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Leadership Moments – When Our Actions Tell the Real Untold Story!

What do you do when someone innocently uses the term retard, or refers to something as “that’s gay” and honestly doesn’t understand the ramifications of their actions? What do you do when you are in a conversation with someone who actually believes it is okay to tell a sexist, heterosexist, racist, or classist joke because no one has ever challenged them about it? Once you finally understand the deleterious consequences of unearned privilege not being considered by the individual(s) who has/have it how do we communicate it to others? These are many of the questions that considerate people struggle with everyday in their lives.

My dissertation (which I recently successfully defended) was essentially on what I refer to as “leadership moments.” I researched and ultimately used film to paint a vivid and emotional picture of the leadership moments that we all face and respond to so differently. Then, coincidentally I saw the Seinfeld episode of the Handicap Parking Spot, which I used in my dissertation, as well as in many presentations I do. I recently used that and another similar Seinfeld clip for presentations at Norwich University, Bombardier Corporation, and a NYSNA retreat I co-facilitated. These clips always takes me a few intriguing places. In essence, I wandered into reflecting on how many of us might process these leadership moments so differently. In the scene from the Handicap Parking Spot, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer are attempting to decide whether to park in a parking spot designated for the physically challenged. George rationalizes that it is only for a moment, Kramer suggests, in a disturbingly philosophical manner, amongst other things the fact that “the handicapped” don’t even want to park there, themselves. Elaine flirts with stopping them, but acquiesces when Kramer confidently reasserts himself. Jerry, for the most part, is silent. The scene is ripe in intriguing opportunities for considering how we choose to engage, or not engage leadership moments.

My concept of leadership moments is situated and predicated within a context of diversity & social justice. It is the moment when someone can step up and challenge problematic prevailing paradigms that exists solely to undermine a person because of a unique dimension of her personality. So, in the case of the Seinfeld episode, the very thought of inconsiderately parking in a parking spot specifically identified as off-limits to you is a leadership moment. It is as blatantly ablest as it is classist and an instance of leveraging unearned privilege. What is provocative about that scene is to challenge people to articulate which of the Seinfeld characters best reflects how they see themselves handling a similar situation. All of us want to see ourselves as the ideal person always making ideal decisions, but honestly, how realistic is that. So, are we George, inconsiderately doing whatever he feels is appropriate without considering not only consequences, but why he would even think it is okay for him to do it? Are we Kramer, running with sound bites (stereotypes) to fuel or legitimate his desire to do what he wants, let the chips fall where they may? Are we Elaine, prepared to challenge dysfunction, but only to the extent it doesn’t require major work? Or are we Jerry, not sure what to do and silently waiting for a compelling argument for motivation to act?

Other instances of leadership moments that are or aren’t accessed can be found anywhere. In the film Mona Lisa Smile, Julia Roberts’ character is both a visionary and transformative leader who challenges the young women she is hired to teach to not succumb to outdated notions associated with their identity as women. Throughout the film, Julia Roberts’ character and others are faced with leadership moments that they either step fully into, or sidestep, for an array of reasons. What are some of the reasons you are familiar with that people use as leverage so as to not change their ways?

As a parent I encounter leadership moments constantly. Whether to allow my son to fit the description of “boys will be boys” when he disrespects his sister or a friend is always under consideration. Whether to act as if it is okay for me to not practice what I preach simply because I am the adult is always an odd moment to be in. Whether to act as if I am not role modeling behavior--when I interact with others in hypocritical ways behavior other than what I expect from my children--is the height of absurdity. What are some of the leadership moments you recall your parents taking advantage of, or missing out on, from your childhood?

