"I strongly recommend it."

Posted by jlubans on January 28, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

Review of book in Journal of Academic Librarians ship, here.
Delmus Williams shares what he thinks of the book, concluding with "I strongly recommend it".

The best leader leads least

Posted by jlubans on January 24, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

One of the readings in my Latvia management class will be Marshall’s study of anarchism, Demanding the Impossible* - an odd selection you might think. I came to include it via a touch of insomnia. Sleepless, I was peering around for something to read when I spotted my copy of Lao-Tzu’s Tao Te Ching.** It reminded me of the Marshal book. You may be familiar with the tiny Tao – the Book of the Way. It is poetical, pithy and paradoxical:

Those who know don’t talk.
Those who don’t know talk.

We shape clay into a pot,
But it is the emptiness inside
That holds whatever we want.

Human beings thrive when least interfered with.

A depiction of Lao Tzu, one with Mother Earth.

As any anarchist will tell you, people don’t like to be told what to do. We really, really don’t like to follow orders.

A principle Taoist concept, Wei, is defined as any “artificial, contrived activity that interferes with natural and spontaneous development.” Think of taxes, performance appraisals and, committee meetings. How much of our workday is Wei?

Paradoxically, if not surprisingly, Wu-wei means the absence of wei. Wu-wei seeks creative and effective use of energy, not defeatist submission. As the opposite of wei, wu-wei has its own agenda. Quoting Marshall: “Instead of being avoided like the plague, work (is) transformed into spontaneous and meaningful play…” Think of the last time you came to the rescue for a patron in desperate need. Not a Wei moment!

For the last three decades more than a few management thinkers have told us, without telling us how, to follow the Taoist way for leadership. I refer to the mysterious claim that after a job well done "the best leader is one about whom the workers say, WE DID IT OURSELVES!" While the promotion of this type of leadership, particularly by proponents of the so-called Learning Organization sounds great, its meaning was and is elusive.

Well before the Learning Organization, Mary Parker Follett offered:
"Supervision is necessary; supervision is resented."
Yet, she championed the boss’ backing off. Recall that she wrote in the mid 1920s and bossism was absolute. She had observed that the best way to do a job was to involve the worker, to use their expertise rather than ordering them about as if incapable of thought. And, she had a much larger view of the workplace as a contributing, even enabling, part of a democratic society. Had she read the Tao?

My students will also read a leadership essay by Follett+; I am hoping they will see the link to Marshall‘s thoughts on Taoism.
*Marshall, Peter. “Taoism and Buddhism” excerpted from his book, Demanding the Impossible: A History of Anarchism, London: HarperCollins, 1992. Pp. 53-60.

**Tao Te Ching: A New English Version, with Forward and Notes, by Stephen Mitchell, NY: HarperPerrenial 1992 (The Book of the Way (ca. 500 BC), is said to be written by Lao-Tzu, a librarian some say! ) Confucius offered a competing life philosophy to Taoism. In brief: Confucius defined moral obligations between individuals and social systems. It was implicit that man needed to be regulated and an established government was an effective way to maintain order and progress. Taoism was the antithesis to this, alas, prevailing worldview.

+ Follett, Mary Parker, “The Essentials of Leadership” with Commentary by Warren Bennis in Prophet of Management: A Celebration of Writings from the 1920s, Pauline Graham (Editor) Boston: Harvard Business School Press, 1996 pp. 163-181

Failing to fail

Posted by jlubans on January 15, 2011  •  Leave comment (0)

This follows up my Committing to Magic post from October 24, 2010.

As unpleasant as failing may be, we learn from it. In my admittedly contrarian point of view, if we want to hasten learning, we should fail more often. Of course, losing or failing runs counter to our desire to do it right, to win, to reach the mountain top, not falter half way up.

There is a type of failure that we do not learn from – when we fail because we do not try or care enough to do our very best. There’s no learning from a mediocre effort.

