Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Precious Dragon by Liz Williams (Night Shade, 2007)

I read Precious Dragon by Liz Williams (Night Shade, 2007). Not as good as the other two in the series I read, but a still good, solid, entertaining romp through Hell. The setting (s) seemed bigger than the characters, and towards the end they felt like marionettes dancing half heartedly in front of a really, really good drop background. Williams is excellent at painting vivid word pictures describing the scene (particularly that of Hell), but her characters - at least in Precious Dragon - became a little bit flat and manipulated by the end. It occasionally felt like a fantasy version of It's A Mad Mad Mad Mad World, with a huge ensemble cast that played comedically off one another, and several good cameos. But, as those kids in Sound of Music so whiningly say "But it doesn't mean anything..." A stronger plot and much, much, much more character development would, I think, make for a better story in the end. Detective Inspector Chen, who I feel is supposed to be the main character, gets so little development and so little to do - for the second book in a row! I'm only going to keep going with these because Williams does a great job of making you want to keep on reading and find out what's going on; it's a good mystery.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Brothers Grimm were Librarians!!!

The Brothers Grimm were LIBRARIANS! Collectors of fairy tales, I knew. Vaguely knew -- or at least suspected - that they were collectors of all things Germanic and German philologists and linguists. I was not aware of their bouts radical political activism, as famous in their time for their being fired from a college and banned from a principality for their democratic views as their fairy tales. Literary luminaries! And librarians!

Monday, September 20, 2010

The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy by Donald R. Hettinga (Clarion, 2001

I am reading The Brothers Grimm: Two Lives, One Legacy by Donald R. Hettinga (Clarion, 2001). I've always had this love / indifference relationship to folklore and fairy tales. On one hand, the very best fairy tales and folklore are always the very best to read aloud - after all, they were originally oral stories, told in the kitchen or around the fire, in the place of books or radio or television or computer games. But they are always, always like the little girl with the curl - when they are good, they are really good - but the sometimes (or most of the time) they are poorly translated, overly dependent on the illustrations, a cheap excuse for an artist to create a book. The very best ones might have great illustrations, but at the heart, a book of great fairy tales or folklore might have NO pictures and still be delicious and hard to put down.

The Brothers Grimm are actually pretty interesting guys. What struck me is what they were doing in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars - collecting folklore to preserve German heritage, language, and culture - was remarkably similar to some sentiments expressed now. In the early 1800's, the French had invaded various parts of what was then a collection of German states (there wouldn't be a Germany for another half century, but there was a German people living in many different kingdoms and principalities of various sizes). Here is passage that explains in a little more detail what was going on in the Grimms' heads while this was going on: "Imagine how strange it must have been to be forced to stop speaking the language they had grown up with and to speak another language. Imagine how frustrating it must have been for people who loved their cultural heritage to watch the French pack up paintings and books and send them back to France as spoils of war. " The Grimm brothers, worried about the French invasion not only of their country but their culture and heritage as well:

"They collected fairy tales because they hoped the stories would help remind their countrymen of what it meant to be German. Every person, they said, who "journeys out into life" is "accompanied by a good angel." This angelic companion is none other than "the inexhaustible store of tales, legends, and history all of which coexist and strive to bring us closer to the refreshing and invigorating spirit of earlier ages..." The new generation was not telling stories and singing songs the way the previous generations had, and these writers were afraid that this oral German heritage would be lost."

How similar is 2010 and 1810? The late 1700's and early 1800's were certainly a time of rapid change - new technologies, the end of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the beginning of romanticism and the industrial revolution. A time of war, a newer kind of war that what had previously been known; the very beginning of the end of kingdoms and the advent of democracy. An evil empire invading the world.

Are we living in a time when our cultural heritage - whatever that means - is under attack, being invaded, not by a foreign power, but perhaps by the so -called dumbing down of society, the advent of gaming and movies and television, the dismissing of group singing, the disappearance of group activities? And for other countries and cultures, substitute the invasion French culture for American culture. The end of the industrial era and the beginning of the digital era; a time of unending incredibly destructive and impersonal war.

Once again, do we need the Grimms to collect a cultural heritage, in this case a shared cultural heritage of singing and storytelling and just being together, before it totally disappears?

