Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE MISCHIEVOUS DOG”*

Posted by jlubans on February 26, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Looking for Cesar Millan, the dog behavior guy.

“There was once a Dog who was so ill-natured and mischievous that his Master had to fasten a heavy wooden clog about his neck to keep him from annoying visitors and neighbors. But the Dog seemed to be very proud of the clog and dragged it about noisily as if he wished to attract everybody's attention. He was not able to impress anyone.
"’You would be wiser,’ said an old acquaintance, ‘to keep quietly out of sight with that clog. Do you want everybody to know what a disgraceful and ill-natured Dog you are?’"
“Notoriety is not fame.”

Aesop’s take - from 2500 years ago - on today’s culture of celebrity. Poor pup, I’d say.
The story goes that Aesop was to achieve some notoriety among the citizens of Delphi. Insulted by his claim Delphians were descended from slaves, they hurled him over a cliff. No more Aesop. While extreme, this remedy might rid us of …, well, you name the most annoying celebrity. Over you go!

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

© John Lubans 2016

“Wisdom in a Thimble: Fables for Managers”

Posted by jlubans on February 22, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

An invitation to speak at the National Library of Latvia* happily coincided with my interest in putting out an e-book based on this blog’s Friday Fable. My working idea is to select 100 of the fables – a feature of this blog since mid-2012 – and update my commentary for each fable. To add some cachet to the book, I’ll include a dozen original illustrations by Béatrice Coron.
So, the library’s invitation has gotten me beyond the initial thinking phase and more towards the doing part. (Indeed, the thimble metaphor in the title is one immediate result.)
The talk’s introduction will cover briefly several questions like: Who was Aesop and how did the Aesopic tradition come to be? Is it true that Aesop was a slave with disabilities? Is there any truth to that he somehow gained as an adult the gift of speech and a knack for telling clever stories? Finally, did his fables lead to his being hurled off of a cliff to his death at Delphi?
So there’s some romance to impart. But, let’s get literary:
What are fables compared to fairy tales, proverbs, folk sayings, etc? How can talking animals and plants offer any helpful hints for managers and workers? Isn’t there the risk that perusing fables is akin to a grownup’s playing in a sandbox? Are fables not mere childish things, like plush stuffed animals to be put away after a certain age, to be relinquished, however unwillingly?
We’ll see.
For myself, I cannot think of anything more apt for a library setting than talking about fables; they’re the stuff most of our readers were first exposed to when learning to read. It’s the stuff of family life, of learning the do’s and don’ts of life at the kitchen table or at mother’s knee as she sews or with dad as you ride with him on a tractor doing farm chores. An era, some would say, now long gone, ineffectually replaced with staring into smart phones for life lessons. But, I digress.
Are fables not a creative aspect of our being? Why else are we drawn to fables, pithy sayings and proverbs uttered by the likes of Saturnin, Sancho Panza, or Josef Švejk? Fables are all about observing the human condition.
Since I have written a dozen or so of my own fables, I plan to offer up some ideas on what triggers my thinking towards writing a fable, for example, “The Bear in the Tree.
Yes, a bit of “how I do it” but something I hope will prove useful to the audience since at the end of my presentation I will ask them, in small groups, to write a fable based on a Latvian or African proverb. The provided proverb will be the moral and their task will be to build a fable of their invention around it. A few of my favorites:
"’We have rowed well,’ said the flea as the fishing boat arrived at its mooring.”
“An ample backside will easily find a bench to sit on.”
“The ready back gets all the loads.”
“If there is a hailstorm, we all cover our heads.”

What is it about fables that appeal to me so much? Fables advise us on social values, and provide admonitions and rules-for-living. They inculcate common sense. They are pragmatic, practical and realistic. Some, of course, have more than one interpretation – what in life does not? Are we not always asked to consider both sides?
So, I find in fables thimble-size lessons for the workplace; thimblefuls of wisdom about how we behave to each other and cautions of man’s tendency to err. For example, in the fable about the frogs wanting a king, the frogs willingly give up self-rule for a tyrant, a crane, that consumes them. How many among us would willingly surrender uncertainty for someone to tell us what to do?
And then there’s the story of the drowning boy who, in need of a helping hand, instead gets a lecture on the foolishness of playing in deep water. How often, at work, have you heard, “I told you so” in lieu of “What can I do to help?”

*Caption: My venue. The National Library of Latvia at evening.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Aesop’s “THE LION AND THE GNAT”*

Posted by jlubans on February 19, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: "Now, let me see your dab," says King Lion.

