Have you ever done a team building outing before? If you have, you might have done something like a trust fall, where you fall backwards into the waiting arms of your team mates, trusting that they won’t drop you like a hot rock.
When I was still in college I went to a team building outing with a group of engineering students. One of our challenges was to work with a colleague to get across a set of low ropes. The catch? The ropes get farther apart, so you have to push against each other as you go. The first six sets of students failed, and then it was my turn.
Instead of the whole “talk with each other” method previous groups had tried, I instead told my partner to simply do exactly what I told him to do. I’d say “step,” and he and I moved one foot. Then I said “together,” and we moved the other foot. We blew through the course without a problem.
Lesson learned here: sometimes it’s just easier if one person is calling the shots.
At least, that’s the lesson I learned. Apparently, this leadership concept is called “white swagger,” at least if you’re Professor Taylor.
In her article at The Star, she experimented for a few weeks by imitating Coach Taylor of Friday Night Lights. For example:
When students asked for alternatives to the assignment, I swallowed, paused, and said, “Not gonna happen.” They packed up and got the work done as I asked. I met a graduate student who was dragging her feet on her dissertation with, “Do you have what it takes? Then just do it.” She looked dumbfounded but turned a chapter in shortly thereafter. In a faculty meeting, a colleague ventured complex curriculum revision that I would normally have spoken at length against based on my extensive experience as a former associate chair. Instead I let people cast about with questions and concerns and then said, trying not to laugh at its simplicity, “We’re not gonna do it.” The subject was dropped.
She seems surprised. I’m not. But later on, she starts to draw parallels with the Kavanaugh confirmation and with white privilege in general, and that’s where she misses two key points.
First, anyone can have swagger. She just proved it: a 5 foot 2 woman, her swagger made students get in line, prevented arguments over curriculum revisions, and prevented whining by her kids about dinner at home. This swagger had nothing to do with being white. People in general, across all races, respond positively to confidence. I have women in the Navy that I would gladly fight under, and other men I’d hesitate to do the same. It’s confidence, coupled with a decent track record of being right, that matters.
Second, the “white male southern swagger” is NOT always effective. For example, if you’re brainstorming with colleagues, you don’t immediately dismiss ideas. If a meeting has hot tempers, you crack jokes and lighten the mood. There plenty of times where the “my way or else” method doesn’t work, and that’s because it isn’t supposed to be a way of living, but rather a tool in your leadership toolbox!
You break out the “swagger” when you don’t need conversation. What my kids think about doing their chores, or whether they’ve had enough tablet time, is completely irrelevant. It’s my opinion that counts, so my wife and I dictate terms. Professor Taylor is right, it takes less energy to be a dictator. Side note: if parenting is wearing you out, try this strategy. You don’t have to negotiate with your kids on all things.
But on the flip side, I don’t always do this. I solicit my children’s opinions on plenty of things. We sometimes brainstorm on how to sequence the days activities. My kids come up with creative plans that we try out. When I don’t have to have it my way, I give the latitude to try it.
BTW, we sometimes call this mentorship. When we give up some control and let a subordinate (or child) try something, it teaches them. Professor Taylor had this throughout her career, although maybe she didn’t realize it. Every time a professor cracked down and made her turn in assignments, she learned life lessons about time management. Sadly, every time she provides alternatives to assignments, she may be depriving her own students of those same lessons.
Swagger, negotiating, soliciting opinions, cracking jokes, even taking time to drink beer with friends, these are all tools in a leader’s box to help get things done. For all her ranting, Professor Taylor’s experiment proved that these tools cross gender lines, and I have seen them cross racial lines as well. They are inherently human. Just like trying to use only a hammer to build a house (newsflash: it won’t look good), you should use the best tools in your bag to tackle problems, and should be always looking to get new tools. Because seriously, who wants to tackle life with a mostly empty tool bag?
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