Black Lives Matter’s Leadership Dilemma

Black Lives Matter is an interesting social protest movement case study of leadership dilemmas. Co-founded in 2013 by three female organizers, BLM has no governing board, instead it coordinates with more than 150 organizations.

Laura Barrón-López of Politico” explains the decentralized structure in Why the Black Lives Matter movement doesn’t want a singular leader”.

“Instead of a pyramid of different departments topped by a leader, there is coordination and a set of shared values spread across a decentralized structure that prizes local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. Over the last eight years, the movement has steadily built a modern infrastructure on top of decades-old social justice institutions like the Highlander Center.”

. . . local connections and fast mobilization in response to police violence. More specifically:

“When George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white Minneapolis police officer was captured on film, hundreds of organizations and thousands of activists were ready to launch protests in their cities. They pushed policy with local legislators and police departments and rallied people who hadn’t previously engaged in BLM protests. . . .”

One of the most compelling arguments for a decentralized, horizontal, or flat structure:

“There is no chairperson or candidate calling the shots in private or serving as a public rallying point. With no singular person to attack in tweets, President Donald Trump instead directed his ire and threats of violence at mostly peaceful protesters.

‘In terms of strategy — and this is very real that we have to be honest about this — it makes it harder for those who are against us to do what they did in the ‘60s, which is to target one leader,’ said Cliff Albright, co-founder of Black Voters Matter Fund, a voter engagement nonprofit.”

BLM activists prefer “leaderful” to leaderless. Is it working? In some ways, definitely.

Barrón-López:

“Activists in cities all over the country are trading notes through the network as they pressure local officials to explore new public safety options, from doing away with police in schools to slashing budgets or reimagining police departments entirely.

Meanwhile, other portions of the movement are organizing bigger national actions. Woodard Henderson, along with the SEIU, the Fight for $15 advocacy group and other unions, orchestrated a strike for Black lives on Monday, with thousands of workers in more than 25 cities walking off the job.”

“But,” Barrón-López notes, “other national policy pushes growing out of the movement have inspired dissension within it.”

For example:

“One of the most widely known policy plans to come out of the Black Lives Matter movement is the “8 Can’t Wait” proposals from the racial justice group Campaign Zero. The package is composed of “restrictive use of force policies” for local police departments — including banning chokeholds, mandating de-escalation and warning before shooting — which the group argued would decrease killings.

. . . the release of ‘8 Can’t Wait’ in early June was met with swift criticism from a number of activists who felt the proposals did not go far enough in a climate where calls to ‘defund the police’ were gaining wider acceptance. Within a week, Campaign Zero co-founder Brittany Packnett Cunningham announced her departure from the organization in response to the backlash. Campaign Zero issued an apology on its website, saying its campaign ‘unintentionally detracted from efforts of fellow organizers invested in paradigmatic shifts that are newly possible in this moment.'”

To add to the complexity:

“The ‘8 Can’t Wait’ package has also faced opposition from the other direction, though: In Atlanta, the city council passed the package after the killing of Rayshard Brooks by police in a Wendy’s parking lot. But Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms — a Democratic vice presidential contender — vetoed the package, to the frustration of local activists.”

The New York Times reporting on Portland’s protests, “Cities in Bind as Turmoil Spreads Far Beyond Portland” makes me think more identifiable, individual leadership may be needed.

Again, some context. What are people protesting about in Portland?

“The latest catalyst was the deployment of federal law enforcement agents in Portland, Ore., whose militarized efforts to subdue protests around the federal courthouse have sparked mass demonstrations and nightly clashes there. They have also inspired new protests of solidarity in other cities, where people have expressed deep concern about the federal government exercising such extensive authority in a city that has made it clear it opposes the presence of federal agents.”

For example:

“In Oakland, what had been a peaceful protest led in part by a group of mothers proclaiming ‘Cops And Feds Off Our Streets’ devolved after dark as another set of protesters smashed windows at the county courthouse and lit a fire inside.”

The President is using images of nightly property damage and related violence to demean Democratic leaders and scare undecided voters.