"’Away with you, vile insect!’ said a Lion angrily to a Gnat that was buzzing around his head. But the Gnat was not in the least disturbed.
‘Do you think,’ he said spitefully to the Lion, ‘that I am afraid of you because they call you king?’
The next instant he flew at the Lion and stung him sharply on the nose. Mad with rage, the Lion struck fiercely at the Gnat, but only succeeded in tearing himself with his claws. Again and again the Gnat stung the Lion, who now was roaring terribly. At last, worn out with rage and covered with wounds that his own teeth and claws had made, the Lion gave up the fight.
The Gnat buzzed away to tell the whole world about his victory, but instead he flew straight into a spider's web. And there, he who had defeated the King of beasts came to a miserable end, the prey of a little spider.”

“The least of our enemies is often the most to be feared.
Pride over a success should not throw us off our guard.”

Here the moralist gives us two for the price of one, as it were. But, like the conflict between these unequals, one moral may be more profound than the other. The triumphant gnat dies while the nettled lion lives to see his tormentor’s comeuppance. If you should put one over the powers-that-be it’s better to keep your perspective (no dabbin’ in the end zone) lest you wind up in the spider’s web.

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

NOTE: "Wisdom in a Thimble: Managers and Fables" My upcoming talk at the National Library of Latvia in Riga. February 24, 2016, 11.00 - 13.00.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

“Tingling to Tell”

Posted by jlubans on February 16, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Robyn Nevin (1979) as Miss Docker, the Cheery Soul (yukking it up) with the wife of the ill-fated rector.

Writing about gossip and office politics “took me back, back, back to mammie’s knee” as a 1920s song might go. No, not exactly; the thought did catapult me (figuratively) back to the Sydney Opera House Theater’s production of Patrick White’s “A Cheery Soul” circa 2000. I was in Sydney observing the maestra, Simone Young's leadership of the Sydney Opera House orchestra, see Chapter 15 in Leading from the Middle: Orchestrating Success: A Profile of Simone Young, Conductor.
I'd forgotten the name of Mr. White’s play but I recalled the lead character as a do-gooder who itched – it was her Christian duty, she’d say - to correct those in error, albeit with a gleeful vengeance and catastrophic result.
Indeed, it was Ms. Docker – that cheery soul - who I was thinking of when I recalled, from early in my career, a department head peer who was tingling to tell me just how ineffective I was; all she needed was my permission.
So, in these days of “shameless honesty,” “radical candor,” “mokita moments” and “front-stabbing” how can you separate “constructive feedback” from that not quite so?
A recent story in the WSJ suggests that we can take too far candor’s cause. Bridgewater, the world’s biggest and most profitable hedge fund (managing $154 billion) practices a corporate philosophy of “complete honesty.” Seemingly, if greed is a good motivator, inflicting emotional pain is even better, as long as you succeed at the conundrum of “removing human emotion from decision-making”.
Well, all’s not well at the emotion-less Bridgewater. One might even say that emotions are stewing. Two of the leaders “have called for votes on each other’s (corporate) conduct”, specifically on whether or not the two have “integrity.” As defined at Bridgewater, integrity is “never saying something about a person that you wouldn’t tell the person directly.” Surely, Ms. Docker would approve. Talking behind people’s backs, makes you a “slimy weasel” to use the official term from the Bridgewater Lexicon*.

I wonder what Mr. White could have done with this scenario.

*Other iPad data collection efforts at Bridgewater:
Dot Collector
An app to rate and organize employees’ attributes like ‘willingness to touch the nerve’
Believability Index
A measurement that reflects how much weight individual opinions are given in debates and polls
Pain Button
An app to record feelings such as ‘angry,’ ‘frustrated’ and ‘sad’

These and other applications are fed into a giant store of information which is used systematically to rank and reward or to “rank and yank” each and every employee.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week:
Nevada State Library Archives and Public Records, Carson City NV USA

NOTE: "Wisdom in a Thimble: Managers and Fables" My upcoming talk at the National Library of Latvia in Riga. February 24, 2016, 11.00 - 13.00.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “A Fly upon a Wheel.”*

Posted by jlubans on February 12, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Hugh Laurie as the ill-fated and incompetent Prince George IV. Bertie Wooster as fop?

