Traveling Mercies*

Posted by jlubans on January 24, 2023  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: The diffident Ms. Molly - formerly inaccessible - now a daily visitor.

In the Kingdom of Complaint attempts at humor are D.O.A. And, is there anywhere a greater source of complaining than in air travel?
Indeed, I will hop, skip, and jump over the grievances, laments, gripes, grumbles, squawks, and bleats to which all long-distance travelers feel entitled.
So, let me tell you about the fun parts of my recent trip to Todos Santos in Baja California, Mexico.
You know, a window seat is not always bad. It beats the middle seat. On the flight down from Portland, Oregon our stop over was Salt Lake City.
The plane began its descent far out and so I got to see miles and miles of the Great Salt Lake. I’d read about it and heard about it, but had never seen it.
It’s remarkable in its large pools of water and lack of habitation hedged in by what look like small mountains. How the pioneers must have wondered.
I’ve been to the vast and inviting SLC airport once before, less than a year ago on my way to Latvia. I liked it then and like it even more now. After a mile or more of walking from our arrival gate to our departure gate (no complaint – I needed the walk) we were hungry.
We’d skipped breakfast in Portland. Not far from our departure gate was a large open area with several restaurants. Yes, one was serving breakfast. The hostess walked us over to a table pointed to a worn decal in the middle of the table (the QR code) telling us, “Use your phone to order and to pay.
She left us and we must have looked bemused, bewitched and bewildered for a middle-aged waitress came over, plunked herself down in a chair and offered to teach us how to use the QR code. Or, like an angel from on high, “Do you just want to tell me; I can take your order.
You can imagine which option, after rising at 3AM, we chose!
Surprisingly, like the nimble fat man
breakfast was very good.
Hunger abated, we were ready for the plane to Mexico.
My seat mate to Cabo (our destination) was a doppelgänger for Danny DeVito with a flowered shirt, pie hat, and shorts, man-spreading into my space.
I promptly, without asking permission, put down the arm rest between our seats – if not then, when?
No complaint. I was amused at how much he looked like Matilda’s father in the Roald Dahl film.
Speaking of movies, on planes I rarely view anything more than the flight tracker. I have a disdain for the movies offered, although, I must confess, I do find myself caging views at other people’s screens starring Sylvester, Clint, Tom, and Bruce.
This time, I clicked on Lyle, Lyle the Crocodile film. I knew the 1965 book and was wondering how it would be made into a film.
I was more than engaged with the foot tapping salsa dance routines, led by the ebullient Javier Bardem alongside crocodile Lyle. Bardem’s role (Hector P. Valenti)
was not in the book, as I recall. In any case he played a passé vaudevillian and the original human friend to Lyle.
All ends happily, of course, with Lyle going on vacation with his new human family. Set in NYC, there were countless scenes of places I’ve been while walking about in the best tradition of the flaneur.
After landing at Cabo in the mid-afternoon, we headed to Customs.
It was not just our plane’s passengers but several others. There were ten switchback lanes with about 50 travelers in each, so a total of 500 in the hall.
We were to pass each other ten times. I wondered if there were a better way; what would Frederick Taylor (the Scientific Management man) do? How would he organize this 500 person conga line?
I amused myself by imaging a twilight zone experience where we never saw the same person more than once instead of the mandated ten times.
Or, psychedelically, if we saw the same people, they would be wearing different clothes or making different facial expressions.
Gaining parole from Customs (I gave the wrong flight number to the agent – but he only grinned wryly) we arrived in Baggage.
And there, amidst several rows of neatly arranged luggage, was our bag, waiting for us.
Out the door and on our way!
At the local car rental the “hail-fellow well-met” tummler greeted me like a long-lost relative and regaled me as a boulevardier of some repute.
Mockingly, he accused me of running off with the cute senorita and abandoning my wife at the counter. Esta bien, no?
Well, better to be cajoled for an old roué than a senescent infant. Alas, that’s probably around the corner.
The car rental guy did give me some good advice: “Remember it’s a straight road to Todos Santos from the airport, sort of.
I should have listened.
Now for three years running, I left the straight and narrow, and took the wrong turn and had to U-turn back after 5 miles of going the wrong way.
Slow learner.
El Pescador is not far from Todos Santos. It’s a small fishing village but with a lot of activity on the one main road, the highway north to Todos Santos and to La Paz. Poorly lit, I have seen dozens of men, women and children on the side of the road waiting for rides on busses or on truck or cars. People cross the highway all the time with cattle trucks roaring past, belching diesel. An obvious need for traffic calming.
In town, the speed limit is 15 kph. It is only obeyed by gringos like me. Locals whiz through at 60 or 80 kph.
As a first effort at speed reduction, the government had installed on the side of the highway a plywood cut-out of a police car. At night, it would look like the real thing. Of course, as soon as the locals figured it out, they went back to speeding.
So, since our last visit, the government had put in rumble strips, not just a few, but over 30s strips to get your attention and to wake up the borracho driver.
If the rumble strips don’t get you to slow down, there’s still a ways to go, a ten yard stretch of pavement that rattles one’s bones. If you are still running, it’s the high jump for you, a “sleeping policeman” (tope) on the pavement that make you do an Evel Knievel and land in the distant pass.
After 16 hours of transport, we arrive in Todos Santos, at our Hotelito. There’s the joy of arrival, of seeing Jenny, the owner. With drinks outside under the stars, I realize the sensation of not moving, not next-stepping, the sense of arrival.
And a new friend made, Molly, the tiger-striped cat. Usually distant – one of Jenny’s many strays - tonight she wants her cheeks rubbed and curls up a foot or so away.
On a sad note – even when trying to be funny, reality prevails -Jenny’s extraordinary pig, Collette – a celebrity in Todos Santos and beyond – has died as of a few days ago. ¡Qué lástima!

