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like a bright yellow dress these get the most attention

Toxic Leaders

NPR had a story on this yesterday, about leaders in the military whose abusive behavior is a contributing factor in soldiers’ suicides.  Not the only factor, but a common factor among military men and women experiencing other stressors, like alcoholism, troubled primary relationships, and depression.  It’s about time we talked about adult bullies.

I was just talking to a friend about toxic leadership.  This is the type of leader infamous in movies, immortalized in story: the sadistic drill sergeant, the bitter orphanage director, the evil stepmother.  We all know this guy, hellbent on making us miserable because he gets a chubby doing so.  We know this woman, the one who enjoys the thrilling frisson of belittling her subordinates.

The objective is work of some kind, whether it’s in the classroom or the battlefield or the cubicle desert.  We’ve got this pile of work and some people have been promoted or designated or rewarded or honored with the task of directing it.  The toxic leader makes demands, doesn’t direct, doesn’t prioritize; she saves the worst tasks or the most unreasonable expectations for the objects of her derision.  The toxic leader does not take into account whether his staff or subjects have been properly trained and sure as damn doesn’t care whether they’re inspired.  The toxic leader knows only his own power and wields it like the puny erection he’s made of it; so proud of what it can do, unaware it looks silly, pathetic, laughable.  For all its napoleonic diminutiveness, it still can wreak havoc in these tiny fiefdoms, in a worker’s day, in a child’s science class.

A good leader: most of us know her too.  She admits to the daunting tasks of the day/week/month, he assures us of our ability to accomplish said tasks, promises to help when needed, and follows through on the promises.  The Good Leader (worth caps because it’s rare and special) pays attention and praises liberally, for it’s praise, not threats, that will make us go beyond what we think we can do.  The Good Leader inspires, by example, by reason, by character.  The Good Leader gets great results and gives credit to us, and inspires us to give credit back to her for good guidance and support.  The Good Leader gives us a chance to feel great about the work we do, whether it’s cleaning toilets, chopping onions, or reviewing actuarial tables.  The Good Leader does not need to berate, demean or ridicule in order to feel confident, competent, or worthy of his position. 

Too often it’s we, the subordinates, the students, the privates, whose performance is judged and graded  Too rarely is our performance said to be at least in part a reflection of the leader.  Much too rarely are the leaders given a grade by people whom they lead.  I think it’s time these bullies faced their failing grades and got credit for the damage they do.

Hey, Asshole

We arrived at the four-way stop at the same moment.  You were driving a white SUV on an uphill incline; I was in a small black sedan on a flat plane, ready to take a quick right.  The second is split, when one can dither or one can move.  I took the initiative, and you took offense.  Cleared of the intersection you accelerated with a vengeance, honked your horn, and offered me your middle finger.

You proceeded to tailgate me for half a mile, gesticulating wildly, obviously saying less than kind things about my having robbed you of the upper hand and two fucking seconds of your life.  I pulled into a trucking company’s parking lot to rid myself of your irrational anger; you honked again, flipped the bird again, accelerated again.  It was 7:10 am and your over-the-top response to the simplest negotiation of a commute left me trembling.  I breathed for a moment, and tried to shake you off the rest of my day.

Had we been pedestrians on a city street with a parallel set of conflicting needs– say, I wanted to leave a bus stop as you wanted to enter same– you would have waved me on and felt chivalrous to do so.  So why does having 4000 pounds of steel surrounding you allow you to be that rude?  In person you would not be so menacing, but behind a windshield you feel free to tell me to go fuck off.  Really.  My wish for you is to spend purgatory stuck behind an endless supply of city buses and school buses and trash trucks, fucker.

Still bothered by it, I got back at you today.  I swung through Wendy’s to get a soda in the midst of errands.  My bill for same was a dollar and change.  I saw in the rear-view that he was driving a shabbier car, paint peeling, a couple dings.  She was in the backseat with the rear-facing car seat: maybe the baby was brand new, maybe the baby was sick. Maybe she was back there doing a line of coke off the baby’s chubby thigh, I don’t know or care.  Their bill was fourteen and change and I paid it.  The cashier asked what she should tell them and I said, “tell them merry christmas.”

So there— and merry christmas to you, Mr. Asshole in the white SUV.

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

3:30 PM ET, November 30, 2013

Jordan-Hare Stadium, AUBURN, AL

1 2 3 4 T
#1 ALA 0 21 0 7 28
#4 AUB 7 7 7 13 34

For non-football fans: the above grid represents a spectacular upset in college football, and an opportunity to practice royal parenting.

