Wednesday, March 8, 2017

On Leadership, Power, Authority & Bullies - pt 1

Maybe you've heard or read some version of this:
Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.
                                                                    John E.E.D Acton, 1st Baron Acton
Most of the time I've heard it, or read it, the first clause tends to get mangled or at least changed, to "Power corrupts..." Instead of shifting from a possibility it becomes an absolute. Perhaps that is part of the reason I disagree with the generalization.

Avoiding the question of the definition or nature of "power," which is less a tangible thing than a description of a relationship, I prefer to examine why people seek, or do not seek, power, authority or the trappings thereof. (For now, and for simplicity, I will refer to these things as "power" while recognizing the ambiguity.)

Do people aspire to positions of power because that is the natural order of things? Are they a "born leader?" Or, do they seek positions of power, or authority, for some other reason? Maybe for their own ends?

I suspect there are plenty of examples of each of these. There are other examples of people being in the "right spot" at the "right time" and being pushed into a position of authority or power.

I tend to think of "power" and "positions of power" as being something akin to Tolkein's character Aragorn, speaking of Galadriel and the forest of Lothlorien.
There is in her and in this land no evil, unless a man bring it hither himself.
                                 J.R.R. Tolkein, "The Fellowship of the Ring."
I do not believe it is power that corrupts. I suspect, strongly, that the individual's nature is exposed more readily when they have the opportunity to exercise that power, with little or no oversight.

That may be unsettling to some people. The idea that their favorite manager, athlete, TV-personality or politician has actually been an ass all along, and has been hiding that reasonably well, can be a tad off-putting. Simple fact is most people working in some form of entertainment really like the positive response. From personal experience, it is fantastic to get a standing ovation and called back for an encore or two or three. It is a huge boost to the ego. Feel the endorphins rushing through the body? Great, isn't it! Loads better than playing to polite applause.

Musicians and actors live on those moments. Yes, I know - art matters.The challenge matters. Still, while the money can be good (or really crappy) it is the applause and approval that drives many people.

Politicians are fairly similar. They really like talking in front of friendly audiences who cheer madly and read huge importance into the slightest thing. People who are critical or asking really uncomfortable questions? Not so much.

I once read somewhere that the greatest problem with hereditary monarchies is you sometimes get a reluctant monarch. The greatest problem with democracies is the people WANT the job. Always ask yourself "why?" when someone talks about public office. The "5 Whys" work depressingly well with politicians and their motives.

These examples are pretty obvious, right? People seek stardom or "higher office" usually for their own ends. They are often couched in grand language about being an artist or serving the public interest. Having met and dealt with many, I don't buy it so willingly as I did 40 years ago.

And don't get me going on athletes or "TV personalities". SPEAKING of self-aggrandizement and self-importance... right.

And Managers

If you are fortunate, you have had a manager or supervisor or two you could count on to always have your back. That same manager probably also found ways to inspire you to heights and feats you never dreamed of being able to achieve. If you were really lucky, that manager also looked out for your development as a professional craftsperson and, in some unique cases, as a more-developed person.

If you are really, really lucky, you've had managers like that without having to deal with other, less desirable managers in the office.

You know the type.

The ones whose employees flop back in the chairs at their desks after meetings. The same "resources" go through the motions as they are told to with no variation. Because if they do, they will get in trouble, whether the variation is important or not - it is a variation.

These managers have determined that positional authority is a justification for "motivating" their "resources." They demand people do stuff RIGHT NOW. They insist that they have the answers to the questions and don't ask them questions because doing so means you were not paying attention. The ones that belittle people in meetings.

The ones whose "resources" are terrified of losing their jobs.

And?

I've seen both types of "managers" in the same company - in the same department, no less. They both claim to be working toward the good of the organization. It is possible they are and simply have different views on that "good" is. However, in the instances in my memory, at least one type was working for his own glorification.

While the idea of a "servant leader" is certainly not new, a fair number of Managers I can recall would reject that concept out of hand. Their job was to direct actions, our job was to make them look good. Period.

You saw that readily 30 or even 20 years ago. From my experience, 10 years ago they tended to be more nuanced. All velvet to people they needed something from, and were out of their direct zone of influence, and crass and abrasive to others.

When confronted, their job was to "get things done." At least twice I caught one of these folks in outright lies - and called him on it. In a meeting. With other managers. And the VP they all reported to. That afternoon, when no one was around, it was yelling, ranting, profanity streams, threats on my job.

That was probably the first time I did the "scary big white man" thing. He backed off.

I out bullied the bully.

Bullies

That is what those "leaders" are - bullies.

If threats and management by intimidation is your leadership style, you are a bully, if not a dictator.

Positional authority in any context is not absolute. There come certain trappings with those positions. These are part of the "power" fears people have. This authority, this power, in the vast majority of situations should be limited. It appears to be unlimited, or "powerful" only when no restraints are present either by watchful oversight or by concerted, proper resistance.

It is not a writ to make people's lives miserable for any reason, and corporate profits are probably the worst reason to make the lives of people who make the product that drives those profits miserable. People who are in fear of losing their positions and the means to support themselves and their families will rarely speak out, until the pain becomes unbearable. This is where the trade union/organized labor movement grew from - the refusal to be beaten down (quite literally in many cases)

Being "in charge" does not give you the right to be an ass. Ever.

Being "in charge" does not mean you are the one who "has all the answers." In the "over 30 years" I've been in software development, I have NEVER seen a software project where one person knew all the answers absolutely. Never.

Leadership, Power and Authority can be used for good or ill. They are not inherently one or the other. The good or evil, comes from the individual people themselves who hold them.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

Community, Conferencing and a Call to Action

Over the last ten weeks I have had a series of conversations that I never expected to have. This does not mean I should not have had them, but some two months and more ago I did not see the topic as one that was observable around me, and was something I could do nothing about.

I was seriously wrong on both of those counts.

Boorish Behavior and Code of Conducts

At one time, I read the many calls for conferences, professional organizations and other groups that existed as a well-intended but ultimately futile effort to direct behavior. It seemed to me the hope was this would control or redirect boorish behavior - the frat-boy-esque shenanigans that I saw people engage in when I was working at large Universities. You could pick them out fairly easily by a couple of things - Money was never a serious problem (their protestations to the contrary notwithstanding) and their utter rage at not getting their way on something that should have been trivial.

It is akin to some folks who lived across the street from me, briefly, when I asked them to turn down their music, just a tad - just enough so I could not hear it in my house over the television... with the doors and windows closed and the central air going... at midnight.

Utter rage. DO YOU KNOW WHO I AM?!?!? No, I don't. Frankly, I don't care. DO YOU KNOW WHO MY DAD IS?!?!?!? No. I don't. And, unless he is in the house with you right now, it is completely irrelevant. YOU'RE GOING TO WISH YOU HADN'T PICKED THIS FIGHT! Not picking a fight. I'm asking nicely. Really. This is me being polite. YOU'RE BEING AN ASSHOLE! YOU'RE NOT POLITE! YOU'RE AN ASSHOLE! That may be true, however, that is also irrelevant.

He was really mad at me. He was even more mad when my friends from the local police department knocked on his door.

Why was he mad? I'm not sure he started out really mad. I had the impression he as show-boating for his friends - showing off to show how he could "deal" with the locals. Then when I was not scared or intimidated, then he really got mad.

In this case there was a "code of conduct" to fall back on. It was the local ordinances. When I went, politely, and asked that the behavior change or stop, things got a bit silly. The next step was to call the keepers of the code of conduct, in this case, the local police department... non-emergency number. There had been no overt threat of violence and no suggestion there would be immediately. So, not an emergency.

It was just a guy being a jerk.

Sadly, this is the kind of thing where most "conflict resolution and incident deescalation" training and programs stop. (Some of my current drumming students are police officers. They complain about the same thing. Theory rarely survives on the street.)