*Listen to Emily Scott Robinson sing Traveling Mercies, here.
Copyright John Lubans all text and photo, 2023.

Crying Crocodiles

Posted by jlubans on January 17, 2023  •  Leave comment (0)


Something in this cartoon captures, for me, not only that frequent fakery found among those crying crocodile tears – that weeping of the “false or affected” variety - but also to be found among some disingenuous life and leadership coaches, advisers and counselors.
We are told that crocodiles have lachrymal glands (for keeping their eyes lubricated) and that were centuries ago observed: “Theise Serpentes slen men, and thei eten hem wepynge."
The depicted life coach crocodile, in empathizing with the fake tears, is perpetuating victimhood.
Telling someone “I feel your pain” is not as good as “I feel your pain and let’s do something about it.”
Some advisers, consultants complicitly encourage you to think “you are victims, to believe that you have no agency, to believe that what you must do to improve the world is to complain, is to protest…” instead of working to create alternatives.
It’s very much job security for the paid grievance adviser.
In commenting on Odo’s Fable on “The Weeping Bald Man and Some Partridges” I referred to Alice in Wonderland who “remarked after the Walrus and the Carpenter scarfed up all the little oysters: (Of the two), "I like the Walrus best," said Alice, "because you see he was a little sorry for the poor oysters."
Odo’s story reminded me of a boss who fired a worker and then waxed solicitous about the ex-employee’s wellbeing. It was meant to come across as a magnanimous gesture, shedding rays of empathy and (crocodile) tears upon the displaced and downsized!
It was a scam, a persona cultivated for the environment in which this boss worked.
For me, the Crying Crocodiles cartoon is about the "grievance industry", as some have called it in the USA.
I have seen the "culture of complaint" in my native Latvia when remembrance of bad things immobilizes its leadership from moving forward.
I recall my father (and other Latvians of his era) dwelling on the atrocities of the communists but rarely mentioning the heroic efforts – including his own - of Latvians past and present.
Today, I believe Latvia's unprecedented financial and physical support for Ukraine in its fight to win against Russia’s brutality is a move away from historic victimization or as one of my Latvian cousins put it: (to no longer) "feel as a nation of servants.”
I have never before seen so many Latvians doing so many positive things for others.
One of Latvia's most admired presidents, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga,
gave - during her presidency (1999-2007) - a much needed pep talk to the recently post-Soviet nation she was leading:
We are a strong nation! (say, please, all together – we're strong!) We are sublime!
We're productive! We're beautiful!
We know what we want! And what we want, we can!
And what we can, that's what we do!

This January, the New Year's speeches by the Prime Minister and the President of Latvia boldly echoed Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga’s inspirational outlook.

