Friday, December 3, 2010

Power and Prerogative

One day when I was in the 7th grade, we students were reading aloud from our reading books in my English class. I wasn't much for volume and enunciation, and my teacher didn't seem to care much for that. When my turn came to read, I read like I always did and as usual, she told me to speak up.

Well, I didn't speak up enough to satisfy her so she did something it looks like I might never forget. She had me go outside to the far end of the playground and read my passage from out there in a voice loud enough for her and the class to hear from inside. I suppose her expectation was that by humiliating me like that I would get out there and bellow like a bull elephant. That didn't happen.

I went outside as directed, read my passage, and headed back inside. Apparently, my teacher couldn't hear me, so she sent me back outside where I did the same thing again. I wasn't too happy about all of this, so I wasn't quite in the right frame of mind to learn the valuable lesson she was trying to teach me.

I don't remember how many trips I made out to the far end of the playground to read that passage that day, but I do remember that with each trip out there, I was more and more certain that she would get tired of sending me out there before I'd get tired of making the trip. As far as I was concerned, she did all of the harm she could to me on my first trip outside. After that, I was pretty much running the show.

Believe it or not, that little incident taught me something important. When I think of power and prerogative today, I think of that teacher and that incident. It occurs to me today that at various times and in various situations, we all have some degree of prerogative, but we shouldn't always exercise it.

It also occurs to me that how a person exercises his or her prerogative says an awful lot about their character. For a person with a little bit of power, one key difference between a leader and a bully is that a leader exercises his prerogative out of necessity, and a bully exercises his prerogative out of personal gratification. That realization has helped me in every professional role I've held in my life.

Who says you can't learn from a bad teacher?