My reasons for teaching leadership experientially today are mainly
- To enable people to create meaning, value, importance, purpose, and passion in their lives and in the lives of people around them
- Because the challenges the next several generations will face require changing behavior on a global scale, which are social and emotional challenges, not technical, and I hope to help create a community of people with the skills to overcome these challenges
but why I do it today isn’t why I started.
Why I Felt Attracted to Leadership
I remember the first time I saw Nurse Ratched, from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, named as one of the top villains in movies (#5 in the American Film Institute’s ranking, two spots below Darth Vader and nine ahead of the alien from Alien).
You don’t think of someone in a nurse’s uniform as a villain. You felt that, at least in her heart, she believed she was trying to help.
Then you realize everyone believes they are trying to help. That doesn’t change the effects of their actions. On the contrary, her self-righteousness motivates her to keep doing it, to avoid listening to others, or to reflect on her thinking and behavior, making her resistant to change or notice how she’s destroying people. Wikipedia describes her well:
A cold, heartless tyrant, Nurse Ratched has … become a popular metaphor for the corrupting influence of power and authority.
You probably remember the emotions you felt at her actions—something like fury or rage, intensified by her abusing her power and her victims’ helplessness.
I mention Nurse Ratched because the movie was popular, people know her, and people remember the emotions she created in them. As much as I dislike the Kafkaesque authoritarianism her character represents, another authoritarian movie character illustrates the emotions that impassion me.
After seeing Hannah and Her Sisters, which I loved, I learned that Woody Allen based a lot of it on Fanny and Alexander, which I’d barely heard of, by Ingmar Bergman, whom I’d heard of but had never seen one of his movies.
So I watched Fanny and Alexander, which I loved, mainly for the acting, story, and directing, but also because of its Nurse Ratched—the step-father, Edvard Vergérus. Fanny and Alexander was autobiographical, Ingmar Bergman’s father was strict and stern, and he illustrated him with Edvard.
Here are the three main scenes of Edvard interacting with the son, Alexander. Actually, first you should know the contrast between Edvard and the rest of life in the movie. This essay, included with the DVD, describes that difference, when the family moves in with him:
The whole film changes character. The warm colors and overstuffed and inviting interiors are exchanged for an inhospitable asceticism. The environment is stylized and marked by severity and coldness. The children and their mother are forced into a world of regulations and prohibitions. They must now subordinate themselves to a dominant and dictatorial will.
The essay continues by describing what we see:
in response to the increasingly painful and humiliating confrontations with his stepfather, he finds strength in rebellion. Alexander uses his fantasies as a defense, and sometimes a provocation, against the bishop’s dominance.
Bergman captured and evoked some of my strongest emotions growing up. I want to clarify that the characters, context, and so on are different than my life, which is why I specify that the emotions are similar. The movie dramatizes things in quantity, but not in kind, at least compared to my experience.
When I heard stories of children, fictional and historical, growing up under a stern, strict, authoritarian parent, I would see their childhoods as different than mine. I viewed my childhood as normal, which it was for me since it was the only childhood I had. I did have a stern, strict, authoritarian parent, but I didn’t relate to the effects of it in others because no story evoked its feelings and emotions in me.
Fanny and Alexander changed that. The movie recalled some of my most powerful feelings that I thought everyone felt, but later saw weren’t universal. Now I see why storytellers emphasize stern, strict, authoritarian parents. Having one, like I did in my father, affects you. I’m not complaining. At 45, I’ve had decades as an adult to grow and make my experiences part of what made me who I am. Everyone had their challenges. You had yours. These were mine.
I don’t know what others saw in the Edvard / Alexander relationship but I can’t help but share some of what resonated with me.
Edvard acts like he is treating Alexander as an equal while he condescends to him. He believes himself morally and spiritually superior, but he is the opposite. His justification for being right is his world view. That no one else shares it doesn’t reach him as a reason for self-reflection, learning from others, or growth, but motivates him into self-righteous domination, at least when he has authority to. The more Alexander challenges his authority. the more he attacks the child, like by making him kiss his hand and increasing his punishment, reinforcing his views. He also sees flexibility in others, even when he violently forces it, as justifying his views and their inflexibility, which he seems to view as strength.