I recently did some work with an organization that was comprised of many leaders who appeared to be prepared to lead, but didn’t seem to be prepared to lead outside of the context of a fixed result that they were expected to achieve. Sometimes leadership is finding the way to have a difficult conversation that you really don’t want to have, or can’t imagine having. Sometimes, like the racial incident that occurred within the Saranac Lake School District in late May, leadership moments avail themselves to many constituencies that arguably are all linked in potentially changing the game, but aren’t communicating that fact. At the Saranac Lake school, or any educational institution for that matter, the fact that underrepresented students are suffering because of the differences in their identities is a failed leadership moment for teachers, principals, and yes, superintendents of any school district that has instances of this occurring with nothing “real” in place to combat it. Seriously, you aren’t fooling anyone who is seriously discerning how sophisticated a leader you actually are. It wasn’t an accident that Obama won and Hillary was in the hunt for the presidency. Times, they are a changing and those of us that aren’t changing with them are flirting with becoming dinosaurs. Yes, a Saranac Lake type incident of racist activities towards someone grossly in the minority could happen anyway, but probably would far less if adequate structures were put in place. The fact that law enforcement investigative units and community organizations aren’t responding to a member of the community being ostracized, vilified, and demonized makes a statement about the entire community, whether people want to own that fact or not. It also makes a statement about the hypocrisy of every individual who could make a difference, and doesn’t, but would be ready to tar and feather someone for their bias towards someone connected to the hypocrite. And it is hard to argue that knowingly and willingly succumbing to your own hypocrisy isn’t the epitome of stupid acts. I know. I may be a diversity director, but I’ve done my share. Nonetheless, as a Black man, a member of an underrepresented group, and as a North Country resident who wants to believe that many of us are committed to changing the game I am outraged by what transpired within the Saranac Lake school district . It only takes an incident like this to reinforce to me that everyone is not in the game.

We see leadership moments in film and so-called real life all the time. The Black lieutenant in the film Crash who doesn’t want to deal with the racism of one of his White cops because of its threat to his pension is immersed in a leadership moment. The father of Charlene Theron’s character in the film North Country faces a leadership moment when he attempts to come to her rescue when she is undertaking a leadership moment herself as she speaks to the union membership. In his moment he reveals his failures at previous leadership opportunities even while he is attempting to be successful in one.

I’m curious as to what are some of the leadership moments you have experienced that challenged you to become a change agent, or that made you shy, introspective, or perhaps reflect upon your cowardice? What are some of the leadership moments in film that really got your attention, or unfortunately in real life that you may have witnessed?

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Are we Kramer, running with sound bites (stereotypes) to fuel or legitimate his desire to do what he wants, let the chips fall where they may? Are we Elaine, prepared to challenge dysfunction, but only to the extent it doesn’t require major work? Or are we Jerry, not sure what to do and silently waiting for a compelling argument for motivation to act?

In instances much like the scene in Seinfeld, I often find myself experiencing a level of duality, falling between two character types according to the situation. For instances, it’s easier for me to defend a certain topic with a friend as opposed to a random individual. At times, it’s just not the time and place to engage because you’ve caught wind of the person’s behavior and so you shy away from the impending argument that would arise having called them out on the topic. At times, it takes a leadership role to “not” engage the subject in certain situations but to wait for the right time. Timing can make all the difference.

When I arrived at my new home, I had to endure a process of establishing myself, which often comes with any new ground one covers, before I could openly speak against or in support of an opinion. I view it as a tactical mission where I must first infiltrate before being able to get any results. The Metaphor I used gives way to my own method, in order for me to make a more lasting impression with my opinion, i've had to pick to my battles and attempt to establish some level of rapport with the person. I don’t like “challenging”, people, it’s not wise to always duel opinions and so I try to engage them differently so as to create an understanding of where that opinion could lead them, I believe we both have something to learn from each other.

Countless times I’ve debated, realize I don’t use the word “argue”, with a homosexual co-worker about homophobic comments that he makes against other co-workers. His behavior teaches me that his reality might be a reflection of what he may have endured in his time, he may not feel empowered to stand against it so he flows with it,and I’m able to empathize with that struggle, so “challenging” him would only bring more challenge, “reasoning” with him, has brought more reason. I’ve slowly seen a decline in his behavior, at least around me.


What are some of the reasons you are familiar with that people use as leverage so as to not change their ways?

