I work in an area with a legacy of cotton-picking and Parchman Penitentiary. Unfortunately, the figure of the overseer and the straw boss dominate “leadership” styles in all facets of life.
I have a unique view of life because of the geographies of my living areas. As a child, I grew up in a small, postage-stamp of a town called, Centreville, Mississippi. Geographically speaking, it is in Wilkinson County, Mississippi and between the small cities of McComb and Natchez, Mississippi and Baton Rouge, Louisiana. All of these little cities were less than an hour’s drive away, and we did most of our major shopping in one of them.
Brief aside, I sure miss the Sunflower grocery store in McComb and The Real Superstore in Baton Rouge. I am not sure if Sunflower is still open, but I know the Real Superstore went out of business years ago. If you are near McComb and happen to drive in that area, give me a holler. I may make the day drive and do some shopping there.
Here’s another unique thing about my hometown: it is right across the border from Alcatraz South, also known as Angola State Prison, located in West Feliciana Parish, Louisiana (the town proper is called St. Francisville, but Angola has its own post office, so it is not listed in that town).
As a matter of fact, people in that area have worked in Angola for generations. Our grandparents, parents, and now some of my classmates and friends work there. There is a rodeo that many people visit every year. Even church buses go! Angola is also famous for its leatherworking, and many women purchase coin purses and purses from the prison store. Learn more about Angola here: https://www.angolamuseum.org/history-of-angola
Another unique thing about my town is that a private prison sits on Hwy. 61 right outside of Woodville, Mississippi. This private prison, or the Wilkinson County Correctional Facility, is one of the biggest employers in the area. And for the low pay and long hours, it is one of the most dangerous workplaces in the area. Recently, the prison has taken steps to reform its operations and its image: https://www.mtctrains.com/facility/wilkinson-county-correctional-facility/
In my current life, I live right outside of Memphis in the North Mississippi area. I call this area ArkaMemphissippi, because no matter how much the “city” folk of Memphis try to separate themselves from the “country” folk of “Arkansaw” and “Mis’Sippi,” they are all the same people. Ask anybody desperately searching for a job in Memphis, and we can all tell you that Memphis operates like a small town. They use the KFC hiring system here. In order to be qualified for a job, no matter its listed qualifications, you’d better be Kin to somebody already working there, a Friend of somebody or a friend of a friend, and in the right Church Clique. Here, church attendance (and the right, megachurch…not just a small church with no importance), seems to be more important than college attendance and skill-set. Ooops, there goes another aside. Sorry, Reader. Sometimes, it is hard for the professor to stay on track.
I live in ArkaMemphississippi and I work in the Mississippi Delta. My university is not too far from Riker’s Island South, also known as Parchman Penitentiary. This prison is notorious. It seems like every week, there is something written on it. Here’s a recent article about the nightmare lock-up from PBS: https://www.pbs.org/newshour/arts/inside-mississippis-notorious-parchman-prison
In addition to working in close proximity to the notorious penitentiary, each time I take the hour-plus long commute to work, I pass through the heart of Greenwood, Mississippi. Greenwood brags on being the Cotton King. That county produces more cotton than many of the world’s cotton growers combined! After exiting Highway 7 South, I take Hwy 82 into the small town where my school sits. The Highway 82 corridor was and is still the home of more unskilled, Black men than anywhere else in America. During Great Migration II, many labor agents paid people to write letters home (and include a $10) to this area and entice Black male workers to Northern factories. Anxious to be rid of crushing Jim Crow, the American serfdom system known as sharecropping, and the boll weevil, many were lured by these letters. What they found was that they’d left one form of racism behind in the South to be trapped by another in the North. They had moved from the plantation to the ghetto. Now, whether or not that’s progress is subject to your interpretation, Reader. Explore more on that topic from the primary sources reader, Let Nobody Turn Us Around, compiled and edited by Manning Marable and Leith Mullings. https://www.amazon.com/Let-Nobody-Turn-Around-Anthology/dp/0742560570/ref=sr_1_1?crid=CO3QBJSBEAVK&keywords=let+nobody+turn+us+around+an+african+american+anthology&qid=1660744214&sprefix=Let+Nobody+Turn+Us+A%2Caps%2C1365&sr=8-1
There is a section in the book literally called, “From the Plantation to the Ghetto.”
