Schlamiel, schlimazel: Leadership lessons from the Big Ragoo

Schlamiel, schlimazel: Leadership lessons from the Big Ragoo

Edra Waterman, Class of 2013
Hamilton East Public Library, Director

One of my favorite shows as a kid was Laverne & Shirley. This weekly half hour following the antics of two blue-collar factory girls from Milwaukee provided endless enjoyment for me and my friends growing up. Shirley’s sometime boyfriend, Carmine Ragusa, was a golden gloves champ (the Big Ragoo) who made his living beefcake-ing rich ladies around the dance floor. There’s a scene used in the opening credits of Carmine teaching Laverne & Shirley to dance. They are huddled together snapping their fingers and he twirls in from across the room, grabs their limbs, and makes them dance.

As a leader in a public service organization, I often find myself in the odd position of cheerleader, soother-in-chief, and, like Carmine in Laverne & Shirley, tasked with teaching folks to just let go and (metaphorically) dance already!

It’s hard to change a culture, and many organizations find themselves stuck in a rut based on past experience, complacency and fear. Like Laverne & Shirley, it’s easier to stay in the background snapping your fingers than it is to risk making a fool of yourself by trying to dance. Telling people to change is not at all as effective as rolling up your sleeves and participating in it. If you are asking folks to get out more, model that behavior by doing it yourself. If you want to create a welcoming environment, be sure to smile and project a friendly manner in all of your interactions. If you want to build a culture of yes, be sure to say yes when a staff member makes (what may seem to you) a crazy suggestion. When someone does make a mistake, find a way to make that a teachable moment and opportunity for growth rather than a dreaded confrontation.

Most of all, don’t fall into the trap of spending so much time focusing on what’s missing that you forget to appreciate, encourage, and nurture the pieces that are already in place. Not everyone knows what great public service looks like, and it's easier to build on already existing strengths than to point out every negative. People in public service roles want to do a good job and want to help people. Start with that, and the rest will follow.

At the end of the day, we all want to be a part of creating exceptional experiences for our staff and the people we serve. Making that happen requires leaders who aren't afraid not only to ask the hard questions, but to answer them.

Sometimes you just gotta twirl in and make ‘em dance.

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