Going forward?

Posted by jlubans on September 28, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Gone forward.

Sorry ain’t what it used to be.” - Anonymous.
Imagine yourself back in the 3rd or 4th grade. The teacher has announced a pop quiz on last night’s homework; spelling words. You forgot to do your homework. The kid next to you is a brainiac and, hallelujah, you can see her answers. Shortly after, the teacher catches you cheating. As your punishment, the teacher tells you to apologize to the class.

Apology 1: “I am sorry for what I did. For those of you who might have been offended by my actions I am truly sorry. It won’t happen again. Going forward, I want to be better prepared for class so that I am not tempted to cheat.

Or, Apology 2: “I am sorry I got caught. It won’t happen again. As you all know, this is not who I am.
Going forward, I can’t wait to get to recess and out on the playground.”

Of course, little kids don’t use phrases like “going forward” nor should they. Well, neither should adults. I’ll explain why later.
The two apologies approximate what we hear from grown ups. Apology 1 is better than #2, but it still strives to limit one’s guilt to only those who “might have been offended” – the bad is in the eye of the beholder not in what you did.
Apology 2 strips away the veneer of fake contrition.
Going forward is used in both these apologies in the same sense as it is used in the corporate setting: “I am done with the apology and it is time for you (the audience) and me to move on.”
So, what’s your problem with going forward, John?
Here’s my issue: First off, the phrase is no longer effective. Like “thinking outside the box”, “paradigm shift”, “win-win”, “tipping point”, “ROI”, and countless other buzzwords, the term “going forward” is a tone-deaf cliché, it turns off the listener. Spavined, it signifies nothing and probably never did. (To talk like a corporate pirate, go here.)
Worse, there’s a tacit meaning behind going forward, i.e. a new start, a new beginning. This unintentionally amusing corporate double entendre might help make my point:
“The Seattle Times reported that (Boss X) sent a companywide message calling his (insensitive) remark ‘a joke gone bad,’ and said ‘I should have used different words, and I apologize for them. I will definitely be more careful going forward.’" (Emphasis added.)
Going forward is used to segue away from the incident – it is now, according to the apologizer, old news and should be forgotten. Get over it!
However, that undercuts the effect of the apology. It is not your role to proclaim that you are moving on. The people to whom you are apologizing get to decide about your going forward or not. Your claim to going forward looks just like what it is: an arrogant leap ahead of your contrition.
Instead of ending your apology with a request for forgiveness you are assuming you’ve been forgiven or, more likely, that there’s nothing to forgive.
Silence is what should follow a request for forgiveness. If there’s any forgiveness to be had, you are not the one to grant it! If you are genuinely contrite, you have to trust that those to whom you’ve apologized will indeed forgive, maybe not right then and there, but some time down the road. Certainly, if you’re not taken away in handcuffs, you should continue to do your job; just show some humility.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: University of La Verne
Elvin and Betty Wilson Library, La Verne, CA United States

Copyright © John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable, L’Estrange’s “A WOLF AND A SHEEP”*

Posted by jlubans on September 25, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: One Savvy Sheep

“A Wolf that lay Licking of his Wounds, and extreamly Faint and Ill upon the Biting of a Dog, call’d out to a Sheep that was passing by. Hark ye Friend (says he) if thou wouldst but help me to a Soup of Water out of the same Brook there, I could make a Shift to get my self somewhat to Eat. Yes, said the Sheep, I make no Doubt on’t; but when I bring ye Drink, my Carcase shall serve ye for Meat to’t.”

“THE MORAL. It is a Charitable and Christian Office to relieve the Poor and the Distressed; but this Duty does not Extend to Sturdy Beggars, that while they are receiving Alms with One Hand, are ready to Beat out a Man’s Brains with the Other.”

Unlike most of Aesop’s sheep, this one stands out from the herd. Sheep are supposed to be compliant, easily fleeced, bamboozled, dependent and uncritical followers, like so many mindless Internet trolls and followers in the workplace. Ours is a savant sheep; she stands alone, pensive and august.
I can picture our sheep, turning away from Mr. Wolf, flicking her tail dismissively, and trotting back to the fold, and, much to the wolf’s vexation, letting lose a raspberry sounding “B-A-A-A” over her shoulder.
In the workplace, our sheep is a breakout follower. She gives herself permission to re-think what she does and why, to make decisions about how best to do something. Her objective is to help her team accomplish group goals. She’s a follower that emboldens others to strive beyond the sheepfold.

*Source: Abstemius' Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Campbell County Public Library, Gillette, Wyoming, USA

Copyright © John Lubans 2015

"I wish I was managing robots."

Posted by jlubans on September 21, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The worms turn.

