I’m shocked! Shocked, to find that gambling is going on in here.
—Claude Rains in “Casablanca”
The powerlessness of people on a school bus in Upstate New York on June 23, 2012, resonated with people all over America. Four seventh graders cruelly and mercilessly mocked Karen Klein, a 68-year old bus monitor, and one of them caught 14 minutes of this horror show on camera. It went viral and Americans were shocked.
Shocked? Shame on us.
TEENAGERS VICTIMIZE SCHOOL BUS MONITOR
We’d be living in a better society if the headline were:
SCHOOL BUS MONITOR CREATES UNSAFE ENVIRONMENT
On NBC’s Today Show Dr. Gail Saltz said, “I think what’s wrong with kids today is adults today. We are reaping what we sow. We are not setting a standard or an example of the importance of cultural rules, that you treat each other with decency and respect, that cruelty is wrong and punishable.” But Saltz, a psychiatrist, is obviously wrong about a lack of consensus about standards and cultural rules. America’s reaction shows that Americans are universally quite clear about morality: the boys behaved badly.
Yes, we are reaping what we sow, but Dr. Saltz is also wrong that we should be sowing morality. Morality is obviously what we are sowing. We should be sowing leadership. The boys on the bus gave us a nice window into a leadership vacuum. One even put it on YouTube—a modern statement that “The emperor has no clothes.” The video says: “Hey, you guys. There is no authority, here. There is no justice. No one is safe on the bus, not even the adult whose job it is to keep us safe.” For better results we need leadership more than morality.
We really don’t want to live our lives constrained by fear. Even if we are not a “victim” but merely a bystander, we are being victimized. Our soul suffers. Standing by and watching an injustice or a humiliation is not healthy.
Theoretically, one of the children could have stood up for Ms. Klein. It’s possible to imagine some student interrupting the contagion of evil that surrounded her, but is it realistic? Courageously standing up to a gang is imaginable, but hard for any of us, and especially for a 13-year-old. Interfering would have been quite remarkable for a teenager in that situation.
But what about the bus driver? Imagine us in the driver’s seat. We can easily imagine pulling the bus to the side of the road, stopping, getting out of our seat and walking back to where all the noise was. We wouldn’t even need to say anything. If we had been looking in the rear-view mirror, we would know which boys needed to move to seats up front. I can imagine it happening with all the grace in the world. We wouldn’t even have to get mad.
What gets in the way of this kind of leadership behavior? We know. We often hear excuses like these:
- “It’s not my job.” Other people in positions of power are responsible. It’s their fault, not mine.
- “It’s just not my personality to do that sort of thing.” “I’m too shy,” “I was brought up to be polite.”
- “I haven’t had the training.”
- “If I say what I feel, someone might get hurt.
- “I have a disability.” (That’s what Moses said when he heard his leadership call.)
- “I’m not the only one.”
Leadership does not come with position. Leadership opportunities present themselves all the time. Leadership is more about knowing when it’s your turn. Second-grade teacher, Suzanne Abbey, showed us how in the climate of fear following the Loma Prieta Earthquake.
Why isn’t this kind of behavior more common? Because our brains have a natural inclination to stay within the safety of our self-concept, to stick with what we know, to conform to peer pressure. Being a hero is too risky. We are afraid of making mistakes, getting into conflicts, failing, and leaving the safety of social convention.
Leading our lives (and leading others) requires looking for opportunities where we least expect them, breaking free from social constraints, transcending the generalizations we make about ourselves, going beneath our self-concept to the character that our genius is leading us toward, and practicing our anti-tyranny repertoire. Leadership comes from the character within us—our character that we create moment by moment. To live happy, successful lives, we would do well see a climate of fear as a leadership opportunity.
Increasing the frequency of this kind of behavior requires building leadership cultures.