats create work for other bureaucrats. It is here where his Law of work expanding to fit available time comes in. With little real work to do, the newly minted bureaucrat spends time, a lot of it, on making work for others and reviewing that work.
And, of course, the new bureaucrat will be burdened – he will soon tell you – by interminable meetings, signing off on forms and records, approval of paperwork coming from below and going on up, and in assuring compliance with the many rules and regulations promulgated by his bureaucratic counter parts.
All this and more displaces trust in the people doing real work and shifts decision-making authority to upper levels.
Perhaps someone has disproved what Parkinson found. Maybe they have shown that all those extra office workers during peacetime in the British Navy were adding genuine value.
When I spoke with my peers about Parkinson’s findings, they’d chuckle over Parkinson’s humor but they never applied it to themselves – besides it was about the British Navy, not about their exalted work!
And so it goes.
The two books are linked.
Parkinson observed how bureaucracies grew (even absent real work) and Marquet’s book provides a good example of what can go wrong in a multi-layered, top down, bureaucracy.
If you take away an employee’s authority and freedom to do his work, you enervate the employee and befuddle the organization.
Marquet, taking over a demoralized submarine of 135 sailors, found that top down decision-making was the ship’s dominant culture.
Individual initiative was not encouraged. Early in his command, when he asked a sailor, “What do you do?” the response was, “Whatever they tell me.”
Santa Fe’s sailors had learned that waiting to be told was “safer” than going ahead and fixing something – initiative would result in discipline for not following the rules, not getting permission or bypassing the chain of command.
Marquet has made a second career out of his experiences leading the Santa Fe. Aside from his book, he consults for organizations.
I am sure they are mystified when he says Taoist-sounding things like “I practiced less leadership, resulting in more leadership at every level of the command.”
Or, when he says, Don’t “Make inefficient processes efficient” vs. Do “Eliminate entire steps and processes that don’t add value.”
One last quote sure to lead to sputtering conniption fits among old salts and landlubber managers: Don’t “Take control vs. Do "Give control.”
While I practiced much of what Marquet proposes I did it mostly on intuition. I was convinced early on that freeing responsible and capable people would make positive things happen. Like Marquet, we quickly harvested the low hanging fruit that my top down predecessors could not or would not see.
Marquet explains – in detail – his reasoning for his way of leading. I look back now some 25 years, and his rationale makes plenty of sense.
I wish I had had Marquet’s courage and ability to listen to negative views about his leadership and his ability to explain what it was he was doing.
His openness brought along many of the doubters in his command.
Marquet succeeded at turning his ship around. In the Pacific command the Santa Fe gained excellent morale and scored at the highest levels in all the indicators of a battle ready crew and ship. He’d pretty much defeated the negative attitude evident in the “Whatever they tell me to do” way of thinking.

*When Marquet took over command he asked for a flashlight. He needed it to look into the nooks and crannies of the nuclear submarine.
None of the flashlights provided worked, either too dim or broken. He got a new flashlight, one as “bright as the sun”. It worked well in illuminating not only equipment failures but also the failures of a leader-follower model, the hierarchy, which was stifling innovation and independence. Others under his command soon began carrying working flashlights.

ONLY a click away:

And, my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle, is available at Amazon.

© Copyright John Lubans 2019

Huddles Are Not Group Hugs

Posted by jlubans on August 22, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

(Nothing against group hugs, I’m happy to engage, but they are no match for the power of a team huddle when the game’s on the line.)
20120823-TEAM b-ball.jpg
Seeing a women’s basketball team’s huddle (above) – no coaches, only players – is what drew me into writing about that team. My year with the team turned into Chapter 8 of my : “More Than a Game: A Season with a Women’s Basketball Team”
As I watched the USA men’s Olympic basketball team’s huddle at the start of the fourth and final quarter against Spain – with a one point lead - it summoned up for me that women’s huddle: out on the court, circled up with arms around shoulders, heads up, eyes and words giving encouragement. The tight circle symbolized what’s best about teams – mutual support, physical and verbal, and each participant fully engaged in the real work of the team – no holding back – in pursuit of a clear and desirable goal.

Caption: “Members of the United States basketball team talk before the start of the fourth quarter, Aug. 12, 2012”. (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
The above
picture is the only one I could find of what to me was the game's pivotal event. The photo comes close to capturing the intensity of that moment. The men’s huddle was a gathering of force, of energy in the gold medal game. It appeared to set things off towards winning. What went on in the huddle? It was LeBron James, I think, who called it. Here is what he shortly after the game:
"We knew it wasn't going to be easy. We didn't want it easy,”.... “We're a competitive team, and we love when it gets tight. That's when our will and determination kind of shows."
I’d wager a few of those sentiments were part of the back and forth in that huddle.
Spectators tend to forget the fatigue that comes to a team when it goes full tilt. It is, of course, a factor kept in mind by coaches. While a few players stay in for the entire game, most rotate in and out, conserving energy for the final effort. The huddle is a physical way for players to connect and to draw energy from each other.

