Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE WOLF AND THE DONKEY”* (completed December 4.)

Posted by jlubans on November 30, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration from Caxton's Aesop’s Fables, 1484.
“The word of a wicked man can never be trusted. Listen to this fable, for example. 
The wolf paid a visit to the ailing donkey. He began to touch the donkey's body and to ask him in what part of his body he felt the greatest pain. The donkey answered, 'Wherever you touch me!' 
The same is true of wicked people: even if they pretend to be helpful and speak nicely, they are actually in a hurry to harm you.'"

This fable is notable for having a moral at the top and bottom. The morals use more words than the fable.
And so, returning to the fable, must have thought a reluctant few of my dozen department heads when I’d venture forth on one of my episodic streamlining efforts for which I required their collaboration. “Where does it hurt? Everywhere you look!”

I saw Edward Sheldon’s The Boss (1911) performed this weekend in NYC. It is a socio-melodrama about a brutish boss and his eventual (if unbelievable) redemption. Along the way it explores labor and management relations (abusive), alcoholism (rampant), union busting and bashing, old money vs. new, etc.
Fortunately, we have come a long way since the days of blatantly wolfish bosses preying upon donkey-like workers. Have we come far enough, made enough progress? Hardly! If we are to advance out of the status quo in which management and labor is locked we’ll need to return to democratic principles – and even greater emphasis on fairness, respect and transparency for bosses and workers.
Even the brutal boss in 1911 was an improvement over the feudalism depicted in Figaro, a rousing and brilliant adaptation of Le Mariage de Figaro by Beaumarchais (1784) which I saw at the Pearl Theater on 42nd. Street. At the time the count held the power of life and death - along with all forms of harassment - over his household staff. Figaro (servant, barber & “professional troublemaker”) wins the day but only when aided by the vivacious and elusive (both to Figaro and the libidinous count) Suzanne, the archetypal Columbina of the European commedia dell’arte. Five years after this play’s performance, the French Revolution began with the execution - as in "off with their heads" - of many of the nobility, the bosses.

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

"You Ain’t Moses."*

Posted by jlubans on November 28, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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I have next to me an inscribed copy of LaVerne Thornton’s new book, “You Ain’t Moses.” We’ve become friends since I wrote a column about one of the stories in LaVerne’s first book, “Walk in 'e Moon.”
He, by the way, reciprocated with an essay on servant leadership.
Our Internet friendship started in March of 2011. At the time, LaVerne was in Sanford, North Carolina and I was teaching in Riga, Latvia. Shortly after getting back to the USA we met at Virlie’s Grill in Pittsboro; it was the first of our several lunches there.
About a year ago, LaVerne decided to publish another book, a collection of two dozen stories from his adult life: lessons from business, family, church and travel, all anchored in the childhood values gained growing up in The Bend, a “lost” farming community on the state line of North Carolina and Virginia. The nearest big town is Danville. I’ve visited The Bend - guided by LaVerne - and it has not changed much from the time of the stories in the first book.
LaVerne e-mailed me chapter drafts and we’d go over them at Virlie’s. My role was not editorial – I did not want to edit, rather I gave LaVerne my impressions, telling him how I felt about the story and what it meant to me. I think that was helpful and probably a lot more valuable than my adding commas, suggesting different wording or merging sentences.
Fairly soon, Perry Harrison joined us. Perry, who illustrated LaVerne’s first book, brought new drawings to each of our sit-downs. We’d eat (pimento cheese on toasted rye bread for me) while we chatted about the pictures among many other topics, including LaVerne’s latest off-color joke(s). As you might gather, our meetings were not agendized like in the big city. Although LaVerne might have preferred for us to be more on task, we would often ramble. Perry is a self-taught artist – he told me he has drawn since he was in kindergarten – and a retired Superintendent of Schools for Chatham County, indeed one of the schools is named after him: Perry W. Harrison Elementary.
Perry draws for free (pro bono, if you will) – that’s just how he chooses to use his considerable gift. His sketches illustrate church programs, Kiwanis Club calendars and anything else someone can get him to do. I usually have a “Harrison” pinned up in my office. I revolve his art from the stack of photocopies I accumulated from our “editorial art” luncheons.
If you’ve read “Walk in ‘e Moon” then you will likely agree with me that LaVerne Thornton is a rarity among humankind. Well, “You Ain’t Moses” offers more evidence of his unique take on life, helping others and leadership. I admire him as much for doing what I’d be too timid or hesitant to do – he does not hold back – as I do for his way of doing it, with kindness, generosity, acceptance and humor. The book offers up numerous examples of his caring and courageous leadership.
If a street-smart reader thinks LaVerne is getting scammed in one of his big-city adventures, the reader still gains something from LaVerne’s genuine and heartfelt kindness to strangers. Even the most suspicious among us might be emboldened by what LaVerne freely gives to other human beings. Maybe next time, we’ll be less avoiding and more willing to help. While you won’t always agree with him, you’ll be impressed with his letting you know what he thinks and where he stands, like Will Rogers used to do.