Again, The Times:

“President Trump has seized on the scenes of national unrest — statues toppled and windows smashed — to build a law-and-order message for his re-election campaign, spending more than $26 million on television ads depicting a lawless dystopia of empty police stations and 911 answering services that he argues might be left in a nation headed by his Democratic rival, Joseph R. Biden Jr.

. . . The situation has left city leaders, now watching the backlash unfold on their streets, outraged and caught in the middle. Mayor Jenny Durkan of Seattle said in an interview Sunday that the city is in the middle of a self-fulfilling prophecy, with protesters infuriated by the federal presence in Portland smashing windows and setting fires, the very images of ‘anarchy’ that the president has warned about.”

Oakland’s mayor, Libby Schaaf, has been even more blunt:

‘I’m furious that Oakland may have played right into Donald Trump’s twisted campaign strategy. Images of a vandalized downtown is exactly what he wants to whip up his base and to potentially justify sending in federal troops that will only incite more unrest.'”

Biden’s campaign team doesn’t appear too worried about this because they believe the police issue is “being treated by many voters as a distraction by Mr. Trump from his faltering coronavirus pandemic response and the struggling economy.”

Scott Jennings, a veteran Republican strategist sees it differently, “If there is a danger for Democrats generically, it is if the Republicans are able to define them as being on the side of the anarchists in Portland.”

The Times adds, “For city officials, the challenge is more immediate than the November election — it is bringing an end to nights of clashes on their streets.”

The most recent protests add urgency to the leadership challenges:

“The focus on the federal agents in Portland has frustrated some activists who see the pushback against their presence as a distraction from the racial injustices that had been the focus of protests in May and June.

In Portland on Saturday night . . . some participants urged the marchers not to forget earlier protests against local police.

‘It’s complicated, it’s chaotic, and it’s a little hard for us to stay focused. We need to stay focused. We cannot forget this is also about the Portland Police Bureau.’ Kinsey Smyth told the crowd. ‘This is not about destruction, this is about rebuilding.'”

Illustrating confirmation bias, conservatives focus on the most violent protestors convinced they are the majority. Their more general criticisms of protestors demonstrate a depressing lack of appreciation for our nation’s history. Do they prefer the masses blissful apathy because they benefit from it?

BLM is an important extension of the American tradition of taking to the streets to highlight the glaring gaps between our stated ideals about equal opportunity, level playing fields, and most people’s daily realities.

BLM activists have made a positive difference and will continue to; especially, I think, if they reconsider their “leaderful” idealism and consider more conventional forms of organization.

But I’ll be happy to be proved wrong.

 

 

 

 

Two Kinds of Bad Bosses

One-third of the country readily buys whatever President Trump is selling day-to-day. This is about the two-thirds of us who think Snake Oil salesman is far too kind a description.

We act like his Presidency is unprecedented because in many ways it is. We’ve never had a President pay so little regard to the truth. And it’s not even close. But anyone 30 years old or older has had at least one bad boss, and if you’re my advanced age, probably many bad bosses.

So it’s not completely unchartered territory.

There are two kinds of bad bosses. The kind that knows they’re in way over their head and bide their time by disappearing into the background. Hoping against hope that they can mask their incompetence indefinitely.

Trump is the exact other kind. The kind that has no idea they’re in way over their head and has to be front and center all of the time. The technical term is narcissism. Even when Trump’s aides tell him his daily press conferences are hurting him, he continues with them in slightly different form. A certifiable media whore. So we can’t sidestep his lying, incompetence, lack of empathy, and general destructiveness.

And yet, we’ve survived lots of bad bosses, both kinds, because our organizations have been filled with caring, competent people who collectively compensated for the poor leadership at the top.

And we always outlast them because we’re resilient. And we’ll outlast this one too if enough of us turn out to say “You’re fired!” on November 3, 2020.

Friday Assorted Links

1. When Being a Humble Leader Backfires. I greatly prefer leaders who error on the side of humility, but these findings makes sense.

“Our findings show that you can increase team effectiveness by being humble only if team members expect a leader to display that characteristic. Pay attention to what values the team holds, and adjust your behavior accordingly. If your team demonstrates a desire to share power, your humility can encourage more dense and frequent information exchange and promote creativity. In teams where the unequal distribution of power is accepted, however, members are likely to expect you to take charge and make important decisions. In these circumstances, showing weakness through humility can be counterproductive.”

