"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Bad Bosses

Mrs. Jones was a no-nonsense second-grade teacher.  She brooked no disruption in her classroom, put misbehaving children in the broom closet, and threatened repeat offenders. She took them by the shoulders, got so close that you could see the red streaks in her eyes, grimaced, and said with clenched teeth, “I’ll come upside yo’ head, boy”.

  Mrs. Trunchbull from Roald Dahl’s Matilda

My son had the option of taking her third grade class and re-upped. “How could you allow it?”, said concerned parents when they heard of our decision. “She is the worst teacher in the whole DC system. Do you have any idea how she treats children?”.  Yes, we said. Other people’s bad children.  My son wanted Mrs. Jones again because he said suffering through school was bad enough, and unnecessary disruptions just added to the torment.  With Randall in the closet, arithmetic went smoothly.

Today Mrs. Jones would be dunned out of teaching for abusive behavior.  Children are to be encouraged, praised, and supported through difficult periods.  There is no such thing as a bad child, the received wisdom goes, only one who has been misunderstood and ignored at home and who only needs a guiding hand to help him on the road to academic success.

There is no doubt that only some children are born bad – those irremediable trouble-makers whose internal wiring has gotten crossed or whose genes got mixed with the family reprobate a few generations back – but most come to school unprepared because of simpler reasons. The school from which Mrs. Jones got transferred was in the deepest part of the Anacostia ghetto – a sinkhole of crime, drugs, drive-by shootings, illegitimacy, and social indifference.  Kids in her second grade class never had a chance.  They came to school tired, hungry, and dispirited.  No matter how smart they might have been, they started their education behind the eight ball.  Judging from how Mrs. Jones handled the little white kids at the Jeffers School, she must have been a terror at P.S. 32; and certainly was the only thing standing between little DeShawn and juvenile detention.

The situation has only gotten worse in the inner city.  Not only do crime, drugs, and family dysfunction continue, but the liberal ethos of tolerance and inclusivity foisted on teachers has made their job intolerable. What is needed is a whole phalanx of Mrs. Joneses to occupy the Anacostia School District.

Nathan Lester was a classmate of my son’s in Mrs. Jones’ second grade.  He was a smart boy, but the son of two psychiatrists who, because of differing opinions on child-rearing, confused the boy to no end.  The mother took a Maslovian view of early childhood development, believing strongly in his ‘hierarchy of needs’; but because she thought her child was a genius, mature far beyond his years, and gifted with unusual potential, she rushed him to the top of the pyramid.  His ‘self-actualization’ was paramount. She felt that only he could discover his essentialness and that externally imposed discipline would be antithetical to his development.

The father was a Freudian who was concerned with his own sexuality and how it was projected onto his young son, and saw everything as an environmental hazard to sexual maturity.  He let Nathan shit wherever he felt like it, throw temper tantrums while guests were in the house, and eat like a pig at a trough.

When Mrs. Jones got ahold of Nathan Lester, he was little more than an enfant sauvage found wandering in Rock Creek Park after six years of being raised by wolves.  He spent more time in the broom closet than anyone else.  However, the Drs. Lester quickly got wind of Mrs. Jones’ ‘abusive’ behavior, and brought her before the principal.  Her attitude was outrageous and untenable, said Dr. Mrs. Lester.  Inappropriate, ignorant, and missing the opportunity of learning from a truly brilliant child.

The principal knew of the Lesters and their untamed son, and did something that would never be allowed today.  She secretly videotaped a few hours of Mrs. Jones’ classroom, and captured all Nathan’s ridiculous antics.  She taped him throwing erasers, spitting in the flower pot, knocking over chairs, ripping the crayon drawings of all the girls, and yelling abuse at Mrs. Jones.  The next time the Lesters came in for a conference, she played the tape for them, told them that without Mrs. Jones their son would be the in pediatric ward of St. Elizabeth’s, committed there herself.

