Opinion Columns & Blogs

DR. CUMMINGS: Challenging authority

“Do it because I said so!” is a scream we’ve often heard when exasperated parents have to silence their questioning and challenging children. The kids want to know why: “Why do I have to go to school?” “Why do I have to do my homework?” “Why can’t I play with Frankie?” They want answers, and Mommy and Daddy don’t have time to explain. Or maybe Mommy and Daddy don’t know the answers.

When authority figures don’t know the answers, they seldom say so. We’ve talked about President Obama and his wildly incorrect statements about ObamaCare; why didn’t he just say: “I don’t know the answer”? Admitting ignorance can generate ingenuity. One of my favorite moments as a college professor was answering a student’s theological question with: “Hey, I don’t know the answer to that; let’s find out together.” However, many people in authority resent challenges. For example: 80 percent of the Catholic nuns in America belong to an association called the Leadership Conference of Women Religious. Last year, these nuns began to question some of the all-male rules of the Vatican, and immediately they were charged with corporate dissent and heresy. Instead of discussing these issues with the nuns, the Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith (formerly called the Inquisition) subjected them to a very lengthy investigation. Fortunately these all-male investigators backed off, maybe because Pope Francis, our first celibate pope to admit that the church’s theology of women needs some work, stepped in.

Challenging authority figures -- of any kind -- is dangerous. One of the reasons I have spent 40 years as a leadership consultant in the business world is because many top executives realize this. They want to be challenged. They know they’re not infallible, but they also know their people are afraid to question their decisions. My job is to teach employees the ways to challenge and question without offending the boss, and then to coach the boss in different ways to accept and encourage these kinds of challenges. That’s what leadership is all about.

Strong leaders welcome challenges. Weak leaders fear them. Hitler used to kill his generals if they challenged his decisions to wage war. I heard a frightened executive here in Macon scream: “Whoever wrote that note is fired!” On the other hand, Dave Pushman, who was the general manager for Geico in Macon, had a sign in his employee cafeteria that said: “Dear Dave,” with a box for their notes underneath it, and he really wanted them to write their ideas and complaints. He was wide open to anything they had to say, and they knew it.

We have authority figures all around us: politicians, managers, pastors, priests, parents and police. Each of them can be strong or weak, honest or crooked, just or unjust. The six Baltimore policemen (three black and three white) appear, so far, to be officers who have abused their authority and need to stand up to the challenges of the prosecution.

But who challenges the “Baltimore Situation”? Maryland is one of the richest states in the country, yet Baltimore’s young black unemployment rate is 37 percent. You saw many of them on TV, rioting and plundering and stealing from their neighbors. Why is that? Should we question the politicians? Should we ask the mayor, the governor or the president of the United States? Should we look at the schools, the parents, the neighborhoods? Or should we say it’s all “white prejudice”?

The city of Baltimore is 60.2 percent African-American with the unemployment rate among black men ages 20-24 at 37 percent. Macon, if you use the old city limits, was 67.9 percent African-American, but the new Macon-Bibb County figures put the African-American majority at 53.4 percent with unemployment at 6.1 percent countywide. Oh yes, we’ve got problems here, no doubt. But compared to Baltimore, we’re way ahead. I think we’re looking at our problems and admitting them and asking all sorts of questions -- from our teen pregnancies to our gangs to our education system. We’re not afraid to challenge everyone in authority.

What about Baltimore? Somebody in authority screwed up in that city. Many years have gone by and the “Baltimore Situation” just gets worse. Maybe the people who should be held accountable have not yet been challenged enough. Maybe they’ve made it a little too dangerous. What do you think?

Dr. Bill Cummings is the CEO of Cummings Consolidated Corp. and Cummings Management Consultants. His website is www.billcummings.org.