Caption: “Book Ends” by
Béatrice Coron, 2002.
This melding among athletes, this sharing of strength, appears in an interpretative artwork done by Béatrice Coron shortly after my season with the women’s basketball team. I related to Béatrice my image of two injured players sitting out a practice. They were on a sideline table, mid court, leaning against each other, back to back, in support. Each had a bag of ice taped on an injured leg. Sidelined, they’d rather be playing. Hardly disengaged, they shouted encouragement to their teammates flying up and down the court.

Caption: A player tells the coach he wants to take the last shot.
Another huddle, in “the best sports movie ever made,” is noteworthy for how it sums up the growth of the team through a rocky season.
While fictionalized, the Hickory Huskers in “Hoosiers” are based on a real small town high school basketball team (Milan High School, 1954) in the middle of the USA. Over the season the players, coaches, and fans learn about themselves and help each other through adversity. An esprit de corps develops. The state championship game comes down to the last shot. The coach calls a time out and huddles with the team.
I teach about this moment through a film clip of the end of the game and I ask the students to tell me what they see happening. In this huddle, the coach’s strategy gets little support, but he has the courage and confidence to recognize a better idea, the one offered by a player! Of course, this film clip helps launch class discussion around what has to happen in any organization for staff to speak up.
I think work teams with high camaraderie probably would benefit from some version of a team huddle, just like the best sport teams do. At the least, stand up and talk to each other, eye to eye.
Huddle up!

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE LARK AND THE FARMER”*

Posted by jlubans on May 09, 2014  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: "The Lark and Her Young Ones" card advertising Sauer's Flavoring Extracts ca. 1908.

“A Lark nested in a field of corn, and was rearing her brood under cover of the ripening grain. One day, before the young were fully fledged, the Farmer came to look at the crop, and, finding it yellowing fast, he said, ‘I must send round word to my neighbours to come and help me reap this field.’ One of the young Larks overheard him, and was very much frightened, and asked her mother whether they hadn't better move house at once. ‘There's no hurry,’ replied she; ‘a man who looks to his friends for help will take his time about a thing.’ In a few days the Farmer came by again, and saw that the grain was overripe and falling out of the ears upon the ground. ‘I must put it off no longer,’ he said; ‘This very day I'll hire the men and set them to work at once.’ The Lark heard him and said to her young, ‘Come, my children, we must be off: he talks no more of his friends now, but is going to take things in hand himself.’"
“Self-help is the best help.”

At work, I could always count on a few people who helped promptly and some others who sort of helped. Most staff, regardless if there was a crisis demanding “all hands on deck”, were always too busy to pitch in. It was not until we paid for the extra hours that we saw interest in helping. Perhaps I should have demonstrated more urgency as to why the work needed to be done. When the mother lark spoke, the chicks knew it was time to go – the urgency was real. Some leaders cry wolf, exaggerate , or even lie. You might get away with it once like Aesop’s boy, but, if you depend on cooperation and collaboration to confront a crisis, you’ll be the loser.

*Source: AESOP'S FABLES A NEW TRANSLATION BY V. S. VERNON JONES WITH AN INTRODUCTION By G. K. CHESTERTON AND ILLUSTRATIONS BY ARTHUR RACKHAM (Publisher: London: W. Heinemann; New York: Doubleday, Page & Co., 1912). Available at Gutenberg.

Half off SALE: Order your library a copy of Leading from the Middle right here!

@Copyright John Lubans 2014

Thinking Impractically.

Posted by jlubans on May 09, 2016  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: NOT thinking impractically!

