Managing” column, LA&M, Spring, 2001
on a Winter's Day: Library Managers in Latvia."
past November found me in the 800-year-old city of Riga, Latvia. I was
there to lead a workshop on leadership, Learning
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
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.
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.
park scene: a mother and young boy, hurrying somewhere, stirs up a
vestigial memory of my mother and me.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
say I was surprised because I’d expected X to dominate, given the
impressions reported back by management consultants.
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.
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.
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.
we have to draw conclusion (for ourselves), not
free, open atmosphere.
Contacts made among participants
we were) made to think about
Learning about myself
out of the tradition, in a new way.
was relevant since) Latvia is
moving from an authoritative work model to teamwork.
did they not like? What would they change to improve the workshop?
bosses should have been here.
is a familiar refrain in my US workshops:
“The people who really need the training are not here!”
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.
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.
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.
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
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.