Now, all of those paragraphs that you just read, Dear Reader, were part of a rhetorical strategy. I am establishing my authority to speak on a subject with your trust, Reader. Let me tell you this: I know a strawboss when I see one! What is a strawboss, you ask? Well, a strawboss is almost imperceptible from an overseer. The only difference is that the strawboss works inside prison walls and he looks a lot like this:
Technically speaking, a strawboss is a prison guard. Now, not all prison guards are strawbosses and not all of them are white, though the picture above would have been certainly true until after integration. Not all strawbosses are men. Some strawbosses are women. Strawbosses are middle managers who not only maintain the status quo, but oppress those workers beneath him/her in the company hierarchy in an effort to impress the leader and gain some kind of comeuppance.
The sad part is, because this area takes its leadership cues from the plantation and the prison (It is no accident that sometimes, the prison is called the plantation or the “farm”), most people do not know the difference between strawboss management styles and leadership. I am willing to bet that most people do not know the difference between a strawboss and a real leader. Most people are at work for a check and they do whatever it takes to earn that check. They do not realize how the strawboss is bending and shaping them into cogs of a machine. Let me give you a few differences between strawbosses and leaders.
- ) A leader embraces change when she has to. A strawboss works to maintain the status quo, even when the status quo is no longer serving the institution/business/population. Let me say this: strawboss managers are not innovative nor do they welcome independent thought, creativity, and innovation. Strawboss managers are not solutions-finders, as they do not ever see anything wrong with the way things are. They WILL NOT welcome those of us who are independent thinkers, goal-oriented, solutions-driven, and creative. Because they are benefitting economically and socially from the way things are, they work at all costs to crush your independent thought life and actions, even if you can see that the status quo is no longer serving the most people. Reader, I once worked at a college where the majority of the administration and faculty were in their late 60s and early 70s. These people INSISTED that my khaki pants and blazers were just “not professional” enough. One day, we had a 2-hour meeting about the dress code and how some professors were encouraging students to “dress down” on campus. They kept bringing up this dress code that has been the school’s tradition for years before “some folk” were born. Keep in mind, this meeting took place in 2016. Do you know, Reader, what year they were referencing? 1976. They even had the phrase, “hot pants,” in the policy. I didn’t say a word. First of all, who wears “hot pants” any more? Second of all, why were we having a meeting about the dress code when I had three or four students confess to me that they were living with AIDS and having a hard time purchasing their medications? Why were we having a meeting about a dress code when several of my students were suffering from PTSD due to family members being gunned down in front of them? And who was this dress code serving? Though I may not have been dressed like a 65-year-old, I was professional and clean every day. The students mirrored my dress, because the 65-year-olds and the 70-year-olds did not understand that undergraduates do not want to dress like their grandparents. Better yet, why were we having a meeting, which was an attempt to make me conform to a dress code that was constructed before I was born? Who was this dress code serving? The senior citizens who complained about the dress code were drawing full social security with no small children and no student loans to repay. They were comfortable spending hundreds of dollars on clothes in order to “dress to impress,” but I didn’t have that kind of disposable income. Every dime I had was spent on bills, groceries, gas, and my children. For me, khaki pants and a blazer were what I could afford. Furthermore, our student population were largely first-generation and poor. They dressed like me, because they were underpaid (in the case of most students, not paid at all), like me. I was the students and they were me. And that was not the only thing that was being forced on me. But that is the most nontraumatic instance that I can write about without a drink in my hand.
- Leaders recognize what decade or century we live in while strawbosses seem to remain stuck. When you work for a strawboss, get ready to hear a steady stream of complaints about new technology and how it is making us stupid. Get ready to do almost everything important on a piece of paper that somebody somewhere will lose. Get ready for inefficient, outdated phone lines, software packages, and work methods. Leaders, while possessing discernment about what is new and good instead of what is just new, tend to further their own education about changing times, technologies, and work conditions. Strawbosses are often intellectually arrogant and lazy. When they received their degree or position, that was it! There was nothing else to learn: they learned everything that there is when they graduated college in 1987. Trying to update them or show them how this system or that system is inefficient is like talking to a brick wall. It’s what they learned, what they are accustomed to, and you’d better get with the program if you want a job and a paycheck with them!