“What a Dust do I raise! says the Fly upon the Coach-Wheel? and what a rate do I drive at, says the same Fly again upon the Horse's Buttock?”
“This Fly in the Fable, is every Trifling Arrogant Fop in Nature, by what Name or Title soever Dignify'd, or Distinguish'd.”

The alluded to “Trifling Arrogant Fop” brings to mind my comment about Fat Cat Tuesday, that early part of January in which some CEOs make in one week what their line staff will bring home in a year.
Some CEOs - servant leaders - are steering the coach, earning their keep. Others, like the fly on the “Horse's Buttock”, and more than likely the depicted fop, are along for the ride; a passenger not a driver.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

Leading from the Middle Library of the Week: Yolo County Library
Woodland, California, USA

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

“Seven is not the loneliest number.”

Posted by jlubans on February 08, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption. Starling: "Wait for me!".

The Internet and beehives - both complex organizations – are akin to the acrobatic murmurations of starlings. And, for my teaching purposes all three are excellent examples of leaderless, self-managing organizations.
There is no grand maestro directing any of the three, telling underlings what to do and when to do it. However, unlike the pure democracy among the bees and starlings, the Internet is a magnet for regulators and regulation – man’s and woman's itch to control just won’t quit.
Of course, that raw desire for control is pasted over with all the best and selfless of reasons; remember Orwell’s “all animals are equal, some are more equal than others.”
Given the opportunity, I’d even guess the “we-know-best” crowd would want to intervene with the democratic decision-making of bees, or the spontaneous decision-making among thousands of starlings. But, the bees’ 80% success rate in decision-making and the starlings’ consistent success in avoiding predators would be hard to improve on.
Complexity is a complex topic. Melanie Mitchell, writing in "Complexity: A Guided Tour" sets forth some of the parameters in her definition: “A system in which large networks of components with no central control and simple rules of operation give rise to complex collective behavior, sophisticated information processing, and adaptative learning or evolution.”
I’ve emphasized the lack of central control and the simple rules of operation. Please note that there’s no mention of hierarchy, our favorite way of organizing our work. Unlike self-organizing systems, hierarchies require regulation because hierarchies cannot be trusted to behave in fair and impartial ways. They can be abusive because of the power a few have over the many. Hierarchies gravitate toward secrecy and closed books; that can lead to corruption. A self-organizing system is open, transparent, and needs no formal performance appraisal – feedback is immediate and whatever’s incongruent is corrected.
Birds appear to abhor hierarchy: “Surprising as it may be, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. Even in the case of flocks of geese, which appear to have a leader, the movement of the flock is actually governed collectively by all of the flock members.” While we can wonder about those flying and turn-taking wedges in the northern skies, the starlings give us something more. Thousands of birds cartwheel; create funnels, clouds and other shapes all the while responding in an agile unity. The question is how can thousands of birds move at varying speeds and in different directions all the while remaining as a unified, fluid, predator-proof group?
Seven is not the loneliest number.
The research has it that “one bird's movement only affects its seven closest neighbors. So one bird affects its seven closest neighbors, and each of those neighbors' movements affect their closest seven neighbors and on through the flock.”
Coincidentally, seven is a good number for a self-managing team. Of course, each of the team members, like the starlings, has to have something to offer and willingness to lead/follow. Being one of 100,000 birds in a fluctuating flock suggests a remarkable example of Leading from the Middle!
No starling (unlike the illustration at the top) gets to sit out the murmuration, to not take part at full throttle. The starlings might even score high on the “C” scale instrument for measuring team effectiveness. “C”, as explained in one of my assigned readings, “Good Teams: What’s the Secret?”, predicts group failure or success through three elements: participant emotional or social IQ; the number of engaged participants; and, interestingly, the number of women on the team. Seven is large enough for diverse viewpoints and participants, a high collective social IQ, and small enough for everyone to participate in group decision-making. Gender may have less of an influence among starlings than it does for humans.
I’ll be showing my class this video.
It features two science students in a rowboat who capture a remarkable murmuration out on the water. The video, I hope, will bemuse the students and lead them to marvel at what the starlings do and, beyond the starlings, to wonder about other ways of organizing – we humans are not necessarily limited to the top down command and control model of working.

Caption: Paraboloids and hyperbolics!

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

Friday Fable. Abstemius's (Sir Roger L'Estrange) “The Mice and the Oak”*

Posted by jlubans on February 05, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Mouse munching on acorn.

