leadership: Jesus isn't Chuck Norris

I lead more when I lead less

It's December twenty-fifth. A few folks remind me that it isn't the birthday of Jesus.  Any historian with open eyes can tell you that. It's the Winter Solstice; a time when the tilt seems to wane so much that we believe, on a very visceral level, that all is broken and dying.  Even here in the desert, I can see my breath in front of my face, as though the earth herself was pulling the life out of me.  It's a time when every culture grasps for its mythology, searching for answers, thinking about death.

I believe in Jesus.  It's the story I search in my attempt to make sense out of the universe.  I spent two years reading sacred books and critical histories until I believed I had made a rational decision. But I'd be a fool to pretend that my belief isn't at least to some extent a product of my geography.  In another age in another continent, I'd be celebrating the story of Isis or Odin or reading a story out of the Popul Vuh and I'm sure I'd have a litany of reasons to believe those stories, too.

I believe the Jesus story was meant for everyone.  The magi  (I'm guessing there were more than three) never saw the baby, but pieced together the God-with-us story through the stars. I don't buy into Astrology, but then again I live in a place where the light pollution has made the heavens seem pretty sparse and manageable. Give me a clear night in a quiet town, though, and I'm overwhelmed by the mystery. Perhaps the superstitious ones are not those who number the stars, but rather those who take the story and turn it into a “scene” for a front yard. And the Word became [inflatable] flesh and dwelt among us. I guess God-with-us can fit into the suburbs, too.

The outcasts got it. (So did a few of the religious folk. I need to remember that on cynical days.) I'm guessing the shepherds probably hoped for someone a little more political.  Or not.  But they sensed that the baby was on the side of the poor. I wonder how much doubt they had and how much faith they had and I wonder if they were ever told the lie that doubt is the opposite of faith.

I'm holding Brenna this morning.  She smiles at me. I raise my eyebrows and she raises hers.  I open my mouth and she makes a gurgling sound.  I still think she's a miracle.  I know the science of it, but I'm under no illusion that I was the one who created her.  And I'm still convinced that most atheists become at least a little agnostic when they hold a baby.  It's not hard to see God in a child.

Books and poems and narratives are all powerful.  Speeches can mobilize a crowd.  Songs can speak to the soul. But I'm convinced that nonverbal communication is still more powerful.  When someone dies and the solstice story feels too powerful, a hug will always win out over Shakespeare. God entered the world in silence. The words he chose were a warm embrace. A humble gesture.

*     *     *

Brad once told me that every leader can get into a trap of hoping for better followers. “The best advice I can give you is to love those who are there. As long as you feel entitled to a better behaved group, the people you lead will resent you.”

I can wish for deeper thinkers or better artists or kids who say please and thank you all the time. I can even try my hardest to turn my students into a mythical prototype of what a good student should be. But it will always fail unless I learn how to lead by serving.

“Servant leadership is cliché nowadays. People use it to justify customer service techniques. But to really serve is hard. It requires you to say things that sometimes sound harsh because you care enough about a person to risk being liked.” Brad reminds me one time that the best teacher of all time said that there is a time to wander away from those who have it all together and chase after the lamb that wandered away rather than wishing for a better group.

Doyle uses pastoral metaphors. Even though he teaches high school science, I am struck by the spiritual connotation when he calls students his lambs. Pastoral metaphors are hard for me, because a shepherd metaphor can feel lonely and confusing. It requires me to walk this paradox of stepping in and stepping out, of leading individuals and groups and half the time I don't know what I'm doing. It's the cave again and the light can flicker out to a near pitch-black.

Shepherds don’t have handbooks with fifty-five rules for leading the perfect classroom. But shepherds got the whole God-with-us story.

*     *     *

I realize that for awhile, the church sort-of emasculated Jesus. I mean, don't get me wrong, on the cross he had some rock hard washboard abs and all. It's just the version of God was a man of many cardigans - a Midwestern type who keeps everybody on a chore chart and uses make-believe words in replace of cussing. Think Ned Flanders meets Dan Fogelberg.

Then, with books like Wild at Heart, we ended up with a more masculine Christ, the Jesus of fist bumps and chest-pounding. People would watch Braveheart and think, "I bet Jesus could go out and kick some ass." It was nice at first, because at least this version of Jesus had a pair of balls. Plus, it gave us permission to play violent video games and get tattoos and play with paint ball guns at a later age in life. So, here's the rub. Jesus isn't Chuck Norris. He spoke harsh words, but he only once walked around kicking some ass. At times, he cried. He gave hugs to hookers. He spoke poetically in metaphor. In other words, he wasn't a prototype, but instead demonstrated a whole range of emotions.

I can't picture Chuck Norris letting a friend recline on his shoulder or embracing a woman caught in adultery and for what it's worth, when I die, I'm hoping I'm embraced with open arms rather than a roundhouse kick to the face. I’m thinking my students might need a few less roundhouse kicks to the face as well.

