Friday Fable: Aesop’s THE OLD LION AND THE FOX*

Posted by jlubans on November 29, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

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Caption: “Come in my friend.”
“An old Lion, whose teeth and claws were so worn that it was not so easy for him to get food as in his younger days, pretended that he was sick. He took care to let all his neighbors know about it, and then lay down in his cave to wait for visitors. And when they came to offer him their sympathy, he ate them up one by one.
The Fox came too, but he was very cautious about it. Standing at a safe distance from the cave, he inquired politely after the Lion's health. The Lion replied that he was very ill indeed, and asked the Fox to step in for a moment. But Master Fox very wisely stayed outside, thanking the Lion very kindly for the invitation.
"I should be glad to do as you ask," he added, "but I have noticed that there are many footprints leading into your cave and none coming out. Pray tell me, how do your visitors find their way out again?"
“Take warning from the misfortunes of others.”

That “misfortunes of others” reminds me of a young colleague who accepted a tenure track position in a school of information science. Giddy over getting a job offer, she failed to do her “due diligence” on the department and the institution. (Had she looked a bit more closely she might have drawn some conclusions from the unfortunate high rate of young faculty resignations.)
While she published in refereed journals, gave talks at conferences and, taught several well-received classes, she found herself increasingly frustrated by and isolated from her peers. All were fearful of the administration and its capricious behavior. One wrong step or word and you could be out the door. Her peers were keeping a low profile – abiding by the fear-induced status quo.
Was this really the way she wanted to work, always looking over her shoulder?
Happily, she rescued her career by resigning and moving to another school, one far more supportive of aspiring young professors.

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

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Alamo College libraries

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Canyon Snapshots: Leading from Behind.

Posted by jlubans on November 26, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

(This is the second in a series of vignettes from 8 days on the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande in Texas. I was one of 11 expertly guided by Burt Kornegay. We paddled 6 canoes 90 miles.)
Caption: The tandem canoe entering Class 1 rapids. Photo by Burt Kornegay.
The two-person canoe defines my notion of leadership: a leader and a follower working together in pursuit of a goal. Technically, the canoe’s leader is the person in the back, the stern paddler. The stern has the most influence on (and the most responsibility for) the direction the canoe travels.
The follower, oddly enough, is the person in the front, the bow. The stern paddler can guide the boat through a forward stroke with her paddle, trailing it alongside the canoe like a rudder, causing the canoe to swing to the left or the right. When done well, the leader in the back moves the canoe along a straight line. When done not so well? The canoe goes in a circle or jitters from bank to bank.
In rapids, the leader’s role is shared. The bow paddler looks for approaching hazards invisible to the rear paddler; in fact, the bow blocks the stern’s vision. When the bow glimpses a hidden rock, he has to take action: do a draw stroke to avoid colliding with the hazard and, simultaneously, yell what’s happening loud enough to be heard in the stern over the rapid’s roar so the stern paddler can steer the canoe past the hazard. The action taken by the bow is not meant to be frenzied or desperate; rather it is a couple methodical draw strokes. The stern paddler, seeing/hearing the bow’s action, uses her paddle to follow the direction given by the bow. Usually, this is done calmly and avoids smashing into the rock.
My canoe was trapped against a rock because I did not do the above steps; I assumed the stern was supposed to lead us through; that I was pretty much a working passenger. Wrong.
So, when the current rushed us toward a rock, the stern – with no help from me – could not avoid the smash. Once we hit, our canoe filled with water, but somehow – with me paddling strenuously - slipped away from the rock. I thought we had dodged the bullet, (whew!), but not for long. The current with its tons of water propelled sideways into another rock, bigger and badder, pitched me (or did I jump?) into the raging water and wrapped the canoe athwart the rock. Trapped, the stern paddler stayed with the canoe and all our gear. This entailed a subsequent rescue of paddler, canoe, and gear and all worked out, but not until a harrowing half hour had past.

Caption: Capsized canoe at top of Class 3 rapids, paddlers submerged. Me with rescue rope -more on that later. Photo by Burt Kornegay.