Father Brophy was the head priest at St. Mary’s Church in New Brighton, Connecticut where I grew up, and he like Mrs. Jones had a bent for discipline.  He ran the parish like a gulag, insistent that wayward Catholics be disciplined into submission to the Holy Mother Church.  The nuns who ran the Sunday School were his enforcers.  They were intimidating enough without doing anything, dressed as they were in black medieval robes, their faces distorted by starched white blinders.  They entered the Sunday School room single-file, their rosary beads clacking, garments rustling, and their slippered feet gliding along the polished floor as if they were riding on a cushion of air.  They were scary.

They taught us the catechism, a book of holy admonitions, but they always went off-text to tell us stories of hellfire and damnation, how our souls were in danger of being stolen by the Devil.  The crackling logs of a winter fireplace were nothing compared to the roaring bonfires of Hell which burned without consuming.  At this point in the story Sister Mary Joseph always contorted her face as though the flames were licking up her legs, and when she returned from her reverie bent her face down close to one of us and made the threats personal.  “You, Robert Mitchell, will burn in Hell for all eternity, damned forever from the sight of God Almighty, suffering in a world with no day or night, just pain and tribulation”.  We could smell the talcum powder she had dusted on her face so that she could slip into her starched coif, and the sweet odor of chamomile on her breath.

We all sat upright and rigid through Sunday School.  There was always complete silence.  Not a rustle, not a cough.  No one smiled or even thought of talking.  Her discipline was complete.  Her intimidation was absolute.  We were scared for a week.

Most of us left the Church as soon as we figured out that you could.  We are all still scared of nuns, but you can hardly tell who they are these days since they have adopted informal street dress.  All that unremitting discipline resulted in exactly the opposite of what the nuns and Father Brophy had hoped for.  Instead of frightening us into compliance – afraid to offend Jesus Christ through bad thoughts, words, and deeds – all that psychological terrorism did was to turn us into early defectors.  We matured in the Sixties, and there were no freer spirits in those days than Catholics who had gone to Sunday School.

Being a good boss is not easy.  Most people will try to get away with as much as they can and need discipline to keep them in line; and most are unlikely to work productively unless they are encouraged, praised, and respected.  Unfortunately most bosses ignore the latter.  There is something about authority– whether in the schoolroom, on the pulpit, or in the office – which seems to give license to abuse.  I had always assumed that bad bosses had a lot of bad teachers and bad nuns in their background; and that they were simply taking out years of torture and repression out on those under them; but then there was Marge Dickens.  Margie, as she insisted on being called, was far worse than Sister Mary Joseph and had none of the real concern that lay behind the discipline of Mrs. Jones.  She was dismissive, arrogant, and humiliating; but, like the precinct cops who beat suspects with rolled newspapers, was smart enough not to leave bruises. As much as her underlings hated her, her supervisors loved her.

Luckily for her, the company’s business plan was based on an easy-come, easy-go personnel policy.  There were so many young, idealistic women ready to sign up for low-paying jobs to help the world’s poor, that if one left there were always five more ready to take her place.

Young women left Marge Dickens’ department faster than any other, but since her plantation always produced more cotton than any other, easily impressed 20-somethings were always willing to work.  They had all heard of her Simon Legree reputation, but were dazzled by her professional reputation and that of the company.

One of Margie’s tricks was to ask a minion to write a section of a proposal, usually a long and complicated one due in a few days time.  She knew it would take the new recruit hours to complete.  When, after a weekend of long hours, no sleep, and panicked struggle with the deadline, the assistant showed up in Marge’s office, she savaged what the poor girl had written.  None of the “Darlene, you have made a really great start” opening treacle. She tore the draft apart line by line.  “Non sequitur”, she would say sarcastically. “How did you ever come to this particular conclusion?”  Or, “At what second-rate college did you learn to ‘write’?”.

