My professor cursed: “You’re too fucking cheap to buy my book?!”
This was an Ivy League business school. I was stunned. Class just ended and I was asking him a question, as students do. Other students probably heard as they packed their bags and left the room.
He had assigned his own book for the class. A couple weeks before, the bookstore clerk told me the book would come out soon in paperback and that I could save money if I waited. The cursing came in response to my telling him this, and that I was using the library copy in the meantime.
I don’t remember how I reacted in the moment. I know I felt shocked, which soon turned to offense and outrage. I felt I had to right this wrong, this affront. I determined to have him disciplined. He was a leadership professor. How could he treat a student like this?
Over the next few weeks I met with the other professors in his department I knew. I told them the story, presenting myself as a victim, which, I knew strengthened my case.
My case seemed open and shut. I didn’t provoke the cursing. I was showing interest in the course. My grades were great. Yet none of the professors I spoke to seemed interested in acting. They didn’t excuse or explain his behavior. They just seemed unmotivated to right the wrong I presented them.
Would I have to escalate to higher level administrators? How long would this take?
Meanwhile, classes went on and I kept studying leadership, both from him and other teachers. I learned about mental models and how our beliefs filter and influence our perceptions. I learned how we can choose our behavior to influence other people’s behavior. I learned skills to lead others. In short, I learned the opposite of blaming others and how to take responsibility for increasingly challenging situations.
I decided to test my skills with people in situations that mattered to me, in particular this one. Before teaching, my professor was the number 2 person at a Fortune 100 company, also ranked as one of the top 100 places to work, which is relevant in leadership. He’s a much better person to have a productive relationship with than to resent.
I asked myself new questions. Could my beliefs be leading me to see this situation as the win-lose confrontation I was acting on? Could another belief lead me to see the situation differently? Could I see it in a way that I could improve or solve it?
What if he was being familiar or more friendly? Friends curse with each other more than people with formal relationships. This view seemed plausible and nothing in his behavior contradicted that interpretation.
From then on I intentionally adopted the belief that he was being friendly. Reinterpreting the cursing interaction, I found the feeling of offense letting go.
It worked. When I treated him less formally and more friendly, he became yet more friendly. Nothing of his behavior seemed offensive any more, though had I looked for offense I’m sure I could have found it. Instead he shared more insights with me. We kept in touch after graduation, getting drinks on occasion. I don’t think of it this way, but he’s one of the highest ranking, most accomplished people in my circle of friends—a guy I tried to have punished.
I don’t doubt that if I had pushed enough, I could have had him punished in some way. People think professors have authority in the classroom. In some ways they do, but the students have a lot of authority. They’re paying for the class. The school wants them happy and successful. School rankings drive demand and prestige, negative media will hurt those rankings, and the media will generally side with students.
Had I succeeded that way, I would probably have considered having him punished as a David-over-Goliath victory. But what would I have won? I would have learned that I could use authority, which I’ve come to consider the last tool for a leader to use. It generates resistance and motivates people to undermine that authority. It creates adversarial relationships. What kind of victory is that? I would have learned the opposite of leadership.
Instead I made a great friend. In some ways I led the relationship. He responded to my change of perspective. He likes hearing how I put what I learned from him into practice, but I’ve gained a lot more from the relationship.
Last winter I had drinks with a business school friend who didn’t take my professor’s course. He told me that a year or two after school he interviewed where my professor worked, a different one than the Fortune 100 one. He said the professor asked him if he took his course. My friend said that when he said he didn’t that he took him to task for it, which he considered abusing his authority. My friend was as offended with the professor as I had been.
But he hadn’t taken leadership classes after the interaction. When I suggested to my friend that he could interpret the interaction differently, he stubbornly refused. From his perspective, the professor was wrong—a jerk abusing his authority. He refused to change his perspective.
The next time I saw the professor I decided to verify my interpretation. I told him about my friend’s interaction and interpretation, keeping his identity anonymous. Actually, I had never told him how I had intentionally reinterpreted my interaction with him, I had only changed my behavior, so I told him both interactions.
I think that what he described was you giving him an opportunity to connect. If you interviewed him professionally you would have had a formal interview. You’d learn he could behave professionally and could verify what his resume said, but you wouldn’t have gotten to meet him. I think what he described us unprofessional was you being informal, how you’d talk with a coworker, giving him a chance to talk to you as a coworker.
He smiled knowingly and said “Exactly.”
Meanwhile, my friend is still angry.