In praise of the liberal arts: Leadership training is fine, but more importantly, we need more educated leaders

(graphic courtesy of publicdomainvectors.org)

Lots of management degree programs, professional seminars, and personal coaching services offer instruction and guidance in leadership training and development. That’s all fine and good, but what we really need is the nurturing of better, wiser, more ethical leaders.

One way is to invite study, dialogue, and reflection grounded in the liberal arts: Yup, stuff like history, philosophy, psychology, theology (even for non-believers), sociology, art, political science, literature, anthropology, you name it. These academic disciplines are in decline in our colleges and universities, as higher ed institutions rush to market themselves as career builders whose graduates can “hit the ground running” in today’s fast-paced, tech-friendly workplaces.

Let’s first dispense with the silly imagery of hitting the ground running, which is advisable only if you’re a trained paratrooper in the military. Instead, let’s take a deeper dive into what kind of learning helps us to become more effective, thoughtful, and moral individuals participating in a complex society. The liberal arts equip us with knowledge, concepts, and modes of thinking helpful toward that end. They may also help to make us wiser and more empathetic.

Doubt my words? Just search “liberal arts and leadership,” and you’ll get plenty of endorsements.

Am I suggesting that we ignore teaching folks how to run an organization, invent software, or create something? Absolutely not. However, technical and management skills helpful towards being successful in a profession or vocation should be informed by core values and ethics, along with an understanding of our historical, societal, and individual development.

Nor does this mean that everyone should go or return to college and major in philosophy or political science, though I can think of worse things to do. There are plenty of ways to learn about the liberal arts. And, in fact, such a course of study may be more meaningful as one gets older. Life experience can deeply inform our appreciation of the liberal arts, and vice versa.

If, like me, you’re an adult who prefers to learn independently, then here are some possible starting places, in no particular order. Longtime readers of this blog may recognize some of them:

  • Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006), edited by Mark R. Schwehn and Dorothy C. Bass, is an anthology of readings in the liberal arts tradition, designed for undergraduates, and with a special emphasis on the question of vocation. I guarantee that many of the selections carry greater resonance with adults who have been around the block a few times than with the typical 19-year-old.
  • The works of Charles D. Hayes, a homegrown philosopher and former oilman, Texas police officer, and Marine, are a tribute to the power of liberal arts learning. You can discover his books by going to this link. For starters, I especially recommend two of his earlier books, The Rapture of Maturity: A Legacy of Lifelong Learning (2004) (non-fiction), and Portals in a Northern Sky (2003) (fiction).
  • Two of the leading online continuing education providers, Coursera (link here) and EdX (link here), offer numerous liberal arts courses taught by professors from around the world, either free or for a nominal course fee.
  • The Great Courses (link here) offers lectures on many topics by leading professors, in multiple formats, including a subscription streaming service that provides access to hundreds of courses for a fraction of what you’d pay to own them.
  • Open Culture (link here) is a great portal for discovering free learning resources, including plenty in the liberal arts.
  • Literary Hub (link here) is an excellent site for learning about books and culture, especially modern literature.
  • Especially if you’re on a tight budget (and even if you’re not), check out your public library. You’ll find books, periodicals, films, and other resources galore, all for free.

These resources just scratch the surface. If you want to enrich your worldview and become a better leader by studying the liberal arts, then a world of learning awaits you.

Can abused workers turn out to be great bosses? (Some good news here)

Let’s start the New Year with some good news. A study led by University of Central Florida researchers suggests that workers who have been subjected to workplace bullying and abuse are more likely to treat subordinates with decency when they are elevated to managerial positions. Science Daily reports:

A new University of Central Florida study suggests abuse and mistreatment by those at the top of an organization do not necessarily lead to abusive behavior by lower-level leaders. When offered leadership opportunities, prior victims of workplace abuse are more likely to treat their own subordinates better by learning from the bad behavior of their bosses.