His power is based in authority based in his interpretation of reality and religion. No one else agrees with his view, but he sees it as absolutely right. Out of ignorance of how he treats those vulnerable to him, society respects him for his title. With people he lacks authority over he is charming, but with those he does, he is domineering, insensitive, patronizing, punishing, and so on.
He claims to love Alexander while dominating him with emotions, motivations, speech, and physical touch I don’t think anyone would call loving. What does that do to a child still forming his views of the world, love, and family?
His self-righteousness is near total. He seems incapable of seeing another’s perspective or questioning his own. He doesn’t seem to consider anyone else an equal, despite an inhumanity that we viewers see making him nearly subhuman. These traits combine to reinforce a view that he is helping people, like Nurse Ratched believed about herself, even as he twists their lives under his authority to fit his view. Witness how twisted and fearful Justina and the two women knitting became, physically, from living under him. How everyone fears him. How he has squashed any hope of their influencing him.
Why do people stay with him? Outside the scenes in the clip above we see how he abuses his authority to keep people who hate and fear him in his house (from Wikipedia):
[Alexander’s mother] Emilie asks for a divorce, which Edvard will not consent to; though she may leave the marriage, legally it will be considered desertion, placing the children in his custody.
Can you imagine life for Alexander under Edvard without his mother’s protection? I can’t help but recall the years I spent at my father’s house, alone. My father didn’t contrive to get custody like Edvard did, but the years of stern, authoritarian, twisted self-righteousness had their effect.
Back to the movie, Edvard complements this twisted anti-love with near-gloating expectation that they will realize how right he is and grow to submit to his authority, which he views as love.
His physical touch is beyond creepy, an abuse of society’s inclination to give parents the benefit of the doubt. Somehow he knows to keep it short of outright pain (until the kangaroo court scene of the carpet-beater spanking), but the domineering poking, slapping, and so on have a similar effect, maybe more twisted for his acting like he believes it’s caring. It reminds me of something I hadn’t thought of in decades, which was how I would squirm away from my father’s touch like Fanny, the girl, did in the close of the clips above.
How would you feel if someone touched you like Edvard touched Alexander?
The following lines from Edvard are lies to all except himself. But you get the idea that even he, in a suppressed corner of his mind, doesn’t believe them, except they help him sleep at night. He acutely refers to the punishments he suffered growing up, but instead of learning from them and developing love, freedom, magnanimity, empathy, self-awareness, compassion, and so on, he bought into what hurt him and grew to inflict it on others.
“Don’t be afraid. I’m your friend and I wish you well.”
“You’re a big boy now, so I’ll talk to you man to man.” (before condescending to him and talking at him)
“Good. Now we need never discuss this matter again.” (which he will)
“My fondest wish is that we all get along. Love cannot be commanded.” (his behavior says: “My fondest wish is that you obey my commandment to love me by submitting to my authority.”)
“We should treat each other with respect and consideration.” (he wants respect and consideration while giving none)
“I expect you were silent out of shame.”
“I’m much stronger than you … in a spiritual sense.” (he is spiritually bankrupt, stronger only physically and in authority)
“Your confession and your punishment will be a relief to you.” (they always say it’s for your own good)
“Your punishment will teach you to love the truth.”
And Edvard’s twisted masterpieces of words
“Let me tell you something. Something that may surprise you. I don’t hate you. I love you.”
“Do you understand I have punished you out of love.”
Of course parents punish children out of love. Every parent struggles with finding the line and staying within it. How do you describe what Edvard did? He found ways to cross it that he could defend as being in the line materially and legally. Emotionally he distorted and twisted the line as much as his relationships with the people affected by it.
He punishes the boy for telling stories—what boys do—squashing out of him what you imagine was squashed out of himself, calling stories lies to excuse his using authoritarian power in place of listening, considering others’ views, and so on. A child’s fanciful tails of being sold to the circus are the fictions of a budding storyteller—in the case of Bergman, early sparks of brilliance. We all have them in our own directions. Sad to see a parent interpret individuality as something to punish and squash.