My book, Fables for Leaders – absent crocodile tears - is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2023

The Gentleman Leader

Posted by jlubans on January 10, 2023  •  Leave comment (0)

Caption: Don Quixote illustration by Honoré Daumier (1808-79).

A friend’s passing – let’s call him Norbert - set me thinking about what characterized his leadership.
Norbert hired me for an executive job; he was my boss for a few years prior to his being sidelined into an advisory position at the university in which we worked. (That was one of many instances of “quiet firing” I observed during my career.)
My thoughts of him kept coming back to a defining term: gentleman, a Gentleman Leader.
I’ve met a few in my career, and I must say gentlemen do not have an easy time of it in organizations.
Well, unless they have extraordinary social skills. I am not talking as much about just the diplomatic or political as the internal courage to turn the other cheek - to avoid the slings and arrows and perfumed daggers from the un-gentlemen and un-ladies in any kind of business.
Gentlemen/Gentlewomen Leaders have a code. That code is more understood than explicitly stated:
There are other qualities – including the sartorial - but the above is sufficient to separate the knight errant, the preux chevalier, from the workplace’s knaves, scalawags, back-stabbers, cockalorums and rapscallions.
While Don Quixote is a classical caricature of the Knight Errant, many of his qualities, however exaggerated, are illustrative of the knightly code.
Gentleman Leader Undone
Norbert’s previous bosses all had been of the old school, gentlemen.
When a new boss was put in place, Norbert and he failed to hit it off. As mentioned, that resulted in Norbert’s being shunted aside. Shabbily so.
Not long after, Norbert retired.
We continued our friendship and we’d see each other at social events.
Did we gossip?
Not really. A gentleman does not gossip. We rarely spoke about work, past or present. We enjoyed each other’s company, there was no need for grousing to bond us together.
But one time, my friend responded to me in an uncharacteristically blunt way.
I asked him why he’d moved to a retirement community several miles distant instead of choosing the local retirement village. Each were of equal value and well regarded, so why not stay local where he’d lived for 30 years?
His response: “Because that’s where all the bastards (I had to work with) are!”
I laughed; I knew of what he spoke.
You see, the problem with being a gentleman leader is that you may have to work with men and women who have fewer scruples than you do, have more ambition, and are willing to kick others off the success ladder.
Remember, if you are dealing with the overly ambitious, then you no longer have shared values nor the desire to have honest discussions about what needs doing.
Your all-in-it-for-himself opponent is not going to have a quiet, helpful chat with you, the all-for-the-greater-good person.
Well, when unseemly ambition goes up against modest ambition, you can imagine what one may have to do. We succumb to the temptation to hit back. The maligned becomes the maligner. Norbert, as a Gentleman Leader, was incapable of sinking that low to counter betrayal.
Norbert’s gentleness somewhat tied his hands as to what he could do to improve his standing in the eyes of his superiors.
He continued to believe (and avoid conflict) that his employees were well intentioned even when they were not.
Some of this was deliberate behavior (who knows what schemes were percolating?), or it may be, that these individuals were incompetent bad hires made by a previous administration. Their's was a peculiar kind of incompetence to be found among experts; the inability to make the complex simple and the ability to make the simple overly complex.
In any case, good faith efforts on Norbert’s part failed to move the entrenched to simplify, to accept change and to innovate.
Norbert’s boss, whether a Gentleman Leader or not, saw the stalemate and made the necessary decision – however unfair - to remove Norbert.
Alas, the most entrenched and stubborn escaped while the gentleman leader was punished.
At least for the time being; change – like springtime follows winter - was just around the corner.

My book, Fables for Leaders – full of gentlemanly and un-gentlemanly allusions, is available. Click on the image and order up!

And, don’t forget Lubans' book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle
© Copyright text by John Lubans 2023

A Wintry Melt Down

Posted by jlubans on January 03, 2023  •  Leave comment (0)

