Old Male Authority and Best Self Leadership



The great John Tenbusch, master teacher, philosopher and maybe part madman, would grit his teeth so hard you could hear the grinding from the last seat in room 214 of University of Detroit High School. Through clenched jaw he would growl, “Damn it _____ [insert terrified frosh’s name here]. I didn’t teach you that.”  He wanted us to be in intellectual lock-step with him. He was a fierce grammarian, herding thirty freshmen toward the land of Exquisite Literacy, and he did not want to lose a single sheep. He brought urgency and a soft felt eraser saturated with chalk dust that he’d hurl at the head of an unsuspecting student who’d dozed on an open Harbrace College Handbook. You would think he was training us to duck bullets in Viet Nam. It meant that much to him that we got it right. The Jesuits who ran the school knew full well that JT sometimes went nuts.  They liked it. Parents – certainly our dads – would have thought it was cool that he was so tough. They’d hope their son hadn’t been the kid falling asleep from the dry heat of of the clunking iron radiators, but they would laugh to learn their son had been thumped and found his hair white with chalk. “You deserved it,” they might say, “Go wash your hair and then wash my car.”

JT was one of many such men in my life. My Grandpa Domenico, who emigrated from Italy with his brother when they were 16 and 17 years old, would hit his fist on the card table so his ash tray bounced just a little, “Dammit, Deeny. Why you bid 27 on that lousy [pinochle] hand?” Dad who dreaded house repair would let a “son of a b-tch” loose in my direction when I – while pretending to be Mickey Lolich throwing fast balls against the side of our brick ranch – put an errant rubber ball through yet another storm window. And in college the vaunted philosophy Professor Dupre phoned my dorm room at 7:00 A.M. on a Friday to give me a tongue-lashing for my dereliction.  When I pointed out that he’d been virtually inaccessible for weeks he slammed the phone down on me.  Priests, coaches, bosses . . . it was routine for men to blow up at boys or other men.  For millennia, it was vital that men assert control.  Occasional over-use of authority was considered a small price to pay compared to disorder on a battlefield, in a house on fire, or when the crops or hunt were threatened by all elements.  JT, Domenico, Dad, Dupre were all playing out an ancient role of preserving culture and order, authority and respect – to keep us all together.

In my continual desire to learn and share learning, I invite you to share your personal input through a Comment or taking a brief survey.  Girls/women, I wonder if you felt you experienced these same irrational male explosions, or was this primarily a man-to-man thing (and please see the PS below)?  Men: Do you erupt in these ways, and/or fight to control this “natural” urge to assert your authority so as to “keep the trains running on time” and keep “order in the court?”

So, what have men like me learned from our male forebears?

1. Authority is always right – even when unreasonable or downright crazy!

2. Shut up and take your punishment.  Because, even if you didn’t deserve it this time, there were ten(s of) other times when you did.

3. Authorities, especially men, have the right to control their car, house, TV, classroom, court, operating room, cab, etc.  So, hang in there, boys; when you’re a man, you’ll have the same right.

Frankly, I wish we had a little more of #2. We are litigious and so victim-oriented as a society. We have forgotten that our kids need to be pushed sometimes, and so do we.  We take things so personally and take constructive criticism so poorly. We could stand to re-develop some resilience in our kids, staffs . . . and ourselves.  But here’s the larger point about old male ways and “best self leadership”:

Points 1 and 3 are utterly DYSFUNCTIONAL for 95% of the situations we’re in today.  Authority is so obviously not always right.  Great business cultures, governments, schools, teams, and even yes churches and families thrive with a healthy questioning of authority. Great organizations feature authority figures who work really hard to check their command-control, their territorial quality, their I-make-the-rules-around-here tendencies. The extreme responses to the Occupy movement underline the idiocy of the old ways: With patience, dialogue, and clarity we can have order in 21st century America without brutality.  And in the main stream, we men need to keep learning a new way of consistently earning respect rather than erratically demanding it.

My bottom line – especially for my male peers and me is this – there’s a JT, Domenico, Dad, Dupre – planted within all of us. How could there NOT be after all the models we’ve had?  Many, including the four I named were really awesome men, but they inherited a dark streak – some factory-equipped male wiring – that’s outlived much of its usefulness.  The real battle is not with those who steal my remote control or question my authority, but with my “inner dad” who feels he NEEDS to assert and reassert that control.  I’m learning to recognize it and let it go; maybe you are too, to

Lead with your best self,


p.s. A note to women readers:  I am enormously open to featuring a guest women’s RFL on how authority may characteristically play into the way women lead with their best self. I suspect it’s different. I’d love to hear how.