If I‘d done a better job in avoiding the rocks, calling back to the stern paddler, we might have avoided our dangerous predicament. As it was, both of us learned from it.
Because I was by myself on this trip, I got to paddle with four different people in the stern. Of these only one was an expert – Burt – so three of the stern paddlers and I got to learn together on how, as a two-person team, to approach and get through rapids, how to avoid getting smashed into the canyon walls (“wall shots”), and how to stay clear of the overhanging cane (dubbed the “car wash” because of its scraping and scouring everything in the canoe, including the paddlers. You quickly learn to bow deeply into the canoe to avoid getting trapped and scoured by the cane).
I, for one, learned to communicate with the stern – over the water’s roar, and to talk us through several rapids. Usually, mine was the fourth or fifth boat through, so I’d watch others to see where they entered the rapid; we’d invariably enter higher up, but the point was to gain speed and to go in at an angle. This used the current to push us through and out, paddling all the while just enough to slip past canyon walls and the overhanging cane.
And, I asked for the stern to give me direction as much as he could whether in calm water or rapids: on which side to paddle - it makes a difference for steering from the back - which stroke to use: forward, draw? Each of us got better – communication was essential.
Of course, an expert paddling team communicates tacitly, each paddler knowing what stroke to use, and the stern responding to (and trusting in) whatever the bow does. An expertly done eddy turn, spinning and parking the canoe in a 180 turn, is a marvel.

Caption: The incomparable Lower Canyons.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable: Aesop’s THE PLANE TREE*

Posted by jlubans on November 22, 2013  •  Leave comment (1)

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Caption: Ingrates, resting in the leafy shade, complaining about no fruit.

“Two Travellers (sic), walking in the noonday sun, sought the shade of a wide spreading tree to rest. As they lay looking up among the pleasant leaves, they saw that it was a Plane Tree.
‘How useless is the Plane!’ said one of them. ‘It bears no fruit whatever, and only serves to litter the ground with leaves.’
‘Ungrateful creatures!’ said a voice from the Plane Tree. ‘You lie here in my cooling shade, and yet you say I am useless! Thus ungratefully, O Jupiter, do men receive their blessings!’
Our best blessings are often the least appreciated.”

And so it can be for those of us laboring in cubicle-land when we fail to support –nay, even undercut – the work of the folks in the backroom, be they one-door down or miles away. I’ve heard front office staff blame the processing people for delays and disruptions, when in reality the blame belonged much closer to home. In library-land, where I worked, some of the book selectors routinely explained to students and faculty that the hot, new books were not on library shelves because of the anal retentiveness of the processing staff. That made for a blame-shifting chuckle.
The facts? We found that the processing workflows were hugely impacted by when a book selector ordered items. A few selectors delayed – for personal convenience - placing any new book orders until the end of the month and in some cases, until the end of the semester! Who’s anal?
While we processed orders in one week - an industry “best blessing” - the selector-delayed orders impeded receipt of new books. In some cases, the books were already out-of-print, forcing us to go to used book markets, an extra step.

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

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: The University of Wyoming.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Canyon Snapshots: Hollow Praise

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

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Caption: In the least likely places, new growth breaks out. All it takes is a little rain.