3.) Leaders value independent, critical thinking (especially if it aligns with the company’s vision) while strawbosses only value what you contribute from the neck-down. A leader values an independent, solutions-oriented employee. Actually, that is good management strategy. When employees contribute to the company/institution/organization, they buy in. When things go wrong, all of the contributing employees feel a need to help solve the problems for the good of the company. A strawboss believes that good management strategy is to grind people down until they become unthinking machines and just do what they are told. Well, this may make the strawboss feel more secure in his/her tenuous position, but it is HORRIBLE management strategy. If ever those employees smell smoke, they won’t say anything for fear of being punished. They will simply pack up their desks, make sure HR has their bank account so that their check can be direct deposited, and leave the burning building with the boss in it. That’s the boss’ job to think — not the employees. And the crazy thing about strawbosses is that they let you know the buck stops with them. But when the company/organization/institution is reduced to rubble, they look for the nearest person to blame. In actuality, they fired the truth-teller, the one who was telling them that the building is burning, months before! Don’t believe me? https://abcnews.go.com/Business/story?id=87421&page=1
The truth is inconvenient, but it may stop a scandal, save the company, and help keep hundreds or thousands of people employed.
4.) Leaders work on long-term vision and strategy for the entire organization/institution/company. Strawbosses only think about themselves. Most empathic leaders strategize for an organization’s future for the next 5 years and plan for the next 10 or 20. Strawbosses have no vision. Period. They do what is profitable for themselves. Now, I am not turning the word, “ambition” into something profane here. That is not what I mean. Everyone should have goals for themselves. Strawbosses in positions of leadership are selfish, self-serving, and operating with a hidden agenda that includes their advancement only! They don’t care who they use in pursuit of their own desires. People are tools to be used and making money is the goal — not service. Their selfish view of just about everything in life prevents them from strategizing for the entire organization/institution/business. They simply cannot futurecast and don’t give one damn about how their actions affect your livelihood. It’s all about them. As long as the paychecks, praise, and promotions keep coming, your humanity is not important.
5. Leaders seek to serve others. Strawbosses seek to impress others. Those people who are true leaders understand that the definition of leadership is actually services. For real leaders, the policies that they enact, the actions that they take (even if it is a unilateral action), are done with service to others in mind. At the least, the true leader looks at the obligations and responsibilities that come with the position and seek to do no harm to others. Strawbosses, on the other hand, always seek to impress the higher-ups. Even if they are the CEO, there is somebody to impress: board members, perhaps? A strawboss manager wants to impress the Vice President. A strawboss vice president seeks to impress President. A strawboss President seeks to impress the Board. The strawboss Board Member seeks to impress the Chairman of the Board. A strawboss Chairman of the Board seeks to impress stockholders. And so we have an unending chain of impression management and no actual work or quality control being done! Strawbosses do not have vision, because that requires work. Strawbosses do not want to know the truth, because it is inconvenient to their impression management. Strawbosses don’t work innovative employees, because that employee rocks their fragile boat.
Reader, by now, you can probably tell that I have worked for more than my fair share of strawbosses, though I am in academia. Yes, the plantation overseer/prison strawboss mentality dominates administrative attitudes in the Ivory Tower here. And that’s just sad. We’re supposed to lead the way with critical thinking and innovation. Most of us are ground into silent, capitalist cogs in the degree-factory. Okay, I just depressed myself.
So, I promised you all a continuation of the Reconstruction visitation. And I will be back with that this week. But I had to therapize myself (and hopefully, you, too Reader) with this post. It has been a long, hard road for me. And none of the bumps that I experienced had anything to do with my know-how, drive, or relationships with students. In the words of Sister Meghan Thee Stallion, “I don’t brag enough.” I am a retention program all by myself. And in spite of my hard work, dedication, and creative solutions, I still face roadblocks from people with the strawboss mentality.
This is coming from my personal work diary. If you like it, press the hands. If you are in McComb and can tell me if Sunflower is still open, leave a comment. If you are in Baton Rouge and miss the Real Superstore, as much as I do, leave a comment. If you are in New Orleans and Rouse’s is your favorite grocery store, give me a holler.