The challenge then is correctly reading your team’s expectations.

2. Disparities Persist in School Discipline.

“Black students represent 15.5 percent of all public school students, but make up about 39 percent of students suspended from school. . . .”

The report from which this statistic springs will frame the final exam of my “Multicultural Perspectives in Classrooms” course the next time I teach it. Take home exam. 1) Why do those disparities persist in school discipline? 2) What can/should teachers, administrators, and others do to eliminate the disparities? Why?

In question one I’ll be looking for references to educators’ implicit biases, or more specifically, their negative preconceived notions about students of color. I will also be looking for references to “teacher pleasing behaviors”, or more specifically, how white, middle class students tend to catch breaks because their mannerisms are far more familiar to their predominantly white, middle class educators.

3. In historic first, an American Indian will lead Seattle Public Schools.

4. From tests to sports to music recitals, competitive activities can wreak havoc on a kid’s confidence. This piece is sorely disappointing because the journo fails to ask the all-important question: whether kids need to compete as early and often as they do. My answer, no they do not.

Selecting The Wrong Leader. . . Again

Fighting an insidious attack on my immune system, I’ve opted to lean in to the sickness by reading the Atlantic’s God’s Plan for Mike Pence and the New York Times’s Inside Trump’s Hour-by-Hour Battle for Self-Preservation.

Journalism is hemorrhaging jobs, but fortunately, in some places, long form journalism is flourishing. These are detailed; thoughtful; and if you’re left-leaning, harrowing pieces.

From God’s Plan for Mike Pence:

“Scott Pelath, the Democratic minority leader in the Indiana House of Representatives, said that watching Pence vouch for Trump made him sad. “Ah, Mike,” he sighed. “Ambition got the best of him.” It’s an impression that even some of Pence’s oldest friends and allies privately share. As one former adviser marveled, ‘The number of compromises he made to get this job, when you think about it, is pretty staggering.'”

Tucked in the NYT piece were passing references to Trump’s twelve daily Diet Cokes and his regular dinner of. . .

“plates of well-done steak, salad slathered with Roquefort dressing and bacon crumbles, tureens of gravy and massive slices of dessert with extra ice cream.”

I’m calling bullshit on his doc’s glowing reports on his health. #fakenews

Why do we as citizens, employees, members of civic organizations, make leadership decisions we often regret? Why is our batting average too often Seattle Mariner-like?

Because we pick leaders based upon tangible qualifications that most closely match those we detail in our job postings, with far too little attention paid to the finalists’ psychological well-being. Granted, psychological well-being is hella-hard to assess in even a series of interviews, but somehow, we have to get better at it.

Let’s start with this premise, on a “Psychological Health” scale of 1-100, the most self-actualized person in the world is a 90. Put differently, everyone has “issues” and is fallible. The goal is to select leaders with the fewest inner demons so as to avoid getting hopelessly side-tracked from the group’s overarching mission. How about this for an interview question: Which of your inner demons are we likely to learn about six months from now? Maybe I should use italics when joking. But seriously, how do interviewers enter the side or back door to assess a candidate’s relative mental health and basic people skills?

My best work friend of all time took another job two and a half years ago. When the damnable university called me to talk about him, this is some of what I said, “He utterly has no ego. As a result, he doesn’t care who gets the credit for the good work that get’s done. All he cares about is that good work gets done.” His lack of ego was an indicator of genuine psychological health, the foundation of which, was equal parts a wonderful marriage and extended family, a deep spirituality, and a commitment to physical activity. Importantly, he also laughed a lot, often at himself.

Maybe the answer to the question, how do we assess job finalists’ psychological health, lies in the previous paragraph. Talk to more former co-workers in greater depth. I’m interested in other ideas you may have.

 

Why Teach?

When asked why teaching, one recent applicant to the teaching certificate program I coordinate said, “Because I have to REALLY get out of retail.” I wanted to stand up and yell, “STOP dammit! Stop! Thanks for coming and good luck making retail less stultifying.”