Another word I use for leverage in some instances is, “excuses”, I’ve heard people comment on how old they are, and how they understand that topic more and so it gives them a “right” to wield certain dysfunctional language. I’ve heard words like, “retard”, “gay”, “straight” etc. have a religious or scientific backing. Naturally, when someone quotes a book or a famous notion in our society, they feel as though their opinion has more credit, It’s as if we were using a wall to hold ourselves up. Other people believe that because it’s been so long since they’ve been using language and behavior of that manner, that it’s much too late to change. I’ve also encountered people in certain authoritative positions, using their position or your, ‘position’ as a means to pacify your opinion. How many of us have had a boss or supervisor we wanted to respond too but feared we would lose our job?

I’m curious as to what are some of the leadership moments you have experienced that challenged you to become a change agent, or that made you shy, introspective, or perhaps reflect upon your cowardice?

I can recall instances, but I prefer to recall the feelings associated with those instances. When you don’t meet a set standard, a height or size limit, an authoritative position or some other trait, and you’re pressed with a feeling of powerlessness and loneliness after being downplayed, it’s difficult to consistently accept. Whether you combine that with an ability to place yourself in someone’s shoes or not, the undeniable feeling of someone’s ignorance being used as a hammer to nails a self-esteem shut is enough to invigorate a response.

A Leadership Moment: Gay Night at Club Providence
Her tight black dress wrapped around her like saran wrap. She was a special soul I was excited to get to know more intimately. My hands loosely patted her waist as we made our way to the entrance of Club Providence in NYC. It was the only club around for blocks. However, one could feel the energy booming outside of it. I was excited to salsa my way to her lips. In front of the club, two ripped African American bouncers checked our IDs.

One bouncer remarked, “You two do know that it’s Gay Night right?”

My special friend and I froze gazing at each other. Our slow awareness of the several male-only groups entering the club was sped up when a man in drag elegantly walked by us. Apparently, Latin music was not the sole focus of the night. It was a simple mistake. We went to Club Providence the wrong night. It was Gay Night.

“So are you coming in?” a bouncer uttered.

My date and I went into a huddle. I had some anxieties. My deep-seated homophobia was pulling me away from the club. It was an interesting leadership moment. It was a moment to transcend tradition. It was a time to break patterns and shift perspective. I looked deep inside my beautiful companion’s eyes and agreed to go inside to dance with her regardless of the environment.

The decision to enter had larger implications for me though. I grew up in a very homophobic neighborhood and culture. Also, even after a few years of immersion in social justice work deconstructing masculinity and sexual orientation, it intrigued me that I still had some small anxiety when abruptly facing this gay male reality. I know so many people who have the immature perspective of considering me as gay for even going inside that club on that night. On the other hand, I know many people who would be a bit shocked that I would feel a bit uncomfortable in such a situation. Whatever the case, I stepped into my anxiety and decided to witness the reality of the “other.”

That was my leadership moment. I wonder what Kramer, Jerry, George or Elaine would have done. We need to look closely at ourselves nowadays and address these anxieties. I'm glad I had someone to support me that night. I don't think I would have gone in if I didn't have my date with me.

Lastly, one thing is for sure.....you are right J.W. when you say that “Times, they are a changing and those of us that aren’t changing with them are flirting with becoming dinosaurs.”

I find the concept of a "leadership moment" a fascinating one due to its ties to the everyday. At our core, it is social relationships that tie us to others. The things that pile up on top (work titles, relationship status in reality or Facebook, benefits tied to a variety of factors, etc.) are at their core relational to how we approach each other both directly and indirectly.

I have personally failed in many "leadership moments" due to social pressure to conform, my ignorance, and my ego. I think many of us would say the same. The reason is that fighting back against oppression and marginalization in any and all forms is just so darned difficult to process. We are constantly confronted by pressure on all fronts to take the easy way out. Meaning, it is a heck of a lot easier to step on those below then to extend the hand to bring them to our level.

In terms of what can be done, I think its a matter of both strategy and tactics. Strategically, we should always stand on the side of addressing issues of racism, classism, sexism, homophobia, disability, etc. Tactically, we have options that don't always mean we pull a Jerry or Elaine. Sometimes direct confrontation is best. Other times, subtle social manipulation of the situation is ideal.