*"You Ain’t Moses", written by LaVerne Thornton and illustrated by Perry Harrison is published by Chapel Hill Press, Inc. If you are in Pittsboro, you’ll find both books for purchase at Virlie’s Grill. Also, the new book is available right now from LaVerne. Send him a check for $13.85 ($12.95 + $.90 TAX). Free shipping! Write him at 209 Olde Towne Drive, Sanford, NC 27330


Posted by jlubans on November 23, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: Illustration from Creighton University's Carlson Fable Collection.
“A donkey had turned aside from the main road and was heading for a cliff. The driver shouted at him, 'Where are you going, you wretched beast?' He grabbed hold of the donkey's tail and tried to drag him back from the cliff, but the donkey did not stop and instead kept going forward. So the man pushed the donkey even harder than he had pulled him back and said, 'Go ahead then! You can take the worthless victor's crown in this damned contest.' 
The fable criticizes people who are destroyed by their own stupidity.”

Who’s the stupid? The donkey? The raging driver? I initially thought it was the donkey, but I think Aesop’s epimythium (the moral at the end of the fable) is likely referring to the driver’s behavior. Instead of pushing the donkey over the cliff, the driver should be doing everything to save the donkey. Maybe pull out a bit of sugar, a carrot, whatever to distract the donkey from his self-destruction. After all the donkey is the driver’s livelihood; it’s unlikely the driver has a back-up at home.
And so it goes on the job. We may have a fellow worker who seems hell-bent on getting fired. Should we ignore the behavior or should we, with a kind word or two, try to divert the person from going over the cliff?

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

PS. If you are reading this in Seattle, you can check out Leading from the Middle at the Seattle Public Library!

“The Amber Quantity”

Posted by jlubans on November 21, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Honeybee Democracy by Thomas Seeley, will be one of the required readings in my Democratic Workplace class in early 2013 at the University of Latvia.
I think the students will find the book of interest because it is well written – even the research is clearly conveyed – and because honey (medus) and the honey bee (medus bite) are a part of Latvian daiy life. Evidence of the centuries-old apiculture tradition is that you cannot turn around in Riga’s large central market without bumping into honey vendors selling dozens of types of honey and beeswax products. Nor is honey limited to one of the five large halls (former Zeppelin hangars).

Caption 1. Inside the produce hall.
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Caption 2. More produce outside on a sunny winter’s day.

Each hall has a focus - one for meat, another for dairy, another for produce, but I can find honey in all five, and often in between the halls or outside in the open air. There are dozens of honey types all with special qualities for healing the lovelorn, boosting your immune system or rescuing one from insomnia.
When the class talks about Honeybee Democracy, I'd like to introduce this poem by Emily Dickinson:
Least Bee that brew—
A Honey's Weight
The Summer multiply—
Content Her smallest fraction help
The Amber Quantity—

English professor Marjorie Pryse, in her article” What Beekeeping Taught Me” explains some of what the poem means and what she hopes her students will come to understand:
“For Dickinson, the ‘least bee’ produces the ‘smallest fraction,’ but the honey she produces serves to ‘multiply’ the energy, light, warmth, color, and intensity of summer. Dickinson anthropomorphizes the bee, calling her ‘content’ to ‘help / the Amber Quantity.’”