UCF College of Business professors Shannon Taylor and Robert Folger, in collaboration with researchers at the University of Texas at El Paso, Suffolk University and Singapore Management University, recently published their findings in the Journal of Applied Psychology.

“Some employees who are abused by their bosses resolve not to repeat that pattern with their own subordinates and become exceptional leaders of their teams,” Taylor said. “Our study sheds light on a silver lining of sorts for people who are subjected to abuse at work. Some managers who experience this abuse can reframe their experience so it doesn’t reflect their behavior and actually makes them better leaders.”

This study is welcomed news. Those who research and analyze interpersonal abuse in any context are familiar with the unfortunate and sometimes tragic dynamic of the abused becoming the abusers. We see it in workplace, spousal and intimate partner, and parental relationships. Abuse can beget abuse; it can create a vicious cycle.

But we’ve all seen instances where, for example, people who suffered abuse as children became very good parents and partners. The UCF study suggests that this positive dynamic can occur in the workplace as well. Abused workers can channel their empathy and understanding of their own experiences into a desire to be different when they get a chance to serve in a leadership or managerial capacity. In all such instances, the cycle of abuse is stopped cold.

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Hat tip: Society for Occupational Health Psychology

The Trump effect on productivity (including mine)

I read the news today, oh boy

My confession: I am so appalled and alarmed by Donald Trump that he has had a negative impact on my productivity. It positively galls me to admit that this man has had that kind of influence on me for over two years.

Yesterday was a prime example. The momentous story that Trump chose to credit Russian president Vladimir Putin’s insistence that Russia did not interfere with the 2016 U.S. election, while largely dismissing the opposite findings of American law enforcement and intelligence agencies, left me stunned. It also meant that a chunk of my day was lost to reading news analyses online.

When it comes to Trump and my productivity, perhaps it doesn’t help that for nearly 20 years, I’ve steeped myself in research and commentary about bullying, dishonesty, bigotry, and abuses of power, especially in work settings. Some readers disagree with my assessment of Trump — every time I post negatively about him, I lose a few subscribers — but during the 30-plus years that I’ve been aware of him, I have yet to see any real evidence of empathy or kindness from the man. He is the consummate workplace bully and dishonest boss, and he is a master of gaslighting behaviors.

However, it’s not only a reaction to a certain personality type that pushes my buttons. I am alarmed by what I see transpiring on the national and international stages in terms of public policy. And I am deeply concerned that Trump is displaying a form of so-called leadership that others are emulating. He has been president for less than two years, yet I believe it will take at least a decade for us to recover from this.

Direct hit

Sometimes the Trump effect on my productivity has been about as direct as it gets, namely, on the very work I do concerning workplace bullying, mobbing, and abuse.

Two summers ago, when Maureen Duffy and I were working on our co-edited book set, Workplace Bullying and Mobbing in the United States, the unfolding presidential campaign was so distressing and distracting that I sometimes had trouble staying focused on the project. (How ironic is that!?)

In January 2017, I was still so dazed and reeling from the November election that it took me by surprise that it was time to reintroduce the anti-bullying Healthy Workplace Bill in the new session of the Massachusetts legislature. I did manage to pull myself out of my numbed state, but I was shaken that the election had such a profound impact on my psyche. (That won’t happen again.)

What to do?

Trump does what other deeply narcissistic, abusive types do so well. He sucks up our energy and attention in disproportionate amounts.

For those of us so affected, what are we to do? For starters, we need to be consciously aware of this impact. It means repeatedly reminding ourselves that many other important matters deserve our attention.

It can also mean taking the events of these times and turning them into lessons on how to change things for the better. For example, I’ll soon be sharing a draft of a law journal article that discusses how the Trump Administration’s policies and practices on immigration and health care have had especially traumatic effects on those directly affected by them. My longer range solution is that therapeutic jurisprudence — a school of philosophy and practice that embraces human dignity and psychologically healthy outcomes in the law — should be a framing perspective for making public policy.