Keeping to my contrarian ways, there are times when impractical, indirect thinking may be better than following the scientific model of problem solving. The Eureka moment may come from sitting in a bathtub rather than running countless computer simulations.
That’s kind of the premise for a collection of fables for leaders.
My far-flung e-book team of author (NC), designer (Riga), illustrator (NYC), and editor (NC) is making progress. We’re producing an e-book for Fall 2016 based on the Friday Fables from this blog.
We’ve narrowed the fables down to 100 (out of more than 175) and have divided the 100 into five categories: Effective leader, Effective follower, Goals and Strategic Planning, Office Politics, and “Them and Us”. And, we’ve assigned several sub-heads to each category.
The book will open with Aesop’s “THE CRAB AND THE FOX”*
“A Crab once left the sea-shore and went and settled in a meadow some way inland, which looked very nice and green and seemed likely to be a good place to feed in. But a hungry Fox came along and spied the Crab and caught him. Just as he was going to be eaten up, the Crab said, ‘This is just what I deserve; for I had no business to leave my natural home by the sea and settle here as though I belonged to the land.’”
“Be content with your lot.”
My commentary begins: “This disputable moral – aren’t they all?” and goes on from there about just how contented one should be, if at all.
The book's purpose is to re-tell a good story and to inspire the reader to think about how this story and countless others engage us and help us in gaining a greater awareness of self.
Also, the fable e-book will serve as a text for a short class on literature and leadership in early 2017 at the University of Latvia.
Students will gain a new perspective on the world of work, a helpful one that exercises qualitative skills rather than relying excessively on quantitative analysis. This may be an “impractical” notion when compared to the purely practical - but I like to think that it is more than a little relevant to real world situations and helps us understand human behavior and improve one’s social IQ.
Right now, I’m considering the title. Originally, I thought my “Wisdom in a Thimble”* was a slam dunk, what with memories of the family in the kitchen, the children at mother’s knee while she sews and tells stories.
Then a young person asked, “What’s a thimble?”
I’d like for the title to catch the eye and to suggest what the book is about. Here are several brainstormed ideas:
“Fables for Managers: Thinking Impractically.”
“An impractical way of thinking.”
“Another way of thinking.”
“You’re not paid to think!”
“Uncritical thinking.”
“Be practical! Think impractically!”
“Fables for Dummies.”
I’m still looking. While eye-catching is important, more important is the implied suggestion that fables (among other literature) offer us insights into life problems, to our inculcated values. Those insights are not readily visible when one follows a disciplined, step-by-step, allegedly objective and critical approach to problem solving. Often, it’s the indirect path taken that leads to a break through. (Now, that sounds like the moral to a fable!)
The peculiarly worded end note of a translation** of Krylov’s fables is similar:
“Fable stories, readers saw in this book, are different …. Looking as a fiction they may be expanded on real everyday situations. Being supported by verse, stories easier touch our memory showing sometimes a path how to solve problems applying our knowledge and experience.”
That’s sort of what I am trying to get at, the idea that fables, ancient and new, or any kind of literature – stories - can give us insights that we might miss or overlook in our data driven, objectified seeking of solutions.
Be practical! How often have you heard that? The pragmatic beats daydreaming, does it not? Yet, we are directed to “challenge conventional thinking with original ideas”. How does one do that?
Fables are indirect, curvilinear (like life), oblique, off-kilter ways of getting to unexpected resolutions. It is anarchic, unconventional thinking.
It is Taoist. It is the way of the un-boss: “If you want to lead people, You must learn how to follow them.”
It is the idea of “doing by not doing”.
It is the Taoist’s counter to Stephen Covey: “Keep sharpening your knife and it will blunt.”
I already use literature in my classes - short stories, legends, myths, and fairly tales. They’ve been helpful; certainly a simple story can encompass complex life philosophies: equality, fairness, and kindness, helping others. Where do those notions come from? Why do they matter? Or, do they? I can imagine some would think not. These are core values for most of us. Engage them through simple stories and see where it takes us.

* That was the title of my February 24, 2016 fables workshop at the National Library of Latvia. It had 35 attendees and produced five new fables.

**End note, by David Karpman, “Fables of I.A.Krylov” 2010.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Good Teams: What’s the Secret?

Posted by jlubans on March 17, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption. Bridging the gap.

It’s an eternal question for me, why some teams do well and others fail. Is it luck or circumstance, personality, leadership, or urgency? All of these, none of these? Some of my work teams would take off and soar far above others . I try to explain this phenomenon in my classes by exploring the team theory espoused by Katzenbach and Smith, by discussing Tuckman’s “form, storm, norm, perform” and by introducing the students to Kurt Lewin’s studies on democratic leadership of groups.
And, I interweave the notion of leaderless teams, the idea that shared leadership can help a team realize its potential.
Still, it seems that teams fail much more easily than succeed.
Recently, there’s new research that claims to have found the lodestone for what makes a good team, something called “Factor C” or “collective intelligence”. “Why Some Teams Are Smarter Than Others” – an article I will assign to my students - explains the new theory.
“C” is a predictor of group failure or success and includes three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. Here’s an explanatory quote:
“(T)he smartest teams were distinguished by three characteristics.
“First, their members contributed more equally to the team’s discussions, rather than letting one or two people dominate the group.
Second, their members scored higher on a test called Reading the Mind in the Eyes, which measures how well people can read complex emotional states ….
Finally, teams with more women outperformed teams with more men. … This last effect, however, was partly explained by the fact that women, on average, were better at “mindreading” than men.”

Now, keep in mind, C or collective intelligence is a predictor of team success on group tasks performed in a laboratory setting. Six hundred and ninety seven participants (N=697) were randomly assigned into teams of 2 to 5 people. The tasks to be “solved” included brainstorming on the uses of a brick;
Caption: A RAPM test question.
answering Raven’s Advanced Progressive Matrices questions (depicted); dealing with the complexity of a disciplinary cases study, and planning a group shopping expedition, along with a couple other tasks. Statistically, the groups with the highest collective intelligence – the highest C score - performed best of all.
A big plus for this research, at least in my book, is that these teams had to achieve quantifiable results – the research was more about achieving goals than it was about how happy team members were with each other. I emphasize this because sometimes we think that a happy team is a productive team. That is rarely the case. I recall an organization that was convinced its teams were the best because team members felt good about being on teams – no productivity figures were kept. It was as if expecting improved results – faster, better, more innovation and higher production – were repulsive concepts. For me, an effective team has to improve on what it does – group feelings may be important but not as important as group productivity.
As expected, some believe C is “mumbo-jumbo” and has little to do with real world teams, teams that have to do real work. One Fortune 500 consultant says all that good teams need is “checking-in”, a quick process to clear the decks of hidden agenda, bad vibes, etc. Each member’s revealing what’s “eating his lunch”, results in increased honesty and respect among participants; from there good work can be done. Then there are the die-hard Myers–Briggs Type Indicator test proponents. Apparently, this vastly popular personality test is used by organization to assemble teams, supposedly well-balanced and diverse teams which anecdotally are better than teams selected on participant IQ or other criteria.
So far, the research on C appears to offer us some useful insights into teamwork, why some team get the job done while others spin their wheels.

