“A Captain Since Kindergarten”

Posted by jlubans on April 18, 2017

Caption: In the bow, the young Andris Vilks "steering".

The announcement of an architectural award* for the new National Library of Library has me reviewing my year-old notes of several interviews with the Library’s Director, Andris Vilks.
Since I am neither a biographer nor an historian, I've been struggling with how to begin my essay on Andris Vilks and his leadership.
I interviewed him initially in 2011 on a visit to his office in the old National Library building in downtown Riga. I well remember that interview: still recovering from the post 2008 economic meltdown, especially in Latvia, there was little heat and most of the lights were turned off to save energy.
Picking up these early threads, I met with him several times in 2016 when I was back teaching in Riga.
I’ve decided to do the Andris Vilks essay in three phases: Formation, Application, and Future. Today’s blog is the formation of his leadership, mentioning influences from childhood to young adulthood.
My first question – How would you characterize your leaderships? A king and his court, a father and his family, a leader and his team? - prompted Andris to show me a picture from his youth (depicted). He is the Captain of a land-locked boat. He sits in the very bow, (looking toward the camera) while "steering", directly next to a cute little blonde.
It is his first captaincy, a job for which he has "never fought", but one that comes to him.
A basketball player for much of his life, he was, invariably each team’s captain.
“I was not the best player, some were smarter, more knowledgeable. I liked to play; so (it was) important to be on field with other players, so I don’t want to be a coach. I want to be on the field and to play”
Being captain, “I took on responsibility for the team.” And that meant normalizing the team through “demonstrating your enthusiasm” to others. It takes an attitude, “I never like losing”, and “I never give up.”
“As captain, I talked about motivators not so much techniques – to individuals.” Andris’ best friend – a “better player” - wanted to quit the team but he recruited him back. “We needed him.”
Another influence shaping his leadership were the values of his paternal grandmother. She cared for him and he lived with her in a one room apartment until his marriage. (His parents split up when he was 8. His father died, his mother re-married and started a new family, turning away from Andris.) When Andris says he had a “difficult childhood”, I think this is an understatment.
“(His grandmother) worked very hard, was very honest and was very friendly with everybody … she worked (her) whole life.”
“She was very important to my life, always spoke of (an) independent Latvia, told me everything about Latvian history, the Stalin period, occupation, and the prior free Latvia. At 11 years, I understood what was going on in Prague.”
“I was ready for (a) free Latvia.”
He recalled another formative incident from his school days. It was 1968, a time when one had to be careful with saying anything other than what was expected of all good citizens of the Soviet Union.
Andris’ teacher asked the class for the date for celebrating the “Great October Socialist Revolution”. Andris responded “November 18”; a politically incorrect answer because that date, in 1918, was the proclamation of the Republic of Latvia, its first true Independence.
The date the teacher was fishing for was “November 7.
Subsequently, he was informed upon by one of his classmates (Andris knows the name) and was hauled up before a board and castigated, just short of expulsion.
“From that moment,” Andris told me, “I was against the Soviet Union and I began a passive resistance to the Soviet way.” While an adolescent, he understood very clearly what had been done to him; dissent – in any form and at any time – was a punishable offense.
Finally, Andris spoke highly of a professional mentor, Aleksejs Apīnis,
the head of the Library’s Department of Rare Books and Manuscripts, with whom he worked 1978-1986.
Mr. Apīnis was Andris’ “first principal, teacher, and first chief. “Without him I’d never have become what I am.”
“He treated people well – he had the same attitude toward everyone. (He was a) “very strong researcher, good professor, lecturer, (and) manager.
“He was very modest; avoided media interviews, rejected prizes, rejected communist awards.”
“Now, I teach management (at the University of Latvia) and I see (best practices for leaders and managers) in textbooks – but he (Apīnis) knew before textbook.”

Next: Application. How influences from his early years shaped his leadership and management today with a comment from an American peer, Mara Saule, Dean of Library & Information Services, University of Vermont.

*The American Institute of Architects (AIA) and the American Library Association (ALA) have selected the National Library of Latvia as one of 8 recipients of the 2017 AIA/ALA Library Building Awards. Gunnar Birkerts Architects + Gelzis-Smits/Arhetips.

In 2013 I posted on the tree-topping ceremony for the national library.

And, in 2014, I posted on the “Friends of the Library Book Chain” as hundreds of participants throughout the day transported books, from hand to hand, from the old library to the new through the old town, across the river, and through the doors of the new building on a bitterly cold January 18.

N.B. My new book, Fables for Leaders, Ezis Press, comes out in June 2017 as an e-book ($15.00) and a soft cover print-on-demand book, ($25.00). The print book will feature original illustrations by the renowned Béatrice Coron.

© Copyright John Lubans 2017

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