At the end of the day, when we lay our heads to our (ideally) pillows, we should be able to say "Okay, I helped just a little today." Not only others, but ourselves.

When analyzing these “leadership moments”, it appears as if some people may be accustomed to dealing with problems by looking towards ones’ morals. I have heard morals defined as being “blanket solutions to spontaneous situations.” Morality’s attempt to cover-up fluctuating problems with stagnant solutions may be creating a stressful uncertainty amongst a flowing public consciousness that could be having trouble noticing the similarities and differences between various scenarios. The path of history may be shaped with the footprints of people in powerful leadership positions who fought for the self-preservation of unearned privileges by turning to their morals to counter what appears to be a path towards a much more ethical public sphere.

I have heard ethics defined as “spontaneous solutions to spontaneous situations.” Given this definition, an ethical mind, when faced with leadership moments, may be more accepting to change and could rely more on creativity and intuition. However, one may wonder if our education systems are adequately preparing a new generation of ethical leaders who would be able to assert themselves to “speak loud” through their actions. I’m worried that intensely curious toddlers are having that curiosity extinguished through the use of an Aristotelian system of logic and reason that tells them that appears to leave out the “grey areas” by assuming that there is either a “right” or a “wrong” answer to whatever problem or situation they could be faced with. We may be able to become conscious of whatever we choose to (or can) pay attention to, which could mean that an increase of knowledge and understanding, with persistence, has the potential to move us forward toward a greater number of substantially more ethical outcomes to leadership moments.

“Times, they are a changing and those of us that aren’t changing with them are flirting with becoming dinosaurs.”

Contemporary American society is a dinosaur. Homophobia, Racism, Sexism, Anti-Semitism, and the whole array of categories that fall under Xenophobia are not only the norm, but they are encouraged. Because of failing educational methodology in elementary and high schools, a great majority of students brought up in underprivileged areas are receiving subpar educations, even when compared to so-called “Third World Nations.” We are teaching a new generation of our children that failure is acceptable and that they should not strive to achieve for they will inevitably fail. We as a society are stealing the one thing that keeps humans from destroying themselves in frustration and fear, that one thing is hope. Why do well in school when you know that there is no way that you can afford a college career without putting yourself and even your family into crippling amounts of debt? Why attend school in the first place when your family is having trouble keeping a household and putting food on the table? The United States is supposed to be the most prosperous country to have ever existed, and yet, we still have no idea about how to house and feed our own population, yet our government seems intent on not only proclaiming itself to be the finest example of leadership, but that all other countries should emulate it. Well, I proclaim nonsense upon them. While they are living up to their personal expectations of themselves, we as a society are falling well short of our own. The American dream is supposed to be success for those who work hard for it. However, this concept is based off of an idea of a more or less even playing field, which as anyone who has followed this blog with any regularity, or paid attention in contemporary society will doubtlessly realize, is not the case.

“Whether to allow my son to fit the description of “boys will be boys” when he disrespects his sister or a friend is always under consideration.”

The entire concept of “Boys will be boys” is an outdated form of madness that presupposes that all men are to conform to the template set forth by John Wayne in his movies like good American “men.” There is no template that all people fit, and certainly some bickering and competition are to take place, however, as seen from a variety of other sources, not the least of which being your previous blog on your daughters graduation from college, would suggest that you, unlike many other parents of this generation, use parental discretion while raising your children. You do not sit your children down in front of the television of them to become mindless zombies who cannot think critically. I would advise that you utilize your best informed guess while making decisions in such matters, as the thought itself shows that you care more than a great majority of parents in this increasingly difficult society.

“It is the moment when someone can step up and challenge problematic prevailing paradigms that exists solely to undermine a person because of a unique dimension of her personality.”