Most applicants are pulled, rather than pushed into the profession, but their reasons still routinely speak to ulterior motives.

• “I’m a good story teller and students’ find me engaging.”

• “I love when the light bulb goes off when a student learns something new.”

• “It will be nice to have the same schedule as my children.”

That’s understandable. I recently wrote that everyone cares about compensation, benefits, work-life balance, but I’m waiting longingly for a prospective teacher to say something like this:

“I want to become an educator because I have a hunch that teaching is a continuous exercise in selflessness and I want to learn to lose myself in service of others. I’m an impatient listener and prone to self-centeredness. I want to learn to listen to young people in ways that help them fulfill their potential. I suspect teaching will provide me the opportunity to become not just a positive influence in young people’s lives, but also a better person, friend, partner, and citizen.”

I suppose, if that more Eastern starting point leads one to ask, “Relative to others, how well are you serving others and modeling selflessness?” practicing selfless service to others could turn into a tail chasing, self-regarding exercise. “Too bad others aren’t as selfless as me.” Ego is a perpetual trap.

Despite that conundrum, I’m wondering if I should add this tagline to our Teaching Credential Program’s promotional materials, “People with Buddhist sensibilities are strongly encouraged to apply.”

 

 

L’eggo My Ego!

That pun will be lost on the youth.

Recently, while training indoors for next summer’s Tour de France, the DVR offered slim pickings, so I ended up watching an ESPN documentary about the mid-90s Orlando Magic. As the story goes, one year the Magic got to the NBA finals thanks to the play of two young superstars, Shaquille O’Neal and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. Then they got swept by the Houston Rockets in the Finals. The next year they got swept by the Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Then Shaq left for Los Angeles largely because he couldn’t stand sharing the spotlight with his increasingly popular running mate. Twenty years older Shaq admits “it was ego” that got in the way of him staying, and realizing, the Magic’s obvious potential for championships.

Then after a couple of championships in LA, he left largely because he couldn’t stand sharing the spotlight with his equally, if not more popular, superstar teammate. Recently, he’s expressed regret that his “ego” got in the way then too. At the end of the film he says if he could do it all over again, he never would’ve left Orlando. He’s also expressed regret for leaving the Lakers when a few more rings were clearly within reach.

In the end, Shaq won half as many championships as he could’ve because he chose to be “the undisputed man” on lesser teams.

Daily it seems, I see examples of the downside of ego, both the more common male version, and the less familiar, female. Granted, more subtle and nuanced examples than the Big Aristotle’s, but still consequential. The challenge is for leaders to combine self confidence with a Buddhist-like selflessness. Whether star athletes, coaches, teachers, principals, pastors, politicians, or businesspeople. Leaders who don’t need credit for what their team’s accomplish. Leaders who let their legacies take care of itself.

Why did Shaq Daddy so desperately need the brightest spotlight? Why couldn’t he share the credit for his team’s success?

Why do we? Why can’t we?

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Postscript. This just in. Adrian Wojnarowski on George Karl’s new book, Furious George. “Truth be told, Karl was everything he said he disdained about all his players, he was all about the next contract, all about the attention, and always about himself over the team.”

 

Leadership Insights

After 17+ years in SE Olympia, Team Byrnes is moving nine miles to NE Olympia. Consequently, we’re in declutter overdrive. While culling my files, I came across an interview I did with my dad, Don Byrnes, during my doctoral coursework. At the time he was the President and Chief Operating Officer of Spalding & Evenflo Companies, Inc.

Like my brother, I was really thinking about my mom during our first Christmas eve service since her death. And almost equally about my dad even though he died 20 years ago. Probably because I’ve assumed more leadership responsibilities at work and wish I could talk to him about that. That’s why the rediscovery and re-reading of this transcript is special to me. Hope there’s a take-away or two for you too.

Selected excerpts [with commentary]:

Ron: When did you first feel you were in a position of leadership?

Don: Though I don’t remember feeling it at the time, it probably began when I was chosen to do the Easter and Christmas stories in our church programs. This was followed by serving as president of the service, drama, an student council organizations in high school. However, my first position, managing an insurance underwriting department, left me with a leadership feeling. [Had no idea he ever even attended church. Love imagining him ruling the roost on the church stage.]

