I know something about bullying. From about ages 12 to 14 I was bullied by 4 or 5 other boys in my class. Two things stopped the bullying:
- I stood up to it. Not every time, but often enough that the bullies saw my self-assurance and realize that I wouldn’t knuckle under.
- The bullies grew up and eventually stopped bullying. I never became friends with any of them, but we were on cordial terms through most of high school.
Years later I understood that the boys who bullied me were driven by a need for affirmation, by a need to know that they could influence people. For many a 12-year old boy the most obvious avenues to influence are violence (or threatened violence) and verbal abuse. Most 12-year olds grow up and discover better ways to deal with people.
A few don’t grow up.
In my professional life I’ve never worked for a bully. But I’ve known people who have. The manager who screams and yells, who behaves erratically, who gets his way through intimidation. When I started working, those managers were in the minority but it wasn’t unusual to encounter one.
Today, almost everyone understands that leadership involves mutual respect and instilling a set of shared values. Bullying managers are rare.
Rare, but not extinct.
This is where I was going to segue to the bully who’s currently leading in the race for the Republican presidential nomination. Where I was going to say that his approach exemplifies the worst kind of leadership. But as I was writing, two things happened:
- Seth Godin’s article, Coercion, hit my inbox. In far fewer words, Seth said what I wanted to say. Bullying, he said, is the antithesis of leadership.
- I got to thinking about one of the boys who bullied me. We’ll call him Gary. Gary wasn’t the stereotypical bully. He was an artistic type who aligned himself with the bullies — no doubt as a defense against being bullied himself. He was a follower.
And I realized that, as repugnant as I find Donald Trump and the idea that he might be chosen to lead our country, the real story is the people who follow him. The people who cheer when Trump, challenged by a protester, says “I’d like to punch him in the face.”
I don’t blame them for feeling dispossessed, for thinking they’ve been trampled, and for being angry about it. That’s probably how my classmate Gary felt.
I don’t blame them. But I grieve at how easily they attach themselves to a loud-talking demagogue who says things will be better without offering any specifics.
That’s why, even if Trump fails to win the presidency in 2016, I’m pretty sure another Trump will come along. One who’s more charismatic, one who attracts more followers. Followers in such a state of despair that they lack the self-assurance to say, Wait a minute. This isn’t me. I’m better than this.
I note with sadness that most of Trump’s followers come from a demographic group — white males — that includes me. Is their worldview that different from mine? Or are they, like Gary, so tired of being marginalized that they respond to a bully by falling in with him?
If any will listen to me, I’ll tell them that the right way to deal with a bully isn’t to fall in. It’s to stand up to him.
Because falling in isn’t who we are. We’re better than this. We have to be.