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.

  • The lesson that I have learned from having a father who would erupt to gain attention when something went wrong, is to hold back my emotional reaction to those outbursts from others to gain control.

    A better way to gain “favorable attention” is to tell a story. Positive stories are extremely important for inspiring interest that can create a desire to buy into what you propose to others.

    To ‘sell’ your concept, product or service, you must pass the ACID test:

    A. Gain favorable Attention,

    C. Inspire Confidence,

    I. Build Interest to where

    D. Desire surfaces.

    When ‘desire’ surfaces, the other person takes the lead in the conversation while you begin to provide the evidence necessary to justify your proposal.

    Appeal to both heart and mind to gain an enthusiastic buy-in. Effective leaders establish an emotional connection.

    The task isn’t to impose your will on others; it’s to enable participants to see the possibilities and come to their own conclusions, based on the evidence presented in your positive stories. These stories allow your audience to see the world for themselves, view their relationships in a new way and make progress in implementing mutual goals.

  • Dan, You use terms such as “went nuts” and “blow up.” I certainly experienced some of what could have been characterized similarly if the words were taken out of context…”John D ., Is your leg broken? Or, what the devil ails ya’?” of “G damn it!” as the beginging of a correctve sentence. I never once expereinced any of this as out of control. I do remember the very large father of a friend of mine being angry at something I did and poking me in the chest as my father (a man of short stature) watched. My Dad stepped in front of the big guy and said calmly, “If there is any beating to take place here, I will be the one to do it.” After the other dad left, my Father said, “Do we need to discuss this further?” The lesson was learned. The model of reason, respect and trust was what I learned. I was never afraid!

    • John,

      What a wonderful characterization of your father. Many men get a bad wrap. We should find a way to uplift examples like the one you have shared of your dad. I would call him a true gentleman – a word that has unfortunately drifted far from our common usage.


  • What great and not-so-great memories. For me it was the Marianists, not the Jesuits, they came later. Your comments brought Br. Ed Geary back to the front of the class with his two pairs of boxing gloves hanging from the end of the chalkboard and the knowledge that serious infractions meant a trip to the gym for a boxing lesson. Then there was Mr. Marinen in Algebra whose hands were so large he could squeeze your head to near bursting with one of them when the answer to a problem was, to hiim at least, painfully onvious. Best, though, was my Dad. Never violent, never loud, but he could look at me across a football field or baseball diamond or homework and say, “you applehead,” and there was never any possibility he could be wrong. After he died, and I got well into my teens and older, I realized that sometimes he has been wrong, but never for a lack of caring.

    When he called me an applehead, or more seriously a “thick omadhaun” (pronounced, with intensity, “omma-thawn”) I never had cause to doubt the love that was there. His way would not function today. There are too many examples where the caring is absent.

  • Dan,

    One of your best! My father was cut from this very cloth of which you describe. He loved deeply, but he would never have been a subscriber to RFL…way too touchy-feely for him:-) And your thoughts this morning on this topic have reminded me how much I still miss his stern voice and touch. Thank you so much…

  • Dan,

    I had a nun in second grade who was very mean. I told my Dzia-Dzia that they needed to get rid of her but he didn’t listen. I remember one day she asked anyone who was talking to stand up against the wall. She was going to sister superiors office to call the junk man to take us away.
    Just then the junk man drove by, I started screaming. They had to call my Bushia to come get me.. Another time she told one of the boys that she was going to through him in the furnace. She picked him up and carried him downstairs. I followed her. When she opened the furnace door, I screamed and she dropped him. I told him to run home and never come back. She was always hitting hands with a stick. I’m 71 and I still remember it as if it was yesterday. Needless to say the next year she was gone.

  • Good article. I winced when i began expecting yet one more bombastic diatribe against traditional male values. I especially liked your comment that we have become so supersensitive that we can’t take even the most gentle criticism. I actually consider this part of the “feminization” of the West in the sense that on average women take things personally more easily than men do or did until things went awry. I look back over my own life from my Dad on down and am grateful for the men I studied under who did not suffer fools gladly and didn’t mind saying so. We often hear today that no one should be made to feel “uncomfortable” but all the best learning I got made me damn uncomfortable on first hearing. thanks again for the post.

  • I find the comments by some of your readers interesting because it sounds to me like they support the behaviors you describe, rather than what I think you’re saying….they were not necessarily appropriate.

    When I was in high school we had a teacher who was known for his violent temper. Apparently his favorite punishment was to throw a student up against the lockers. He did it once too many times and, by the time I got him, was on probation. It was clear…once more and he was out. One day quiet, well behaved Jeanne found herself in his sight. We were horrified because we figured if JEANNE was in trouble, there was no hope for the rest of us. As he became increasingly angry, he turned and left the room. We sat in terrified silence.