NOTE: Sarah Brown’s intriguing chapter in the book, “Leading the 21st-century academic library : successful strategies for envisioning and realizing preferred futures” (edited by Bradford Lee Eden and published by Rowman & Littlefield, in 2015) cites Leading from the Middle several times.

© John Lubans 2015

Managing Self

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

While I was in NYC last week, a couple of friends talked to me about the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and its organizational model. One asked, “Surely, the model cannot be applied anywhere else, can it?” Another friend, as we talked about this conductor-less group, queried “Isn’t Orpheus self-selected?” In other words, was not Orpheus born that way, a natural grouping of like-minded people?
So, can the model replace hierarchical groups?
A good question and I am going to try to come up with a more rounded explanation than my usual response of fitting the Orphean model to professional groups, like a legal, media, or medical practice or, in my realm, a medium to large-size academic library.

20121205-Opheus Chamber Orchestra-2481.jpeg
Caption: Orpheus in performance at Carnegie Hall; Like Kilroy, I was there in the first Tier, Dec 1. (Used with permission.)
In fact, the question was on my mind while listening to that evening’s glorious music (Prokofiev, Barber, Mozart ).
As the reader knows, I often write and teach about Orpheus. Chapter 6 of the book is “The Invisible Leader: Lessons for Leaders from the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.” That chapter describes in detail many of the attributes of the orchestra, including the claim that Orpheus demonstrates more leadership than do hierarchical organizations. Which of course it must since there is no conductor, no single leader – each musician takes responsibility for the whole piece, not just his or her part.
And, my most recent explanatory blog entry about Orpheus is here.
Well, what happens when a hierarchical organization adopts the Orpheus model? What changes?
Here are a few of the differences, some characteristics and features. This is a preliminary listing, derived from my years leading self-managing teams and from my decade of observing Orpheus. If you have some aspects to add or delete, let me know.
- A greatly scaled back administrative group. The former departments, now self-managing teams, take on many of the responsibilities of divisional vice-presidents. While reduced in numbers, the administrative office still provides organization-wide services, like professional development and learning. Also, accounting continues centralized. There is an external-facing Leader with an overview of the organization but this is a leader in the Taoist tradition: "The best leader leads least".
- No performance appraisal. Stop cheering, please! Simply, it is not needed in effective teams.
Discipline is needed less because there are few if any administrative rules and regulations that contribute to problems and get in the way of real work and productivity. Teams are self-managing and they counsel, coach and discipline as needed.
- Less closed-off office space. Instead, most people use open workstations and cubicles. Conferences are held in former corner offices (with views) out and in. The architectural idea is to make collaboration easy.
- A supportive support staff. Non-career staff are there to assist teams, offer input and ideas, and largely to implement the work of the organization. Support staff are responsive and responsible; they are a working extension of the organization’s mission, helpful to one and all, inside and outside the organization. Support staff facilitate information requests and connect outsiders with insiders.
- No standing meetings, apart from an annual “New England town-hall” event. The annual meeting sets the budget, chooses new initiatives, and re-asserts priorities, values and mission. All other meetings are impromptu, called as needed. Whoever calls a meeting takes responsibility for research and preparation of the topic prior to discussion and resolution.
- Collaborative decision-making. If a decision involves another team, it has to include the other group and anyone else touched by the decision. Occam's razor frames the decision-making process.
- Salary equity. While not totally flat, salaries are less stratified than in the hierarchy. Regardless, salaries are competitive with markets. Seniority does matter, but most people make about the same. The leader’s salary is more but moderately so.
- Hours worked are reasonable, 30-40 per week. People set their own schedules, recognizing there is life beyond work. Vacations and sabbaticals are generous. Productivity is high.
- The “org” chart is a circle.

There you have it! None of these features require a genetic pre-disposition. (Actually, humans are already pre-disposed toward this type of organization!) All that’s needed is willingness to simplify the workplace, take responsibility and do more real work than under the old ways. If a person is at odds with managing self, he or she has the option to leave. If a musician yearns for someone in charge - a conductor, that musician should be in a conductor-led orchestra! Most re-organizations attempt, but rarely succeed, at shrinking the hierarchy. The Orpheus model is different. It reduces non-essential staffing and results in a more empowered and productive staff.


Posted by jlubans on April 28, 2020  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: What's left of a Temple of Jupiter in Lebanon.

