Tough and Tender

This is an appreciation for the life of Martin Luther King, whom we remember on this holiday. Observances today will recall his activism, courage, and oratory. For the world wide Darden community, I would like to recall a different, but equally important, aspect of his message. King said, “We must combine the toughness of the serpent with the softness of the dove, a tough mind and a tender heart.” This is consistent with his advocacy of nonviolent resistance to racism. But it is also a vitally-important message for living well and certainly for prospering in the Darden classroom and in business life.

The paradox of tough and tender is quite simply a reminder of the value of self-discipline. Every day, students in our learning teams and classrooms learn that there is an approach to daily work that is both tough minded and respectful, temperate, measured, and courteous (or what King might call, “tender hearted”). For most people, it takes conscious effort to be both tough and tender. On some occasions, righteous anger might be justified. But I have seen enough people foreshorten their business effectiveness and career prospects that I doubt that open anger helps much.

The news in recent weeks offered some spectacular examples. In December, Michael Richards, the comedian, was heckled and then lost his temper on stage with a spew of racist epithets.

Then we saw Donald Trump and Rosie O’Donnell go ballistic:

Donald said about Rosie: “Loser” “Big fat pig” “Woman out of control.” “Bully” “A mental midget, a low-life” “Fat slob” “Animal” “A very unattractive woman…worse on the inside.” “Her show did poorly” “I’m going to sue her”

Rosie said about Donald: “Snake-oil salesman.” “A pimp” “The comb-over” “I’m happy his show tanked.”

Now Barbara Walters and even Madonna have weighed in on the dispute. It will be a long winter if this keeps up. Actually the history of celebrity feuding has a glittery past. Michael Eisner was CEO of Disney when Jeffrey Katzenberg quit in 1994 to start a competing film studio, DreamWorks—Eisner said of Katzenberg, “I hate the little midget.” Even the king, Elvis Presley, went public with his dislike of Robert Goulet. Expressions like these may make interesting newspaper copy, but they are no foundation for professional stature.

An annual rite for many business school deans is to deal with someone in the academic community who transmits an angry, rude, demeaning, insulting, and/or profane email to the community. At University of Virginia, we are reminded of Thomas Jefferson’s maxim: “When angry, count ten before you speak. If very angry, an hundred.” What’s the lesson here?

Self-discipline matters. The classroom must balance freedom of expression with the kind of respectful discourse that actually moves us toward deeper insight, mastery, and truth. In the case-method classroom, getting to the best ideas quickly requires hard thinking plus collaboration. Such is surely true in business. The kind of self-discipline that enables tough and tender discourse is one big contribution of the movement toward diversity and inclusiveness: through it we learn the kind of mutual respect that helps the community move toward a common goal.

Here’s my appreciation for Martin Luther King: he pointed us not only toward a better society, but also toward a better personal life, and a better way of living. Living the tough, but tender, life requires great self-discipline. But the reward is immense. King said, “Hatred paralyzes life; love releases it. Hatred confuses life; love harmonizes it. Hatred darkens life; love illuminates it.”

Posted by Robert Bruner at 01/15/2007 10:42:02 AM

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