The leaders that you describe are intriguing in that they have high personal standards not only for themselves, but for those that they interact with. The issue that I would pose with this idea of leadership is that for someone to truly lead they must be able to relate to their peers. While you have previously stated in other blogs that challenging only those you feel comfortable with challenging on these issues is advisable, it is difficult to get someone to challenge their views on such issues without alienating them. Once you have alienated those you are trying to educate, you have failed as a leader. At the same time however a leader must question themelves, if they are willing to allow such xenophobic behavior to be represented among those that they lead, and if so, what that means about their leadership abilities.

I grew up in a very homophobic and racist part of Upstate NY. I was raised with the understanding that "Men marry women, whites marry whites and blacks marry blacks." I carried many of these same beliefs with me into college because, as people we only 'know' what we are taught, and that was all I 'knew'.

Through years of development I realized how preposterous these ideas were and changed my individual way of thinking. However, whenever I would go home to visit my family and friends I had to decide whether I was going to be the person my friends knew or the person I had evolved into. It wasn't as easy of a decision for me as it should have been.

What I noticed is it was much harder for me to stand up to someone who is older than I am. I have some family friends who I still consider to be great people, regardless of how narrow-minded their view of the world is. Again, you only 'know' what you are taught. And if you are taught classist, sexist and racist ways of life from day one, guess what you will believe?

I found myself cowering whenever a friend's father or mother would say something I knew wasn't right. How do you, as a young 20-something fresh out of college challenge someone in their 40's or 50's on the language they use in their own house? I don't know, because I never did.

Would I make a difference if I told someone twice my age that the words they have been casually throwing around in conversation since they were half my age make them sound ignorant and uneducated? I don't know. I like to think I would, but I may never find out, because I struggle with standing up to people that, frankly, I looked up to as I grew up. Maybe I should "be the change I want to see" and realize that "if I'm not part of the solution, I'm part of the problem" but I find it easy to understand Jerry's point of view, having been there before. Everyone wants to believe they would stand up to someone, even their own friends, if they were in that same situation, but how many really would?

A few years ago I moved to Boston and was absolutely shocked at how generally accepting people are here. That probably has something to do with me believing this was a city stuck in the 1800's, like everyone said, but I was wrong. The times, they are a changin, but only for the people who open their eyes and see it. The dinosaurs' eyes, it would seem, have been closed for some time now.

Congrats on your Ph.D Professor! What a worthy thesis! I feel proud to be one of your former students from your Moral Problems and I think of you every time I teach Lord of the Flies from the true feminine perspective, and not the "other's." ;)

In response to your post, my social location afforded me the perfect vantage point for evolution. I now find it easy practice to be "out" as a lesbian, and the results of that practice has propelled me through my "leadership moments" as they have either directly or indirectly affected my daily confrontations with racism, sexism, homophobia, ableism, ageism, adultism, levelism, as well as the prejudice that can exist within my own sometimes very weakened and splintered queer community such as trans phobia and bi phobia. However, none of this prepared me for the unique position of Godmother. Even as a parent I have some degree of control over what the world presents to my little one, but as an aunt/Godmother, I do not have the authority to supersede a homophobic parent or the archaic worldly influence of "dinosaurs". Yet still, that position keeps me grounded in love. - Not the perfect unconditional Godly love due to my imperfect, human, insecurity. I have recently been faced with prejudice (one incident I blogged about myself in the link I posted) from a young child (my Goddaughter). That challenge has been to suppress my own pain while providing an example to someone incapable of rationalizing (or being held accountable for) the complex results of their actions. In short, we survived, but the process has catapulted me into realizing the deep wisdom of Buddhist philosophy which teaches one to "do no harm," and the Christian core which purports one to love, never judge, and turn one's proverbial "cheek". These are the religions I am most familiar with (as I do not mean to exclude all others).

We'll need to resign our petty excuses for not "leading" soon, (realistically - as I do not mean to omit those grey areas when the right is not always so clear. No one ever listens to anyone who hurts them.) The challenges just increase in complexity until we're confronted the true realizations that yes, life can suck in its inability to accommodate the contentment and lethargy, but yes, we are all endowed with the power to create and re-create our worlds. Ultimately though, this fear that we feel to be the leaders of the future? - nothing compared to the regrets we'll have over having missed our opportunities to grow from the past.

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