by Kent R. Austin, CPFO
City of University Park, Texas
Good leadership and good management require intolerance. Not intolerance for the ethnicity, culture, or race of others, but rather intolerance for mediocrity, unproductive behavior, and suboptimal performance.
Pain with a Purpose
Profound theories aside, management ultimately means the infliction of pain for a purpose. No manager wants to discipline, reprimand, or terminate a likable but underperforming employee. But continued tolerance of subpar performance becomes an organizational cancer that lowers the standards and effectiveness of an entire work unit.
Inner confidence in the manager is essential for confronting and correcting poor performance. Many times managers will be hesitant to correct employees because they know their own example is not what it should be. How can a manager punish a chronically late employee if the manager himself is often tardy? Punishment without credibility communicates hypocrisy and erodes trust.
Alternatively, the reduction of fear and self-doubt can unleash energy and a heightened sense of intolerance. The manager constantly asks, “why do I put up with this?” This unleashing of energy is captured artfully in the “Courage Wolf” Internet meme shown above.
Acceptance of Responsibility
The ability to manage takes another huge step forward when managers reject voluntary helplessness and resolve to take full ownership of everything within their domain. Managers acknowledge their “responsibility for the quality of work at the radio station,” as Billy Crystal’s boss says in the movie “City Slickers.” Confronting the Crystal character’s low performance, the boss steps in and temporarily takes over Crystal’s decision making authority. It required the infliction of pain, but it was the right thing to do.
The Power of Pushback
Constructive intolerance can also begin with one simple word: “pushback.” While the term is an informal synonym for ‘resistance,’ it suggests a more active, assertive response—physically pushing back on statements or actions that conflict with one’s desires.
Amazing things can happen when people reach the point of pushback and beyond. Much of history is the story of individuals deciding they will no longer tolerate oppressive conditions or behaviors, from the flight of the Israelites in Egypt to the American Revolution to the Civil Rights movement.
Punk Rock Primer
Even punk rock is instructive on this point. Punk grew directly out of the economic malaise and social unrest of mid-1970’s Britain, coupled with a vehement rejection of the perceived pretentiousness and consumerist nature of contemporary rock music. The punk spirit advocated a three chord, do-it-yourself approach that eschewed instrumental skill or elaborate production values in favor of full, free expression.
Leading the anarchic charge were the Sex Pistols, whose vulgar yet energetic pushback struck a nerve with a generation of young Britons similarly disaffected and despairing. Even though the BBC refused to air the Sex Pistols’ music, in 1977 their single “God Save the Queen” shot to the top of the charts—at the same time as Queen Elizabeth’s 25th anniversary jubilee celebration.
As jarring as the music was, the lyrics were even more shocking and despairing:
“God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being.
There’s no future/In England’s dreaming.
Don’t be told about what you want/Don’t be told about what you need.
There’s no future, no future, no future for you.”
Although the Sex Pistols imploded in 1978, they changed rock music and popular culture in ways still felt today. Their explosive pushback was horrifying and inspiring, depressing and liberating. While the nature of their expression has little in common with the life of a government finance officer, the energy released by the Sex Pistols’ pushback and their ability to initiate change are worth remembering.
Cultural reinforcers: Intolerance, Pushback and Willingness to Impose Change
- Books: That First Season: How Vince Lombardi Took the Worst Team in the NFL and Set It on the Path to Glory, by John Eisenberg (2009); The Empowered Manager: Positive Political Skills at Work, by Peter Block (1991).
- Movies: City Slickers (1992); A Bug’s Life (1998); Rocky (1976); Erin Brockovich (2000); District 9 (2009).
- Music: “God Save the Queen,” the Sex Pistols (1977); “Fight the Power,” Public Enemy (1989); “Get Up, Stand Up,” Bob Marley and the Wailers (1973); “A Little Less Conversation,” Elvis Presley (1968).
- Historical figures: Spartacus; St. Thomas More; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Rosa Parks
This is part 2 of Kent Austin’s article “How Indifference, Intolerance and Selfishness Make a Better Finance Officer” which will appear in GFOA’s Government Finance Review in February 2013. Find part 1 here and part 3 here. Kent is a 1988 graduate of the KU MPA program. He serves as the director of finance for the City of University Park, Texas and is the 2012-13 president of the Government Finance Officers Association of Texas.