The best coaches use a hard fought loss to make a team better. Just recently a highly ranked basketball team lost a game, I was impressed with what one player had to say after the loss: “This tape's (the game video) gonna be out there now. Teams are going to watch this tape to see 'This is how X got them. This is how we can get them.' Now we can just learn from this game, get better and look forward to (the next game).” There’s a player who does not fear failure!

My October 24 post was about how Orpheus Chamber Orhchestra musicians coached a student orchestra to play without a conductor. As readers of Leading from the Middle know, Orpheus plays without a conductor and still produces a world-class sound. If anyone can, Orpheus should be able to demonstrate to students how they go about making great music without a boss telling them what to do. Over the years, I’ve been impressed with some of the Orpheus’ coaches. Their coaching calls on the students to take ownership, to collaborate with each other in the playing, and to make decisions usually reserved for a conductor. On a rare occasion, I have seen Orpheus musicians who, interestingly enough, coach more like conductors and leave little room for a student orchestra to make its own mistakes. This avoidance of failure popped up in a follow up survey report on the most recent student orchestra learning how to play without a conductor: a few students recommended that Orpheus coaches act more like conductors!

I responded to the report's author with a question:
"Are these students allowed to 'fail'? I use the word advisedly. In other words, will a coach let the players go with a 'bad' decision if that is what the musicians want to do? Or, are these students looking for the 'right answer' from the Orpheus coach? It comes through in the report that the Orpheus musician/coaches had a pretty good idea of what the music should sound like and were not reluctant to direct the students toward that interpretation. Certainly, Mr. X did. The different coaching approaches left me wondering how clearly Orpheans understand their coaching role. I would say that the coaching at times is more what I see among sports coaches, who impose their will on a team to win vs. a coach who wants the team to develop and become highly effective.

When I think of applying the Orpheus model to a management class - with teams having to choose, develop and present a project - I can see where after training the teams in group dynamics and interpersonal skills, I would leave the groups alone - to let them figure it out, learning from their mistakes, their trials and tribulations. I'd look in from time to time over a semester and I'd be available if a rescue were needed but otherwise, it would be up to them. Up to them."

I’ve seen this rigged avoidance of failure before: in outdoor adventure events there is strong motivation to have all participants succeed. Whether I am teaching the event or participating in the event I am tempted to make success happen.
20110115-fear fail.jpg In belayed rock climbs, I’ve seen instructors literally haul up someone who has made a good effort but simply does not have the strength to make it the rest of the way. Most participants know the person did not make the full climb, yet we celebrate like he did. Maybe we are celebrating his good effort?
20110115-wall.jpgWhat happens when all members of a group cannot get over a 14-foot tall wooden wall? There’s a deep value, like for the losing basketball player, in appreciating good effort, in talking with "bruised and battered" participants about what went well and what could have gone better.

While teaching in Latvia I am going to experiment with self-managing teams with the “Self-managing team Project: Leading from the Center”. There’s a risk these teams will not do as well as I might want them to. After all, like the student orchestra, if left alone, a team might make poor choices, it might knot up with failed communication, drift along with no one leading, and it might settle for adequate rather than best. We will see. Here is the gist of the assignment:

Each team will organize itself, choose a topic (about a real problem or question for Latvian libraries), plan and prepare a study plan with defined roles for each member. On June 3rd each team will make a fifteen-minute presentation to the class about the study’s outcomes. The presentation of outcomes and recommendations will be in Latvian with a written English summary for the instructor.

Prior to team formation we will spend several classes on teamwork, self- directed work groups, conflict resolution, communication and peer coaching. Also, once the teams are formed, the instructor will attend two meetings of each team and will be available for consultation and coaching throughout the semester.
Following the presentations we will assess what each team learned about self-management and what went well and what could have gone better.

No doubt, I will be tempted, just like the Orpheus coaches, to intervene when the music is not as good as I think it should be; tempted to tell the team how to solve the problem instead of empowering the team to do it or fail trying. I will try to bear in mind that if I too assiduously protect them from failing, I am doing them a disservice.

If you have thoughts on how to improve this assignment, let me know.