Meanings “Cauterize”

December 18, 2011

Not the commonest of words but quite a graphic one, “cauterize” comes from a Latin root meaning “to burn or brand with a hot iron.”

What put me in mind of the word was this quotation from Geoffrey Canada, founder of the Harlem Children’s Zone, a much admired educational program for children.  Interviewed in the New York Times about leadership he said:

Convincing people to give your way a try will work if you neutralize — and sometimes you have to cauterize — the ones who really are against change. They’re the kind of person who, if you tell them it’s raining outside, they’ll fight you tooth and nail. You take them outside in the rain, and they’ll say, “But it wasn’t raining five seconds ago.”

I spent a year trying to convince those people to change and give me a chance. Then I realized that was a wasted year. I’d have been much better just to simply say O.K., thank you, difference of opinion. Go do something else with your life. Let me work with this group of folks and move forward. And then you can rebuild that relatively quickly.

The experience that led him to this lesson came at a school in Massachusetts that worked by consensus. Canada says, “Which sounds wonderful, but it was just a very, very difficult way to sort of manage anything, because convincing everybody to do one particular thing, especially if it was hard, was almost impossible.”

Quakers, of course, try to work by consensus; it’s an essential element in the decision-making process at Earlham College, for example.  I wonder whether the school in Massachusetts where he grew frustrated with consensus was a Quaker school.

One thing I’ve learned — as has anyone who holds a leadership position in an organization that works by consensus — is that nearly everyone (everyone?) has to be committed to the process of seeking solutions together with good will.  If some use it to simply resist change, it can be destructive.  I understand Canada’s frustration, but I’m sad he didn’t experience consensus decision-making with a group of people who are fully committed to listening with care to one another and conscientiously seeking to move together.

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About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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