Ron: What motivates you and what do you to do motivate others?

Don: Initially motivation was a combination and a desire to excel together with a need for financial security. Today, with financial security, I’m motivated by achievement—this is successfully getting to the end of the objective. As I believe an organization takes on the good and bad characteristics of its leader, I strive to set a good example by displaying industriousness, loyalty, and integrity in my interpersonal relationships. People will always follow you and help you attain a mutual goal when they believe in what you are doing and in you as an individual. The best definition I heard of a leader is: a person who finds out where people want to go then gets out in front of them and takes them there. [I like this twist on thinking that leaders should have a vision and then convince others of its merits. Finding out where people want to go probably requires more patience and better listening skills than many people in leadership positions have.]

Ron: What form of communication do you find most effective for obtaining ideas from subordinates?

Don: My personal communication style is an open door policy, with “management by walking around” in all areas of the business preaching the doctrine of what I’m trying to accomplish. You must be a good listener in order to read the direction, attitudes and morale of your employees. Once you have learned that a change or correction is needed, you must implement it so the organization will stay open and continue to contribute. [For a classic example of how NOT to do this, read this article,
Washington State Patrol Chief takes issue with report on staffing issue“.]

Ron: What techniques for stress management do you follow for yourself and others?

Don: Stress to me is too often the result of poor performance, and is an excuse used by individuals who wish they were doing something else. I’ve never had much time for people who complain of being stressed out. My escape is riding a bicycle. After an hour of riding, I feel better physically and mentally. [Brilliant insight that needs no elaboration.]

Postscript:

Eldest Daughter: Liked your blog post today. Makes me think I should interview you sometime.

Me: Thanks, quite a legacy. If I work at it, someday I may be half the leader he was. I would’ve kicked his ass on the bike though.

 

 

 

 

The Art of Leadership

Watching the Golden State Warriors getting thumped by the New Orleans Pelicans. Game three of their first round NBA playoff series. End of the third, they’re down 20. First year coach Steve Kerr calls a time out. The network has a microphone in the huddle, so we get a master lesson in the art of leadership:

“Who lead the league in assists this year? We did. Who lead the league in scoring this year? We did. I don’t recognize the team playing out there. We have to move the ball and find the open man. Let’s go.”

Kerr’s calmness magnified the impact of his words. You’re mother was right, often it’s not what you say, but how you say it. It was the first time his team was getting schooled in the playoffs and he took the long view, knowing this was the earliest stages of a 16 step process. He had to save stronger emotion for the later, more consequential stages. Also, his calm communicated complete confidence that they could come back, which amazingly, they ultimately did.

The first four sentences are a positive reminder that they’re the best team in basketball.  “I don’t recognize the team playing out there,” is Kerr lowering the boom gracefully, subtly, and as effectively as possible. In other words, “That’s not the best team in basketball I’m accustomed to seeing.” Then finally, an ever so simple, two-part command, “Move the ball, find the open man.”

Effective leaders don’t overreact, they’re always bolstering the confidence of those they lead, and they communicate clearly. Just like the Warrior’s rookie coach.

Of Speeding Basketballs and the Tyranny of the Urgent

In my second story home office, I look out a window at a basketball hoop, the Black Hills, and our suburban street winding downhill to the west. Today, I was watching a neighbor shoot hoops with his five year old son when the ball careened down the long semi-steep hill. It was comical when the boy gave chase because he was gradually losing ground on the ball as it gained speed skimming along the curb.

Saturday I began teaching a class on leadership for school program directors and principals-to-be. One thing I will impress upon them is they are the five year old boy because school administrators struggle mightily to get ahead of their daily “To do” lists. If they don’t learn to manage their time in ways that allow for creative thinking about the larger purposes of schooling they’ll never be inspiring or transformational leaders.