*     *     *
So, I’m thinking about the whole shattered glass concept and the fact that my teaching career doesn’t fit well into a Sports Center narrative. I’m thinking that maybe I’m not much of a leader. Maybe I’m not fit to move a group of kids into deeper thought about life. I’m thinking that bagging groceries was at least predictable and easy and I left each day feeling that I knew what I was doing.

Why, aside from my sheer power and size and authority, should a student bother to listen to me? I’m thinking that maybe I’m not entitled to respect. Maybe I'm not. Maybe “entitled” isn't the right term. I earn it, not by title, but by showing that I care. For all the talk of “assertive discipline,” I’m wondering if the best way to lead is by serving, if maybe a person doesn't “command respect” so much as he or she inspires it.

Javi reminds me that this can all start to sound school-marmy and saccharine, like the goal is to be Ned Flanders. He reminds me that, if I want to use the Jesus Model (and not that I should be making a model out of him) I have to remember the harsh words and the day he stormed the temple and the fact that people wanted to kill him. He knew, at times, that the best way to serve people was to provoke them.

Chuck Norris always wins and his roundhouse kicks nearly always end with a smile and a thumbs-up. But sacrifice makes people edgy, like they owe you something. It’s why the students of Jesus protested when he tried to wash their feet. It denies the social contract. It’s upside-down and being upside down can make people nervous.

*     *     *
I notice some graffiti on one of my chairs and it feels like a punch in the gut. After going graffiti-free for over two years, I see her name in bright silver. At this point, I have a few options. In the past, I would have written a referral in order to start the documentation. Lay down the law or look like a softy. Very Chuck Norris of me.

I've shifted my approach over the years. Deep within, I believe we are all beautiful, like stained glass windows. Science can tell me the structures and systems and metallic wires that keep us together and art and poetry and stories can instruct me on the shades of colorful glass. But I also believe that our windows are broken, completely broken and that every one of us tries our hardest to put masking tape to hold each shard in place – and sometimes it shatters when we throw plates.

I believe in justice, but I don't confuse natural consequences with imposed punishments. I believe that people want to be known, not changed. I believe that teachers need to lead with humility, that even on my best day, I might yell and that might mean I apologize and when a student sees my humanity a relationship is restored. I believe that we make our own decisions, but we are also a product of our environment.

So, I pull her aside and tell her that I know about the tagging and yet I have no intention of getting her in trouble. She starts out a little defensive and actually blows up. Humility can offend. I tell her that she's not in trouble, that I haven't written a referral and that I'm still concerned, because some day she'll run into someone who won't give her a last shot. I walk the tight rope of mercy and justice and I end with, "I felt hurt when I saw tagging on our classroom chairs. I do my best to make this place beautiful. So, I'm going to use my prep time today to scrub off the tagging. Do you want to come in and help?"

The situation isn’t pretty, but it’s honest and she reluctantly agrees to rectify the mess she created. We talk for awhile while we scrub off the tagging. We mention the direction she’s running and where it’s leading and she tells me openly that she doesn’t think much about consequences and that she figured she’d just get a referral and have a few days off for awhile. It’s open and honest and in the end she thanks me for helping her clean up a mess.

Other times, it’s the students who show me mercy on my worst days.

On some level, I want to fly above others, well-respected and adored.  I want to be Chuck Norris at the white board. Call me Icarus.  I slip on the high-tech wings, develop an image of myself and fly above others with a tone of sarcasm and a sense of intellectual superiority.  I'm a super-teacher, because I don't make photo copy packets and kids swarm to me when I'm out on duty and kids want to be in my class and . . .

I made a kid cry today.  I mocked him for falling over in his chair.  When he said it was an accident, I demonstrated the proper way to sit and even pointed out that my chair had wheels.  He responded with, "Why do you have to pick on me?  Can't you see I'm already embarrassed?"  Then he cried.  I apologized. He'll learn with a limp for awhile and it's my fault.

I hate my anger and my cynicism.  I realize they are from the same Icarus impulse to be above, to attain perfection, to be noticed and recognized.  I become Icarus when I feel entitled. The scary part is that I see the behaviors and they look really impressive and I start to think that I’m leading, when in fact, I am rushing toward the sky, with my Elmer’s glued cheap feathered wings.

But I always hit a place where I lose it.  I fall.  I crash.  I'm weak.  Now I'm the one limping.  As much as I hate my anger, it's one of many things that can ground an Icarus before he slams into the sun. When I apologize to the second kid, his demeanor changes. What if the best I can do as a teacher is not to attain excellence but to limp with the kids, forgiving and begging, hoping and questioning all along the way?  I realize this isn't exactly fodder for Teacher of the Year nominations, but for what it's worth, I still think the best thing to do with Icarus is to ground him.

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