Don't Overestimate Your Leadership Ability
Updated: Dec 19, 2021
So let's talk about...the opportunity of leadership.
When I finally earned the chance to become a lieutenant, I couldn't wait to come to work. When I arrived at my new assignment, I was blessed to find a solid senior firefighter whose passion and motivation paired well with mine. Over the next six months, we trained our asses off, ran fires, and got lots of positive feedback on the team's performance. Overall, things were going amazing, until seemingly overnight, they very much weren't.
After two back-to-back promotions of our senior firefighters, I quickly realized in their absence just how much work they had done informally behind the scenes to contribute to the team's success. Unfortunately, I struggled to find interest to replace them with anyone possessing even half their passion and leadership capability. Compounding this problem was when their replacements eventually showed up, they arrived damaged and angry as a result of their experiences with their previous leadership and complicated by personal issues that were pulling down their performance at work. I quickly found myself outgunned, outmaneuvered, and my credibility in the toilet. No amount of optimism was going to see me through the ensuing series of challenges they posed.
I had clearly overestimated my leadership ability. I tried to anchor my coaching strategies to the values and culture of our organization. But, I was naive to just how much they enjoyed their antagonistic roles, seemingly feeding off each other's negative energy. They didn't seem to care about the toxic example they were setting for our rookie. For that matter, they didn't care about anyone other than themselves, willing to do anything it took to justify their counter-culture actions.
As most progressive discipline models do, the next step involved escalating one individual to formal written counseling. Unfortunately, even though this step was firmly rooted in correcting multiple violations of organizational policy, it only served to kick the hornet's nest and strengthen their desire to fight my efforts to help them. For almost six months, this hell continued, and to say morale was terrible would be an understatement. Every day felt like a personal attack, and I started to give in to needing to justify why I was right, which only pulled us further apart from fixing the problem. That's when Jim stepped in. Jim was one of the most credible and well-respected officers in my organization, and I was lucky he was even giving me the time of day.
Jim didn't mince words, ever, and he was as knowledgeable as he was honest. He always listened to me vent my side of the story but followed it by challenging me to look for evidence of what actions I had committed that might have contributed to the current state of affairs. Whether I discovered that my actions as a leader had accidentally or intentionally made things worse or better, he encouraged me to scrutinize every leadership move I enacted to help me find a better way of handling the situation should I face it again.
Jim taught me that great leaders don't complain when their team's morale dips. He understood morale was complex, the result a combination of various personalities, perspectives, and work roles. Jim never let me complain about how low my team's morale was without first considering that I might be the reason. Instead, he encouraged me as the leader to look first at my actions for potential root causes, then get to work empowering the team to help us fix it. For example, one particular night, he insisted that I hold a shift meeting at the kitchen table that would last however long it took to draw out the concerns of each member sitting there. Talk about uncomfortable for me, yet somehow it was almost cathartic for everyone involved. And it genuinely helped, because I came hat in hand and bared my vulnerability to them.
The lessons learned from this event inspired me to create the Embrace The Resistance leadership movement and our most popular program-- the Intoxicated Leadership: Thinking Strategically vs. Reacting Emotionally training series. Looking back, this incident provided me the opportunity for a tremendous amount of leadership growth in a short period. It's why I believe so strongly that leadership skills can be taught and enhanced in people. It's also not lost on me just how much it demonstrates the incredible power and influence that stemmed from Jim's willingness to help a young, stumbling officer by acting as a mentor.
I've been blessed by the opportunity to travel and teach from these lessons over the last five years. I hope you'll consider joining us in Indy at FDIC for our fourth year presenting our Intoxicated Leadership: Thinking Strategically vs. Reacting Emotionally. The video preview is below.
Benjamin Martin provides leadership training workshops and keynotes internationally and throughout the United States. He blends over 18 years of public safety experience with his ongoing Ph.D. study of human behavior and motivation to provide an entertaining and unfiltered view on a variety of leadership topics such as communication, command and control strategies, conflict management, and emotional intelligence. He is the founder of the popular website and leadership movement EmbraceTheResistance.com, which features leadership training for existing and aspiring leaders.
In addition to his leadership blogs, he is a contributing author to several leadership books and has published articles in Fire Engineering, FireRescue, Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI), FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He currently serves as a Captain with a large metro fire department in Virginia. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.