In Karel Capek’s R.U.R. (Rossum’s Universal Robots)
there’s an exchange between two of the players:
Domin (the boss): “Practically speaking, what is the best kind of worker?”
Helena: “The best? Probably the one who– who– who is honest– and dedicated.”
Domin: “No, it’s the one that’s the cheapest. The one with the fewest needs….”
Ms. Vailey Oehlke, the Director of the Multnomah County Library, gave me the title quote, "I wish I was (sic) managing robots". She heard it from a frustrated participant at a national conference of directors of large public libraries. Likely, the speaker was wishfully thinking along the lines of cheap and least needy. Instead, leaders have to deal with humans and all their issues. Few of us are ever happy to do just what we are told, to keep our mouths shut and to get on with it.
Alas, hand in hand with human creativity and achievement come human idiosyncrasies, which may stymie any leader’s moving an organization from point A to point B. For that matter, even Rossum’s Robots have their day, and then some!
Which brings me to Adaptive Leadership (AL).*
Oehlke - who oversees 600 staff and 19 branches serving Portland, OR and beyond – understands she in not managing robots. She told me about adaptive leadership, an idea developed at Harvard by Ron Heifetz and Marty Linsky that she is introducing to her organization. Her hope is that her organization’s leadership, including her dozen direct reports, will become, through AL, more amenable to change and adaptable to challenges. AL, as a concept, is meant to move an organization’s culture to one that is spontaneously more flexible and more innovative.
AL holds that ideas can and should come from all over the organization, not just from the administrative group. Heifetz, while responding to an interview question, “Can you point to any specific businesses that excel at adaptive leadership?” stated: “Many people are doing a good job at adaptive leadership, but they’re not always in the highest positions of authority. There are countless people scattered throughout organizations, including people at the periphery, who raise the tough questions without knowing the answers, and then mobilize people to tackle those tough questions and generate innovations.”
So, AL recognizes that leaders have to take their collective foot off the control pedal so that those good ideas on the periphery can be heard, applied and integrated into the organization. That cannot happen unless leaders let go of what some regard as their sovereign role in idea generation and exploration. In other words, leadership has to cultivate a culture that recognizes and rewards critical thinking, innovation and action taking among its workers, its effective followers, a culture that permits leading from the middle.
A friend and colleague, Russ Besancon, sent me a note about another leadership theory, Kouzes and Posner's** “exemplary” or “transformational” variety, one not dissimilar from AL.
"The Five Practices of Exemplary Leadership”:
"...leaders...were at their best when they [1] modeled the way, [2] inspired a shared vision, [3] challenged the process, [4] enabled others to act, and [5] encouraged the hearts of followers."
How many transformational leaders do you know? I know a few, even a couple with whom I worked. Many with whom I never worked but did have occasion to talk with directly or to hear from his/her staff did well at two or three of the “five practices”, but had a most difficult time with enabling others to act and encouraging the hearts of followers. Perhaps AL – once ingrained in an organization’s culture - can help effective leaders achieve all five of these practices. Absent those practices any attempt to move an organization away from the traditional top down model (and its many variations) will languish and eventually be seen as yet another passing fad.

*A useful primer on AL and how it differs from other leadership theories can be found here.

**The Leadership Challenge: How to Make Extraordinary Things Happen in Organizations", 2012.

Copyright © John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “The Eagle and the Arrow”*

Posted by jlubans on September 18, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Cigarette Card, American Tobacco Company. “Turkish Trophies” brand. 1913. From the Carlson Fable Collection at Creighton University.

“AN EAGLE sat on a lofty rock, watching the movements of a Hare whom he sought to make his prey. An archer, who saw the Eagle from a place of concealment, took an accurate aim and wounded him mortally. The Eagle gave one look at the arrow that had entered his heart and saw in that single glance that its feathers had been furnished by himself. ‘It is a double grief to me,’ he exclaimed, ‘that I should perish by an arrow feathered from my own wings.’"

This fable brings to mind a close friend’s experience. She worked under a grizzled and grumpy academic officer who was very difficult to deal with. While she was told by trusted sources that he had his positive aspects and was well regarded by his peers, she never saw anything but a mean streak an axe-handle wide. And as things worked out it became this officer’s fixation – with some enthusiastic prompting by two or three of her peers - to get my friend gone. When she asked around as to whence this urge to be rid of her, she got the strong impression that her actions over many years as an effective follower and leader (independent-thinking and action-taking) provided the feathered fletching (gossip, jealousy, and resentment) to direct the pink slip’d shaft.
Now this story has a curious ending. Within one or two years of my friend’s “outplacement” (hah!), her nemesis was diagnosed with a fatal illness and soon “shufflel'd off this mortall coile”. Some say, “What goes around, comes around.” Karma, dude.