“The Mice found it so troublesom to be still climbing the Oak for every Bit they put in their Bellies, that they were once to set their Teeth to't, and bring the Acorns down to them; but some wiser than some, and a Grave Experienc'd Mouse, bad them have a care what they did; for it we destroy our Nurse at present, who shall feed us hereafter?”

“Resolution without Foresight is but a Temerarious Folly: And the Consequences of Things are the first Point to be taken into Consideration.”

The “Grave Experienc'd Mouse” has got it right. We deforest the land at our own risk just like we do when, presumptuously, we rush through a policy without considering worst-case scenarios. And, acts of “Temerarious Folly” arm the naysayers, those who resist change regardless of necessity. They point to the unintended consequences of the past as sufficient reason to do nothing.

*Source: Aesop’s Fables translated by Sir Roger L'Estrange, 1692.

© Copyright John Lubans 2016

“They know they can….”

Posted by jlubans on February 01, 2016  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Dana Narvaiša, eye to eye with students, guiding student decision-making.
I am putting together the agenda for my two-credit Democratic Workplace class at the University of Latvia. This will be the fifth time around; it starts February 11 and will include a mix of master’s degree students and practitioners, approximately 17 total.
As regular readers of Leading from the Middle know, I often refer to this class; it’s a blood relative of this blog. And, the students’ willingness to consider different ways of organizing, leading, and following, inspires me every time.
I try to add something new each session; #5 will have several new features including an assignment that uses a Latvian produced video, “'Think School' – Children in Charge” (Domāt skola),
by Krista Burāne with English sub-titles.
The production follows third graders at the New School in Cēsis, Latvia for two month as they self-organize and manage their end-of-school-year celebration. The children apply what they have learned in school, vote, decide, deal with conflict, and carry off their project, happily. I find “Think School” highly reminiscent of Kurt Lewin’s classic, if rudimentary, film on boys
clubs and leadership styles. “Domāt skola”, perhaps unknowingly, builds on Lewin’s ideas about democratic leadership and applies them in a real school setting.
Let me explain a little bit about Latvian schools. In Latvia, the first day of school - all over this northern European country of two million - is a dress-up festive day; students wear dresses and suits, and parents, also formally dressed, tag along. Teachers are presented with bouquets of flowers and boxes of chocolates.
Likewise, the end-of-the-school-year is a day of celebration for students, parents and teachers. Usually the event is organized, planned and directed by the teachers
The New School, led by Dana Narvaiša, turned the celebration’s organizing, planning and executing over to the students. Not without some uncertainty. At a point in the film one of the teachers asks the quintessential question: “Do we suggest them (program ideas). Or, let them decide on their own?” In other words, what does leadership look like when working with self-managing teams? How far does the leader let go? At what point does the leader intervene?
I want my students to view the video and to write a short paper on what they see.
I’ll provide a guide sheet with several questions from which to choose two or three for a written response. They’ll have the option to make up their own questions.
I wrote to Dana Narvaiša in hopes of getting her perspective on how this experiment in democracy went. She was kind enough to respond. Here are her slightly edited responses to a few of my questions:
Q. Do you think the self-management approach worked well, overall?
“This was our very first time we tried this approach in such a large scale, before we did small projects for one/two weeks. That is why we did a lot of mistakes. …
Must admit that I had higher expectations at that moment for our students, but now when more students have joined us from other schools, I see that our students from last year have higher skills of self management - they better plan their time, they know that they can make difference, they ask for help, search for solutions, set higher goals. Well, I do not like to compare students like this, but in this case it helps me really to see impact of our approach and I see that it worked quite ok.”
Q. Did most of the students do an equal amount of work or did some do more than others?
“... In reality I wouldn't say equal amount, but what I appreciated the most - they all were involved and they all overcame themselves. For me it is important that everyone has progress - for girls it looks different than for some boys. You can see K___ - who plays with balloon, gets angry and does not dance. At the beginning of the year he was (fighting with) everybody, was rude, had conflicts with all students and teachers, but at the end of the year - he is involved in everything, he asks to do work, he wants to be involved, he has initiative. There were discussions between kids - who does more, who less and it was good chance to talk about our differences….”
Q. Did the students learn from their mistakes?
“Well… they can tell in theory what were their mistakes and what they should do instead. But they have challenges with practical realization. We analyze almost every event and definitely every project, and they are really good in telling what worked, what didn't and what should be improved.” (Emphasis added.)
Q. What is the most important outcome from this adventure for the students?
“They know they can….”


© Copyright John Lubans 2016