Monday, October 10, 2016

Leadership Training

When my parents used to teach us about good manners, particularly table manners, they would say, "Would you do that if you were eating dinner at the White House?"

Of course, we would always say either, "But we're not eating at the White House!" or "We won't be invited to the White House, and if we are, we'll change."

My parents would always say, "You never know.  You could be invited to eat at the White House, and at that point, it will be too late to practice"--or a variation.

In short, we were trained that we should always behave as if we were eating at the highest table in the land.  That way, if invited, we would be ready. 

In some ways, it's a variation of the question "What would Jesus do?"  If we want to know how to behave, we need to hold ourselves to the highest standards.   Eventually, we don't even need to think about it.  We behave ourselves into the person we want to be.

 So far, I haven't been invited to eat at the White House, but I am glad to have been brought up this way.  If I had a child to raise, I'd use a similar approach, but I'd also train my child to believe that he or she might be running for president some day, and to plan accordingly.

It's not enough to always assume that the microphones will be hot or that the cameras will be running.  The problem with Donald Trump is that 10 years ago, clearly, he didn't want to be president.  Actually, the problem is larger than that:  a man who abuses power in all sorts of ways does not have the character that I want in a president.

I confess that I didn't watch the debate.  I know of artists and poets who planned to make art instead of watching the debate.  I have Facebook friends who were enjoying fellowship with friends instead of watching the debate.  I went to bed early for a grown-up, as I often do on school nights.

Once I would have made my students watch the debate and analyze it in terms of rhetorical devices.  But these days, I'd have a different writing prompt, one that's worked well in the past.  I would ask them to imagine that they find themselves in charge of the country.  What would they do first?

I've always told my students that they should plan what they would do in leadership positions, because they may very well find themselves there some day, and it might be sooner than they think. I tell them about Nelson Mandela, and that the reason that he was prepared to be president of South Africa was that he spent all that time in jail (more years than most of my students have been alive) planning for what he would do if he took over the country. He didn't nurse anger or bitterness. No, he planned, along with his compatriots, who were jailed with them.

Then I give them a copy of an interview (in the fabulous book We Owe You Nothing: Punk Planet: The Collected Interviews) with Jello Biafra which has this challenge: "It's time to start thinking, 'What do I do if I suddenly find myself in charge?'" (page 46 of the first edition). Many of my students find this idea to be a wonderful writing prompt, even as they're doubtful that they would ever be allowed to be in charge of a national government.

But we all know that they might be--and if not a national government, a local one or a school board member or a church council member or in charge of a department.  It's an interesting, and fruitful, way of thinking about leadership.

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