Re-reading Cervantes.

Posted by jlubans on December 31, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Honoré Daumier (1808-79).
Someone said that Don Quixote – The Knight of the Mournful Countenance - should be read three times: when young, in middle age, and again when old. I am in the midst of the latter reading. My translation is by Samuel Putnam from 1949.
Putnam’s a lively re-telling, yet faithful to the original from the early 1600s. I am fond of the Knight-Errant, and just as fond of his long suffering, proverb-cracking Squire, the often mid-understood Sancho Panza. He is far from the Rabelaisian dolt some make him out to be. Even La Mancha’s Knight-Errant – in his lucid moments – drolly observes: “What intelligent things you say sometimes! One would think you had studied.”
I’ve been focused on Sancho in this reading because he reminds me of the “Lovable Fool” category in a recent management taxonomy* of our office mates. The lovable fool is someone you like to be around, even if they are not the best and the brightest, and they may indeed help a group come together, get over the uncomfortable bits of becoming a team, and make progress. Along with the lovable fool is the “lovable star” who shines brightly in any enterprise; we all want to reflect in the glory of this celebrity. We are less drawn to their antonyms, the “competent jerk” and the “incompetent jerk”. While avoiding the latter is obvious, we may be injudicious to exclude the smart jerk from our team.
While we’ve probably experienced each of the four the typology does not fit every group every time. As I think of my 11 paddling companions on the Rio Grande in early November, I can identify a competent jerk and a lovable fool but that’s about it, at least from my perspective. My colleagues on the water might have other ideas, so I am happy not to inquire too deeply!
Try it out for yourself: Which one of these (fool, star, smart jerk, dumb jerk) are you? Hard to say, most of us are probably a blend of the four or somewhere found in the interstices.
These typologies – be they for ways of leading or following or resolving conflict - even when extrapolated cubically, have their limits, but that should not prevent us from drawing lessons from them. Certainly, Sancho – rooted to the soil and field and ever pragmatic - would have little difficulty in extracting some sensible truth: “Your grace, come back, Senor Don Quixote, I swear to God you're charging sheep!”

*Casciaro, Tiziana and Miguel Sousa Lobo, “Competent Jerks, Lovable Fools and the Formation of Social Networks,” HBR June 2005

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Turkey’s Izmir Institute of Technology 

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable: Aesop’s “THE BELLY AND THE MEMBERS”*

Posted by jlubans on December 27, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The belly as a dropped capital “O”.
“The Members of the Body once rebelled against the Belly. ‘You,’ they said to the Belly, ‘live in luxury and sloth, and never do a stroke of work; while we not only have to do all the hard work there is to be done, but are actually your slaves and have to minister to all your wants. Now, we will do so no longer, and you can shift for yourself for the future.’ They were as good as their word, and left the Belly to starve. The result was just what might have been expected: the whole Body soon began to fail, and the Members and all shared in the general collapse. And then they saw too late how foolish they had been.”

In short, the proverbial cutting off your nose to spite your face. And, so it goes when one part of an organization fails to recognize and appreciate the value of the other parts. There are libraries where departments do not speak to each other – it takes an emissary bearing a white flag to cross the line traced across the office floor in library glue and date due slips.
More notorious are university teaching departments in which faculty have not spoken to each other in 30 years, nor made a significant contribution to scholarship. Academic Deans dare not tread into this No Man’s Land. A Provost might – with trepidation – knock on the departmental door, but why bother – no one’s there. We are told intra-department communication (e.g. Who is going to teach those pesky freshmen?) is handled by the Swiss Embassy.

