“On Managing” column, LA&M, Spring, 2001

"Sunshine on a Winter's Day: Library Managers in Latvia."

This past November found me in the 800-year-old city of Riga, Latvia. I was there to lead a workshop on leadership, Learning to Lead.

I made my way to the workshop site from the Radi un Draugi (Friends and Relatives!) hotel in the Old Town. The workshop was in one of nine National Library extension buildings, about a mile away from my hotel. It was a cloud-filled November sky, with a brisk wind blowing. Terbatas street is one of those lined for several blocks with Jungendstil apartment and office buildings, a quirky but appealing German-inspired architecture that anticipates Art Nouveau. The style is fanciful with modernized gargoyles, roof sculptures, and odd shaped windows and doors. These buildings have survived the Second World War and 50 years of Soviet neglect.

The library building, unfortunately, is not blessed with Jungendstil whimsy. On its four functional floors is a multitude of displaced offices from the out-of-space main National Library, a kilometer away. Also, the Continuing Education Center is housed here.

Why was I in Latvia on the Baltic Sea in November, the beginning of their winter? I was born in Latvia. My family fled in 1944 and I had not been back.  Walking through a park, I was reminded of family pictures of my parents, my two brothers and me, in this same city park on a winter’s day.

Another park scene: a mother and young boy, hurrying somewhere, stirs up a vestigial memory of my mother and me.

Obviously, this is more than the usual venue for a workshop. It is a homecoming for me. Earlier in the week, at the National Library’s Conference on the Latvian Book, 1525-2000,  I emended my nametag with “Janis”, my Latvian name. It felt a natural thing to do.

I am told there will be over 25 librarian managers at the workshop. Iveta Gudakovska, director of the Continuing Education Center for Librarians, and I have been e-mailing each other for the past year, to decide on dates and content. A consulting colleague, fresh from a Fullbright in near-by Lithuania, cautioned me about expecting too much in the way of language skills. Like most of us, who learn a foreign language, they are far from fluent. A lecture in English will get a polite hearing, but little comprehension.  That’s understandable since we can better read a foreign language that we don’t often practice, than we can hear it. Since I have “lost” the language of my childhood, I knew that getting my message through was going to be a challenge.

So that all of us could be on the “same page” during the workshop, I forwarded my workshop materials to Iveta, including my talking notes. I wanted everyone to have the opportunity to read the materials ahead of time.

Best of all, as it turned out, was my insisting there be a full-time translator to help with the workshop. However, my thinking that the translator would be a convenient “go to”, on an as-needed basis, proved to be unrealistic.  When we asked the participants for their preference, a majority asked for a verbatim translation!

Besides the language issue, I was anxious about the ability of the group to engage in what is a highly interactive workshop, even by American standards. My use of problem-solving exercises followed by debriefings, case study discussions, and self tests may be familiar experiences to American librarians, but even they are baffled about what the tennis balls, raw eggs, and balloons I use have to do with leadership.  I tell participants the worst thing that will happen is they’ll have fun. The best will be that they learn something. And, anyone who expects a “how to do it” prescription is going to be disappointed. The success of the workshop depends on the participants sharing experiences and views and some ability to work with metaphor. The extrapolations they make from the games are the major lessons they learn. If that does not happen, the outcomes of workshop are less than they could be.

These Latvian librarians were only 9 years out from under the Soviet work place model. That model dominated for 50 years, from 1941-1991. Western consultants, brought in to teach modern management approaches, were finding that Soviet-trained managers’ initiative was at base level. Soviet managers appeared to be comfortable with doing as little as possible and then only what they were told to do. Self-reliance and thinking for one self, I was told, were foreign concepts. 

I wondered as well about the lingering hatred of all things Russian. The bullet holes in the radio station building near the Parliament House are still there, stark reminders of this last oppressor.

In the park near the Opera House, stone blocks commemorate Latvians killed by the Russian military in 1991. The day I saw these memorials they were bedecked with fresh flowers and candles in a misting rain. There’s a smaller stone for a child who was killed. Nearly half the population is Russian, a very large minority. If there are Russian participants, will that be another roadblock to learning?

How the day went.

I discovered, not for the first time, the resiliency of the human spirit. In this workshop, it soared above the limitations of the facility and the Soviet era stereotypes – these became irrelevant.

