Thursday, February 9, 2012

Shock and Awe--Some Thoughts on Leadership

                Sometimes I’m afraid that I’m slowly losing—perhaps even have lost—the ability to be shocked. And I don’t ever want to reach that level of pessimism and/or cynicism. But recently I learned of an incident that shocked me.
                It occurred at a high school basketball game near Pittsburgh between nearly all-white Brentwood High and Monessen High, which is predominantly African-American. No doubt you can sense where this is going. When the whistle blew for halftime, three Brentwood students raced onto their home court. They were dressed in full-body banana suits. Moving all around the Monessen players, the trio kept making monkey noises and hurling racial epithets. No one moved to stop them. In fact, the school’s director of security was seen sitting in the stands and laughing. Monessen players say they heard racial taunts through the game, which several witnesses confirm. (Here is a Yahoo! Sports piece on the incident. Some of the comments add to my distress.)
                The three boys have been identified and given some unspecified punishment. The school is “reviewing policy,” as if that really will prevent a similar incident. I’ve seen nothing about consequences for the security guard. Naturally, the school has received extensive criticism, not just for the incident but also for the way it has responded. Obviously I don’t have all the facts, but the criticism seems justified.
                This also has raised some issues for me about leadership. They are about more than the apparent failure of leadership here. I suspect heads will roll because of this, and one of them will be at the top of the school’s food chain. So I’ve been pondering this question. Suppose you are chosen as the next principal of Brentwood. How do you begin to deal with what seems a deep-seated, systemic cultural issue?
                You may argue that conclusion about Brentwood is unfair. After all, you could say that three boys don’t represent the whole. We all know that teen boys are quite capable of doing incredibly stupid things. Similar incidents have occurred elsewhere. I make this claim for a few reasons, some of them based on apparent facts of the story: the lack of anyone intervening, the players’ behavior, the security guard smiling and laughing, the vague response. I also base my claim on what I know about teen boys and teen culture. I have no doubt other students knew of the boys’ plan; in fact, some may have even helped come up with the idea and egged them on. I also suspect that the boys thought a large segment of the community would find it funny and anoint them with stardom.
                As a leader, how does one begin to deal with the Gordian knot of issues revealed in this case. Firing people, making examples of others, policy statements, public statements, special programs, curricula—any of these can help a bit, but I’m not sure they can really cleanse the sort of ugly infection that festers until bursting at the surface in such incidents. In the myth it takes a swift, decisive cut to undo the knot. In this case, I’m not sure where one would strike. I am in awe of leaders who can figure out how to respond quickly and decisively…and correctly.
                I think this also points out another major challenge for leaders right now. We seem to be living in a time of increased anger, and it manifests itself in different ways. People talk about a loss of common civility; they say others are more demanding and less patient. We also see it in what have become divisive extremes, such as how the American political process currently unfolds. Violent uprisings have rippled across the Middle East. We’ve had severe beatings at sports events. European soccer has suffered  a few ugly racial incidents.  Sometimes I think the increasing popularity of Ultimate Fighting is because it somehow captures a subconscious desire to relieve some of our frustration by beating up someone.
                Why the anger? I’m sure there are many reasons. Certainly the financial climate is one. The rate of innovation, I suspect, has accelerated in ways that not only keep producing a stream of new products but also heightening our sense of not being able to keep up.  Plus we talk about how well technology has connected us. But in multiple ways it also has lessened the depth of what should be our real human connections.
                But I remain optimistic. Fortunately, incidents like the one described above do still shock me. And each day I also see people do enough positive things I remain hopeful. Leaders may need that above all. As Dov Seidman, author of HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything…in Business (and in Life), writes, “Hope is a sustainable value that inspires us to see the world as a source of meaning and to connect with people in valuable ways. Hope is a catalyst.”

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