[Life Back West] October 2012 – Stew and the Negro Problem

In your face !

In the battleground that passes for schoolyard or corporate politics, the behaviors you deploy largely dictate how effective you are.

But if your preferred approach doesn’t work  – think of the overly polite Barack Obama in this year’s first Presidential debate – then it’s time to try something different.

Here’s the backstory, and what it means for you.

Last week I got a reminder as I listened to Forum on KQED of my lack of success in getting my son’s school to move off their insistence in labeling (we) homo parents as LBGTQ – the “Q” as in “questioning – rather than the more commonly accepted LBGT identifier. (Note to self: sell the story to the National Enquirer if you ever find parents who are gay or lesbian and who are still questioning their sexual orientation.)

Like the small sliver that you notice when you rub your foot the wrong way, the use of the LGBTQ verbiage has been something that I’ve tried to tackle politely without luck.

While I do my best to channel my inner Robert Service – “Be master of your petty annoyances and conserve your energies for the big, worthwhile things. It isn’t the mountain ahead that wears you out – it’s the grain of sand in your shoe.” – it generally means staying in my polite behavior mode.

But there are other choices in behavior: behaviors that all of us need to be able to adopt for those times when our primary modus operandi just doesn’t cut it. The most effective way to lead is situational leadership: when the situation changes you need to be able modify your behaviors if you want to be effective.

There is for example adopting a Larry Kramer persona as a way to behave: cranky, direct and factually correct.

Kramer’s approach combines the politeness of a native New Yorker with the subtle finesse of a fully-loaded tractor trailer headed right at you. His crankiness and persistence, though, was able to effectively change the arc of the AIDS epidemic in this country: no Kramer and the epidemic would have killed thousands more.

There is the passionate, eye rolling, hearty-laughing style of somebody like Joe Biden as another model for behavior. An approach which is in your face without being cranky and ready to tangle before even the first cup of coffee has kicked in. What you see is what you get with the Joe Biden approach: no surprises, and lots of conviction.

A third option is the quiet persistent demeanor of someone like  Mahatma Gandhi: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.” Understated, unyielding, and undaunted as a foundation.

Kramer, Biden, and Gandhi all provide us with examples of different ways of behaving that can have impact.

Stew and the Negro Problem? Stew presents perhaps a fourth approach in behavior.

Stew is Mark Stewart, a Tony and Obie award-winning singer, songwriter and playwright who is also black.  The band he fronts – The Negro Problem – was originally four white guys. The name stuck because it made the group members laugh hardest, was something that they hoped would reach their target audience – people who would get the joke – and was out there in terms of what people expected. Think of the behavior as a little provocation with humor and wit: President Obama at the second Presidential debate versus Mitt Romney.

It was Dave Iverson’s interview with Stew on KQED that encouraged me to recognize the need for a different approach to the LGBT issue at my son’s grade school.

Stew and I have three things in common: a deep love for our kids, a positive experience living in South Central Los Angeles, and a willingness to change things up to make a point.

Life Back West is an occasional set of writings focused on ways people, teams and organizations can be both more effective (doing the right thing) and more efficient (doing the right thing well). More about executive, career and team / leadership coaching services can be found at the “About J. Mike Smith and Back West, Inc.” sidebar or the “Hire Me” tab above. You can also read an online interview with me at WhoHub, as well as participate in my learning community courtesy of KnowledgeCrush.

In your face ! Photo credit: aramolara.


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