You can see Edvard’s anger when people express themselves and don’t submit to him. He just turns the screws, punishing them into submitting to him while calling it love. He lies about giving choices of how to be punished—“Ten, no more no less.”—before laying on multiple punishments.
What does Edvard think of Alexander’s teddy bear—a small token of humanity and softness—that he seems to disdain?
His descriptions of the punishments of the cane or carpet beater, castor oil, or dark closet with mice evoke some sympathy for Edvard since they show he was on the receiving end of them. But, as with Nurse Ratched, his believing he is loving someone doesn’t excuse his twisted authoritarian abuse of power.
Edvard’s tragedy is that he has engineered his world so no one can topple his authority, which reinforces and cements his self-righteous views. Nothing from the outside can challenge his construction and for him to challenge his own views would require such humble dismantling and rebuilding of his life that he would never do it. As a result, he is impenetrable and everyone fears and submits to him, which he interprets as love.
The scenes in the movie were the most accurate account of the emotional part of my relationship with my father I’ve seen. They aren’t exact. I don’t know how he would react to them. I’m not sure about writing about them publicly instead of talking to him about them. I showed the scenes to a friend. She kept suggesting ways to mend things. I kept telling her how nothing worked.
I could tell her suggestions came from things that worked with people in her life and that she didn’t have someone like Edvard in her life. I asked, “What would you do with a man like Edvard?”
She stopped and thought. She seemed to recognize that this villain wasn’t made up like Darth Vader or the alien from Alien but was based on a real person, though dramatized, and that nothing that had worked with difficult people in her life would work with him.
She changed from trying to help to trying to understand. Similarly, decades ago I had gone from trying to change my father to living the best life I could. As he and I have aged, I haven’t seen any openings in his armor. I rebelled as a child before. I avoid him today not from inertia from childhood. That’s long past. As I wrote, I’ve found ways to use those experiences to improve myself, my life, and my relationships.
I’m not the most humble person, but a couple times I’ve had to face that my views weren’t working. I had to take them apart and rebuild major parts of my life. It was worth it. I haven’t seen any meaningful change in him in this area. Hence I avoid him today. I don’t say this with malice but acceptance at having found nothing to open his heart and mind to reflecting on his absolute views. Or to my humanity as distinct from his beliefs about me.
If I lived forever, I’d use some of my infinite years to improve things, but my time is limited, I want the best life I can make for myself, and there’s too much other awesome stuff that unpleasant times with him would detract from.
That’s not to say I condemn everything about him. Or anything except his behavior with me. I’ve just learned through experience that I have better ways to spend my time than with people like Edvard, even when they no longer have authority over me.
For most of my life, my deepest passions centered on freedom and liberty from oppression. My heroes included Martin Luther King, Gandhi, Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela, Thomas Jefferson, and Henry Thoreau. My greatest motivations came from the visceral infuriation at Bull Connor patronizingly and self-servingly claiming that Jim Crow laws help blacks or P. W. Botha saying things like “I’ve said many times that the word “Apartheid” means good neighbourliness.” That is, at people abusing authority to maintain their self-righteous views that anyone else can see are hurting people.
If you’re such a good neighbor, why do your neighbors all disagree? And why are you so violent with them?
The freedom fighting of my youth gave way in time to reflection and personal growth. Freedom fighting is about changing others. It’s reactionary. It’s trying to change people who haven’t asked you to change them. I left college for a year to live in Paris, trying to establish my independence. Freedom isn’t in Paris, though, nor is it away from college. In time I came to see leadership as coming from within—self-awareness, which came from reflection and developing emotional skills like empathy and compassion.
So my passion has become to enable people to create what was distorted in my childhood but that I found most valuable as I matured and learned to cultivate in place of authority, inflexibility, dominance, and such:
- Mental freedom
Am I the greatest master of these things? No, but I’ve developed them a lot and learned how others can too. I learned late—around business school, in my thirties—that you could develop them. My passion is developing these things and enabling others to, which my courses do (while also helping them create projects that help others and themselves).
I think it’s one of the greatest things I can do for the world.
Learn to make Meaningful Connections
with a simple, effective exercise from my book, Leadership Step by Step.
- Step by step instructions
- Video examples of me and Marshall Goldsmith
- An excerpt from my book