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  • Benjamin Martin

Is your leadership distracted by accolades?

"Let the accolades come in their own time as a result of your work, not as the reason why you work."

I recently received a phone call from an officer in a large department. We talk from time to time, but the reason for this particular call was to help him sort through a feeling he couldn't seem to shake on his own.

He began, "I don't feel as though I'm having an impact right now." He continued, "I mean I know I am, I am just struggling more and more often to stay motivated." When I asked about what he had been up to lately, he reported a slew of activity ranging from him helping teach as an adjunct instructor in his own department and speaking on a topic he's extremely passionate about at a national conference, to finding out his most senior firefighter just received a promotion to Lieutenant. He added, "And obviously we've been running a ton of calls, and the guys are doing a great job meeting the demands the citizens and the pace of this place asks of them. The team is doing very well, but I'm just finding that to keep it all going my buy-in is challenged at times." It certainly sounded like to me that things were firing on all cylinders for him, and I loved that he had his team at the forefront of his thoughts.

I can identify with a lot of what this individual is feeling. It's one of the reasons I started this blog and our page on Facebook--our struggles are not as unique and as uncommon as we allow ourselves to believe. When you care about this job, and the people you work with, you are going to experience both highs and lows. It can drain you, especially if you are in a spot where you are the lone-driving force of getting things done. I called him back a few days later to talk some more and we ended up having a conversation about the difference between working towards having an impact, and receiving accolades.

Accolades occur throughout our careers when we receive specific recognition for an action we've done. Whether it's an award for a call for service, a promotion, or someone simply pausing to say "nice job", it serves as a feel-good moment for yourself. Accolades are great, as good work should get recognized from time to time. But to confuse receiving an accolade, with the ability to have an impact at work, is a trap for even the most humble of leaders amongst us. The problem with accolades is that their motivation has a shelf-life that rarely is more than a few weeks. And since it primarily benefits only you, accolades rarely motivate a group the way we would hope they might.

Let's try thinking about this for more than just a fleeting moment. Say you receive an award as the outstanding firefighter of the year where you work. First of all, congrats! But that plaque in itself doesn't get the hose stretched, ladders thrown, or mission accomplished. Psychologists have known for years that too much artificial reward starts to shift people's intrinsic motivation to one that requires more and more promise of additional reward. It's important that we not kid ourselves about the fact that the fire service revolves largely around the efforts of a minority of folks whose give a crap is more way than just the average joe.

So when I hear a friend who loves this job say his buy-in is challenged and he's losing motivation, I take it pretty seriously. Losing people from this group of go-getters really, really hurts organizations if leaders let it happen.

On the flip side, having an impact at work occurs when we benefit others with our actions. Spending a few hours at the pump panel with the rookie isn't going to earn you a plaque, nor should it--it's called doing your job. Sometimes we can earn recognition from our actions, such as a promotion, but it never changes why we do what we do--because we love this job. Even the best of us can lose sight of having an impact on those around us, in the pursuit of things that also benefit us. That's a struggle I have stared in the face before.

I offered to my friend that he had experienced a great number of accolades in a short time, and perhaps he was going through a withdrawal phase where he was looking for recognition in the wrong places. We agreed that a constant refocus of our efforts as leaders was needed to make sure we had the team out front and center, achieving impact in the process. So this morning as I write this, I am encouraging you to do the same, and look to see where you can have the most impact for others.

Author Bio: Benjamin Martin has over sixteen years in public safety and currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. He is an international speaker on Leadership, including his entertaining and unique takes on emotional intelligence and organizational culture. His leadership articles have appeared in publications including Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the founder of which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at

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