I know this because my “To do” list garners way too much of my attention. I fool myself into feeling productive when I shrink my list which ebbs and flows with the same predictability as the tides. Here’s today’s, Monday, February 8th:

• org 583 readings/desk

• finalize 563B syllabus—Lenny, 90m

• 563B sllyabus to Diana

• 2/9, Monday, Dept mtg, 9-10:30a, Search, 12:30-1p, interviews 1-2:30p and 4:30-6p

• prep 563B sessions 1 & 2

One wonders, can I get my swim workout in and get to work in time to “org 583 readings/desk” before the 9a department meeting? What a model I am for transformational leadership, my overarching goal for the day is to check off as many of the five items as possible. Instead of asking, “Did you leave the department, the teaching credential program, and/or the U in a better place?” or “Did you touch anyone’s life today?” My dinner companion tonight might ask, “How many bullet points did you manage to delete today?” Your “To do” list any shorter?

In my position, I regularly hand teary-eyed student teachers tissues and help them make peace with my faculty colleagues, their cooperating teachers, their supervisors, and their students. While helping resolve their problems I often think, “If we don’t find the time to fix the underlying flaws in our program’s design that repeatedly give rise to these crises, we’re going to be distracted in perpetuity by time consuming cases like these.”

If he made it a priority, the five year old’s father could take two or three shooting sessions with his son off to build some sort of barricade or contraption that would prevent errant balls from rocketing all the way down the street again. With more quiet, uninterrupted, big picture/program design time, I could greatly reduce the total number of student crises needing my immediate attention. Of course though, program design is a collaborative process, so I’m dependent upon all of my colleagues getting in front of the speeding basketball too

And in this era of information and sensory overload, it’s every plugged in man, woman, and child for themselves. I could be much more disciplined about regularly unplugging from the internet to be more reflective and thoughtful about what’s most important at work and in life. Maybe, as a first Bill Murray-like baby step, my leadership students and I need to follow this advice.

The 90% Preparation Principle

Forgive me for I have fibbed. At the end of the last post when I said I didn’t know how to build team chemistry. The post was plenty long and I needed to pull the plug.

One of the secrets to building team chemistry is the 90% prep principle. Any residential painter worth her weight will tell you painting is 90% prep. Come on, there’s some female house painters out there aren’t there? The 90% prep principle is why, when our crib needs painting, I write a check. Inadequate patience. But I digress.

The best elementary teachers apply the 90% prep principle at start of the school year. They figure, “Even if it takes around 10 days to build a sense of community and teach the rules and procedures, we’ll accomplish far more than we otherwise would over the remaining 170 days.” Visit a local elementary school at the beginning of the year and you’ll likely see some expert teachers calmly saying to their students, “Nope. Try again.” And then watch the students return to their seats and line up table-by-table for recess or lunch a second, third, and maybe fourth time. Equal parts firmness and kindness.

In the same spirit, the best leaders take time when their teams are first formed to build community and establish decision-making norms. Community building, of course, can take many forms, but the common thread is team members getting to know one another better. Horizontals embrace community building activities more than Verts. Very early on, agreed upon expectations and decision making processes are made explicit.

Savvy leaders know that maintaining team chemistry requires ongoing community building activities, whether shared meals, celebrations, or retreats. They also know decision-making norms need to be revisited on occasion. They know their team’s success depends upon members genuinely respecting one another.

Families, athletic teams, theater troupes, church councils, school faculty, government agencies, and multinational corporations that consciously build community and spell out decision-making norms enjoy greater espirit de corps, and experience far less in-fighting, complaining, and malaise. Consequently, they’re more productive.

There’s an alternative that lots of teams revert to, ignore community building and decision making norms and hope and pray the common work is engrossing enough that people get along just well enough, just long enough to finish the work. Like running on a balance beam on fire. Run fast enough and you might just get to the end without getting burned or falling off.

And now my friends I bring teamwork week to an end with some self-disclosure. I’m most often a Horizontal; however, not when travel planning with the GalPal. How can I put this so that she keeps taking trips with me? Her travel decision making process is a tad bit drawn out for even me. When having to decide on destinations, dates, modes of transpo, departure-arrival-return times, etc., I transform into a Vertical. When it comes to group decision-making, we’re all probably switch hitters of sorts.

Thanks, as always, for reading.