*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

Not Exactly a Joking Matter

Posted by jlubans on September 15, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Oregon's Rogue River.

I’ve been reading a Harvard Business Review “classic”, “Two Women, Three Men on a Raft.”* The title reads more like a lead-in to a salacious joke than anything to do with the workplace, but it’s not. Once past the title, this story is about a several day, five-raft flotilla, team building effort on Oregon’s wild and wily Rogue River. Each inflatable raft contained four participants and an Outward Bound instructor. Each raft was to be a self-sufficient team, taking care of itself and getting safely through the white water.
For the author, Robert Schrank, this story came to be about sexism (men dissing women) and he is the first to shrug into a hair shirt and to come out with the mea culpas. He concludes most emphatically: “… men, who, when their power is threatened, will pull any woman down…”
For me, ever the contrarian, this story is not about sexism but about failed leadership and teamwork. Sexism, just like divisive squabbles over resources, is a manifestation of failed leadership not a cause of it. Yes, there was plenty of sexism on this river trip - and, yes, there is no shortage of sexism even these “enlightened” days - but, then and now, it’s about a lack of effective leadership and followership. On the Rogue, the people in raft #4 ignored what was happening around them and apparently made no group attempt to address the daily team failures. It appears the instructor was a silent observer.
I’ve been on Outward Bound trips, so have an idea that the instructor – John Rhoades – would likely have made some effort at intervention. Even if he were interested in only the joys of rafting, Rhoades would have been in communication with the instructors in the other rafts – they check in with each other regularly and do pow-wows about what’s happening.
The story’s tipping point – sorry, I cannot help myself - is raft #4 flipping over while one of the women is at the helm giving directions. She freezes and the boat, hitting a boulder, flips, tossing all occupants and gear into the white water. Schrank makes much of the discomfort of being wet and cold and finds no sweetness in adversity. It’s that event which leads to the two men undermining the two women and the women’s becoming less than full participants in raft #4. Indeed the two men’s snide and snarky behavior, even sotto voce, is hard to accept. As a result it appears, the women retreated into stereotypical feminine helplessness and left the hard parts to the big strong men.
I’ve been in a similar situation to the woman’s flipping the raft. It was when I navigated a pulling boat, one dark and stormy night, into a light’ house’s red zone on the rocky and dangerous Maine coast. I felt a pretty hapless sailor and yet found other ways over the days to be an active and contributing participant in my crew.
If I were on raft #4, what would I do differently?
I’d call a time out and ask what’s happening? Here’s what I am seeing. Do you see the same? What can we do differently? What ideas do you have? Can we re-arrange our way of working? The key here is to give time for people to speak. (There’s plenty of time after dinner in the long evenings of June.)
Maybe we’d come up with a way to partner at the helm.
I wish Mr. Schrank had asked the OB instructor what he saw and included that in his story. Was John OK with the tipped over raft? Failure is a way to learn and OB is very good at creating situations, which while appearing high risk in fact are not really dangerous. Could Rhoades have prevented the tip over but chose not to? I wonder. Why was it, according to the men, the woman’s fault? If any fault was to be found, why was the failure not shared?
More questions. Where were the other rafts? Did no one stop and give assistance? Could we draw on the resources in our “organization”, the flotilla? Why not shift people among the five rafts?
And more questions. What’s in our way? What has to happen for us to come together as a genuine, respectful and trusting team?
Instead, raft #4 joined the ranks of countless other pseudo teams, with repressed group development and stymied individual growth. Yes, they got to the end point but at half or less of their potential.
Perhaps, I will use this as a reading for the team-building segment in my class.

* Schrank, Robert. Two Women, Three Mean on a Raft, Pt 1. HBR, May – June 1994, pp. 68-76
Followed by Part 2. (Reflection) HBR, May – June, 1994, pp.77-78.
Both these selections appear in the anthology:
Frost, Peter J., Vance F. Mitchell, and Walter R. Nord. 1997. “Organizational reality: reports from the firing line.” Reading, Mass: Addison-Wesley. Pp 131-137 & pp. 242-247.
Schrank’s essay was “first published by HBR in 1977
and then re-issued in 1994 by HBR. Part 2 includes a “17 years later” assessment, which features lengthy, sexism-confirming comments by three women leaders. One of the three was on raft #4.