Okay, I’m going to take a deep breath and publish this post. Then it’s back to other tasks, hopefully with fewer newsworthy distractions than yesterday. After all, bullies like it when others merely keep reacting to them. To advance human dignity in the face of contrary forces, we need to create our own agendas and pursue them.

In praise of thoughtful dissenters

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In a 1954 broadcast critical of red-baiting U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, celebrated journalist Edward R. Murrow urged upon his listeners that “We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.” Given today’s often poisonous political and social atmosphere, buttressed by bad leaders fueling these dynamics, Murrow’s words continue to ring very true.

And if you’re looking for some contemporary commentary about the importance of dissent in our institutions, workplaces, and civic life, then I’m pleased to recommend a new title by social psychologist Charlan Nemeth (UC-Berkeley), In Defense of Troublemakers: The Power of Dissent in Life and Business (2018). In her book, Dr. Nemeth poses a challenge to leaders and institutions that drive us toward consensus, without leaving room for thoughtful dissent and questioning. Here’s a description, drawn from her website:

Good decision making requires divergent thinking, an unbiased search for information on all sides of the issue, a consideration of multiple alternatives, the weighing of the cons as well as the pros of any given position etc. Regardless of good intentions or even education and training, we don’t do this. We are subject to biases and most social processes conspire to narrow the range of considerations. Consensus and the seeking of it are culprits, not because we follow the consensus right or wrong, but because we think about the issue from that perspective.

By contrast, dissent opens the mind and actually stimulates divergent thinking. It not only challenges and breaks the hold of the majority, it stimulates the information search and consideration of alternatives; it widens the strategies used in problem solving and increases the originality of thought. This is true even when the dissenter is wrong. It is true even when we vigorously dislike the dissenter and her ideas.

The take-home of this book is two-fold. There are perils in consensus and there is value in dissent.

Okay, I hear you: Isn’t reaching consensus a good thing? Don’t we all want to “get to ‘yes'”?, to paraphrase the title of a popular conflict resolution book. Obviously decisions have to be made, for in their absence, things can grind to a halt. Nemeth is not advocating for such outcomes or calling for people to be knee-jerk naysayers. Instead, she’s saying that when decisions result from weighing differences of opinion, the outcomes are often better.

There are lessons in this book for everyone. For example, when I’m in leadership roles or in the classroom, I can be welcoming of differing points of view. However, when I feel very strongly that I’m right, I can get impatient, especially when I perceive that other comments are not well reasoned. Nemeth understands that dissenting opinions — even ultimately erroneous ones — can slow down the process, but she urges their importance nevertheless.

Believe me, I’ve been in academic workplaces long enough to see the damage wrought by marginalizing and even squelching dissenting voices. Organizations that do not encourage genuine input often pay for their insularity. Sadly, their leaders rarely comprehend or admit those costs, instead preferring to bumble along with a top-down approach. Inclusive leadership, bolstered by the confidence to encourage thoughtful dissent, is the better way to go.

Academic institutions, abuse allegations, and organizational ethics

Writing for Inside Higher Ed, Greg Toppo asks why colleges and universities continue to deal with significant cases of sexual abuse and related mistreatment despite well-publicized, recent stories that should’ve served as cautionary tales:

When horrific, large-scale cases of sexual abuse emerged at Pennsylvania State University in 2011 and more recently at Michigan State University, higher education leaders expressed shock and vowed that such abuses would never happen again.

Then last month, it happened again. The Los Angeles Times reported on a University of Southern California gynecologist accused of decades of “serial misconduct” at a student health clinic, accusations now being investigated by police.

In each of the abuse cases, critics say key leaders failed to act on abuse reports until it was too late and dozens or even hundreds of victims came forward. How could the complaints fall through the cracks?

In several recent cases, presidents who mishandled abuse cases made one key error, said Susan Resneck Pierce, president emerita of the University of Puget Sound, who now serves as a consultant to presidents and trustees. She said they hadn’t created a campus culture in which it was expected that they’d be informed of allegations of inappropriate behavior.

