On Tantrums and Leadership

Photo by VanessaQ, from Wikimedia Commons

A kid is throwing a tantrum in Wal-Mart. He’s tired, and hungry, his feet hurt, and his daddy is getting increasingly angry. Eventually the daddy yells, “I’ll give you something to cry about!” and proceeds to grab and shake his son violently. Bystanders shake their heads, and a few rebuke the father. He cusses and proceeds to haul the child out of the store. The kid alternately goes limp and hits back, resisting the only way he can. It becomes clear in these situations that it is the PARENT throwing the tantrum. He is out of control, responding in fear and anger.

We know when you put your hand on the child, you increase the odds that the kid will cry, scream, kick. You may “win” the fight, because you are bigger and stronger. But you will not “win” the relationship, or future behavior. In fact, you increase the chances of future tantrums. “Shopping” becomes a trigger for resistance, fear, and resentment.

This approach doesn’t work with CHILDREN. So why do elected officials think it will work with ADULTS?

This is an imperfect analogy, of course, and it is unfortunately paternalistic. Protesters are not children. But I use the example because WE WERE ALL CHILDREN, and many of us are parents. Human behavior, regardless of age, is predictable. Violence is reciprocal. Whatever “lesson” you think you are teaching, when you spank a child, what you teach them is that the strong dominate the weak, and that violence is how we communicate what we want.

We also know that when people of any age are stressed, afraid, and angry, they become less able to make good decisions and more prone to violence. So what do we do? We give police guns and pepper spray and tell them to stop a tantrum by throwing a BIGGER tantrum. With weapons. Just like an abusive parent.

Stupid, stupid, stupid.

Children want what everyone wants: empathy. Understanding. Their physical needs met. It is the job of parents and leaders to help their people get what they need to thrive.

So the president, in his immaturity and incompetence, is talking about using the military to “dominate” space and “dominate” protesters. Leaders sometimes use the phrase “make an example” or “teach a lesson.” These are signals that adults are throwing temper tantrums: “I’ll give you something to cry about!”

Good leadership and good parenting are actually the same thing. And authoritarian parenting and authoritarian leadership come from the same source. This is about an orientation to the world, a spiritual value.

You have responsibility to people’s lives and well-being. Do you treat them like the people you hope they will become? Do you engage them and find out what they are going through that makes them act out? Or do you dehumanize them with violence and contempt? Do you delegitimize their experience and their needs? Do you make a bad situation worse by adding physical pain to the emotional pain they already feel? Can you take a step back and ask, “What is my desired outcome?”

Authoritarian leaders, like Trump, Mubarak, Bolsonaro, Duterte, Putin et al — these fragile men were/are simply abusers with the emotional maturity of toddlers. They are throwing tantrums with military weapons. They do not have the ability to reflect or imagine their desired outcomes. They are like the abusive daddy trying to control a tired and hungry child.

It is way past time to put these immature men in time out, and put mature people in charge who will model the behavior we expect from ourselves.