Thousands of stranded passengers, 13,000 flight cancelations and mountains of unclaimed/undelivered luggage all suggest that Southwest Airlines is in “melt down”. Indeed, that is the head-line writers preferred term.
Count me a SWA loyalist.
I’ve written about SWA and their - at one time - unique style of leadership and teamwork.
In my teaching, I use SWA as an exemplary organization for putting best management theory into practice.
And, I fly on SWA whenever I can.
Why the melt down?
SWAs flight attendant union doesn’t hold back: “It is the complete failure of Southwest Airlines’ executive leadership. It is their decision to continue to expand and grow without the technology needed to handle it.”
It does seem to me from afar that SWAs new leadership - unlike the iconoclastic duo of Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett - comes across pragmatic and staid. Worse, unimaginative. The leadership blames IT failure, that all too familiar organizational scapegoat.
The proactive and iconoclastic SWA of the 1970s now appears reactive.
Perhaps it was inevitable that an organization could not sustain the zip, verve and ingenuity that characterized the un-afraid SWA of the Kelleher/Barrett years.
Back in the 70s, SWA was all about doing it better and differently to keep expenses down and, along the way, keeping a sense of humor.
Why do you think SWA was the first domestic airline back in American skies after 9/11?
Once head and shoulders above the rest, it is now hard to distinguish SWA from any other airline, even those claiming to have weathered the epidemic better than SWA.
SWAs success was not due to whiz bang IT systems; it was people who loved doing what they were doing and a leadership that encouraged them - set them free - to do so!
Some critics suggest that the post-pandemic SWA has gone “woke” with a distracting focus on ESG (Environmental, Social, and Governance) matters over getting the job done for the least cost and maximum profit with the highest customer satisfaction.
It may be that ESG moved up the priority list ahead of replacing, refurbishing aging computer systems.
Well, my activist friends will say, why not do both ESG and IT?
I suspect given SWAs reputation for frugality, it does not have the built-in fat of so many other corporations. Indeed a survey of other airlines suggest they too have major IT concerns, so it is not just SWA.
Two years ago this month I blogged about an encounter with SWA: “You Built It.
Here it is again to remind me what a great airline it was and still can be.
Caption: Southwest Airline Engine (and plane) over Rocky Mountains, west of Denver, CO, USA. January 9 2021

Early in January of this new year I was waiting for my return flight from Denver, Colorado to Portland, Oregon.
I sat across from my departure gate – just waiting and looking at the passers-by of which there were surprisingly many streaming past, all masked.
I was on a SWA dedicated concourse – full of arriving and departing SWA travelers and crews - so it was not unusual that there was a SWA flight crew sitting nearby. I was by myself having a take-away glass of wine (thank you virus!) .
One of the flight crew, a man, asked me if I was going to Spokane, the destination at the next gate and the one his crew were working. That got the conversation rolling.
I asked him about the last president of the airline, Colleen Barret, if she was still working several hours a week in spite of her retirement. He said no, she was less and less involved.
Then I mentioned my meeting Herb Kelleher (1931-2019), the co-founder of the airline and how welcomed I felt sitting in his office. From the first second, it was like visiting with an old friend.
This was in Dallas, Texas, which is where SWA is headquartered.
I mentioned my asking Herb – there was nothing of the “Mister” about Herb – about SWA’s culture of excellent customer service. I asked if the underlying values would change on his retirement.
“No”, he said, “it’s in the DNA.”
I related that story to the flight attendant, “He said that, did he?” he queried.
“He sure did.”
Hearing that, he pulled out his phone and said he had a picture to show me.
It was one of him in ramp agent* gear sitting next to Herb – in a suit - chatting away.
In other words, that’s the CEO hobnobbing with one of the workers.
He told Herb - the CEO - how appreciative he, the ramp agent, was of the “empire” Herb had built – the Southwest Airlines empire, the company.
Herb responded, “I didn’t build it, you did.”
So, here we have one of the workers with a picture of the CEO on his phone. How many workers do you know who carry around a picture of their CEO?
Just think about it.
And think about Herb’s perspective about who’s in charge, who’s responsible for SWAs success, about who should get the credit.

*We know what flight attendants do.
The lesser known “Ramp Agents” guide the plane in to and out of the gate, help get passengers off and on the plane, and unload luggage and cargo and make sure the luggage gets to the right person. They also re-provision the plane – water, snacks, drinks, paper goods.
And, on January 9th they de-iced my plane before we took off for Oregon.
Some ramp teamers, like the flight attendant I met in Denver, aspire to become flight attendants.
See my “No Bean Bags Here” essay.
Also there are chapters on Southwest leadership and culture in my book on democratic workplaces, Leading from the Middle. Amazon has it.

© Copyright photo and text John Lubans 2021, 2023