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

I finished Team of Rivals this morning. I was just constantly amazed at the writing of Doris Kearns Goodwin that makes men and women dead for well over a century seem to alive and real. She did the same this in No Ordinary Time as well - those personal bits and pieces that make her "characters" come to life. The reader is like a little mouse, in the corner or it a pocket, listening to and watching everything. As close to a time machine as we can get.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

From Team of Rivals: Monty Blair, Postmaster General, whose house had been destroyed by marauding Confederate troops, was initially furious about the event, blaming Union forces and infuriating General Halleck, one of the Union's head generals. But, upon learning that General Ben Butler had torched a Confederate plantation in revenge for the burning of the Blair manse, Monty implored the general to avoid any more of the same. "If we allow the military to invade the rights of private property on any other grounds than those recognized by civilized warfare... there will soon cease to be any security whatever for the rights of civilians on either side."

That's certainly what has come to pass, with indiscriminate bombing of civilians by drones operated thousands and thousands of miles away, or faceless nameless jets dropping bombs from a thousand feet above and then flying back home, never seeing or hearing or smelling the results of their actions. Although war has never been truly civilized, has it? Medieval towns were torched, the women raped, the innocents slaughtered... Although Blair was probably speaking more of military reasons rather than reasons of pure retaliation or revenge. There are military reasons to burn a town or plantation (Sherman's march to the sea was to destroy railroads used to transport Confederate troops or cotton used to raise money for the Confederacy). Butler's act was in pure revenge, with no military purpose.

Still, what's the military purpose of bombing civilians? Bomb them into submission or surrender - but our bombing of civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan (Vietnam?) seems to have created more enemies than friends.

Friday, September 3, 2010

The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995)

I am reading The Courageous Follower: Standing Up To And For Our Leaders by Ira Chaleff (Berrett-Koehler, 1995).

Five Dimensions of Courageous Followership

1. The courage to assume responsibility. Courageous followers assume responsibility for themselves and the organization. They do not hold a paternalist image of the leader; they do not expect the leader or organization to provide for their security or growth, or give them permission to act. Courageous followers discover or create opportunities to fulfill their potential and maximize their value to the organization. They initiate values-based action to improve the organization's external activities and its internal processes. The "authority" to initiate comes from the courageous follower's understanding and ownership of the common purpose, and from the needs of those the organization serves.

2. The courage to serve. Courageous followers are not afraid of the hard work required to serve a leader. They assume new or additional responsibilities to unburden the leader and serve the organization. They stay alert for areas in which their strengths complement the leader's and assert themselves in these areas. Courageous followers stand up for their leader and the touch decisions a leader must make if the organization is to achieve its purpose. They are as passionate as the leader in pursuing the common purpose.

3. The courage to challenge. Courageous followers give voice to the discomfort they feel when the behaviors or policies or group conflict with their sense of what is right. They are willing to stand up, to stand out, to risk rejection, to initiate conflict in order to examine the actions of the leader and group when appropriate. They are willing to deal with the emotions their challenge evokes in the leader or group. Courageous followers value organizational harmony and their relationship with the leader, but not at the expense of the common purpose and their integrity.

4. The courage to participate in transformation. When behavior that jeopardizes the common purpose remains unchanged, courageous followers recognize the need for transformation. They champion the need for change and stay with the leader and group while they mutually struggle with the difficultly of real change. They examine their own need for transformation and become full participants in the change process as appropriate.

5. The courage to leave. Courageous followers know when it is time to separate from a leader and group. Self-growth or organizational growth may require a courageous follower to eventually leave even the most enlightened and effective of leaders. When leaders are ineffective or their actions are detrimental to the common purpose and they are not open to transformation, the need for separation becomes more compelling. Courageous followers are prepared to withdraw support from, even to disavow or oppose, destructive leaders, despite high personal risk.

"Followers and leaders both orbit around the purpose; followers do not orbit around the leader." The purpose can exist and "We come together around it." Or the leader may formulate the purpose and draws others to it; or the purpose may be redefined or formulated together. The purpose at my particular job would certainly be the core values of the city as a whole, the mission statement of the city or my department, and may entail parts of our strategic plan and/or goals and objectives. (page 11)

"Followers have great great capacity to influence the relationship." That's certainly true within my own small administrative group. They influence me as much or more as I influence them.

