LA&M On Managing Column #2 (2003)
December 15, 2002
Seeking first to understand....

From the time I was a little boy, I remember one of the first lessons I learnt from (my father). He used to speak very well of a guitarist from Granada, and finally this artist came over to our home and played for us. Afterwards I said to my father, “Papa, he is the worst guitarist I ever heard!”. But he answered, “You didn’t look, you didn’t listen to the gentleness of his thumb.”

- Pepe Romero, Guitarist. Quoted from brochure accompanying his CD, “Songs My Father Taught Me”, Philips Classics, 1998, dedicated to his father, the accomplished guitarist Celedonio Romero who died in 1996.

Something ineffable in Pepe’s tribute to his father has stayed with me, now over two years. I made a point of saving the above lines, knowing I would want to refer to them – in some undefined context.

Initially, I assumed the quote was about diversity, about seeing differences and appreciating those differences. But that interpretation evaporated quickly – too superficial. Equally superficial was the notion these words were about superficiality.

Well, this time when I was drawn to the quote I went back to the CD brochure for clues to my affinity.  In words and phrases nearby. Pepe talks of his father’s transformational love, his enduring humility through considerable odds in Fascist Spain, all the while seeking higher levels of accomplishment in the guitar.

Maybe that’s what it is about - humility.  And, wisdom. The wisdom to be gained from looking and listening. A humility that opens you to others, not closing them out because their views are contrary or they cannot make sense of yours.

Metaphorically, from a manager’s perspective, Pepe’s story is relevant to my not hearing someone else’s music. Or, their not hearing my music. The gentleness of their thumbs eluding me, just as mine eludes them.

Is this humility a learnable quality? Probably. At the least we can all get better at it. According to the Maestro, you only need to look and to listen.

Probably it is as simple, as deceptively simple, as Augustine’s admonition to us to seek first to understand and then seek to be understood.

Open conflict often creates excessive noise (see the “spirited discussion” among any group of televised bloviators), making it barely possible to hear individual words, not to mention any melody or refrain in what is being shouted out.  But, even when conflict is low and manageable, we may find ourselves so at odds with our peers we fail to pick up the wisdom of what is being said. Diverting our mental resources to defending our position we diminish our capacity to comprehend external views. It is at times like these that we need that extra humility to remain open to hearing the unusual, the unexpected, the unimagined, and the fresh. It is a wisdom that derives value from something going against the grain. Out of discord, we may approach truth.

This makes me think about times when I was not heard or when I failed to hear another’s wisdom.

Let me illustrate my meaning:

A friend, with leadership responsibilities for a musical organization, recently told me of a highly frustrating conversation with her co-director. She was trying to convince him of the necessity of their artists setting higher goals, experimenting and taking on more difficult pieces. If the organization was to flourish rather than stagnate, she argued, it was time to raise the bar. Besides she knew they had the resources and the ability.

Her co-director’s un-enthused response was that he liked things pretty much the way they were.

She persevered and re-stated her observations and convictions – that the organization was at a plateau, well funded and comfortable but beginning to slip down the slope of a repetitive repertory. Most importantly, they were not attracting new, younger, audiences – their future.

Visibly irked, her co-director interrupted her, “You did not hear me, I guess. I said, I like things the way they are!” – end of discussion. She was dismayed. She knew there would be a similar response if she took her concerns to the socialite governing board – they are of the “make no waves, please” species, comfortable in their positions. Yet, my friend believes she is speaking the truth. I concur.  How then for her truth to be heard and understood by her co-director, her board?

Apart from a sympathetic ear, I had little to offer on how best to advance her agenda. In retrospect, her dilemma reminds me of several in which I have found myself.

I recall a failure to gain support for what I thought was a loud wake up call for action. This was at a time when few would admit that reference service in academic libraries had already undergone profound changes and was losing its clientele.

In the early 1990s I’d begun to observe a sharp decline in traffic at the reference desk. Where there had been lines of students waiting to ask questions now there were a few people – not infrequently, the reference librarian was a silent sentinel past whom streamed numerous students on their way to catalog terminals and CD ROM indexes (Remember Infotrac?) But there we were, staffing our public points (in academic libraries) like nothing was happening. It was like there were two realities – the users and ours.