© John Lubans 2015

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

Posted by jlubans on September 11, 2015  •  Leave comment (1)

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 07, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)


ON the heels of my blog, ‘’Your call is very important to us, really’: Leadership and failed customer service”, I’ve come across a short essay on “Doors.” I like this little temper tantrum from the early days of Soviet Russia and I will use it as a discussion reading in my next class (2016) on the Democratic Workplace.
“Doors” appears two-thirds of the way through a darkly comedic novel, The Twelve Chairs* as “In Moscow they like to lock doors.” It assails officialdom's observed relish to keep people away from the office holder, to keep doors locked, to minimize access, to frustrate the little guy from getting his visa stamped or getting an answer to a simple question without having to wait in line or to take a number or submit a written request.
It speaks to me of the ways the stereotypical office holder attempts to complicate, even stymie, the comings and goings of the rest of us, stereotypical humans. When we are forced to bow our heads and speak into a hole cut into bullet-proof glass, or when the person you thought was helping you mumbles and disappears into the back, never to return, or, If still there, tells you someone will get to you in due time.
And, why is there an armed policeman seated at a desk in the waiting room of the local Social Security office? Who is he guarding?
Yes, yes, someone will claim that the rules and regs are necessary for us to smoothly interact with each other, so any observed obfuscations are the excusable “inefficiencies” of a well-intentioned system. My response: Balderdash, piffle and phooey!
Often it is “the man” or, if you prefer, "the woman" putting one over on the little guy or gal because the condition of being an “office holder”, unless checked by a leader and corporate values, encourages and permits it. Why else would an un-named Opera house in 2015, with a dozen magnificent doors opening unto a glorious park landscape, require ticket holders to go around to the side and squeeze in a narrow door as if entering a house of ill repute?
The authors (Ilf and Petrov) offer several other examples.
And, they identify two types of signs to be found on locked door or near Rails, Barriers, Upturned benches, and Ropes, all erected to control access.

And, there are INDIRECT SIGNS:

This officiousness is not unique to communists or other totalitarians. What Ilf and Petrov rail about in 1928 Moscow is on display today in libraries, banks, the airport, the coffee shop, the hospital, the post office and every other governmental office in every country, democratic or despotic.
I want the students to think about why this happens; to question the expressed reason that standing and waiting to be “noticed” by eye-contact-avoiding staff, that taking a number, that queuing up is only done for efficiency; that doing so saves you time. Does it?
I’d like to see if the students would unlock doors. Would they remove the “Staff Only” sign?
I will ask, “Have you encountered this love of locking doors in your personal life? Has it lessened any since 1991 (the breakdown of the Soviet system)?
Do you know of locked doors (metaphorical or physical) that ought to be open?
What is behind (figuratively & philosophically) the locked doors? Does the locked or blocked or prohibited door mean more than just “no entry”?
At the conclusion of Doors, Ilf and Petrov openly defy the status quo: “To hell with doors! To hell with queues outside theatres. Allow us to go in without business.”
Do you agree or not? Why?


*Ilʹf, I., Petrov, E., & Richardson, J. H. C. (1997). The twelve chairs (Двенадцать стульев). Evanston, Ill: Northwestern University Press. Originally published in Russian as Двенадцать стульев, in 1928. Read the Doors excerpt in Chapter 28, “The Hen and the Pacific Rooster.”
Among the most amusing parts of the book is Chapter 22, “Ellochka the Cannibal” a masterful and hilarious portrayal of Ellochka Shukin, the wife of an engineer, with a vocabulary of thirty words, yet somehow “manage(s) easily and fluently” her day-to day-life.

Leading from the Middle Library of the week: University of Central Arkansas, Torreyson Library
Conway, AR United States

© John Lubans 2015

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE WOLF AND HIS SHADOW”*

Posted by jlubans on September 04, 2015  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Illustration by Arthur Rackham, 1912

“A Wolf, who was roaming about on the plain when the sun was getting low in the sky, was much impressed by the size of his shadow, and said to himself, ‘I had no idea I was so big. Fancy my being afraid of a lion! Why, I, not he, ought to be King of the beasts’; and, heedless of danger, he strutted about as if there could be no doubt at all about it. Just then a lion sprang upon him and began to devour him. ‘Alas,’ he cried, ‘had I not lost sight of the facts, I shouldn't have been ruined by my fancies.’"

The illustration for this fable is by one of the greatest and most prolific book illustrators of the 20th century: Arthur Rackham (1867–1939).
Rackham’s raffish wolf with his lupine leer at his lollapalooza of a shadow, tells us Mr. Wolf is feeling mighty fine, 10 feet tall. “Ain’t I somethin’?” just prior to the lion’s lunge.
For me, this deftly done sketch concisely and convincingly shows off Rackham’s genius and interpretative skill.

Caption: Arthur Rackham – Fairy Tales of the Brothers Grimm, 1909 edition.

Caption: Original illustration by Arthur Rackham in J. M. Barrie’s copy of Peter Pan.

*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.

© John Lubans 2015