Alabama and Auburn were tied at 28-28 in the fourth quarter.  Bama’s coach went for a field goal in the final seconds, literally, seconds, of the game.  Auburn’s quarterback returned the missed field goal in an unbelievable run of 109 yards to a touchdown, and earned the best day of his life thus far and the win for Auburn.

I saw this last play because the prince called me in.  An Alabama fan, he was sure he was inviting me to watch the Crimson Tide wash Auburn down the drain.  When instead the unthinkable happened,  the prince flipped OUT.  This is a placid kid, a quieter, thinking kid.  Oh, he can be loud, but he’s never mouthy or disrespectful or dramatic.  But in this instance:  “ARE YOU KIDDING ME??!!”  he raged, and ran upstairs, slamming his bedroom door.  Me, I’m thinking, “are you kidding me?”  Because these types of things just don’t happen in the royal quarters; we operate with a bit more decorum, even if the decor around here is White Trash circa 1996.

So at the base of the stairs I called up, “I’d like to see you in ten minutes down here, please.”  He was down shortly and had a seat at the kitchen table, on the verge of angry tears.  I told him that if this was his home team, maybe.  If he had not gotten into his first choice college, maybe.  If he’d asked a girl to prom and she’d said “no,” maybe.  But that Alabama’s loss did not have a great enough impact on his life for him to upset the entire household with his anger (now the entire household at that moment was just him, me, a dog, and two cats but whatever).  “You have to learn to modulate your reaction.  I know it was disappointing, but for bigger disappointments, you won’t have the option to take a sledgehammer to someone’s temple– so you have to control how you react and be mindful of the people around you.  If you had let out a loud and mighty curse I think I would have been ok with that, but we do not slam doors here.  Understood?”  He smirked a sad smirk and acquiesced.  “Go chill out for a bit, ok?”  And he did.  And he was fine.  And the lesson was learned.  Cue music.

It’s hard to do this, whether “this” is being the clown or being a 13 year old prince.    How to live and what it means is like a math problem that takes four days to solve; the prince looks to me because I’m on day two and my paper is covered with pencil scratches, but until day four I’m just as clueless.   Or as Kurt Vonnegut said: “Don’t look at me, I just got here myself.”


Summer is a 17 year old boy

Summer was given ample time to finish up 11th grade here.  He screwed up all season,  was late to class, handed in assignments whenever he felt like it, and was surly (what’s new?) at every opportunity.  He should have graduated September 21 and was, I’ll admit, a bit chastened that weekend.  But since then he’s been back every day, taunting the new season and acting like an asshole. Temps in the mid-eighties today– you KNOW Autumn had no part in that.

So while Autumn tries to do her thing with some decorum (and she has ever been a poised and pretty girl), Summer continues to catcall and display both middle fingers.  So rude.  He hot-dogs around on a banana seat bike, cards flapping in the bike’s spokes, wearing cut-offs so short the pockets are exposed; his bare and muscled torso is tanned and shiny with sweat.  I yell at Summer, “Get off the damn lawn!  Go away you hooligan!”

I grumble as I close the door so the air-conditioning doesn’t escape; “…back in my day seasons had manners…”   From inside I can hear his insolent reply, “Hey lady, fuck you!”


The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

Our back yard dips down quite low; the back end of it houses the water runoff for the whole neighborhood, so it’s the lowest spot and the wettest.  I don’t know the science behind fog but the yard was blanketed in it and it was enchanting the way snow can be.  The ugliest things: the decaying woodpile from a dead birch, the 5 gallon paint buckets from a neighbor’s honey-do chore, the unwieldy unpruned butterfly bush, all made soft and pretty.
Then on the way to work as the sun gets serious its gold shoots through the corn and vanquishes the damp, winning the battle not the war–  but in the moment as it happens I sense all the vanquishing, of winters and summers and years gone by.  I sense time passing, but collect this minute, this instance of bliss, this sunrise and surge of energy.  Catalogued, banked.
I love autumn, and I love winter.  My mind is most fertile when it’s cold.  Whatever relationship there is between what might be perceived as a soul and the carbon-based fleshy sack around it, in me, is most antagonistic when it’s hot.  Heat makes me sour, irritable.  I take it as an assault on me even as others relish it.  I lose hope for the future.
I love cold, I love being cold, I love breathing cold air.  I’m cheered by it and feel cared for, a secret between me and god him/herself,  a secret code only I understand.