For me, Dickinson’s “Amber Quantity” suggests the role of the individual in helping realize a collective good. Someone working on a democratic team brings, unstintingly, his or her unique talent to the group effort. The result, the outcome, the goal achieved - whatever it may be - is the merged effort of the individual and the other team members. And, like the honey bee, we can be “content” in our and the group’s achievement, the “Amber Quantity.” I don’t mean to imply there is anything mindlessly submissive about group effort; rather I refer to the joy of being an active and helping part of a group that achieves what it sets out to do.

PS. The next time you are in Sydney peruse Leading from the Middle at the University of New South Wales.

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE TWO FROGS AT THE WELL.”*

Posted by jlubans on November 16, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“There were two frogs whose pond had dried up, so they went looking for a new place to live. When they came to a well, one of them thought that they should jump in immediately, but the other one said, 'Wait: what if the water were to dry up here too; how would we be able to get back out again?' 
The story teaches us not to approach a situation without thinking about it carefully first.”
Translator’s Note: “L'Estrange applies a well-known English proverb in his epimythium: ''Tis good Advice to look before we leap.'”

Wise advice, certainly. But then what about, “He who hesitates is lost?” Or, “Nothing ventured, nothing gained?”
Permit me to add a revisionist ending: Out of the blue, an observant owl swooped down on the debating frogs, seized one in his claws and soared off. Panicked, the other frog leaped high, right into the open mouth of an attentive fox!
And so it goes sometimes in the workplace, as we dither and put off decisions. Sometimes, we seem wedded to the notion of never riding a wild horse into the sun!**
In my profession - perhaps others - it is considered good practice for a task force to list out all relevant questions about the feasibility of implementing a new way of work or service. We, assiduously, list out and debate the pros and the cons, the plusses and minuses of making the decision. The un-prioritized minuses usually exceed the plusses by a ratio of 10:1. The more minuses (reasons not to change) the more satisfied the task force members. Answering the what-if’s (some would stump Athena!) and anticipating the worst-case scenarios drain the task force’s time and energy. Inevitably, the deadline – if there is one – passes. The task force then takes decisive action: "We need more time for further study!”
I discovered a remedy to indecision. I (the Great Unknowing Being) told them I’d make the decision if they did not in 24 hours. Can you guess the outcome?
A better adage: “Everything in moderation, including moderation,” except when you are on that wild horse!

*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
**“Ride A Wild Horse” by Hannah Kahn with thanks to Jerry Campbell for introducing me to this poem.
PS. Speaking of Jerry Campbell, if you're in Texas, Aggieland has Leading from the Middle online (registration required.

The Cajun Navy, Part Two

Posted by jlubans on November 14, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