A Thief lighted his Lamp at the altar of Jupiter, and then plundered it by the help of its own light.
Just as he was taking his departure, laden with the results of his sacrilege, the Holy Place suddenly sent forth these words: “Although these were the gifts of the wicked, and to me abominable, so much so that I care not to be spoiled of them, still, profane man, thou shalt pay the penalty with thy life, when hereafter, the day of punishment, appointed by fate, arrives.
But, that our fire, by means of which piety worships the awful Gods, may not afford its light to crime, I forbid that henceforth there shall be any such interchange of light.”
Accordingly, to this day, it is neither lawful for a lamp to be lighted at the fire of the Gods, nor yet a sacrifice kindled from a lamp.
No other than he who invented this Fable, could explain how many useful lessons it affords.
In the first place, it teaches that those whom you yourself have brought up, may often be found the most hostile to you: then again, it shows that crimes are punished not through the wrath of the Gods, but at the time appointed by the Fates: lastly, it warns the good to use nothing in common with the wicked.
However labored,
the point is made. Don’t filch from the church.
Remember what happened to Bernie Madoff? That’s the Fates at work for his theft from St. Mary’s poor box when a wee lad.
But, there’s more.
The temple says good riddance to “the gifts of the wicked” yet in real life we know that some institutions are glad to accept tainted money.
When exposed, the response is “'taint enough!”
A gift of stolen money may well do good and/or it may act as a salve to a guilty conscience. Yet, unable to resist temptation, the beneficiary may mis-use the gift.
Finally, to whom is Phaedrus alluding when he says “those whom you yourself have brought up, may often be found the most hostile to you.”



© Copyright John Lubans 2020

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE NUT TREE AND THE PEOPLE”*

Posted by jlubans on December 06, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: A trio of Know-Nots having a go at the tree.
“There was a nut tree standing by the side of the road who had a great many nuts and the people walking along the road used to knock them off by throwing sticks and stones at the tree. The nut tree then said sadly, 'Woe is me! People gladly enjoy my fruits, but they have a terrible way of showing their gratitude.'” 

“The fable indicts those ungrateful and wicked people who requite good deeds with cruelty.”

Those flinging sticks and stones punish the good deed of the nut tree. So is the olive tree shaken violently by a machine to harvest its fruit.
But, only the truly unwise would do so much damage as to kill off the source of the harvest. Yet, we’ve been known to exhaust the land, to suck the rivers dry, to foul the air. Most of us know that we are here to husband Nature’s resources, not destroy them. What we can do, each of us, is as obvious as consuming a cylindrical can of Pringles and tossing it into the street from your car. Take the lead - do the obvious - take care of the Earth. As for the trio abusing the nut tree, quote something from Chief Seattle. If they do not cease and desist, beat them with zest and relish.

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

N.B. On Nov. 7th, the New York Library Club co-sponsored a book and panel discussion at CUNY Graduate Center to celebrate the release of the book Career Q&A: A Librarian’s Real-Life, Practical Guide to Managing a Successful Career. Susan Hoover’s summary
recommends perusing Leading from the Middle: “Even if you don’t manage people or resources, you can still be a leader. Leadership can exist at all levels. For more on an expanded concept of leadership, check out the book Leading from the Middle by John Lubans.”

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Naked in the Democratic Workplace

Posted by jlubans on February 10, 2015  •  Leave comment (2)

Caption: Shoeless, almost, in San Pedro, BZ.
No, this is not an appeal for an extreme kind of Casual Friday. Nor, anything like a Thong Thursday!
And, I am not calling for a “clothing optional” office!
Rather, while unwinding last week under the palms in a gentle tropical breeze, it came to me that Nudism is somewhat like talking about the democratic workplace. Many are curious, but there are few adherents. There are voyeurs and prurient observers, but there are relatively few practitioners. Social inhibitions apply, if not equally, to both. No one wants to be pantless in a pantsuit town.
So, while nudism and the DW have their appeal, it’s limited. But, their influence is considerable. Nudism influences fashion, moving us from head to toe beach coveralls to what Will Rogers said in the 1920s: “I never expected to see the day when girls would get sunburned in the places they do now.”
Likewise, I do believe the democratic workplace can help re-clothe, if you will, the hierarchy, a sort of “Sartor Resartus” for how we organize for work.
Speaking of Carlyle’s philosophical novel – which I presumably read in my Victorian Literature class at my alma mater, Lebanon Valley College - its premise, some say, comes from Jonathan Swift’s 1704 question:
“What is Man himself but a Micro-Coat, or rather a compleat Suit of Cloaths with all its Trimmings?” For Carlyle, civilization and its institutions – including the workplace – was shabbily clothed, frayed, and in need of retailoring, a makeover.
That makeover is achievable today through reflecting about the democratic workplace. Doing so need not be an anxiety dream. In the light of day we can consider and apply some or all of these elements to how we organize for work:
Many leaders.
De-centralized power.
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
Planning involves everyone.
Team-based, flat organization.
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
Managers do “real work”.
No formal performance appraisal.
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
A proactive organization.

Hardly anarchy, these qualities can result in improved conditions both for the workplace and society.

@Copyright 2015 John Lubans

Laura Gibbs’ The Fool Carries the Plow*

Posted by jlubans on February 14, 2021  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Homer thinks the weekly meeting is the GOAT!