Available at Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of Cumbria, UK

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Canyon Snapshots: Of Suns and Moons Long Past

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

(This is the fourth vignette from 8 days on the Lower Canyons of the Rio Grande in Texas in early November. I was one of 11 expertly guided by Burt Kornegay. We paddled 6 fully loaded canoes 90 miles, gathered around open fires, and ate and slept out under the stars (or cold, drizzling clouds).
20131224-petroglyph copy.jpeg
Caption: The “sun” petro glyph from Temple Canyon. Photo by Burt Kornegay, modified.
A side trek into Temple Canyon took us to a silted-up cliff side decorated with several petro glyphs – etchings. While a few years back these were at shoulder height (according to Burt) the carvings were now at knee level; we had to stoop to see them up-close. The river-in-flood moves tons of sand and rocks, as always, grinding down, smoothing, filling, emptying, releasing. Nothing remains the same.
The “sun” petro glyph could be 10,000 years old or maybe 5,000. Old, for sure. Someone, man or woman, pecked away at the stone, cupping out the rock (a three-inch diameter or so), and then abraded at least 6 “rays” (or petals, if this was meant to be a flower).
People lived in these canyons; the evidence includes their art and tools, cave shelters and perfectly round grinding holes – some a foot deep - in which pestles pounded and ground seed into flour.
As our group turned and headed back to the canoes, I gently touched the sun, in farewell, and felt a warm connection to the carver, a kinship.
Why carve a sun - if that is what it is - into a stone face? In a desert? Unanswered questions link us across the ages: Who are we? Why are we here? And, why do we stop in our pursuit of survival, to make art?
I write this on Christmas Eve, only a few days removed from the Winter Solstice. For me the stone sun is like the sun in my native country, Latvia. There the Summer Solstice has been celebrated for millennia with pagan gusto over several days, a human yearning - indeed prayer - in tune with Nature.
20131224-sky copy*.jpeg
Caption: Sunset in the Lower Canyons.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: Uniwersytet Mikolaja Kopernika Torun, 87-100 Poland
UMK Library

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Friday Fable: Aesop's, “THE BEE AND JUPITER”*

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

20131220-bee julia.jpeg
Caption: Woodcut by Julia Rix

“A Queen Bee from Hymettus flew up to Olympus with some fresh honey from the hive as a present to Jupiter, who was so pleased with the gift that he promised to give her anything she liked to ask for. She said she would be very grateful if he would give stings to the bees, to kill people who robbed them of their honey. Jupiter was greatly displeased with this request, for he loved mankind: but he had given his word, so he said that stings they should have. The stings he gave them, however, were of such a kind that whenever a bee stings a man the sting is left in the wound and the bee dies.”
“Evil wishes, like fowls, come home to roost.”

Or, revenge (sweet or bitter) is a two-edged sword. And so it can be at work. So, hold back on the invective – the sting - even if you’ve been unfairly castigated – lest you appear as petty as the critic. A colleague, whom I admired greatly, made a practice of never responding to personal criticism, to ad hominem attacks. Any reaction to a slur was, for him, getting down to the level of the backbiter, the gossip, the rumor-monger, the hater.
I have tried to follow that advice, some times with less success than others. In my Walter Mitty state, I always, of course, have a crushing mot juste for the demeaner. On reflection, I note that some of my bitterest critics have died or become feeble. What did someone say, “the sweetest revenge is to outlive your enemies?” There’s a cartoon with a couple old codgers in wheelchairs congratulating each other for outliving their enemies. One, however, cautions the other that that only works if you can still remember your enemies!

Available at Gutenberg.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: BYU Harold B. Lee Library

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Ten Tips for Conductors; 10 for Managers

Posted by jlubans on December 17, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

The book, Leading from the Middle, includes several musical examples of leadership and followership. For example, the unbossed Orpheus Chamber Orchestra and Hamburg’s collaborative conductor, Simone Young, inspired me to apply their musical leadership ideas to non-musical fields. When the BBC put forth a list of tips for aspiring conductors, I was more than a little curious.

