Triumphs and Failures: An honest take on a leader's journey
Updated: Sep 16, 2019
My phone rings, and when I look down, I see that it's the fire chief calling. I know exactly why since the rumor mill had already started that phone calls for promotional notifications were occurring. But, I don't know whether he's calling with bad news or good news. At stake is a promotion to Captain, and the last two times the phone rang it was a resounding no. I don't think it's a stretch to say that hearing the word no is tough for anyone who is into this job. I'm human, and despite projecting that I have it all together, I wrestle with my doubts and insecurities from time to time. Lately, I've even entertained the notion that perhaps my leadership style and beliefs aren't in alignment with what the organization needs and expects from its officers. Anyway, I should probably go ahead and answer his phone call.
It's human nature to want to follow successful people. But, what most followers don't see is how much leaders stumble as they try to lead. Each misstep can lead to the leader finding themselves in a hole, sometimes offering no immediate respite or hope of ever getting out. Sometimes the slip is a failed personnel decision or tactical error; other times it's the way they might have said something which led to a misinterpreted message or someone taking offense to it.
Many times leaders don't even realize that they are in a hole. They continue to argue their position, attempting to win the battle at the cost of winning the war. They also burn through credibility and people's patience in the process. People in leadership positions can expect to find themselves under social magnification, meaning that the people around them inevitably watch their actions and words more closely. Because of this, how leaders choose to model dealing in adversity is really important in determining the future health of the organization; how we act when we are in the hole matters.
Regrettably, leaders lacking maturity use their time spent in the hole to throw pity parties, often inviting their friends to hang out. This provides them comfort and a friendly audience in which to air their grievances, such as I can't believe I didn't get promoted. I can't believe I got transferred. I can't believe....whatever. Instead of approaching the setback constructively and looking for any lessons to learn, they allow themselves to whine. Unfortunately, whining is quite potent in infecting and sustaining poor morale in others.
After spending almost eight years as a Lieutenant, I have spent plenty of time falling into and climbing out of holes. When I look back over the times I made mistakes, most of the time, I was able to figure out what I could have done better--but not always. At certain times the situation was extremely complicated with seemingly nothing but lose-lose scenarios as options. Sometimes it felt like I spent months in the hole, ruminating over the failure with no inspiration or desire to climb out. But, somehow through mentoring, conversation, friendship, a little luck, or a huge helping hand, I was able to find my way up and out and on to the next hill to climb. The lessons that often accompany mistakes are a tough, bitter pill to swallow. However, similar to taking your medicine, it can help you get better as a leader.
So what lays at the bottom of those holes when you experience failure? Well, I think it's different for everyone. In speaking from my own experience, some of the lowest points along my leadership journey have involved:
My wife telling me she was considering leaving me and filing for a divorce
Having a firefighter on my team tell me he doesn't respect me as either a leader or as a person
Hearing my name associated with plenty of rumors that resembled nothing close to the truth.
A chief officer telling me that no one wanted me as an officer in their respective battalion (only to find out he hid my transfer request.
The list goes on and on. But, I will also say that for each time I found myself in a mess of my own doing, I have also reached plenty of summits. So what exactly lays in wait at the summit of your leadership journey? Well, that's actually quite simple--you get there as a result of helping people. Some of my favorite moments over the last eight years have included:
Helping a firefighter save his marriage by openly talking about the problems in mine
Reprioritizing work so I could be a better father and husband, and saving my marriage.
Having the opportunity to welcome and train four probationary firefighters through their career development programs
Having the opportunity to directly supervise and help nine firefighters become successfully promoted to the rank of Lieutenant
Developing a mock assessment center from scratch and creating a cadre of officers who volunteer their time over the last seven years to help 100 candidates prepare for promotion
Serving as the Lieutenant of training and helping train almost 100 recruit firefighters across four schools
Founding the Fire Ground Commander Conference with the help of some great guys
And last but not least, all the incredible people I have had the opportunity to meet while traveling and speaking over the last three years. You have no idea how humbling and cool it is to have an article published in FireEngineering, speak at FDIC, or drop something I'm thinking and feeling on Facebook and see that tens of thousands of people have viewed it.
My mistakes are an integral part of who I now am. I would no sooner trade them away to spare me the pain of being in a rumor mill or to be in the cool kids club, as I would give up any of the experiences ended in success. So when I say leaders need to dig in, what I really mean is you have got to make or find a foothold and push up that damn hill. Don't be surprised when you find yourself back in a hole. Mistakes come as a natural byproduct of caring and trying to make things better. It takes strength to climb out of a mess. And when you do, your legs are that much stronger and able to move you that much faster up the next hill.
I know that from my struggles comes strength and resilience that many leaders don't' even know if they have, because they have never been tested in that manner. Have someone tell you that they hate your guts, even when you earnestly tried to help them, and that will knock you back a step or two. But I have friends, family, and co-workers who I am fortunate to have care and invest in me. I want to take a moment to thank my wife Kristin for her love and support. I'd also like to say thank you to some incredible firefighter friends and mentors--William, Brian, Mike, Robby, Scooter, Taylor, Wells, Marc, Greg, Daniel, and Randy.
I don't know if there are many universal truths in leadership, but I feel very strongly that if there is, then this should be it:
You can never, ever go wrong investing in people who chose to care about the people they work with and this job before themselves. Yeah, I'm pretty confident it's worth it everytime.
I am personally looking forward to the next chapter and hill in my leadership journey, and I wish you all the best in yours. And if you are wondering, the answer from the Fire Chief this time was a yes.
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 EmbraceTheResistance.com which features leadership training and support for existing and aspiring leaders. You can email him at BMartin@EmbraceTheResistance.com.