In my recent story about team development I mentioned the spontaneous teams that came together for a week during the aftermath of the New Orleans flood and hurricane: the Cajun Navy. I used them to illustrate the positive side of disasters; that the challenge is immediate, it is tangible, and it calls out for humans to help other humans (along with dogs, cats and parakeets!) Sometimes we regular folks reject the status quo and take action.
Jefferson Hennessy’s story, “The Cajun Navy: Heroic Louisiana Volunteers Saved Thousands of Hurricane Katrina Evacuees”, describes how an array of organizers (leaders) and a myriad of volunteers (followers) came together to help a city in desperate need during a time when the city, state and federal leaders and governments - with the notable exception of the US Coast Guard, the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries Enforcement (DWFE) and a few state politicians and other official agencies - seemed incapacitated, unable to do much more than to wait for help, for permission, for the starting bell, for someone to shout DO IT! The volunteers did not wait - no hand wringing for them!
When the volunteers rolled into New Orleans there was considerable uncertainty among even helpful agencies on what to do with them. Hennessey’s account includes examples of how the hundreds of volunteers with their hundreds of boats circumvented officials who were opposed to the amateur rescuers or who were so dis-organized and ill-equipped they saw the volunteers as problems not helpers. For example:
At 6:00AM Wednesday, August 30, 2005, Gautreaux (who was mentioned in my first blog) and his citizen flotilla volunteers arrived in New Orleans. They were told to wait. Ryan Mathers, a citizen flotilla volunteer from Maurice, Louisiana recalled, "We sat and waited for about four hours." (The high that day was 98.2F!) Mathers struck out on his own to find a DWFE agent who would give him a mission; he was directed by a DWFE agent to follow him and a group of 15 Cajun Navy volunteer boats to various staging areas throughout the 9th Ward, perhaps the hardest hit of all of the N.O. neighborhoods.
In volunteer Deacon Leger's case, his group of volunteers also tired of waiting outside the city for an official green light and decided to find their own way into the city. Once in, they were told by a Louisiana State Police officer, "We don't need you." Some volunteers turned around and left, but Leger and those who stayed were adamant about completing their mission. They found a sympathetic City of New Orleans police officer that guided Leger and 40 boat owners across the breeched Industrial Canal levee into St. Bernard Parish to launch their boats and rescue efforts into the poisonous water. Leger and many other volunteers defied the “No Pets” policy of the N.O. Police. They believed that after what these victims had endured – hunger, fear, hopelessness – the last thing to do was to abandon their pets
Another major organizer, leader, in the Cajun Navy was Ronnie Lovett . (He, one source says, spent $200,000 of his own money on the rescue operation). Lovett’s initiative and compassion are illustrated in how he helped evacuate a chaplain's two elderly and frail hospital patients in need of immediate medical attention. They would die if left to wait along the road in the blazing sun and soggy heat. Lovett jumped off his boat, went up on the highway and flagged down a military vehicle. The Navy personnel listened to Ronnie and agreed to take the two patients to a functioning medical facility in Baton Rouge.

These stories of humans reaching out to the afflicted further confirm for me our potential for heroic action. I have a few wonderful friends who would do what the Cajun Navy did. What is it that makes them so ready to help - even when opposed by officialdom - while some of us stand by and leave it to the “agencies”?

P.S. During half-time at the next Notre Dame football game head over to the Hesburgh Library to borrow a copy of Leading from the Middle.

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE DROWNING BOY”* 

Posted by jlubans on November 09, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

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“A boy had gone down to the river to bathe but because he didn't know how to swim, he was in danger of drowning. The boy then saw a man walking by and called to him for help. As the man was pulling the boy out of the water, he said, 'If you don't know how to swim, why on earth did you dare to try these swollen river waters?' The drowning boy replied, 'Right now I just need your help; you can lecture me about it afterwards!' 
The fable shows that people who lecture someone during a moment of crisis are offering criticism that is inappropriate and out of place.”

This epimythium (the moral at the end) is, for once, on target. When things are falling apart, don’t waste time on the non-essentials like looking for causes. The drowning boy’s ignorance is the obvious cause, the lesson is also obvious: Learn how to swim or avoid the water.
While it may satisfy an inner need to criticize, my asking someone “What were you thinking?” for some stupid behavior is just another form of blaming or shaming. Better to offer ideas for avoiding future failures or ask the question, “What would you do differently?”

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

PS. When in Omaha, the public library will lend you a copy of Leading from the Middle.