A few colleagues in the profession at large were in tacit agreement with me that change was upon us and we needed to adjust. However one of these colleagues, who, like me, had been keeping track statistically, was afraid to publish his data – no help there. Another had begun motivating his staff to get out from behind the reference desk, to approach users at their point of need, and forget waiting for them to approach the DESK.  This was a helpful starting point, one which I could have used to my advantage, but failed to see this as bold enough of a step.

Not unexpectedly, in spite of “reinventing reference” conferences, there was denial by reference departments that anything had changed. If numbers had dropped, well, the time to answer each question had increased. If fewer questions were being asked, they were more complex. Yes, the users were happily using the technology, but there was a cost – staff time to help them learn how to use the technology. Adding to the cost was the request for more terminals at the reference desk to guide users confounded by the intricacies of CD-ROM interfaces!

But back to my being understood. I recall presenting my annual reference question summaries to the executive group of my library. There was no missing the downward trend for questions asked - it was precipitous, each year dropping by multiple thousands. And, since we had not changed our budgetary level of staffing the desk, each question was costing us more to answer. The same budget divided by fewer questions increases the cost of each question.  I presented these results over a period of five years. Each year the response was the same – a polite acknowledgement of the information, a mild bemusement, but no action.

I even tried humor, suggesting that at this rate, in 2006 we would answer one question, and it would cost us 2.1 million dollars.

For some reason, I was not being heard. Was it dimness on my part or theirs? I could suggest all sorts of nefarious reasons for what looked like stonewalling. But was there something I was missing? For one thing, what action was I seeking? In retrospect I see that was never clear in my mind.

Like my musical friend, I found myself on the other side of moving a resisting organization forward – what for me was a trumpeted call for action was a muted and barely imperceptible sound for my peers.

I suspect I could have done more. Lacking a Celedonio Romero in my audience, I needed to find out what was happening with that audience. They did not appear to be hearing me.  To start with, I suppose I could have spoken up and said, “This matters to me but I am not sure it matters to you? Are you not concerned? Am I overreacting? Set me straight”.

My re-inventing reference case is a good example of presenting a “mess” (something is not right – it needs fixing) but not much more. I gave no specific ideas about what could be done or what the next steps might be.

My ideas did not have to be THE answer. More important is an idea’s helping explain what effect a cause may be having.  For example, I could have built on my colleague’s idea to free up librarians to circulate through the reference area, approaching users and offering help.  I’d seen a “triggering” idea in, of all places, a swank hotel lobby in Montgomery, Alabama. They’d done away with the long registration desk. Instead the lobby had 3 or 4 staffed, stand alone, check-in stations. It sparked me to envision chainsawing our massive, elevated, wall-of-a-desk into a series of information islands.

While a radical image, at least it was a “what if we did this?” My presenting the mess without possible actions is pretty much like putting on a play without plot or players. We set the stage and allow the audience to imagine whatever. Most theatergoers would walk out.

Humility, like that of Pepe’s father, suggests I could go about differently seeking to be understood. Instead of leaving them guessing about my motives, I’d ask questions like these:

Here is what I am seeing, do you have thoughts on what this might mean?
What should we be doing about it?
Is there something to be done?
These questions would have made clear what it was I was after and that I did expect their help.

Of course, there are staff who do not want to hear, and know full well what they don’t want to hear. They prefer to keep their heads buried in the sand, like the co-director in my friend’s story. But, there are more staff who want to be brought along, who only need to be shown what to look at, what to listen to, to better understand a need for action.

Well, I have explored what that “gentleness of his thumb” was saying to me. I find there are many things I would want to do differently – things I should have known, but did not. I keep learning, drawing wisdom from the successes and failures of the past.  My writing about it, sharing it with others is in hopes someone like me, at any point of their career, will learn from this, that in these musings you will hear the gentleness of my thumb.

Author’s note: John Lubans has been known to strum an air guitar. Less privately, his workshop on teamwork in libraries draws on a decade’s worth of real experience with library teams. E-mail: