The reign of the dysfunctional

At the advice of my friend Pastor Phil McCutchen, I just finished reading Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix . It’s not an easy read, but one very worth the investment, particularly if you are in leadership in any capacity.

The premise of the book is the very observable phenomenon of the anxiety of the most dysfunctional members of any family or organization being allowed not just to influence but to rule.  This has grown into a world-view and Friedman attacks it – as the prevailing view of west culture at large – in the name of the word “empathy”. That its expression and working out should be the primary governing directional focus cripples the entire group but particularly the leader.

He uses the phrase “well-differentiated” throughout the book – only defining it about 60% through – to describe a leader that has distinguished him/herself from the anxiety-driven weight of group judgment. If empowered, the least stable and productive and functional in a group will elect itself as a jury to approve and disapprove of every decisive whim and movement taken.

I think he makes good points. Points to be taken in balance, but good ones nonetheless. As a reaction to over-reaching and oppressive leaders, checks have been established. They are found in laws, in labor movement structure and lots of other places. They are legitimate and have done good. In America we celebrate something good on Labor Day.  And civil laws protecting individuals from those who would victimize them are a good thing too.

But in some cases and in the general cultural mindset what these counter measures have morphed into is stultifying. If all leadership is suspect, how will anything ever get done? Friedman likes Christopher Columbus for his adventuring spirit, admitting he was a lousy governor. To hear people talk today, Columbus was nothing more than a butcher of native people. Good case in point, because the truth is somewhere between.

And Friedman does not advocate oppression as part of “self-differentiation”. That’s as dysfunctional as ruling victims. I think he strikes a good balance. And those of the prevailing culture will necessarily be up in arms at his conclusions. Because they are out of balance.

My recent experiences as a leader have been traumatic. It has felt terrible each time because I want to people to work and serve together. But my biggest accomplishment over the past year plus, if you could call it that, has been watching or helping people leave my teams. I’ve seen people leave who haven’t gotten what they wanted, like an unseen alarm clock had gone off. I’ve seen people whose departure I aided when they were a bad fit and/or were poisonous to the team. I haven’t always communicated well – and that’s a big learning point for me going forward.  And there are other lessons learned – painful though they have been.

But I was blessed to read what Friedman said because it put labels on things I have seen – as we all have.

We have gone too far in calling dysfunctional people victims. In so doing, we have valued their state and have let therapeutic language and action too powerfully into governance and policy.

The modern polarity lacks the ability to balance these things. It cannot reconcile empowered, decisive (and yes, wealthy) leadership with benefit. It cannot value or nurture the resiliency of hurt people as they overcome and heal.

There’s no question that in the popular ideological stamping Friedman’s ideas are on the right politically.  But those who dismiss them like that will dismiss a reasonable, sane voice that offers good balance.  And at some level, in some endeavor, adopt inertia.

Again it’s NOT a blind eye to suffering or those who cause it that’s advocated, just a reality-based view that moves on spite of it. We take measures to help the poor – really help them – but do not let their poverty steal and reign.

And I guess if you call this a dangerous stance, you should consider the danger of the anxious inertia that keeps things from happening. Because that is just as real and just as bad as oppression and even abuse. We must fight both, not just one or the other.

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I’m a Patriots fan

It’s only football, only a game.

That’s true, and so of course there’s all kinds of “game” behavior.

And I’m fine with games, fine with competition and showing provincial pride and chest-thumping.  Roaring when your team scores.  High fiving your fellow fans.  All that.

That’s the way it’s always been. It’s what winning and losing in sports is, what you do and how you do it.

Of course it’s childish and silly and just for fun.

And so there are fans, those who root for the team from their place, their city and region.

They dress up in the colors of their teams, wear jerseys with numbers and names on them.

And go out and yell and get rowdy.

And it also happens that some go overboard and get arrested, some even killed because of being too dumb or rooting too hard, however you’d describe it.  For most people it’s an arguably good way to let of steam.

My region is New England. That’s where I live.

I grew up without a team from my area, so I rooted for the Giants.

Y. A. Tittle.  My first NFL quarterback.

I remember the shock of seeing him without his helmet for the first time – the guy was BALD!!

But that’s ok, they were my team before they were called the G-men.

I still like them.

The Patriots? Well, they were mostly an embarrassment in the early years.  The 40 early years. They had their moments, but that’s what they were – moments. Nothing consistent. Nothing that went on for any amount of time.

One of the die hard fans with some money bought the team.  Robert Kraft, you may have heard of him.

And he brought in Bill Parcels came to coach the Patriots. He was tough, and they got tough.

To beat.

Disciplined. Strategic. Tough.

I don’t know if anyone knew back then the contribution to those teams that his defensive coordinator made.

But I’m pretty sure Robert Kraft did. That’s why he went after Bill Belichick when he could. And got him.

They drafted Drew Bledsoe for quarterback. Couldn’t do much but throw. But he was fun to watch when he did that.

As most football fans know, Bledsoe got injured in a game against the New York Jets.

Football’s a tough game. People get hurt. Some find that so objectionable they diss the whole sport. That’s fine if they want to be that way. As the saying goes injuries are part of the game. They’re part of every active sport really. But football has people smashing into each other. Oh, they have pads. But they still get hurt, sometimes really badly.

Some people take that injuring part of the game into their rooting. Under Sean Payton, the Saints even paid a bounty for their team to injure the opposition. Anything to win.

When Bledsoe went down, Tom Brady stepped up.  “Tom who?” we said.

He was handsome, and really, really good.  Not a scrambler but a great in-the-pocket passer.

Honestly, I’d say New England fans were surprised by how well the team did, and has done, with him as quarterback.

And he married a supermodel and now they’re worth a gajillion dollars, to round up.

Now sport is analog. It’s life in a microcosm. Our team’s struggle is our struggle – in life.  They win our victories and lose our defeats. That’s why people watch it. That’s why they get so involved.  Non-sports fans or critics of sport really don’t understand that.  Or its benefit that way.

The Patriots did and have done so well for so long that the resentment has grown so much that it’s full-fledged hatred. No one wants to lose that much. And anyone who wins that much must be doing something illegal. Life can’t be that unfair. The analog takes on a new passion.

And so there was Spygate. Belichick’s minion(s) looking at the signals of their foes.

Now we know how they do it! They cheat! They’ve cheated all along. We knew it!!

There was no living it down either. Every success – and there has been little else than success – falls under the pall of that event.

There is no repenting, no saying you’re sorry, paying your fine and moving on.

No. If you win after that, you must be winning because of that.  Or something like that.

I wanted to write this before Superbowl 49 is played. I did not want to know its outcome as I wrote down these feelings.

The Patriots have been accused now of deflating footballs in the AFC championship game. Like Spygate, their attackers say it was a deliberate act to gain competitive advantage.

It has dominated – not just been a part of – DOMINATED – sports news for over a week.

Their honest proclamations of innocence have been mocked and derided. They’ve been called liars and cheats.

I also wanted to write this before I knew the outcome of that investigation.

Because I’m a Patriots fan. I live in Massachusetts. Most people here are Patriots fans, just like most people living in Indiana are Colts fans, most people in Colorado are Broncos fans, etc.

And you know what? I like those teams. They’re not the enemy. And when they beat the Patriots it’s because they played better football. I like football. It’s fun to watch.

So at the point of the season when a team has achieved major success, has won a bunch of football games and captured their conference title and is heading to the Superbowl, they’re supposed to be celebrated, admired and held in high esteem. It’s part of the analog.

But instead, my Patriots have been maligned, accused and humiliated by people with great word skills. Great acting skills and speaking skills.

They’re supposed to be ashamed of winning because, after all, they cheated.

At this point, I almost don’t care if they did. Almost. It matters greatly that they did or didn’t.  If they’re bold-face lying like they’re portrayed to be then I think that owner who bought the team when it was miserable will do some things.  With resolve, because that’s who he is.

But what matters more is the rush to judgment, the presumption of guilt and outright ridicule of a championship team.

The Patriots aren’t the ones to be ashamed of that.

I think I do understand the pent up anger when a team keeps winning as they have – against your team that keeps losing.  Patriot fans had 40 years of that.  Losing to teams like the Dolphins and the Bills.  Great teams that I loved to watch (Larry Csonka!).

I’ve even read some fans say that Patriot fans would do the same if it was another team that cheated. But other teams have cheated and it hasn’t happened.

I do know that I’ve never seen this level of vitriol, this kind of poison in the air. Not in the analog, game world of sports fandom.

And I’ll call it sick without reservation. It would be sick if I was doing it. It’s sick when others do it.

As fan behavior, what it’s really saying is that the people who are calling the Patriots cheaters have a difficult time achieving in life without cheating.

The Patriots aren’t saints. They’re football players. Really good ones.

And Belichick is a phenomenal coach. This doesn’t exonerate him from what happened at Spygate. But he was fined, and paid it. And then kept winning. And winning against everyone.

See, part of the reason for their success – and if this is cheating then I want to be a cheater in the worst way – is the ability tune out the outside world and focus on the job at hand.  And do it.  Really, really well.  There’s that analog again; it’s why we Patriots love that team.

And if I was a betting man – and I’m not – I would say this whole thing will galvanize the team to win Superbowl 49 convincingly.

Of course, those who hate them will put an asterisk next to anything they do forever, but in so doing they put an asterisk next to their own lives. There’s a pride that they’re trying to recover through juvenile tactics. From grade school I remember if there was someone the kids didn’t like, they made up stories about them. Bad ones. Stories that got them in trouble.

There’s really only one word for that: malice. And though it takes time, it hurts those who practice it worse than their victims.

Leading in balance – Ruling by fear

I don’t like to work for or with people who scare others into doing things.

It bothers me; and I generally stay away from it when I am called upon to lead, as I am and have been for years.

Instead, I do my best to enunciate the goals of the organization/institution so that people sign up for those, and when they do, they sign up for what I ask them to do.  And it works a good deal of the time.

But there’s a chink in my armor, a hole in my thinking.  I knew about it a long time ago but it’s being trumpeted over my leadership style by an entire brass section lately.

There are those who won’t be ruled any other way than fear.

I’m reading through War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy as I do my daily time on the treadmill (43 minutes, count ’em).    It is such a long book with so many vignettes and scenes that I hope they don’t turn into one big mushy mess in my mind, but for now there is one I recall clearly:

[begin scene with commentary]

The French army has invaded Russia.  They are on the move.  The gentry – which is the class that Tolstoy writes about the whole book – is fleeing the countryside.  The serfs, at that time little more than lifelong indentured servants, sense the disorder to come and begin throwing off their bonds and start to drink and rebel.  Princess (meaning rich lady) Mary is stuck because of this; no one will drive her in a carriage away from her dead father’s estate in the country to safety in Moscow or Petersburg.  She despairs.

Into the scene comes riding Nicholas Rostov, one of Tolstoy’s main heroes in the book.  He is a Russian hussar (calvary soldier) and is dressed as such.  He finds Mary, whom he remembers as the sister of one who was engaged to HIS sister Natasha.  He is infuriated by the behavior of the peasants and goes out, two against 20 (?) and intimidates them back into serving the princess and her attendant.  She gets a ride away from danger and her heart is won by Nicholas (I haven’t seen how that will turn out yet; Tolstoy’s love plots are incredibly twisted).

[end scene with commentary]

Now I work with no Russian 19th century peasantry and I think I’m thankful for that.  Not thankful for having no contact with the poor, but for the dissolution of the institution of serfdom that kept the poor that way.

But there are those who, like those poor serfs in the story, will take advantage of any let up in authority, any sense of “getting away with it” or living for their own agenda, given a lack of strong consequences for doing so.

I have not dealt well with them and I’ve paid the price of latent and more severe consequences, which is no fun for anyone.  But I’ve learned and am getting better at it.

So there is a place and a time for ruling by fear, for some will be ruled no other way:

Romans 13:2-5 For rulers hold no terror for those who do right, but for those who do wrong. Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you.  For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.  Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment but also because of conscience.

One of the problems I have (and we have) with this principle is the obvious abuse of authority.  We cite examples of that faster than almost any kind of relational phenomenon.  But abused authority doesn’t negate the need for it nor its proper and helpful use.  Can I read that part of the passage?  Can we?  Or do we only see the wrath and feel the spanking?

Now, this has to be tempered with the blessing of free choices – and they do exist in my life at least – we have in the 21st century.  If my job is oppressive, I can leave.  And not everyone will fit in every organization.  As I have said many times, if I am not someone you can work with in submission – and that’s not a dirty word – then 1) find someone who you can work with in that capacity or 2) start your own institution, organization or tribe.  I begrudge no one who moves on like that.

For sure, I will rule by fear over some.  Not oppressively but with resolution and applied force.  Because it’s the only way in which the organization will properly function.