The Cajun Navy vs. Pseudo-Teams

Posted by jlubans on November 07, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

Much is made, even by me, of the trigonometry of organizations. There’s the S-shaped curve that describes an organization’s first faltering steps and (if it survives) progression to maturity and eventual decrepitude or reinvention.
A similar curve describes teams and their potential development into highly effective teams. This curve exposes the pseudo-teams that do not do much of anything, never rising out of its nadir. I have been part of many pseudo-teams, at work and in professional organizations. Have you? One definition pretty much sums it up: "In Pseudo-Teams, the sum of the whole is less than the the potential of the individual parts."
And, then there’s the same sigmoid curve to display Tuckman’s
theory of group development, showing the developmental steps of most groups, informal and formal.
All the curves require time and trust for a group to gel and be productive.

Rarely do groups, teams or organizations take a rocket-like trajectory, (above) but it can happen in extreme crisis. Such volunteer, impromptu groups burst forth full-grown, it seems, accelerating in a straight line through the S-shaped curve. If there is any Storming and Norming it happens along the way; after all the urgent goal is to perform, to do something!

Caption: In the flood is Senator Nick Gautreaux (in green cap) a leader of one of the flotillas in the all-volunteer “Cajun Navy.”
For example, during the New Orleans hurricane, private boat owners in Louisiana banded together into search and rescue teams, the “Cajun Navy,” with minimal official supervision. (I plan to write some more, in the near future, about this spontaneous civilian navy that rescued many stranded people and pets in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.)
I expect similar, cooperative groups have spontaneously developed in NJ/NY to help neighbors and neighborhoods recover from last week’s floods, winds and power outages.
Several years ago an ice storm in North Carolina, where I live, took out power for hundreds of thousands for a week or more. Downed trees blocked streets and created havoc for rescue vehicles. Neighbors helped neighbors cope with the destruction.
Not long after a return to normal, I attended a leadership conference in Durham. One of the handouts was “The Positive Side of Disasters”. As I recall, it was distributed by a speaker who had worked with public utility companies and subcontractors in bringing power back to hundred of North Carolina communities. I use the handout when teaching about teamwork because it explains, in stripped down terms, how humans can and will cooperate and help each other – teams actually work and get stuff done, often more effectively than waiting for formal groups to intervene. The handout helps explain how a group can hit the ground running and not stop until the job is done:
Immediate clarity of purpose
No time wasted on trivial
Camaraderie; everyone’s a hero
No manuals-of-procedure
Wide-open communication
No post-poned decisions
Work with available resources
Leadership is widely distributed
Formal leaders easily take on effective follower roles; they do whatever they have to do
No risk - “It’s already a disaster!”

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE COOK AND THE DOG.”* 

Posted by jlubans on November 02, 2012  •  Leave comment (0)

“Someone was hosting a splendid feast in the city after having performed a sacrifice. A dog belonging to the host ran into another man's dog who was a friend of his and invited him to come to the feast. The other dog came but the cook grabbed him by the leg and threw him out over the wall and into the street. When some other dogs asked him how the party had gone, the dog answered, 'Couldn't have been better! I can't even quite tell how I made my exit.'”
Caption: Who invited you?
I think that’s called landing on your feet! I wish I had that dog’s talent for repartee when in an embarrassing spot. This bit of Aesopic humor reminds me of an incident at my Fulbright orientation in Washington, DC. I was there with several hundred other awardees, including many graduate students, being prepped for our five-month assignments in far-flung destinations. At the end of the second day, I was in the hotel elevator, going down to the lobby to meet friends for dinner. The only other passenger, middle-aged in coat and tie, noticed my Fulbright nametag and expressed some astonishment. “I thought only young people with zip and energy were sent on Fulbrights!” I was bemused (and brain-weary from the full day orientation) and simply smiled. Aesop’s canine might have had a different response.
A couple years later, when I told this elevator story to one of my hiking buddies, my friend had an immediate come back: “The Fulbright likes to send in seasoned people who can readily recognize a—holes!”
*Source: Aesop's Fables. A new translation by Laura Gibbs. Oxford University Press (World's Classics): Oxford, 2002.
PS. If you are in Eugene, Oregon there’s a copy of Leading from the Middle (all about freedom at work) waiting for you.