There was a peasant who had been plowing all day. By day's end both the peasant and his donkey were exhausted.
The peasant was a good-hearted fellow, so when he saw how tired his donkey was, he took pity on the poor beast. "I need you to carry me home, dear donkey," said the peasant, "but I don't want you to have to carry the plow too."
So, the good-hearted fool picked up the heavy plow, put it on his shoulders, and then mounted the donkey.
"I'll carry the plow," he said to the donkey, "and you can carry me."
The 1692 version’s Moral: “Some Brute Animals, have more understanding then some Men.”
Surely this bit of jumbled thinking was a joke but it serves as a lesson to all who seek to alleviate what they believe is someone’s suffering by aggravating their misery.
For example, I worked in an organization in which many (not all) employees complained of too many meetings – they, the complainers, hated giving up time – they wanted that time back to do their work – something they enjoyed and believed to be important to the organizational mission.
One of the least productive meetings was a mandatory weekly get together. It was largely information sharing rather than decision making.
Usually from start to finish the meeting, attended by 45 people, lasted for 75 minutes. In other words, the organization spent close to 60 hours in non-work in that one gathering!
The executives who ran the meeting – often giving self-congratulatory reports on organizational achievements in their bailiwicks - came up with the solution: donuts, bagels and coffee!
Instead of hearing how many employees considered meetings as unproductive and leading the way to shutting down the most wasteful, they kept the status quo but did add donuts.
And, instead of letting everyone know that meetings were to be used sparingly and only with a real purpose that resulted in something substantial – an improvement! - the executives added bagels with three types of cream cheese.
Now, besides wasting their most productive employees’ time they were adding to their caloric intake, many of whom were tending - from all that sitting - toward the pleasingly plump.

*Source: A Laura Gibbs’ 100-Word microfable. This is her rendition of “A Man that Carried his Plough to Ease his Oxen”, one of the Fables found in “Fables of Aesop and Other Eminent Mythologists with Morals and Reflections by Roger L'Estrange”, 1692.

© Copyright all text John Lubans 2021

Edible Books, 2016

Posted by jlubans on April 24, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

The B2E team project in my class gives each team the opportunity to try out the several democracy-at-work concepts: developing into a productive team, collaborating, leading, following, supporting each other in getting something done, delivering a product; in this case a “book to eat”. It’s action-learning about group effort.
After lectures and assigned readings and after case-studies and experiential activities, each team now gets hands-on experience in rehearsing democratic concepts. And each team, like a musical group, gets to deliver a public performance of its metaphoric interpretation of the chosen story or song; its music, if you will.
Following their performances, I ask each team to gather for a plus/delta on how they worked together, what went well, what could have gone better? As in previous years, each of the 2016 groups stressed the value of getting to know each other:
“Good reason for bonding, getting to know our team members.”
“We would like to see each other again”
“Relationships go through stomach”
“(Meeting) Different people”

The three group presentations:
1. "Rabbit Meets New Friends", Latvian folk tale “Zakis Satiek Jaunus Draugus
Caption: Puppet show of story.

2. “The Sea Needs a Fine Net” " A plaintively sweet, traditional prenuptial song: Jūriņ' prasa smalku tīklu”.

Caption: Singing of nets and boats and unrequited love.

3. Mouse and rats, Latvian folktale, “Pelēns un žurkas” by Jānis Dailis.
Caption: Planning steps.

Prevalent in each team’s deltas was that time management could have been improved:
“Our performance could have been better, because of the lack of time.”
“We should have more rehearsals”
Each team appeared to come to an easy agreement on their choice of topic; two of the three mentioned voting to decide.
I was most impressed this year by how each team’s members fully participated in their projects and how each played a real role:
“Like in the story, everyone in our team did what they can do best.”
“We are creative, trust each other; no boss.”
“No one (was) left out.)
“We divided tasks equally.”
There is of course a tangible and immediate payoff for creating and working together: first, there’s the satisfaction of having gotten through the B2E project and the savoring by all of each team’s best effort.

©Copyright John Lubans 2016

Envy and other deadly workplace sins:

Posted by jlubans on March 23, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

Kookaburra and Crow - A Fable

A long time ago Kookaburra and Crow were friends. They lived in a land of perpetual night with little to eat. At Kookaburra’s inspiration, they invited Sun to their dark and desolate land. Under Sun’s warm rays, the land soon flourished. Crow and Kookaburra and the other animals learned new ways to grow and harvest food with plenty left over. No one was hungry and all were grateful to Kookaburra and Crow.

But Crow, a master of detail and cultivation, soon grew jealous of Kookaburra’s greeting Sun each morning with his raucous laugh and basking in the glory of the dawn. One day while Kookaburra was away, Crow persuaded the animals to shun Kookaburra, saying that Kookaburra played all day and did nothing but laugh at Sun; anyone could bring the sunshine to their land. The animals turned against Kookaburra.

Soon the land became dark and joyless – Sun no longer dawned, try as Crow would to Caw! Caw! a morning greeting. The animals began to fight among themselves. The few remaining crops dwindled in the pale light of the stars. Crow had secretly stored food, but would only share it with those who called him King.

Sun saw through Crow’s treachery and followed Kookaburra to a new land, the land down under, where Kookaburra greets her every morning with hilarious and joyful laughter. In Crow’s land, only a few animals remember the days of sunshine and plenty for all – it was like a dream, or so it seemed.