Whenever a member of senior management visited one of her staff meetings, Marge was all sweetness and light.  She worked the room like a practiced politician at a town meeting.  She engaged her staff, complimented them on their insights, and made self-deprecatory jokes.  No one on the fourth floor was any the wiser.  To them she was a champ.  Her bottom line was tops.

Eventually she was fired.  The outflow of young things far exceeded the intake, and none of those who left were quiet about her antebellum practices.  While one young voice might be ignored, a whole chorus of disaffected, angry, and abused women could not be.  The Executive Vice President felt he had to investigate.  The company was getting a bad reputation.  Not only was it already considered a body shop which had no use for thinkers and innovators, it was now becoming known as a brutal sweatshop.

Soon after her departure, word got around that Marge Dickens was unemployable.  Even in our short-term-driven American economy, no one wanted to take a chance on a deviate.

The best bosses I have ever had were remarkable for their ability to generate loyalty, enthusiasm, and respect without threats, intimidation, or intemperate discipline.  George Trevor was a genius. With only an eighth grade education he had worked himself up to the head of an important country program for a large international foreign assistance agency. Twenty-two of us who worked for George.  Bob Hopkins believed that the size of one’s frontal lobes determined intelligence, and chose his friends by the size of their foreheads; but he was a great port man.  Marv Peters bred Dobermans in his large house overlooking the Arabian Sea in Trivandrum.  He always smelled of dog, and few people ever visited him because his house was as littered as a kennel.  Yet he was an inventory genius, and kept track of sacks of donated wheat and milk powder with the precision and accuracy of an accountant. 

Lloyd Jobber was a Casanova who dressed in Italian silk suits, soft leather shoes, and wore elegant, handmade ties.  There were many women in the higher ranks of government in Communist West Bengal, and Lloyd was able to charm every one of them.  He got our programs through the tangles of the Indian bureaucracy faster than any of us by far.  Jack Martin was a drunk who played tennis every morning at the Breach Candy Club before settling in for a long day of gin fizzes.  A former teacher, he understood children regardless of culture and educational ethos, and was able to introduce modest reforms in the Tamil Nadu program that have lasted to this day.

George Trevor was able to take this independent-minded, unusual, and diverse group and make us into a team.  He did this through absolute loyalty and concern.  He would listen to any complaint however small. He could sense marital difficulties brewing and would use company funds to send a frustrated wife on a trip to Paris.  He would always take his boys’ side against accusatory government officials and risk his reputation and that of the company on this allegiance.  All of us loved and respected George in turn.  We would do anything for him.  Discipline was never an issue.

Mrs. Phillips was the director of a home for potentially delinquent boys who had been referred to St. Peter’s by the juvenile justice system of New York City.  The boys were between eight and eighteen years old, and they had come from the worst streets of the City.  They arrived at St. Pete’s unformed, unloved, and unable to negotiate their way in society.  They needed Mrs. Jones’ discipline and George Trevor’s encouragement.

I saw her stand up to angry, violent 17-year old adolescents and rein in the most unruly child.  She dealt with us – white Ivy Leaguers there for the summer as counselors – with understanding and order.  She knew how the volatile racial mix could turn ugly, and yet she appreciated our concern and affection.  Somehow, despite all expectations, St. Pete’s was a harmonious, socially integrated, and productive place. Mrs. Phillips was a genius.

I haven’t had enough bosses in my professional life to conclude much; but I think in my short institutional stints I have seen enough good and bad ones to give me some inkling into what makes them tick. Arrogance and frustration are usually behind the bad ones; and respect for independence behind the good.  Unfortunately many companies and government agencies promote staff on the basis of seniority or bottom-line efficiency, not on ability to manage; and once they get into positions of authority, they go off the rails.

I spent most of my professional life as a consultant, largely because I didn’t want to take the chance on getting a bad boss.  I liked being a Lone Ranger, arriving under suspicion, leaving to applause; and never, ever, having to put up with a jerk.


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