The photos I took during the day show most participants leaning into the activities, not holding back. There’s intensity about what they are doing, having fun and being engaged and productive.  They are surprisingly competitive. Some of that was to please me, the visiting “expert”, but since my style is low key and hardly dominant, I think this is how these librarians generally are when given the opportunity: inventive, playful and resourceful.

Workshop participants take a ten point  “Leadership Inquiry” that tests for individual supervisory preferences and styles under MacGregor’s theories X and Y. The results in Riga showed a surprising balance in the group. In general, those who work under theory X tend to supervise closely (more controlling) while those who prefer theory Y, tend toward less supervision and more participation.  One theory is not inherently superior to the other. The group had a slight tilt toward theory X, but was more Y than some groups of library managers in the US. 

I say I was surprised because I’d expected X to dominate, given the impressions reported back by management consultants.

The case studies segment of the workshop, conducted in small groups, showcased the Latvian participants intuitive common sense.  Most of their “next steps” to resolve the cases were sensible, nor were they afraid to confront the situation in a direct and professional way. They were resolute about fixing problems.

Conflict avoidance or accommodation was not the preferred mode. While I had thought avoidance would prevail, that is not how it worked out. In fact, I was pleased with the participants directness throughout the day. For example, during one of the problem solving games, I asked for a volunteer reporter to give feedback to the group about what the reporter saw happening. That report was as good as it was impressively frank.

In another game, this one involving raw eggs, the participants took the event seriously - as a group they were sensitive to doing “well”, avoiding “failure”. They wanted those eggs not to break. I had to reassure them that other teams had the same experience as they did in keeping the eggs from breaking. More than once they were chagrined to learn that a game could have been played differently – they were hard on themselves for not being more inventive. That said, there was no excessive sobriety. “Child-like” was the word the interpreter used to describe the fun they were having in the egg game.

How did the participants think the day went? Here, in their own words is what they told me in the spontaneous evaluation at the end of the session.

They liked:

The games

That we have to draw conclusion (for ourselves), not instructor.

The free, open atmosphere.

Contacts made among participants

 (That we were) made to think about leadership style

Learning about myself

Learn(ing) out of the tradition, in a new way.

Solution of conflict.

 (Workshop was relevant since) Latvia is moving from an authoritative work model to teamwork.

What did they not like? What would they change to improve the workshop?

(Their) bosses should have been here.

This is a familiar refrain in my US workshops:  “The people who really need the training are not here!”

At day’s end, I asked if they were tired (I certainly was). NO! was the resounding answer. These managers displayed a strong preference for the participatory or the democratic workplace. Somehow, they have kept the participatory spirit alive.

On the last day of the conference on the Latvian Book I came across two separate examples of how this nation and its people may have retained a sense of independence and self-identity. Across the way from the ballroom reception for the Book conference, was an event involving young and old, men and women. They were celebrating November’s St. Martins Day, the harvest holiday. A few vendors were doing a good business in selling seasonal wreathes, bee’s wax candles, and honey.

Many of the hundred or so there were dressed in Latvian folk costumes. The program of Latvian music, dances and songs underlined and transmitted ancient themes and values.

Later that evening, at the book conference reception, there were post-prandial Latvian singing and dancing – with everyone linking arms in a Dr. Seuss style “Who-ville” circle.  I can see how the Latvian spirit has prevailed in spite of efforts from a number of occupying powers over hundreds of years (Swedes, Germans, Poles, Russians) to make the land and people over for their own.

I asked Iveta about the pre-historic paganism I’d heard about in the rural districts. A hundred kilometers east of Riga, is the old city of Cesis, my birthplace. This area is remarkable for its Switzerland-like qualities: steep hillsides and numerous valleys, with several rivers running through. There are sacred caves in those hills. While driving out to Cesis, I noted well-used paths leading to those caves, up the slopes through the birch trees. Every now and then, I’d glimpse, from the speeding car, a forest shrine deep in amongst the trees.

Iveta told me the caves are still used for prayer and divine solicitation, in spite of efforts by conquerors to eradicate these ancient religious beliefs.  Iveta concluded in a matter of fact way: “After all, they were here first. Of course!”