And we know why Sun never rises to Crow’s, Caw! Caw!(1)

Like Aesop’s fables of old, my introductory story has a moral, one that applies to the real world. It touches on how petty behavior, like Crow’s jealousy, can lead us to lose something we value. To our chagrin, we can slip backwards away from the progress we have made. Crow’s jealousy (and treachery) turns a sunshine filled world back into a dismal place.

My fable comes from my experience in the library workplace. I have seen libraries give up solid and positive gains because of conflict among leaders; or, if we did not surrender our gains, I have seen libraries grow idle after achieving a plateau and incrementally slip back into the old ways.

1. My fable is inspired by the many Australian tribal stories. One enjoyable-to-read collection is Aboriginal Myths, Legends and Fables, by A. W. Reed. Sydney: Reed New Holland, 1999.

Listen to Kookaburra greet the sun:

Sleepless Nights and Prozac Prescriptions

Posted by jlubans on March 20, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

A frequent request I get, like I did after my talk at the Estonian National Library, is to provide library examples of democratic workplaces*. That’s an interesting question to answer since there are no all-out democratic libraries, quite to the contrary. Other realms** offer up examples, like New York’s highly successful Orpheus Chamber Orchestra or, in Brazil, the highly successful and productive Semco Group as described in one of my class readings: “Thought Leaders: Ricardo Semler Won’t Take Control.”
There have been some democratic efforts in academic libraries – I had a leadership role in one – but these are parochial and circumscribed. One research library claims to be team-based and that does appear to be true, but when I inquired about their rationale the official response was similar to other tentative efforts: to make staff feel more involved in the organization, and, from that engagement, to derive greater job satisfaction. That’s commendable but I would have preferred a public statement that the teams will improve on what the library does, will develop new services and will, quantifiably, increase productivity.
I have always held that a re-organization needs a substantial rationale. Shifting people around into a new, feel-good assemblage is not enough. Some good may come from re-organization, but the dozens I have witnessed - including a huge one underway right now - show more imbroglio than improvement.
I have not much history with the Semco Group but from what I read and observe, many executives the world over admire Ricardo Semler, the owner-founder. Few, if any, want to duplicate his democratic workplace. Semler says - facetiously, I think - that there are two reasons for this: That 80% of business people will not give up control. And that the other 20% do not trust mankind, on its own, to do good. Does this absolute ratio, however tongue-in-cheek, apply to libraries? Probably.
I certainly recall a multitude of queasy feelings when I surrendered control over a bevy of departments. Because compensation and status is based on one’s place on the hierarchical ladder, a flat and ladder-less terrain may induce sleepless nights and Prozac prescriptions. Worse, some leaders egotistically do not believe staff capable of self-management (people need supervision!) and/or that none can replace their most excellent leadership. They are certain that the democratic way of work is utopian and naive in the real world of the hierarchy!
Yes, I did find - at some personal cost - that democracy in the library workplace is not for everyone. Indeed some of the library work groups I supervised were unhappy with empowerment and were very passive about sharing power. They abhorred the notion of limiting a boss’ power and freeing up people to do their best, to be all they could be.
Because of this intransigence (plus libraries are almost never stand-alone institutions which further restricts their autonomy) my book
and blog are meant to stimulate and challenge individuals, not to vex hierarchical dinosaurs. So, I encourage the individual - leader and follower - to think about democratic concepts and to apply democratic ways of working to his or her local situation. If you are a department head that believes people work best when trusted, respected and free to make decisions about how to do a job, then be democratic in leading. Or, if you are a hard working follower, then support and practice democratic concepts in working with others.
Even if your workplace is the most constipated and untrusting hierarchy, you can be democratic in what you do and think. If you are required to take part in the ritual of formal performance evaluation, you can coach and advise people separately from the paperwork.
I think the democratic work place 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 want something more. We should be paying attention.
There is a glimmer of hope on the library horizon.
A colleague at a conservative research library tells me administrative attitudes about command and control are shifting. Her term for what she is seeing is the “post-departmental” library. Her meaning: the hierarchy is frequently by-passed and that a more matrix-like organization is emerging. While departments remain, library-wide task forces - composed of staff and supervisors - are used to set policies and to avoid departmental turf battles. While this library has a long way to go on the democratic continuum, it may well exemplify what is occurring in other large libraries.
From what I know of my friend’s library, I can well imagine that the executives pine for the good old days of command and control, but they have had to make concessions. If they resist during these difficult economic times, they might discover that their power only exists as long as those whom they supervise want them to have it. I am optimistic that many reluctant administrators, like the room full of managers I spoke to in Estonia, actually may come to like a democratic organization.

*As defined here:
Many leaders.
De-centralized power.
Open “books” (finances and personnel).
Planning involves everyone.
Team-based, flat organization.
Many effective (independent and critical thinking and action-taking) followers.
Managers do “real work”.
No formal performance appraisal.
Workers help define individual perks, from parking to pay.
A proactive organization.

**For more examples of democratic organizations, there is the WorldBlu (Freedom at Work) web site for its list of “Most Democratic Workplaces.” There are no libraries or academic institutions on that list, but it is well worth looking at since those on the list are carrying out and helping define what it means to be democratic.