    The really sad part of this story, which I think gets to your point Dan, is he was a brilliant teacher. He was teaching us Canterbury Tales and we weren’t getting it. So he stopped and started to read it. We all sat breathless as he made the characters come to life…and better….become relevant to OUR lives. I wonder how much more we could have learned if, instead of resorting to violence and humiliation, he used his passion for his subject to teach us? Rather than “learning” because of fear, perhaps we could have learned because we caught his love and respect for literature. We will never know. What I DO know is that as a leader, the later man was one I would follow because I wanted to. The former I would follow only out of fear.

    Thanks Dan!

  • Male authority is something different from authority. I think we can think of good and bad examples of each. What I have seen is a change in how authority is asserted, and that authority per se is not well regarded by some, but instead some prefer power. The direction of politics and business have been the same in some quarters.

    In business, including public institutions, I have seen a trend toward firing any employee who makes criticism of any function or activity of the business / institution, no matter how well meaning the employee may be. If they find fault they are fired, as a “threat,” to the top executive or the business/ institution. The employee who says this (insert anything that does not work well) is not right, we should make changes, is fired. The employee who makes a criticism of the executive or business / institution in their private life, but is overheard, is fired. Power.

    In politics, anyone who does not rigidly conform to far right policies will have mind games played on them, will be insulted, bullied. They will have their friends used against them in clever ways. It is sick. Power.

    It is easier to say how things ought to be done than to correct the individuals who can make business organizations and institutions intolerable to be a part of. The authoritarian personalities often take charge while casting out all objectors.

    Yes we need to improve male authority, but I am not so certain that “male” is so much the issue as power.

  • Dan:
    I think authority, control, and power are all very different things. I may need to establish authority when I have a task to do and my coworkers are not familiar with me. I establish my authority by “credentialing” myself, telling them who I am and what I have come to do or even who sent me. Similarly, I can see a need to control discussions at a meetings or in a classroom setting by keeping people on task and letting them know time constraints. In my mind, power is an animal of a different sort.
    The philosopher Nietzsche defined the “will to power” as a driving force in humanity, an ambition, a motivator to acheive one’s greatest potential. In this respect, power is a good thing. Suggested in your discussion, one might think that a powerful man is a real man. He is motivated, driven to be the best he can be. However, I tend to think of power in a different way.
    Power is illusive, one may, for instance, spend a good portion of one’s life trying to gain power and even more to maintian it, but one can never be so powerful as to not worry about it. The Freudean psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan reworks the Oedipal Complex in terms of a power relationship between mother and child and claims that power is negotiated between that primary relationship and later, extended to others. Amusingly, Lacan uses the term “phallus” as a signifier for this illusive power that the parent has and the child wants. Stepping out of the Oedipal arena and seeing power for what it is (and what it is not) is the real step toward maturation. By contrast, power games that are played in the board room, the classroom, the church, the family or the marriage bed are all unresolved issues from childhood.
    Regardless of power’s etiology, I have long been impressed with the human spirit’s ability to overcome great obstacles of overwhelming proprotions, e.g., abused women who raise children on their own, put themselves through school, and pursue their own dreams or men who have been tortured in death camps and come out living extraordinary lives, untouched and unembittered by their past. This suggests that Lacan may be correct in his assessment of power. It is illusive. Or, as Victor Frankl suggests the last freedom we have is the freedom to chose to respond in our own way to whatever apprears to threaten us…including our seeing the threat as powerless in its ability to change me.

  • Dear Dan,
    Interesting article, but I think underlying all the genuine “telling offs” is Love. Love for a son by a parent and Love for the subject by the teachers. I too had a chemistry master who was a brilliant shot with a chalk filled eraser. Luckily he never aimed at me!
    Hope you sold lots of books on Friday.
    Love to Jen, Jack, Kate & Ceci not forgetting yourself!,

  • The men of my dad’s WWII generation were fed the lie that, like John Wayne’s character in countless movies, the only emotions that real men could display were anger and lust. That may explain why those of us in our 50s and 60s had so many childhood experiences with angry men. Whatever the horrors were that they experienced in France or the South Pacific, they were expected to forget them, suck it up, act like a man and do what men do. And they proceeded to do what men did back then: get a job, work hard and provide for their family. At least that’s what my dad did. But I see now that he did it at a price: heavy drinking, outbursts of temper and frequent night terrors. Of course he got angry; it was the only release he was permitted for all the emotions that were penned up inside his chest.

  • The great JT!!! What an inspirational, caring and funny teacher. Following my misuse of a semicolon, I remember him asking me: “does your mother roll you to school in the morning, because your head is so far up your ass…” That brought about a good laugh from the class, and a great appreciation of the semicolon from me. Sometimes you have to shake things up a bit, in order to get your message across. In an ideal world where your audience is hanging on every word, there’s no need for outbursts or vulgarities. But in a real world where teenagers are thinking about just about anything but a semicolon or your kids keep forgetting to look before they cross the street or your battlefield example, an outburst from a teacher, parent or other authority figure is called for from time to time. I don’t think we should let go of vulgarities or tongue lashings, we should just be selective in our use of it.

