Abusive Teaching or Inspiring Leadership


An article posted by Harvard Business Review and written by Gill Corkindale addresses Gordon Brown’s leadership style. The title of the article is Gordon Brown’s Leadership, Passionate or Bullying?

For the average student in U.S. high schools, Gordon Brown may be known only as a political figure. He is Britain’s Prime Minister. However, he represents something that is found in almost every organization, including schools and some family structures.

In the article, Ms. Corkindale states “For many of us, there is a disturbing familiarity about these reports [of bullying behavior], which stir up memories of our own bullying bosses, teachers and colleagues. Unfortunately it is all too easy to visualize the disturbing picture of Mr. Brown as a leader prone to “volcanic eruptions of bad behavior,” outbursts of anger, black moods, permanent states of rage, and a boiling temper. And some of us will recognise the panic and mayhem in his office from our own experience, with stressed staff running around, lashing out at each other, and an inner circle divided and in flux.”

She raises the question: Do  the best leaders have some bullying tendencies?

Ms. Corkindale states the obvious when she says that bullying is unacceptable. Bullies are frightening, destructive and a drain on resources, time and energy. “I well recall the boss who had to be appeased constantly, whose moods changed like the weather, who regularly put staff under the spotlight or dressed them down in public, and who believed that all problems were caused by the incompetence of others. Such “leaders” demean people, lower morale, and create cultures of fear. Sadly, I have coached too many people who have had to work for such people over the years.”

In Mr. Brown’s case, elections can remove him from the privilege of leadership. In the case of teachers and school administrators, contracts may not be renewed. In the case of managers in an organization, I’ve seen many abusive managers be tolerated by upper management because they may generate short term results. I’ve also seen those same organizations fail.

Everyone is under pressure and occasionally events conspire to make us lose our temper. But that is different than creating a culture of fear, allowing emotions to consistently overcome us and disrespecting others. Then it becomes an abuse of power — and the leader remains one in name only.

For you students who have either seen abusive behavior in school or have yet to see it, it will happen – unfortunately. If the behavior is negatively effecting you, I strongly urge you to ask the person for a “closed door” meeting. In that meeting, tell the abusive person what they are doing and how it is effecting you. Tell them that you want to grow and learn but that you will not accept abusive treatment. Explain to them that the next time they treat you disrespectfully you will take it further. Do this with confidence. I promise you it will work to improve your situation and it will help that person be a better leader. If it doesn’t, the person will have created their own demise and will be removed from the organization.

Leadership is a privilege. Abuse of the privilege should always be dealt with directly and timely. Executive coaching is an effective tool for those that have potential and show a sincere desire for personal growth. Teachers and administrators are no different from executives and managers in an organization. Leadership inspires greatness in others. There is no evidence that a bully leader is effective at creating greatness in others or has created sustained success for an organization. A bully leader is effective at creating low self-esteem in others. Many times this is due to a need to boost their own self-esteem.

If you are a parent or a school board member who hears repeated stories of bully leadership, meet with that person one-on-one. Give them feedback that you are aware of the bad behavior and that it isn’t something you will accept going forward. On the flip side, students and parents need to be careful not to punish a good teacher that has standards of excellence and gives students a low grade for mediocrity. A great teacher knows what a student is capable of and has many approaches to inspire greatness in the student. Giving a low grade to someone who is putting half-effort into their work is extremely important. Giving a high grade for mediocre work because of fear of parental retaliation is the worst thing that can happen to the student. They will suffer, possibly for the rest of their life.

Inspiring greatness includes holding and demanding high standards. Allowing a student, parent or an employee to manipulate a leader’s right to demand greatness is just as wrong as a bullying leader. There is no room for either. A truly great leader inspires everyone from students or employees to parents and stakeholders.

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