Caption: Finland’s Salonen in performance mode.
Esa-Pekka Salonen is the principal conductor of the Philharmonia Orchestra in London and a recent “conductor of the year.” I’ve improvised on and adapted his career advice – The 10 Tips - to those of us not in music. One or two of the tips (“Get a good stick”) are a stretch, I know, but worth the effort:
1. Love the music
Obviously it takes passion to take music and work beyond the mundane. It cannot just be another job. If it is, you’ve not found what you were meant to do. And, that passion has to be for what you do, not for self-aggrandizement. The perks may be nice, but that’s not why you are there if you love your work.
2. Go to rehearsals
I remember a Juilliard School of Music conducting student telling me he learned more about conducting by watching the conductor-less Orpheus rehearse than in going to conducting class. If you work with a good leader, then take notes on how she deals with conflict, how she conducts a meeting, how she promotes the organization’s mission. Observe the process of how she gets things done, not just the result. If you work for a bad boss, rehearse how not to do it.
3. Learn to play an instrument well
To be credible, a leader should know in depth all there is to know about some aspect of the work of the organization. It may not be possible to know everything about a field of work, but understanding a segment really well – philosophically and mechanically - does give you insights about the overall mission. And, according to Salonen, being knowledgeable puts you “in a moral, mental or ethical position to demand the same thing from (others).”
4. Accept that you are just a waiter
For Salonen, the composer of the musical piece is the Chef and the conductor is the waiter. (So the musicians are the cooks?) As a waiter – even the headwaiter – “I am there to make sure the food comes to the table on time and intact.” The notion of conductor as waiter (rather than an Übermensch) brings to mind the humble notion of the organization’s “invisible leader”. The invisible leader is the mission of the organization and that mission drives both leaders and followers.
5. Shed your thick skin and don't scare people
If you are trying “to focus the thoughts and ideas of a large group of people and enable them to achieve the desired … result”, then being the autocratic tough guy, is probably not the best way. Sure, fear can get results, but those are short term. “On the contrary you need to be sensitive, you need to be able to feel the vibes of an orchestra (or any organization) on a human level to be able to pick up what's going wrong.”
6. Stay in shape
Leading is hard work. To recover from the exertions of guiding an orchestra, bar by bar, through a rehearsal, Salonen runs. For me, exercise (from a casual walk to a work out) frees the mind to wander and to reconsider a decision or process, to think about how something might be done better, to open oneself to the unexpected. And, being fit, especially when a job is not going well, is something the organization cannot take away. The petty boss will nit-pick and impede what I want to do, but my keeping in shape is a way to survive and hope for better times.
7. Get a good stick
Substitute the word “style” for stick. Get a good leadership style. Indeed get several styles, just like Salonen has boxes of wooden batons to choose from. Coach Gail Goestenkors, someone observed to me, used a different leadership style with each of fourteen basketball players she coached. It was her way or reaching each player. One monochromatic style is not enough. I recall a boss telling me how one of my subordinates thought my leadership style was just right. Well, unfortunately, that was the same unassertive style I was using with everyone! To get better, I would need to be energetically direct with some and barely perceptible for others; turning them loose was the best thing for me do.
8. Make little excursions outside your comfort zone daily
To avoid stagnation, take those “little excursions” into risk. I found in my career that outdoor retreats helped work colleagues gain new perspectives and the realization that we could accomplish the apparently impossible. The perceived risk was great but it was not dangerous. Just making the attempt encouraged us; failure only made us better able for the next challenge.
9. Tweet
For Salonen, “it is an arrogant and stupid thought that classical music should somehow exist in a bubble.” Social media is an opportunity for the classical musician to engage with those in the audience. The thought takes me back to the staff elevator at the University of Michigan General Library. I was a library work-study scholar on the way to the top floor to see someone in HR when the director of the library got on. He did not say a word or otherwise acknowledge me as we rode to the top. But, being approachable is not enough. Like Salonen, reach out and engage your audience, your staff, and your users.
10. Be a boy or a girl
There is less gender discrimination in music – some say - but female conductors are hardly the norm. That condition – male dominance as CEOs and conductors - has little to do with ability or, nowadays, opportunity; it may have something, interestingly enough, to do with gender. A recent study shows that as males and females of equal potential and talent ascend the corporate ladder, women often opt out, voluntarily, of their next well-earned promotion.
In my field of work, large academic libraries, I have found many excellent women staff who love their work and do it exceedingly well but have little interest in management. That is one reason why I promote the democratic workplace – a distribution of responsibility and trust – to make for a more egalitarian culture, one with less bureaucratic drudgery and more “real, creative work.”

