Guest Post: A Lesson from Joe Clark on Communicating On Record Plainly

My name is Tucker Burke and I am a senior at the University of Alabama, majoring in Management Information Systems. I will be graduating in May before I begin my career at Ernst & Young in Nashville, TN. As a part of my education, I have been working to complete a specialization in Management Communication, which includes Dr. Kim’s class on leadership and communication. My entry below comes from an exercise that we completed after reviewing Joe Clark’s reaction to his new colleagues in the timeless movie, Lean on Me.

This assignment, along with the class and specialization, give great perspective on the importance of communication in any business setting. As someone aspiring to someday be in a leadership role within a company, I appreciate examples like those in Lean on Me that show exemplary leadership in a critical situation.

The Assignment

Read the dialogue from the film Lean on Me. (You can listen to the audio at the American Rhetoric website.) Joe Clark (played by Morgan Freeman) has been hired to take over Eastside High, an inner-city school with very serious problems, and is addressing the faculty and staff for the first time. How would you characterize Clark’s purpose? What tactics does he use to signal that his purpose is paramount? How effective is he in this management situation? Explain the manager’s effectiveness by talking about any predicted changes in relationship quality and organizational effectiveness after this meeting.

The scene opens with Mr. Clark being introduced by Mr. O’Malley, the Vice Principal who waxes eloquent welcoming Clark to Eastside.

Clark: [interrupting] You may sit down, Mr. O’Malley. If you could [run this school] I wouldn’t be here, . . . ? No one talks in my meetings. . . . Take out your pencils and write. I want the names of every hoodlum, drug dealer, and miscreant on my desk by noon today. Reverend Slappy . . . you are now the Chief Custodian, . . . You will scour this building clean. Graffiti goes up, it’s off the next day. Is that clear?

Slappy: Yes, sir, . . .

Clark: Detention students can help you. Let them scrub this place for awhile . . .This is my new Dean of Security, Mr. William Wright. He will be my Avenging Angel, as you teachers reclaim the halls. . . . Mr. Zorella, you are now my new Head Football Coach. . . . Mr. Darnell will be your assistant. You know why you’re being demoted, Mr. Darnell? Because I’m sick and tired of our football team getting pushed all over the field. Thank you. Sit down. . . . And if you don’t like it Mr. Darnell, you can quit. Same goes for the rest of you. You tried it your way for years. And your students can’t even get past the Minimum Basic Skills Test. . . . They’ve given me less than one year . . . to turn this place around . . . so the State will not take us over to perform the tasks which you have failed to do! . . . Forget about the way it used to be. This is not a damn democracy. We are in a state of emergency and my word is law. There’s only one boss in this place, and that’s me.

My Response

Mr. Clark lets it be known immediately that he means business. His directive tone and way of interrupting the meeting at the beginning make it very clear to the faculty and staff that he has control of the situation.

Similar to our reading in chapter 7 of the TILL textbook, Mr. Clark follows each one of the four main tactics of the “On Record Plainly” strategy for communicating. He is explicit when stating at the beginning: “No one talks in my meetings” as opposed to saying something like: “I would prefer that you not talk during this meeting.” The team is left with no doubt about what his expectations are. Similarly, the way that Mr. Clark goes about relaying his instructions is very concise and organized. He talks to the teachers as a whole at first before going individually through the new roles of the custodial staff, football coaches, etc.

In my mind, this is one of the best examples of the “On Record Plainly” strategy because of Clark’s effectiveness at taking control. Despite the individual responses and rapport damage to relationships with single teachers, the organizational goal is far more urgent and will be achieved. Having such a strong leader will cause more of the school teachers to change the broken school.

One thought on “Guest Post: A Lesson from Joe Clark on Communicating On Record Plainly

  1. Tucker’s response to this exercise showed me he understands both the characteristics of plain communication (i.e., from the beginning it’s explicit/direct, concise, and organized) as well as when this strategy is effective (i.e., situations when the message content is of primary importance). I should disclose that, as with the authentic audience of Clark’s message, my students are usually divided about how effective he was:

    Those who believe the situation was urgent and required a MANAGER argue Clark was effective.

    Those who see the situation as less urgent believe it required a LEADER, someone who would simultaneously attend to both tasks and people, and argue Clark was ineffective.

    Context determines the effectiveness of all communication strategies and tactics. Good work, Tucker, and congrats on the job at E&Y!

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