The benevolent dictator

In the shadow of the benevolent dictator
In the shadow of the benevolent dictator

Mr. G. was a hard-ass. He was also one of the most respected teachers at my secondary school. Like Julius Caesar triumphantly returning from Egypt, Mr. G. would proudly display his slide shows from summers spent in Europe, intent on sharing the spoils of his discoveries with his loyal citizens. His classroom management style could only be labelled benevolently dictatorial, but we learned. Boy, did we learn.

Did you know students now rate teachers online? Here are some quotes I found about Mr. G on a teacher rating site today:

“He was unforgettable. I can’t remember such an inspiring teacher, nor one so radically unique. His classes weren’t easy, but they were worth every minute.”

“Grad of 98, he was one of those teachers you will always remember. I remember being late for the first class when I was in grade 8. I never was late again lol!”

“The absolute best teacher I have ever had, I was Grad 96 and I would go back to school all over just to have him teach again!!”

“He worked us hard, but man, his social studies and Western Civ classes were good”

if I were to add my own review, I’d say that he was most responsible for igniting my passion of all things European, which eventually led me to move here permanently, after I graduated university.

Clearly, Mr. G. was an exceptional teacher; what I think enabled him to be so successful was not only his curriculum, but also the context in which it was set.

Mr. G. had expectations. They were black and white:

  • Be on time. Late to class? Banned to the office for the hour.
  • Listen when spoken to. Act up or speak out of turn? Immediate shut down.
  • Do what you say you will do. Fail to deliver an assignment on time? Zero percent.

No excuses. No exceptions. His word was law.

I’m not going to say that no one ever stepped out of line. Of course they did. But when it happened, his action was swift and non-negotiable. I observed three responses to Mr. G’s approach: If you were a hopeless case with the inability to respect authority even when it was clearly earned – you simply were removed. If you were a borderline case, you self-corrected for Mr. G.’s class. If you could live within his rules and expectations, you thrived, and could even become a star.

My first exposure to Mr. G wasn’t as a student in his class. The first time I met him was when my brother brought me to high school while I was still in elementary. I had what teachers called, a “professional day”, so instead of spending my day idly watching day time television, my brother thought it would be a brilliant idea to take me to all of his high school classes for a day, just to see “what high school is like”.

In retrospect, I’m surprised he pulled it off. My brother, however, has an indomitable self-confidence, and just assumed that he’d be allowed to bring me around like an extra textbook or a rucksack. He was right. His friends were gobsmacked. I remember them asking me if I’d yet been to Mr. G.’s class. When I said “not yet”, I recall them warning us both about it, that it might in fact be a bridge too far.

My brother just smiled at them, and then at me, and said “It will be ok.”

And it was. For reasons I can only guess at, Mr. G. thought a day at high school was a brilliant use of time for an sixth-grader, and even had one his students fetch me a special chair because, since no one ever missed Mr. G’s class, so there were no empty desks.

I’d be years later that I’d attend his classes as a student. He remembered me, and over the years we became as close as one can become between a teacher and student.

I learned a lot about history in Mr. G.’s classes, but even more importantly, I lived under his approach to management:

Start strict, then ease off. Keep your expectations high, and apply those rules to everyone equally. Create an environment rich in quality, and enable those around you to excel, but only if they’re willing to play within the rules.

I’ve applied that management style to my RL career, and while the going isn’t always smooth-sailing, I am confident that I am respected as a leader by those who report to me.

I apply exactly the same principles to Second Life, and make no apologies for it. My expectations are clear, and should be easy to work within. Often, people don’t want to play by my rules, and they find a way to remove themselves. Those that remain, I treat like adults. Sometimes, people take things personally and get upset when I refuse to make exceptions for them.

As in Mr. G.’s case, people who bailed or got banned from his classes would go on and on about how they were so wronged to anyone who’d listen. So his reputation grew. It preceded him, and in fact, eventually served him.

I’ve heard people say similar things about me, to others and to my face: “You’re difficult to work with…” “I thought we were friends…” “After all I’ve done for you…”

What I know for sure, is that if you value what I have to offer, you’ll bend over backwards to honour my rules. To paraphrase Alison Armstrong, it’s ok to be high maintenance, if you’re high performance. And lots of people out there aren’t buying Honda’s.

Like Mr. G., I strive to create an enriching, high-quality atmosphere that is ripe with opportunity, but it’s not for everyone. Leadership isn’t always compatible with being liked. That’s not to say you have to be an asshole to be successful, but you can’t be overly concerned about how people react to things when they decide to mix up their feelings with what is necessary to make things better.

6 thoughts on “The benevolent dictator

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