Saturday, October 18, 2014

Bullies and drivers....reflections on leadership in today's culture

I have noticed a trend over the last few days and weeks, perhaps you have too, in which people who are what I would and do call "control freaks," those who demand that their will be and remain the will of the group or they will cause "trouble," are never called out on their controlling behaviour, attitude and actions, but are treated the way sailors treat a head wind, by organizational "tacking"....That is, those who are experiencing the "controlling"  behaviour which inevitably results in friction, hard feelings and resentment, if not complete withdrawal, call a meeting to discuss the general topic of "tensions" without addressing the source of the problem. Rather than a head-to-head meeting of a single person, representing the "recipient" group and the offender, the gathering of a number of people to talk about how the mend bruised or even wounded feelings, with the offender present, presents a much more complex and potentially productive outcome to the "problem".
However, the method also carries with it a potentially negative outcome, should the "offender" either not notice the core meaning and purpose of the meeting, or having noticed both the core and purpose, take extreme offense, and either withdraw or become even more obstreperous.
Implicit in the tacking method of course is the acknowledgement that this "ship" is facing strong head winds. On the sea, or fresh-water lake, wind is a natural expectation. It blows when the conditions are right, in the direction dictated by the regional pressure high and low atmospheric pressure zones. Sailors are neither offended nor estranged by its presence. They know that without it, there is no sailing and their voyage, whether a relaxed day-trip or an intense race, or a protracted voyage of several days, is stalled.
The "intervention" tacking meeting is considered by those participating to be an act of diplomatic leadership, providing an opportunity for a set of issues to be "aired" without any person having to bear the burden either of the friction or of the fact that the meeting has been called to "smooth the rough edges" of the controller. And indeed, having taken the issue out of the realm of personality, and designed an agenda of action that envisions a new way of doing business, incorporating the "buy-in" of the offender to the new procedures and even protocols, that could well prove to be a significant enhancement upon the current situation. Also, all participants in the meeting are given an opportunity to express their point-of-view, without prejudice or judgement, and the potential of the inclusion of the implications of that view to be incorporated into the new ways of operating.
No one is in danger of having an entry made onto their personnel file. No one is in danger of punishment or retribution for behaviour that the majority agree is, and likely has been for a considerable length of time, offensive. And, probably, the new way of operating, if all "buy into it," will provide time to observe whether or not the offending behaviour is amended.
Through this method, rather than some kind of surgical act, in organizational terms, such as a time-out with or without pay, a transfer to another department, a reprimand with an entry into the personnel file, an extended leave of absence to reflect on the issue of how one "gets along" in the organization, or some other obvious and targeted move that brings the issue to a "head," a process of peer intervention replaces the "one-on-one" supervision of a superior.
This is especially effective and probably necessary in volunteer organizations where the "line of authority" is blurred at best and absent at worst. The tacking initiative is deployed when all are literally and metaphorically equals, with no single person in charge, and all responsible for the effective execution of a single project, depending on the resources of several "integrated" resources. This approach, obviously requiring both more skill and more planning than riding a tail wind, for example, or even adjusting to a cross-wind, also spreads the responsibility across more than one set of shoulders, as it requires a culture of trust among those taking the initiative either to call a meeting formally or to bring the subject up in an informal setting which might present itself spontaneously.
Sometimes, too, this "tacking" initiative is required when the offending "controller" has authority over and is not perceiving him or herself to be dependent on the support of those in a "service" capacity to their needs. And in such a situation, those in  supportive roles simply have to join together in some unofficial and unstructured and amorphous group to bring the issue forward, in order to avoid direct confrontation with the offending "superior".
It was Vice-president Joe Biden who articulated, early in his own presidential bid, that bigotry has grown considerably in its sophistication. No longer are racial slurs merely delivered by fists, or pistols, but they are contained with highly deceptive attitudes, body language and even in the wording of laws that are designed to discriminate, while pretending to "curb abuse" for example of the right to vote in the U.S. So, in a parallel manner, it could be argued that "discipline" has metamorphosed into various forms of confrontation all of them much more sophisticated that that proverbial "encounter" in the principal's office of an elementary or a secondary school, when one has " broken a rule" or committed a misconduct.
In both cases, however, the tacking initiative, and in the racially charged but deceptive laws and attitudes, one is prompted to ask, "Are we moving into a situation in which only indirect communication is either effective or preferred?" We all know that physical punishment, the kind that teachers and principals used to administer with a strap or even a yard stick (today a metre stick) had limited impact on those recipients who, while knowing they had done something "wrong" were unlikely to be persuaded that the "authority" had done something "right" in the administration of punishment.
At the core of many of our public disturbances today is the issue of how the law enforcement agents are to do their jobs, and how they are expected to do those jobs. Community policing, for example, is envisioned as a kind of preventive initiative, of the "tacking" kind, prior to the initiation and accumulation of a series of acts over which most law enforcement agencies would have limited power to control. However, while prevention of street atrocities is clearly preferred to after-the-fact over-the-top interventions of police violence, are there a growing number of occasions in which people in all organizations need to step up to confront, however diplomatically and "professionally" rather than "bullying" or sniping through gossip, those situations that seem offensive? Or are we becoming a culture of sensing offense sooner and more profoundly given the tsunami of both positive and negative information, both from news sources, and from our own organizations which have also grown highly sensitive to criticism from within and without, and not finding supporting resources to smooth the potholes along the workday highway.
In an address to a service club, well over two decades ago, I termed an executive of my acquaintance a "bully" and explained his brutish behaviour to his workers, with whom I had been consulting. Immediately following the meeting, one member approached me, to correct my characterization: "You mean he is a 'driver'," were the words that spewed from his mouth.
"No, I meant that he was and is a bully to his staff!" was my retort.
Getting things done, the quality attributed to those whose physical accomplishments rest like trophies in communities across this country, is not accompanied by the histories of those people who refused to be "bullied" or refused to be manipulated by those "drivers/bullies". Their stories remain dormant, unless and until some researcher digs into the oral history of the "project" and discovers and then discloses the offenses that were caused by those so determined to complete their accomplishment that they were immune to having offended anyone.
And the differences between the nation's operating rooms, and it cockpits, from its volunteer organizations and even in the board rooms of its corporations seems to be shrinking. We seem to have many people who need to be pilots and too few who are comfortable with serving as air-crew...and increasingly the air-crew among us (among whose numbers this scribe counts himself) feel less than welcome in 'airing' their personal grievances or even in finding situations and support for such airings.
There is a long-standing saying about life being a journey not a destination. Your journey compliments and enriches my journey, if only I am willing to be patient and peaceful enough to listen to its unfolding. And that, if we are working on a common project, will take some considerable time, depending more on my willingness to listen and to appreciate than on your willingness to disclose. Each and every act, word, raised or lowered eye-brow, every gesture and sigh, each guffaw and yawn...they are all part of your story and also of mine. And when people of similar mind and heart come together for an honourable purpose, getting to know you is much more important, in the long run, than whether or not the project is perfect and finished exactly on time and budget.
However, if we are compressed by our perceptions of the needs of the culture, the organization or the department in which we work, into an atmosphere of either the operating room or the cockpit of a jet airliner, then getting to know you has to be shoved down the list, in order to accomplish the task at hand, especially if danger is being reported on our shared technology.
And discerning the difference between most situations and the cockpits of professional pilots is a skill for which no degree is granted, and no honour earned. It is nevertheless, much like parenting, one of the more important hurdles for each of us to mount if we are to leave a civilized culture for our grandchildren.

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