When there IS a code of conduct one can point to, that makes the interaction less personal, and in many instances, less judgement based. Instead, it is a case of "Your behavior is in violation of the code of conduct on these points..."

That is fine. In fact, it is great - as long as the code of conduct (or local ordinances) are specific enough, and explicit enough, to leave little to no room for disagreement.

Do X and Y is the result.

Sadly, many of the published "Code of Conduct" documents and/or web pages I have read in the last two weeks are of the very hand-wavy, let's all just get along ilk.

That does not cut it.

(That is a warning I am about to go on a rant...)


Nah. I edited out most of the rant. I've been tinkering this post for a long time, mostly trying to avoid sounding like I'm yelling incoherently through my keyboard.

Instead I'm going to write about a really old-fashioned idea.

The sad fact is, there are people who act as if they are more important than anyone else. They act as if there is something special about them where the rules don't matter. I have seen this at the office (I bet others have as well). I have seen it occasionally at conferences.

Chivalry

Yeah. I know, right? Knights in armor. Damsels. Dragons.

Well, maybe not dragons.  Frankly, not that other stuff either. The real point to chivalry was, and continues to be this:

The strong protect the weak at all costs.

That's it. That is the gist.

What does that mean?

The powerful help the powerless. The stronger ones protect the weaker ones. Women and children first. Save the most vulnerable. Really. Yeah.

The core tenet to a society governed by what is called the "Rule of Law" is that the Law is King. The King is not dominant in society, the Law is.

Simply because a person or group of people are capable of doing a thing, they do not have the right to do so. Simply because a person or group of people CAN do something, as in they have the physical ability to do the thing, does not mean they have permission to do so.

Ever.

It does not matter if someone is being "inappropriate" in any way with a woman or a man. It does not matter if someone is being "inappropriate" in any way with a person of color. It does not matter if someone is being "inappropriate" in any way to a person of a different religion or ethnicity of the majority of the people at the event. If something is wrong, DO something.

What can be done?

There's a thing called "situational awareness" - being aware of what is happening around you and understanding how information, events, your own and other people's actions will have an impact immediately and in the near future.

It might be simple.

If you happen to notice something, say something. It can be as simple as "Is everything alright here?" Or maybe, "Everyone OK?" - with a significant smile.

You don't need to be the "behavior police." But PLEASE, be aware of people around you. Most of us have been in a situation where we felt really... un-good. Remember that? That feeling of wanting to be anywhere but where you were and that sick twisty feeling in your stomach that things were likely to get really, really bad? THAT?

Keep an eye out for folks who might be in a similar situation, with that kind of "I want to be anywhere but here" look on their face, then offer a word and a smile.

Safety Pin

Remember the Safety Pin thing that was around the UK shortly after the Brexit vote? I don't know if that is a thing or not any more. I've seem a few in random places in the States, but I don't know how widespread it is. I also don't know if it is still a thing in the UK.

The idea behind it is simple - People were being jerks, asshats and worse to obvious immigrants or people who did not look like them or prayed to a deity they did not pray to. A fair number were justifiably frightened, if not terrified. People stepped up and offered themselves as helpers, as havens - that is what the safety pin was for, to identify those who would help.


What we can do


Be the Safety Pin Person.

Be the person willing to help.

Don't engage in violence even when provoked.

I've told people I am very good at being a Big-Scary-White-Guy. I am. I don't like doing it, but I've done it more than once. I will admit I am extremely good at frightening people who are trying to frighten or intimidate others.

Violence is a terrible option and tends to be self-defeating. I'm not advocating punching people in the nose. Violence does not help, self-preservation not withstanding.

Standing up and preventing someone from inflicting violence on someone else is a different story, in my mind. Protect those who are in trouble and need to be protected.

Help people have the fun and open, positive learning experience we expect conferences to be.


Be aware.

Be a helper.

Shelter others.