The full piece is definitely worth reading. It incorporates comparative perspectives that reach outside of academe, including organizations such as the U.S. Navy and Starbucks. The article rightly includes a lot about organizational cultures and hierarchies.

For what it’s worth, here are some of my observations about the world of higher education that pertain to the ability of colleges and universities to prevent abuse and respond to it, including sexual harassment and assault, bullying, and other forms of mistreatment:

First, don’t presume that because someone is a university president, provost, or dean, that they got there because of outstanding leadership abilities and a strong sense of ethics and social responsibility. True, some college leaders are exemplars of these positive qualities. A good number of others fall well short of the mark. The higher education sector is no different than any other in terms of how people climb up the slippery pole, where at the top you find widely varying levels of leadership ability, integrity, and moral courage.

Second, don’t automatically put university boards of trustees on pedestals. Some boards are smart, inclusive, and effective; others not so. The latter can be easily susceptible to insular decision making, groupthink, and dismissive disregard of concerns expressed by rank-and-file stakeholders — especially if individual board members come from organizations that are built on top-down hierarchies.

Third, keep in mind that the constant fear of bad publicity — and accompanying effects on reputation and rankings, student recruitment, and alumni/ae fundraising — can yield different leadership responses. Some higher ed leaders will opt to take the high road, by establishing inclusive organizational cultures, acting preventively toward interpersonal abuse on campus, and responding promptly and fairly when concrete reports arise. Less admirable leaders may choose to take the low road, by pretending that problems don’t exist, sweeping reports of mistreatment under the rug, and retaliating against whistleblowers.

Are some companies starting to understand the costs of bullying bosses?

In a piece for Bloomberg, Matthew Townsend and Esme E. Deprez dig beneath media reports of sexual harassment and sex discrimination at Nike to find the presence of bullying behaviors:

After Nike Inc. ousted a handful of male executives for behavior issues over the past few months, some media reports tied the departures to the #MeToo movement and its revelations of sexual harassment and assault. Interviews with more than a dozen former Nike employees, including senior executives, however, paint a picture of a workplace contaminated by a different behavior: corporate bullying. The workers say the sneaker giant could be a bruising place for both men and women, and that females did bullying, too.

I was interviewed for the piece and suggested that maybe some companies are starting to get it:

“Some companies are realizing that a bullying boss isn’t the best way to manage a company,” says David Yamada, a professor at Suffolk University Law School in Boston who’s authored antibullying legislation. “Maybe we’re starting to see a tipping point.”

Gary Namie of the Workplace Bullying Institute “says one reason some companies have long tolerated or even encouraged such behavior is that many American managers believe the workplace is by nature rough around the edges.” This assumption pits worker against worker in a “‘zero-sum, competitive work environment where people feel they need to obliterate their competitors.'”

Workplace bullying and sexual harassment

The emergence of the #MeToo movement has drawn long overdue attention to sexual harassment and assault. I pointed out the ongoing links between sexual harassment and workplace bullying:

When executives feel entitled or untouchable, that often leads to bullying and then to other inappropriate behavior, Yamada says. In many of the workplace environments that resulted in some of the high-profile #MeToo moments, such as that at Weinstein Co., an “undercurrent” of bullying created a belief that mistreatment would go unpunished, he says. “It’s that bullying atmosphere that helps to enable and empower sexual harassment.”

These connections have been made repeatedly during the nascent history of the #MeToo movement. In an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, media professor David Lieberman stated that if we want to end sexual harassment, then we need to end workplace bullying:

But legislators can do more to address the problem. They can make workplace bullying illegal. Too many corporate leaders find it expedient to look the other way when bosses — especially ones they deem indispensable — systematically intimidate and humiliate underlings. Bullies who believe that their whims matter more than other people’s dignity often don’t see why their sexual impulses shouldn’t be just as indulged.