(page 16)

The sources of a follower's power are varied:

  • the power of purpose; the strength that comes from commitment to a common good
  • the power of knowledge - skills and resources vital and valuable to the organization and its leadership
  • the power of personal history - the successes and contributions
  • the power of faith in self - our personal observations, intentions, integrity and commitment
  • the power to speak TRUTH, as we see it, to the leadership
  • the power to set a standard to influence others - model for both the leader and other followers
  • the power to choose how to react in a situation regardless of what is done or threatened by others
  • the power to follow or not to follow a given direction
  • the power of relationships - our networks, the people who know and trust us
  • the power to communicate through various channels
  • the power to organize others of like mind
  • the power to withdraw support if the leadership's actions violate our values

(page 18) Silence is not safe. A follower needs the courage of an inquisitive child who asks questions without fear, but also needs the courage of an adult who bears responsibility for the family.

(page 20) Our "courage muscle" will develop to the degree we exercise it. If we exercise it when the risks are small, it will be strong enough to meet the challenge when the risks are large. Ultimately, there are no formulas for courage: we develop it through determination and practice, self forgiveness when we fail, and growth when we learn.

Dynamic leaders are the spark, the flame that ignites action. With vision, they generate and focus power. But followers are the guarantors of the beneficial use of that power.

(page 21). At the heart of balance is the dual nature of the universe - I and the other - and necessity for relationship. Genuine relationships will not tolerate extremes, which become abusive. The key to personal balance for leaders is the quality of their relationships with followers. Honest, open relationships will provide steady stream of uncensored feedback... if we are not willing to risk whatever relationship we have built with a leader by providing honest feedback, we instead risk losing the whole dream for which we have both been working.

Two essential elements of relationship are developing trust and then using that trust to speak honestly when appropriate; one without the other is meaningless.

(page 47) Breaking the rules. Effective followers assume responsibility for learning the rules of the system in which they operate. Rules are created for guidelines for using the group's resources, as methods for orderly decision making, as assurances of fairness, as clarification and guarantees of expected standards. Rules are the agreements by which the group maintains its identity, expresses its values, and coordinates its activities...

Courageous followers also recognize the subordinate relationship of rules to purpose. They are alert to the evolution or interpretation of rules that may impede the accomplishment of the organization's purpose (my notes: which is good customer service and honoring information needs of patrons). They have an adult understanding of the rules: they support rules when they serve the common purpose and question rules when they thwart the purpose. Often if we trace a rule down to its source we find that it is being applied in a way that was never intended.

(page 47)

  • It is not ethical to break rules for simple convenience or personal gain, but neither is it ethical to comply with or enforce rules if they impede the accomplishment of the organization's purpose, the organization's values, or basic human decency.
  • A courageous follower assumes responsibility in dilemmas where rules impede service and is willing to bend, circumvent or break the rules to get things done.
  • When a rule impedes an organization's ability to give appropriate service, courageous followers do not hide their circumvention but use it as an example of why the rule must be vigorously reviewed.
  • Followers who find themselves hiding their circumvention of rules should carefully examine their motivations and assumptions. This type of deception is inappropriate in all but the most repressive of climates.

Courageous followers trust themselves, and are trusted by the organization, to be interpreters of the organization's values when applying a rule to a specific circumstance.

Improving Processes (page 49)

One danger in a group in that each member vaguely thinks someone else should do something about flaws they observe in its process. Frequently, group members see inefficiencies but don't act on ideas they have for remedying them... each follower thinks "If I were in charge, I would do it differently, but I'm not in charge, so it's not my problem." Meanwhile, the common purpose suffers... courageous followers do not quietly ignore or ineffectively complain about wrongs they see. They do not assume that others also see these things and will correct them. They look for and find the avenues open to them for effectiving change... don't just tell the leader "something should be done about this," adding to the burden of leadership but present ideas for improving the process that the leader can consider.

Avoiding Insularity (page 69)
We are prone to surround ourselves with people whose experiences, ideas, temperaments are compatible with ours. They are mirrors, albeit mirrors set at different angles. Mirrors are important, but in different situations we need a variety of optical devices to perceive and understand events: microscopes, telescopes, periscopes, spectroscopes, infra-red night vision equipment. Relying on one type of instrument permits us to see what that instrument is good at seeing. To use power well, we must see and understand events from many perspectives, at many levels.

The Duty To Obey (page 95)... if we have courageously but unsuccessfully challenged a leader's policies, where do we stand in relation to implementing them?
If we choose to continue being a follower of this leader and if the policies are not morally repugnant to us, we have the responsibility to implement the policies. It takes courage to follow leaders when we are not convinced they are right, courage to truly allow leaders to lead. It is our responsibility to give the policy a chance, to make it work through energetic and intelligent adaptation rather than allow it to fail through literal interpretation or lukewarm execution.

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