Copyright 2013 John Lubans

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE ANT”*

Posted by jlubans on December 13, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20131213-The ant.jpg
Caption: Ant-evolution.
“Ants were once men and made their living by tilling the soil. But, not content with the results of their own work, they were always casting longing eyes upon the crops and fruits of their neighbours, which they stole, whenever they got the chance, and added to their own store. At last their covetousness made Jupiter so angry that he changed them into Ants. But, though their forms were changed, their nature remained the same: and so, to this day, they go about among the cornfields and gather the fruits of others' labour, and store them up for their own use.”
“You may punish a thief, but his bent remains.”

Usually ants are presented as industrious little devils, hard working (but uncharitable, if you ask the grasshopper in Aesop’s most famous fable.) I use the NOVA DVD, Ants - Little Creatures Who Run the World, by Edward O. Wilson in my class to demonstrate self-organizing concepts. As you may know, there is no boss in the ant world.
The behavior, in the DVD, of the army ants and their pillaging of their neighbors repelled many students. Humans, they admitted, can be pretty bad, but the ants don’t seem much better.
Dr. Wilson does seem to see the so-called “selflessness” of the ant as somehow superior to the selfishness of the human. Ants, for Professor Wilson, will survive long after humans have destroyed each other. He presents mankind’s challenge – if we are to survive - as an eternal paradox: “a tension between individuality and self-serving, on the one side, and the needs of the society on the other.”

Available at Gutenberg.

N.B. Leading from the Middle on the blogosphere:
Stephanie Gross's review of Leading from the Middle: “five of five stars”; “Excellent suggestions. A fabulous guidebook for employees of every rank and file,” appeared in Good Reads, March 2013.

Copyright John Lubans 2013

Canyon Snapshots: “Rope!”

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

(This is the third 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 fully-loaded canoes 90 miles and slept out under the stars (or cold, drizzling clouds).
Caption: Calm waters: Tim Weikel in the back and me up front. Photo by Inès Weikel.
In a previous post on my canoe adventure I stressed the importance of communication between the paddler in the front and the paddler in the back of the boat. Each influences the direction of the boat whether in calm or raging waters. It’s more urgent in the latter; still if you want the boat to go in a more or less straight line; the two constantly need to inform each other.
Before heading out on the fourth day of paddling our guide gave us a quick rescue rope class. We gathered on the riverbank and were told about throwing the rescue rope (a bag with an enclosed rope which streams out when tossed). Burt, our guide, emphasized the necessity of catching the eye of the person in the water you are trying to rescue. Finally, we were not to throw the rope without calling out “Rope!” Well, hearing it is different from doing it. We want to rescue the swimmers, of course, but we also need to rescue the boat – we cannot afford to lose either the swimmers or the boat. So, there is some anxiety and confusion surrounding a rescue.
That very day I got to apply what I heard - or hadn’t heard.

Caption: Capsize! Photo by Burt Kornegay.
It must have been at the aptly named Rodeo Falls. After scouting it from the top, five of the paddlers signed on along with Burt – three canoes*. I volunteered for stand-by and was assigned as a back-up rescue roper. The lead rope-thrower stressed that in case of a rescue I was to hold onto him tight, wrapping my arms around him from the back; there’d be an almighty yank and he’d need my help not to get pulled into the water. Our post was a slippery rock and both of us wore life jackets and helmets.
The first boat slipped through the boulders at the top of the rapids and then plunged down the slope; the bow disappearing into a hole in the water, and then popping out, leveling off. From there, the two paddlers made it through the rough water into an eddy.
When the second boat was ready, I was on my own. The lead roper had joined a small group further down the riverbank in anticipation of retrieving flipped boats. So it was the rope and I on the rock – see the photo.
The second boat flipped at the top row of boulders and tossed out its paddlers. They were hurled down the slope into the hole and spit out. As soon as I saw the boat go over, I knew it was show time - I would have to throw the rope. I waited until the swimmers were in range – by chance I did catch one’s eye – and then tossed the rope bag – a smooth, well-placed, arcing throw if I say so myself. He caught the rope and made it to shore. (The other swimmer – banged up, no less - was rescued further down). I hauled in the rope and put it back into the bag and continued my sentinel duty.
As I was patting myself on the back, déjà vu! The third boat flipped, right at the top. I waited for the swimmers and tossed the rope to the two of them. In the excitement, I forgot to catch the eye of either swimmer or to yell “Rope!” The swimmers made it to the eddy, with my useless trailing rope.
Upon reflection, I realized I’d taken in less than half of the riverbank rope throw class. But, we do learn from mistakes: Lesson One: I am not a quick study. Lesson Two: I need to do something for it to stick; hearing the theory is not enough. Lesson Three: I learn from my mistakes.
My not catching the eye of the swimmer (to confirm I was about to do something) and not yelling Rope! (to tell them what it was I was doing and that help was on the way) could have had serious consequences, just like in the real world when we fail to communicate as thoroughly as we should. When we forget to inform each other or choose not to talk to each other, the result can be disastrous mistakes, large and small.

