Could You Use a Slap to the Back of the Head?

One of our favorite all-time binge watches is NCIS. We have been through the series three times now.

I love LeRoy Jethro Gibbs and would love to be more like him. I tried it one year at Scout camp, but it just got me into trouble.

The best running gag in the show is Gibbs’ famous head slaps. Whenever someone says or does something stupid (usually Dinozzo) Gibbs gives them a slap to the back of the head. Sometimes it is just a slap, sometimes it’s accompanied by a short lecture.

Tutorial on Gibb’s Head Slaps

Maybe it’s a guy thing, but I believe that these types of lessons can be very effective. You get the learner’s attention, deliver the messages and move on.

I bring this up because the other day I received a call from a friend who gave me one of these slap-in the-back-of-the-head lessons and I made the point, during our phone call, to thank him for it. I have, in my adult life, had three really good head-slap lessons. None of them was actually accompanied by physical assault, but at the time you’d have thought so.

The lessons came as short, blunt lectures from men who cared about me. They saw that I was being stupid (my word, not their’s) and were brave enough to deliver the needed counsel.

The first slap lesson came in the late 1980s as I was serving as Elders’ Quorum president in Safford, Arizona. President Ronald Jacobson (counselor in the stake presidency) had invited me for a stewardship interview and because our quorum presidency was not doing its job, I was blowing smoke. I told President Jacobson that I just couldn’t get my counselors to go out ministering with me (which was true) because they were too busy building businesses to support their families (one was an insurance salesman and the other was building an MLM network).

President Jacobson leaned forward over the desk and (verbally) slapped me in the back of the head. He told me that I was just making excuses; that the problem was leadership and that I needed to expect more of myself and my counselors. He told me to go to my counselors and challenge them to do their duty and that our presidency needed to move forward in the work of the Lord.

I had never been challenged like that by a priesthood leader before. I didn’t know how to react and had to sit out in the foyer after the interview and compose myself. I wasn’t angry. I wasn’t hurt. I could have been, but knew he was right and that I needed to man up. I decided to do so that very night.

I went to my first counselor’s home and challenged him. He thanked me for the challenge, but let me know that he had received a new calling to serve in the ward bishopric and that he would be released the following Sunday. I left his home wondering why President Jacobson, who surely knew about his new calling, would send me to challenge him. I don’t know if my challenge made a difference, but that brother filled his new calling with great dedication and enthusiasm – much more than he had as my counselor.

My meeting with my second counselor was similar. After I challenged him, he informed me that he and his family were moving that week and he would no longer be serving with me. I left his home even more confused as to why I was counseled to challenge these men, but felt proud of myself that I had done it.

The rest of the story is that within the next couple of weeks I had two new counselors. They were good men and I don’t want to take anything away from them, but I was determined to never have another embarrassing interview with President Jacobson, so I exerted leadership and challenged them right away. Over the next couple of years, we worked well as a team, ministered to the people in our charge and had great success. It was one of the highlights of my lay ministering experience.

My second slap-in-the-head came when I was teaching in Wenatchee Washington. In addition to my released-time and coordinating assignment, I taught a weekly institute class for young adults. The students were a great group who were there because they wanted to be and we had a wonderful spiritual experience each week. (At least I did.)

One day I got a message from my area director, Richard Arnold, that we were supposed to be charging a $10 fee for the class. I had never done this because we didn’t need the money to operate and I felt like it might be a deterrent to students that might be struggling financially. So, I ignored Brother Arnold’s directive.

Each time I talked with Brother Arnold, he would ask me if I had started charging for institute class. Each time I shared my rationale and suggested that it wasn’t needed. I felt a little guilty not following the directions of my boss, but rationalized that I was more concerned about my students.

One day my secretary came home from a training meeting in Seattle and reported that Brother Arnold had approached her in front of all the other secretaries from the area and asked if Brother Bath had started charging for his institute class in Wenatchee. When she told him that I had not, he responded, “What’s the matter, doesn’t he think he’s worth it?”

Ouch! It was bad enough that he had aired my dirty laundry in front of all the secretaries, but now he was getting personal – challenging my self-image.

I got angry and stormed into my office, but as soon as I sat at my desk found myself asking if he was right. Was I afraid to charge a fee because it might become a test of my popularity?  Was my ego threatened? After some introspection I decided that there might be some truth in his challenge.

The next term, I told the students that we would be charging a $10 fee for our class, but if any of them could not afford the fee, I would waive it.  The result was amazing.  Not only did every single current student pony up the $10, but we had a large enrollment increase and attendance was more regular. I believe the students were not only glad to pay the fee, but it gave them a sense of ownership.

The third slap-in-the-head came when I was struggling to find direction during one of the darkest times of my life. In 2003, due to a series of events I can only describe as providential, I found myself suddenly and seriously unemployed. All I had ever done (professionally) was teach seminary and institute and I jokingly suggested to my wife that I was going to stand in the Walmart parking lot with a homemade, cardboard sign that read, “Will teach the gospel of Jesus Christ for food.”

During this time, I met Tom Armstrong who offered me a job as a loan officer in his mortgage loan company. I accepted, but ended up driving him crazy.

The problem was that I couldn’t make up my mind what I wanted to do. Along with the guilt and fear that came from being marginally employed came the rush of having so many options for possible careers – especially in financial services. Within a couple of years, I was licensed as a mortgage loan officer, property and causality insurance agent, life insurance agent, securities agent, real estate agent and had worked in each business, for different employers – including (off and on) Tom. During the same time, I had gone to work as a site administrator for the Granite Peaks Community Education, taken a night job as a custodian at a car dealership and was back in the CES pre-service program, hoping to be rehired.

One day, Tom called me. He asked about my availability because his business was exploding. I told him about my latest venture and he slapped me in the back of the head. Borrowing a line from A Man for All Seasons and delivering it in his deepest Tennessee accent, Tom said, “Vince, when your head stops spinning, I hope it’s facing forward.”

Just like with the other slaps I’d received, there was that initial moment of anger, followed by the realization that he was probably right, I needed to focus. Within a couple of months, Debra and I were sitting across the desk from Tom in his office. He thought we were there to recruit him to a multi-level-marketing scam, but we were there to ask if we could come to work for him – Vince as a loan officer and Debra as my processor.

This did not end up being the career I finally settled on, but during that next year I worked hard with and for Tom. I learned focus and self-discipline to a degree I had never experienced before.

I realize that not all head slaps result in great learning experiences, but that is probably due to more to the receptiveness of the learner than the delivery of the lesson. In any three of these cases, I could have chosen to be offended and miss the lesson.

I know I have delivered some head slaps to my children, students, camp staff, those I supervised in my work and served as a minister.  It has been interesting to see how the lessons have been internalized (or not).

I just know that I am grateful to these men, to my wife and to God for the head slaps I have received. Because of them I have increased my faith in God, learned to follow the counsel of inspired leaders, focus, be more humble, seek help and have courage.

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