Case 3: Team Dynamics

Posted by jlubans on September 02, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)


What do you decide to do about these not uncommon team situations? What might be driving the team member’s behavior? Do you call the behavior or ignore it? Tell me why.

1. Hal waxes eloquent with little prompting. Actually, sometimes without any prompting. He’s infatuated with the sound of his voice. When a simple yes or no would suffice, Hal goes on for two or three minutes or more. You’re the team leader and you’ve been keeping track of Hal’s “airtime” in team meetings. He’s at about 50%, and gaining. While there’s usually some value in his comments, his verbosity is shutting down other viewpoints, especially from quieter team members whom he leaves, literally, speechless.

2. Sally and Ralph sit side by side in your team’s weekly meeting. They often whisper during team discussions. You have no idea if what they are murmuring about is related to the topic under discussion. Every now and then, when the general team discussion gets a bit unfocused, they’ll get into an out loud side-conversation totally irrelevant to the topic being discussed. You get a sense their behavior is annoying to the other team members, but so far no one has confronted them, including, you, the team leader. Do you?

3. Lucy is a know it all. She ignores other team members’ viewpoints, giving the impression that her view is better informed than anyone else’s. Lucy can quote chapter and verse on most policies and procedures. However, her arguments, invariably, are to maintain the status quo rather than to improve and make changes. In the process she silences other team members who do not have the familiarity she has with the topic and are fearful of being shown up. Yet, you know these silenced team members have very good ideas. Confront?

4. Jack really, really, would like to be back in his cubicle cataloging books rather than in the weekly team meeting. His disdain for team work is on view as he squirms in his seat, checks his watch, and rolls his eyes when discussion goes on and on. He tries to hurry the process along so he can get back to his “real work”, as he calls it. He is a highly productive worker, is very courteous outside of team meetings, and has a fine sense of humor. He simply detests team projects. What’s up?

5. In team discussions, Jamie is supportive of other views, builds on ideas, listens keenly, asks constructive questions and provides excellent feedback. Her failing? Whenever she volunteers to do extra work for the team, which she does often, she rarely completes it on time, if ever. When confronted about her procrastination, Jamie rattles off lots of reasons why her work is delayed. Keep on keepin’ on?

6. Sofia’s a hard working team member in this public services unit. But she has a knack for turning team discussion into a negative energy drain. A cheerleader for her own team, she has nothing good to say about the other teams in the organization: to her they are all incompetent. Sofia has derisive names for the members of other teams, including “deadwood”, “shiftless,” “asleep at the switch”, etc. Since you must collaborate with these groups, Sofia’s disdain is a major stumbling block. Well, WHAT are you going to do about Sofia?


Posted by jlubans on September 29, 2010  •  Leave comment (0)

While in Hollywood during the 30s, P. G. Wodehouse saw a lot of “Yes men”. He wrote a short story about this phenomenon entitled The Nodder*. In the story, decades before Robert Kelley set forth his Follower grid, Mr. Wodehouse established a hierarchy of toadyism. Sunny Hollywood, of course, was (is?) a natural breeding ground, equal to Wall Street, for the worst kind of followers what with its megalomaniacal studio bosses, a sycophantic press, the star system, and - being the only show in town during the Depression - a generous stream of cash to cover vanity payrolls, including a colony of Brits: writers, actors and penniless members of the peerage. The colony had its own cricket team.

One of those colony writers (and cricketer) was P. G. Wodehouse. It is said he endured being paid thousands for doing next to nothing (not his choice) for three years, and then his contract was not renewed. Shortly after (more likely during his three years of being under used) he wrote several stories, including at least one novel that exposed child labor in the film industry. Not at all like the muckraker Sinclair Lewis, all of Wodehouse’s writing was in good humor and with his usual celebration of the absurd.

The story includes a definition:

“A Nodder is something like a Yes-man, only lower in the social scale. A Yes-Man’s duty is to attend conferences and say “Yes.” A Nodder’s, as the name implies, is to nod. The chief executive throws out some statement of opinion and looks about him expectantly. This is the cue for the senior Yes-Man to say yes. He is followed, in order of precedence, by the second Yes-Man - or Vice-Yesser -, as he sometimes is called- and the junior Yes-Man. Only when all the Yes-Men have yessed, do the Nodders begin to function. They nod. “

The Nodder in the story is a young man who seeks the hand of a bird imitator – yes, back in the day there were vaudeville performers paid to warble. He encounters difficulty in his suit until the Cecil B. DeMille-type studio boss fires the bird imitator when she speaks truth to Cecil’s power: the cuckoo exclaims with a Wuckoo!, not a Cuckoo!. Now, the Nodder has his chance to demonstrate to his true love that he is a Real Man – or not, by telling off Cecil. Will he? Will the worm turn?

When teaching about leaders and followers, I combine the assigned reading for Kelley with Wodehouse’s Nodder short story. Some students never quite get the connection. Others immediately see the link and probably learn more from it about the iniquitous side of following than from reading Kelley with his elaboration of sheep, yes men, alienated followers and survivors.

*P. G. Wodehouse, “The Nodder”, in his Blandings Castle.
NY: The Overlook Press (original copyright, 1935) 2002,

Copyright John Lubans 2014