  • For me it was not the men in my family or school that “blew up” or held a hard line. It was the women. I clearly can still hear my mother saying ” If you’re going to do something you might as well do it right”. Of course her standard of what “right” was, resembled perfection. So now as a middled aged woman you can guess what my standards are like. Yes I strive for the very best I can be. Kind of why I like your articles so much. I also had no problem holding my daughter to high expectations as well. I felt it gave us an edge in this competitive world. Did I mete out this expectation in the same way as my mother? Not at all. While there was much more love and support expressed it was setting the standard and expecting it be met that was transfered to yet another generation.

  • Reading for Leading has grown up to be a place of remarkable contributions from people who really do strive to lead with their best. This week offers such a range of interesting “takes” on this question of authority – from Nietsche to Frankl to Lacan (I hadn’t known) – from post-traumatic stress to…

    Scott, I consider us so fortunate to have dads who survived war – and who were so poorly armed, so to speak, to process the trauma – yet functioned at a high level, and paved a way for us to live with more civility and fullness than they were accorded or afforded.

    I count myself incredibly fortunate to be a man in this era.

    Regina, you echo a very similar sound – maintaining great expectations and wielding your authority, yet doing so in a dare I say “kinder and gentler” manner.

    Cousin Phil, you’re the second person this week who has entered my sphere to talk about the importance of love. The other one was Lieutenant Colonel Jon Negin who, to my good fortune, audited my leadership class and gave the penultimate lecture. It’s good to hear men talking about the primacy and ultimacy of love…

    Through and with which we lead with our best!


  • The generalities: I think the effort is to continue to groom men to model roles: provider, disciplinarian, hardworking, tuned to “men’s work and interests”, less bending or collaborative, to be a “man’s man”. Women are generally still raised to be the safety valve, the nurturer, more shades of gray in perspective/ more likely to consider all sides, negotiators and mediators. Power, authority, intimidation or fear do not engender respect, love, security, learning or leadership. But we all have experienced the horrible teacher, as well as the maniacal boss, whether male or female. And most of us have survived them with some modicum of success, if only to get out of the class or job or experience still alive.

    But I think “Leadership” is being redefined before our eyes, right now. We are witnessing revolutionary social role and “best practices/ experiences/ results in changes today– collaborative leadership, team decisions, global impact awareness and responsiveness, that will change how the younger generations work, delegate, problem solve and manage the world and their immediate environs. While we will continue to honor our fathers and mothers for the influences, good and bad, we are learning that there are better/ different ways to lead, and foster growth and success.

    • Kathie,

      What a tremendous entry. For two reasons: I think it’s very accurate; most of my coachees and clients are striving to demonstrate just the kind of model you describe above (and I re-quote below); it’s being invented, tested, refined, and it’s all


      . Second, your take is so wonderfully hopeful!

        . And hope generates power!

        If for some reason you didn’t read Kathie’s quote above, here it is, worth repeating:
        “But I think “Leadership” is being redefined before our eyes, right now. We are witnessing revolutionary social role and “best practices/ experiences/ results in changes today– collaborative leadership, team decisions, global impact awareness and responsiveness, that will change how the younger generations work, delegate, problem solve and manage the world and their immediate environs. While we will continue to honor our fathers and mothers for the influences, good and bad, we are learning that there are better/ different ways to lead, and foster growth and success.” Kathie Dones-Carson

  • Influential men and influential women. What a difference in how we look at them. The women who have influenced me are women who were intelligent, independent, forward-thinking, knew what to say and how to say it. Beginning with my Mother who was the most patient and loving person I have known to my Aunt Ruth who was always there to help those in need to my professional mentors, Sister Agnes Mary Mansour and Lorraine White. These women were respected by those who knew them because they were leaders in their time influencing quietly and modestly raising awareness through their gentle nature.

    • Julie,
      This comment is interesting because it raises the question of those women leaders who wielded authority in a different way – Pelosi, Clinton, Whitman, etc. We haven’t quite figured a way in our collective consciousness to allow and honor women’s outward strength and comfort with power.
      I’m all for the “old style female authority,” but suspect we all need to grow a little in our bandwidth to demonstrate and receive different types of authority.
      Thanks for your comment!

  • My father had an explosive temper and it didn’t matter if you were his son or daughter – we all learned that you the father ‘deserves respect’ just for being a father. However, he also was an alcoholic, so many times I blamed his temper on his acoholism. So, what did I really learn? I learned to avoid my father and to go to someone else if I needed help. I hope others think about the impact they have on children, and decide if that’s really the impact they want to be having.

    It wasn’t until I reached adulthood that I actually gave my respect, but that was because our relationship changed. We became more of equals. We had more conversations and he seemed to realize the respect is earned and not just expected. We became friends and he became someone I could count on. Why? Because he stopped demanding respect just because he was the father and he started to demonstrate that those in authority should not always be followed like sheep.

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