The Paper Tiger Breeding Program: Thoughts on Leadership

A couple weeks ago I saw a great documentary called Paper Tigers, which illustrates the effect of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) on behavior and other health outcomes by following students and staff at Lincoln Alternative High School in Walla Walla, Washington over the course of a school year. It was incredible movie. It really does a beautiful job of making  what has always been, for me, an academic/philosophical discussion of ACEs real. They say a picture is worth a thousand words. A full-length documentary? So very many more! If you’re at all interested in the effects of childhood trauma or the social determinants of health, I can’t recommend it highly enough.

Despite my familiarity with the topic (I routinely work with our clinic’s child abuse physician on programmatic and research endeavors, particularly those related to ACEs and trauma-informed care), I didn’t get the title until two-thirds of the way through the movie. As one of the featured teachers speaks over scenes of the school, he explains that the traumas these children have experienced have left their brains incapable of differentiating between real and imaginary threats; between real and paper tigers.

Light bulb!

I loved the concept so much! So I did some hard hitting, in-depth research. Ahem. According to Wikipedia:

Paper tiger is a literal English translation of the Chinese phrase zhilaohu (紙老虎). The term refers to something that seems threatening but is ineffectual and unable to withstand challenge.” {Source}

I just loved that distinction so much — real vs. paper tigers. It was so striking in the context of this movie… and then a few days later, still rolling it around in my mind, I had reasoned it into a completely different context.

Real tigers are dangerous. Ask Siegfried and Roy. Ask Pi (from The Life of…).

Yet… real tigers are also the shiz. Even in the examples above. Even after an attack that may or may not have been “secondary and accidental,” Siegfried and Roy continued their magic show full of tigers (and lions too! oh my!) and now maintain a menagerie in Las Vegas. And what would Pi have done without the striped and terrifying Richard Parker?

Real Tigers: Stripes and Teeth, Talent and Danger {Source and Source}
Real Tigers: Stripes and Teeth, Talent and Danger {Source and Source}

Paper tigers, on the other hand, are only an illusion. They look like tigers, but they’re not dangerous. Nor are they the shiz. They’re just paper — no threat, but no talent either. Except that, like Daniel Tiger, they can go to the potty.

{Source}
{Source}

And that’s what I want to talk about, really.

Not every job, every position, every organization needs to be full of tigers. But when you’ve got a tiger, a beautiful, brilliant, maybe even somewhat dangerous tiger, it seems only logical that as a leader, you’d want to make them the star of the show, a la Siegfried and Roy. Or at least learn to appreciate their company, like Pi. Instead, we see tigers in an organizational context (e.g., work, church, school, clubs) reduced in whatever way possible — trim the claws, pull the teeth, tranquilize. And beautiful beasts slink away from places where they could have done so much good with their tails between their legs, a roar stifled in their throat.

To fill the vacancy? An influx of paper tigers. Threat reduced to no more than a paper cut. Leadership can relax.

But is someone in a leadership role really a leader if they can’t appreciate a real tiger?

This, I believe, is the crux of the problem. Too often we conflate management and leadership. We end up fooled into believing that they are one and the same.

I would suggest, however, that management and leadership are two separate and distinct constructs– not mutually exclusive, but to be certain, each can and does exist without the other.

Brene Brown puts it poignantly in the introduction to Chapter 6 Disruptive Engagement: Daring to Rehumanize Education and Work in her book Daring Greatly. She says:

“Before we start this chapter, I want to clarify what I mean by ‘leader.’ I’ve come to believe that a leader is anyone who holds her- or himself accountable for finding potential in people and processes. The term leader has nothing to do with position, status, or number of direct reports.”

I’m completely in love with this definition for two reasons. First, it explicitly removes position and power from the notion of leadership. Second, it centers on an idea of leadership characterized by accountability and a desire to recognize, appreciate, and make use of the talents, skills, and other valuable traits of those around you.

To bring this idea back to my own long-winded metaphor, a leader is someone who keeps the company of tigers. Real tigers. And likes it.

 

But what about the danger?

 

In Daring Greatly, Brown’s entire premise revolves around a really amazing quotation from a 1910 speech given by Theodore Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.

The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the area, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,

because there is no effort without error and short-coming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worth cause;

who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly…”

As an academician, clinician, and shame researcher, Brene Brown describes how this whole idea of daring greatly is based on the willingness to be vulnerable. To allow ourselves to be seen, to open ourselves up to hurt, and to be willing to fail.

Most importantly, none of these things require position, status, or power. And since that’s the case… can do it, you can do it, anyone can do it anywhere. As such, I think more of us need to lead from where we are, when we’re there, and in whatever way we can. Refuse to be de-clawed, continue to roar, and appreciate the stripes of the other tigers around us. Look those tigers in the eye and thank them for being big and beautiful and brilliant and special. Maybe even encourage a paper tiger to leap off the page (like Pinocchio — I’m a real boy!).

I spend a lot of time feeling frustrated about my position and I suspect a lot of others do too. We feel unappreciated and powerless in our organizations, but we’re not because we can look out for other tigers and make ourselves accountable for recognizing their potential. We can lead from where we are… step out of the paper tiger breeding program and roar our loudest roar.

4 thoughts on “The Paper Tiger Breeding Program: Thoughts on Leadership

  1. I love your extended metaphor! Too often in education the job of teaching may look like taming/declawing tigers. I would like to think that I can help a few tigers roar.

  2. Great post Rachel! In my many years in corporate America very few are leaders in the true sense you stated. So many are afraid.

Leave a Reply