*If you are wondering what happened to the three other canoes, Burt and a volunteer took them through the rapids.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Coe College, Stewart Memorial Library

Copyright John Lubans 2013

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

Freedom at work: The 40-Hour Week.

Posted by jlubans on December 03, 2013  •  Leave comment (0)

20131203-IWW 4daywk.jpeg
Caption: The IWW may not be far off the mark.
A young friend landed a job at a software development company.
When I asked how it was going, he’d always enthuse, “I’m pumped!” He was loving it, putting in long hours fixing bugs and producing bushel baskets of code. He told me the organization was a great place to work, free coffee, free parking, cool co-workers, free gourmet lunch. They even let him bring his dog to work.
This went on for months – I’d ask and he’d gush, “I’m pumped!” He was really liking the job and the boss was always telling him what a great team player he was. A great guy, the boss.
Caption: Saying No to Hans und Fritz.*
One day something changed. My friend was downcast and discouraged. “I’m not pumped!” he told me, even before I opened my mouth.
How come? Well, after weeks of sleeping at his desk or in his car in the free parking lot from working into the early hours – “death march” was his term for the marathon work sessions - he had a bit of a relapse.
He figured he just needed some sleep in his own bed and all would be well. After a good sleep, he took the morning off to pay bills, online of course. While he had some money in the bank, it was not much considering the hours he was putting in.
When he divided his usual 80-hour week by his salary, his hourly rate dropped to below entry level!
He was doing the work of two people and getting paid for one. Unpumped!
He left the job, gave up the on-call barista, the free laundry service, the super cool co-workers, the free shopping service and found a job in IT support for a non-profit. He works a 40-hour week and does good, solid work. While no longer daily “pumped” about the job, his overall quality of life is much improved; he has time for friends and family; and, on nights and weekends, he’s off the grid.

My friend’s story is not unique. There’s been much concern of late in the popular press about people putting in long hours, brown-bagging in the cubicle, not taking vacations, and of being technologically tethered to the workplace 24/7. Some pundits claim the workforce is fearful of being downsized; others claim it’s supply and demand: too few jobs for too many workers (many of whom have already been downsized at least once!) The feudal spirit has returned to The Office.
So, it is a healthy indicator that some companies – especially democratic work places - are slowly returning to the 40-hour week, giving a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work. This new “norm” can attract the very good worker who’s tired of owing his “soul to the company store.” Who’s tired of recrimination about leaving the job at 5 instead of 7 or for taking a long week end or – worst of all - for going “off the grid” – for any reason -when away from the office.
There’s a payoff for the company. Research suggests that workers are happier, and that productivity, creativity and innovation soar.
Piling on hours does not improve our work; it can have the opposite effect, a loss in productivity because of fatigue-induced errors.
Early in my career, (my first professional job advertised a 37.5-hour week) I was all for working extra hours, taking work home, writing reports on weekends. Why? To get ahead; to finger the brass ring.
I think that was good discipline for me as I learned about my business, but after a while, the extra hours and effort became burdensome. I cut back some, but not really enough.
I do hope the trend back to the 40-hour week flourishes.

* Source: “Pumping Up With Hans & Franz.”

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: College of Southern Nevada.

Copyright John Lubans 2013