Facing your biggest critic: “I have really come to hate this guy”
As I watched the truckies cut on the car and work with the engine to lift the unconscious body onto the waiting stretcher, I couldn’t help but take the situation in. A single vehicle over the interstate guardrail into a steel traffic pole. Attempting to thwart the success of the extrication were mixed crews working together due to the ongoing shift change, and an early morning interstate traffic commute not paying any attention to their surroundings. As the ambulance set off towards the local trauma center I centered on the thought, that went really well.
Later, everyone else agreed around the kitchen table that it did go well. Well, everyone except that one guy. I’m sure as you read this you are already picturing that same type of guy in your department. The guy who always thinks and lets you know—you could have done this better.
Even more so–he could have done this better. And he wants to know–how do you always manage to screw it up? He’s the same guy that was there when I arrived in command of a house fire where we burnt the roof off because we couldn’t hook the lath and plaster ceiling fast enough, and only to encounter plywood flooring in attic space. He was there too, providing his opinion that someone else could have stopped the fire sooner, and my tactics were bad. I swear that guy is gunning to undermine my credibility…always. I really have come to hate this guy.
It doesn’t matter where I go, he senses and feeds off my doubts. He loves to parade around critiquing and throwing my failures in my face. The only problem is, I can’t get rid of him…because he’s me.
Avoid undermining your own credibility: I am by far my own largest critic
As a leader, there are and always will be, people who are waiting in line to see me fail, or to talk negatively about what I’m doing. But, what I’ve come to know is that you can start to weaken their voices if you can demonstrate humility and acknowledge out loud to others, that you are your largest critic. I don’t need anyone to point out what I don’t do well, because I’m smart enough to already know my weaknesses. I don’t hide from them, I embrace any opportunity to turn them into strengths. I am a better leader, because I can acknowledge I don’t know everything about the fire service-and quite frankly who does?? The reality is, while my critics are focused on what I did, I’m busy focusing and preparing for what I am going to do better next.
If change is inevitable, how do we avoid leaving people behind?
I’ve said before that leadership is more about change than it is maintaining status quo. When a leader empowers a group, this creates a space where change and innovation can occur. But change always has a tendency of leaving some folks behind. If we can’t reengage them, which above all means genuinely listening to their concerns and helping them find value in our work, then they can become critics of what our fire service is doing, who we are as leaders,and where our departments are headed.
Change is inevitable. But if we start ignoring the common sense, historical perspective, and value our seasoned incumbents offer our organization, because we think they don’t know the latest and greatest trend, we are inviting them to become toxic and disengage from our progress.
Notice how I said our progress—because its collective and shared by fire departments all over the world. As the fire service evolves, it’s scary moving past traditions that don’t make sense anymore (such as turning out in a moving apparatus), and embracing ones that do (such as acknowledging this job kills us more than it should i.e cancer and by not opening the nozzle enough on fires).
If people feel threatened by your leadership vision, they will talk poorly about you, whether the threat is real or not. So what can you do as a leader to tune out the critics, and not let yourself stand in the way of realizing a better version of yourself?
Call to action:
1. Understand that seasons change for folks. Just because the senior man or woman doesn’t sign up for every fire conference offered, doesn’t mean firefighting is not a passion still in their hearts.
2. In our rush to pay it forward, make sure we aren’t walking overtop of those who came before us. We are far too easily pressed to throw away the respect people have earned over their career because they stand in opposition of what we might want to do or change. Embrace the resistance. It’s the same type of back pressure a nozzle creates that ultimately gives a stream it’s reach and impact, rather than a puddle at our feet.
3. Don’t’ participate in character assassination of others, especially leaders. Firefighters love to gossip, but rarely do we communicate with 100% accuracy the story, especially the context. This isn’t an original thought, but the importance of this one bears repeating. (I fall into this trap more than I would like to admit).
4.If you find yourself constantly in a group that complains about everything and everyone, congratulations you are a whiner. These bums see you as someone who thinks what they think, otherwise they wouldn’t waste their time talking to you. My wife will always love to talk shopping with her girlfriends not me. It’s because they love talking about shopping, and I don’t. Get the analogy?? Always remember, birds of a feather flock together.
5.Surround yourself with great and honest people, and make that who you turn to when you have moments of doubt. These conversations will bear infinitely more fruit than the ones you have critiquing yourself, or anything that comes from the flock of birds who care nothing about you, only the rumor mill.
Resiliency is a large topic and we have much to discuss. But if you’ve experienced or seen leadership fatigue and burnout, then you understand the importance of leaders supporting each other.
In part 3, we will discuss resiliency as a family. Read Part 1 here. See you in the comments section.
Photo Courtesy of the Author