(This is the first of several vignettes from my 8-day Rio Grande canoe trip in early November on what I learned about leading and following?)
After our rendezvous meeting where the 12 of us went over the trip and its requirements, we went out for dinner. The two neighboring towns, Midland and Odessa are in an oil boom economy. Mobs of people eat out and low paying service jobs go begging. Our server was a nice young man, probably just out of high school. It was obvious to me that the server was new to this job, had not been well trained nor did he have anyone mentoring and helping. While energetic, he’d forget or mix up orders.
The manager did show up once or twice and stated (this was not a question) that we were having a great time, right! And, then, like the rabbit in Alice in Wonderland, disappeared.
While I felt sorry for the young man – I could see myself doing worse - I was content to grin and bear the mess-ups. It’s what happens in boomtowns; and, I was there to eat not to train the waiter.
However one of our company decided, for unclear reasons, to praise the waiter.
We do live in an era of pumped up self-esteem; each of us, we are told, is special, indeed exceptional. Praise is so plentiful many people now take their greatness for granted. Yes, we are that good!
The false praise from our table raised (in my mind) the difficulty of giving honest constructive feedback to help workers. A worker who has grown up being told how wonderful she is may be deaf to suggestions for improvement. And there are consequences for lying to ourselves: I have too often seen the disastrous effects of giving unearned praise for mediocre work.
Towards the end of the meal, the waiter again recited for all to hear what they had ordered - in full detail - and what was going to be on each check. This elicited more verbal applause from our praise-giver: “You’re doing a great job and I know how hard it is; it’s not easy work.” The waiter - perhaps feeling some obligation to take a bow - pretty much summed up the evening by putting his foot in it. Basking in the praise, he “aw shucked” and then offered up: “At the risk of offending some of you, I owe it all to God!” The “it” was implicit for his great performance.
Hearing this - I was not offended, only amused - reminded me of an accomplished pianist’s response to my asking her to what she ascribed her brilliance. She simply pointed heavenwards. It was her way of acknowledging an inexplicable gift.
Later, I found myself on the river giving praise to my partners in the stern; I paddled in the bow. I did not prevaricate when the boat drifted into the spider-infested cane – the “car wash” - along the shore, or when we spun around in whitewater and somehow survived the rapids backwards. I’d ask what I could do differently to help – the bow can help the stern but it takes coordination.
I did praise the stern paddler for a nice job of guiding the canoe through a series of rock-strewn rapids. My partners responded likewise when I managed to plant an "eddy draw" or, with a few strokes, avoid banging into a rock “pillow”. Our mutual praise was based on good work, not faking it. And, when either one of us made a mistake, we’d fess up and try to improve.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable. Lubans’ The Kudzu Vine* and the Oak Tree

Posted by jlubans on November 15, 2013  •  Leave comment (1)

Caption: It is said that a tethered goat left out overnight in a field of kudzu will be overgrown by morning.

A long time ago the kudzu creeper and an oak tree were neighbors. Not very good neighbors, because the oak tree daily reminded the kudzu of its lowly status and of the oak’s lofty importance. Disdainfully, the oak showered the kudzu with its old leaves, acorns and other droppings. Finally the kudzu appealed to Zeus for relief. Zeus granted the kudzu’s wish to climb; no longer would it be earth bound. Soon the kudzu vine crept up the trunk of the oak tree, along its branches and it was not long before it engulfed the tree. The kudzu smothered the sunlight and sapped water from the tree. The oak died and the kudzu, high above the earth and no longer humble, exulted. It was now as prideful as ever had been the oak.
But not for long. The dead oak’s branches sagged and its roots withered. Zeus sent a harsh wind, toppling the tree and the kudzu crashed back to earth, unseemly ambition and pride its undoing.

And so it can be in the workplace when a “good” subordinate is chosen to replace a bad leader. The proud new leader may soon forget all her good intentions and become even a worse leader.

* All you may ever want to know about this voracious, invasive, exotic plant of the Southeast USA.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Brown University

Copyright 2013 John Lubans

Leading from the Middle resumes November 15

Posted by jlubans on November 12, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

I've been away - off the grid, as they say - in the Lower Canyons near Big Bend National Park in the great state of Texas. 90 miles by canoe. The blog resumes with a Friday Fable, one of my own, about the lowly Southern creeper (kudzu) and the majestic oak and the consequences of envy.

Friday Fable. Aesop's “THE OSTRICH”*

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

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Caption: Both Sides Covered.
“War broke out between all the beasts and the birds. When the ostrich was captured, she fooled both sides by being both a bird and a beast: she showed the birds her head, and the beasts her feet. 
You cannot trust a two-faced associate.”
And so it was for me when a colleague agreed with a policy decision we’d thrashed out in our administrative group, only to backtrack at the first bit of foofaraw. Predictably, the fuss would be made by his own staff. When I confronted him, he’d claim forgetfulness or, like a petty politician, weasel (n.b. unfair to our animal friends) about the true meaning of the agreed upon policy. Aesop pinned the tail on this donkey: In the administrative group he’d display his “head” and in the staff meeting he’d show his “feet”.

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

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Boca Raton Public Library

Copyright John Lubans 2013