Curmudgeon Leadership – Can we bring it back?

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I find myself thinking back to high school.  It’s “back, back, back,” as ESPN’s Chris Berman would describe an outfielder’s movement before everyone realizes it’s “long gone.”*  I went to University of Detroit High School on 7 Mile Road in Detroit from 1972-1976. The teachers made you feel like they were teaching in an unbroken chain dating back to St. Ignatius in the 1500’s, and as though this school hadn’t changed its pedagogy in its 100 (now, 138) years. I know things always change.  And today’s curmudgeons surely use different tools.

Back then, grizzled teachers like Mr. Tenbusch would say to a precocious 10th grade grammar student, “Did I teach you that, Kerwin?” Bill Kerwin might have replied, “No,” with a sophomoric tone of voice that said, “Are you kidding me? Who made you the sole source of wisdom?” And Mr. T would go on unfazed, “That’s right. I didn’t teach you that, did I?  So you don’t know that. I’ll do the teaching here. Stay with me and you’ll be educated one day.”  We learned, too. Believe me I bore down on my homework when Mr. Stackable, who seemed like he was 80, gently slapped me on the cheek as he was making the rounds in Algebra class, and said, “If you’d done the homework, Mr. Mulhern…”  Got it, sir.

The King of the Curmudgeons was Polo. For Richard G. Polakowski, S.J., director of the Harlequins, life was a stage, and every student in his English classes was part of his audience, and sometimes became one of his unwitting players.  One day he asked us, “What does it mean that MacBeth “unseam’d [Macdonwald] from the nave to the chops?” Not a peep from us.  “D_____,” he said, using the last name of one of my classmates, a 6’2″ swimmer, “Come up here…Stand on my desk. Yes, on my desk.”  Polo then put his blackboard pointer at the student’s “nave(l)” and slowly drew it up his center right to his chin or “chops.” The kid got red. And we got MacBeth.  Red was Polo’s favorite color, the color of his marking pencil.  One day I got a 3-page paper back.  Accustomed to 90’s, even from Polo, I did a triple-take.  A big “5” covered the fat margin at the top, and an even bigger “-90” was apparently prompted by one single, stupid grammatical mistake I’d made. Complaining would have gotten me nowhere!

My friend Ronald Heifetz writes that “attention is the currency of leadership.” And, that “leaders mobilize people to do the work that only they can do.” Make no mistake: those curmudgeon leaders put the work on our shoulders; nobody was going to do it for us. Nearly all of us who tell such stories as I have here, tell them not in outrage, but in amazement at those teachers who demanded so much. The curmudgeons literally cudgeled us.  Now, in our sensitive day and age, we need to be more creative.  But the leadership lesson from them is certainly clear:  Get their attention.  And draw it to where it can make a difference: where they can learn, where they can do better, where they can focus!

How much do you expect?  Can you stand being just a little curmudgeonly, as you

Lead with your best self?!

*Credits to Ernie Harwell, of blessed memory.

8 responses to “Curmudgeon Leadership – Can we bring it back?

  1. I embrace the message, “Get their attention and draw it where it counts”, but must point out a grammatical error elsewhere in the article. There should be no apostrophes in 1500s and 90s because they are plurals, not possessives. This I learned in public schools in Lansing, MI.

  2. Dan,

    I enjoyed your reflections on your high school days. It brought me back to a time when JT and I would battle Polo for control of the reading list in the English department. God Bless your remembrances!

  3. Hi Dan,
    Great piece on the UDHS brand of JUG [justice under God] leadership dispensed by the Jesuits.

    Three phrases well learned from my time at the High that I continue to use as a professor are:
    1) Did you read it? [Fr. Pat McDunn, SJ, senior Sociology]
    2) THINK! [Fr. Polokowski, SJ, junior & senior English]
    3) You’re better than that. [John Tenbusch, cross country & track coach]

    Best regards,
    Prof. Bill Moylan, PhD, PMP, FESD, DTM
    UD-Jesuit, class of 1970

  4. “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.”

    Samuel Johnson

    Perhaps the theory behind a Curmudgeon? Wonder if Congress would have any trouble passing an Appropriations Bill were they told what would happen in a fortnight sans a bill?

  5. For many years, I was known as the Cyber-curmudgeon by those who drifted into my cross-hairs, whether by mistake or by intent. References were made by students, faculty, and staff to the misanthrope in his dark little office in the basement of the Electrical Engineering Resources Center. I remember phrases like: crosspatch, bear, malcontent, crab, grump, faultfinder, grouch, grumbler, and grammar Nazi.

    However, a small cadre of masters and PhD students were assigned to work with me on a complex documentation project, lasting nearly two years. We all worked hard. My fondest memory from those days as lead editor were comments from several of the students that they learned more about writing and documentation while on that project than in all their college classes.

  6. Ah, Fr. Polakowski! How I remember the day I was made the muse in his class. I only had him for one quarter, in my senior year, at UD High School. By then I thought I knew how to get by, without any undue notice, at the school. Was I wrong. One day Polo called me to the front of the class, whereupon he started a diatribe about the poor quality of the assignment I had submitted. Then, to my astonishment, he started ripping the paper to shreds in front of the class, exclaiming “Shitty. Shitty-Shitty-Shitty-Shitty…” I was not really sure what I had done incorrectly with the assignment, but to Dan’s point, arguing would have not benefitted me at all. I knew I had to go home, buckle down, and get it right. Polo absolutely got my attention, and forced me to gain focus and be the best I could be. I knew it was not a personal attack on me – Polo would happily call attention to the ‘shortcomings’ of everyone, even my classmates with perfect 1600 SATs and 4.0 GPAs. Uncomfortable? Yes. Effective? Absolutely!

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