Here in Boston, noted public radio personality Tom Ashbrook was terminated from his job after initial complaints about sexual harassment led to a deeper inquiry about bullying behaviors. In a February post, I wrote:

Workplace bullying, not sexual harassment, prompted this week’s termination of popular Boston public radio program host Tom Ashbrook by his employer, Boston University, which owns the WBUR-FM radio station.

. . . In December, sexual harassment allegations against Ashbrook surfaced publicly, and soon it became evident that bullying-type behaviors were also part of the alleged misconduct.

Absence of legal protections

The Bloomberg article devotes considerable attention to the absence of legal protections for bullied workers, and, correspondingly, the lack of legal incentives for employers to address these behaviors:

One reason few companies have specific antibullying policies is that there aren’t federal or state laws in the U.S. outlawing the behavior, which makes America a laggard when compared with Western Europe, Canada, and Australia.

A lack of legal protections greatly reduces the possibility of liability for employers. It’s difficult to bring a lawsuit based on bullying, and businesses have worked to keep it that way. . . . If there were antibullying laws, companies would be liable and do more to deter the practice, according to Namie. “It’s the only form of abuse that hasn’t been addressed by law,” he says.

Nevertheless, as Townsend and Deprez point out, Nike is among the companies that have an anti-harassment policy covering bullying behaviors. It’s a stark reminder that policies alone are not enough. Without legal protections and organizational commitments to workplaces that embrace worker dignity as a core value and practice, bullying, mobbing, and abuse at work will continue to flourish.

Bernard Law: A defining legacy of enabling widespread abuse

Here in Boston, holiday celebrations and observations have been harshly interrupted by news of the death of Cardinal Bernard Law, whose long-time leadership of the Archdiocese of Boston was defined by widespread cover-ups of sexual abuse of children committed by priests. As reported by Mark Feeney for the Boston Globe:

Cardinal Bernard F. Law, whose 19-year tenure as head of the Archdiocese of Boston ended in his resignation after it was revealed he had failed to remove sexually abusive priests from the ministry, setting off a scandal that reached around the world, died Tuesday. He was 86.

…The abuse scandal was “the greatest tragedy to befall children — ever” in the Commonwealth, the attorney general’s office said in 2003, and “as archbishop, and therefore chief executive of the archdiocese, Cardinal Bernard Law bears ultimate responsibility for the tragic treatment of children that occurred during his tenure. But by no means does he bear sole responsibility.”

Not surprisingly, Law’s death has reopened wounds (if they were healed at all) of many of the victims and their families. Especially due to Boston’s large Catholic population, the priest sexual abuse scandal is one of the most tragic and painful events in the city’s history.

On Wednesday, Globe columnist Kevin Cullen pulled no punches in describing Law’s true legacy:

Bernie Law — and that’s what I’ll call him, because he was no more special than you or I — was one of the greatest enablers of sexual abuse in the history of the world.

…And that’s how Bernie Law should be remembered. If only because it will serve as a grievous warning to others who may try to shroud themselves in good works and think their legacy will survive their complicity with nothing short of evil.

…Bernie Law presided over one of the worst networks of sexual abusers ever assembled. Thousands of children were raped and molested on his watch. Some of them killed themselves. Some were dead, in their souls, from the moment they were inappropriately touched by a priest. He sent the priests who raped and molested on to other parishes to do more of what they did, rather than call scandal to his church.

Bernard Law’s critical role in covering up the abuse and protecting both the archdiocese and the child predators on its payroll continues to raise profound moral and ethical questions about the social responsibilities of institutional leaders. By enabling, supporting, and protecting dozens of sexual abusers, with full knowledge of their behaviors, I posit that he was even more culpable than the individual predators. As such, his enormous failings remind us that interpersonal abuse within institutions rarely occurs in a vacuum. It is often made possible by organizational cultures stoked by those at the top.

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Related post

Lessons from “Spotlight” for combating interpersonal abuse (2017)

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