Leadership That Matters, Part 13: Ironies

The definition of irony is the use of words to convey the opposite of their literal meaning. Situational irony occurs when the actions someone takes have an effect exactly the opposite of what was intended. In some cases, irony is present when someone has a certain strong belief or is known for acting a certain way, and is faced with the dilemma of having to embrace the opposite.

I have friends from high school who at the time, were probably stoned more often than not, and now they represent the best and brightest of the conservative right.  That's ironic.  Our past Governor, Mark Sanford, ran on a platform of family values and was fast to tell people how they should live their lives, yet his on-going affair was the complete antithesis of having a moral life.  That's not ironic, that's hypocritical.  But then he got caught, he became a butt of late night television monologues, and forever his name will  be remembered for the embarrassment he caused his family and our State: that's irony.

You will not become a transformational leader overnight.  You can't flip a light switch and become an inspiration. It sure didn't for me. I might not even be a transformational leader now.  Like I said yesterday, it is contextual.  The perception of whether you can inspire change is totally dependent on the receiver, as to whether you cause them to feel differently enough to change.  This is its own irony: Transformational leadership depends on your actions, but those actions may not ever make a difference to certain individuals. You can't say, "I did this, now you need to do that." At that point it is no longer anything but an exchange. Altruistic leadership is different. You can't push it; you have to pull and hope they follow.

Like I said, though, in looking back at my career as a company officer I see the entire range of leadership styles. From the beginning, like anyone else, I wanted to be a successful leader.  I looked at other leaders with awe and wanted to be like them. I started as a young go-getter, competing with others, trying to impress my colleagues with my technical knowledge, knowing I didn't have the street cred to immediately expect my subordinates to trust me implicitly. Watching other officers, I became all about "fighting for my guys", sometimes at the risk of completely pushing back against management.  I wanted badly to head to the top, to be the authority everyone went to when they had a problem.  

This, however, evolved differently after having been burned a few times sticking my neck out for others, and in a huge life change, I took a job at another department and saw a whole other way of leading.  A few of the officers I got to know and whom I respected greatly, were icons in the department and in the fire service around the state.  Each of these officers had their personable side, but each of them were not individuals you wanted to get upset.  They were as close to being those inspirational leaders as I had ever been and they ruled their companies or divisions like Patton at the front of the column. In my return to officership, I made it clear there was my way or the highway.  I earned the nickname "The Hammer", ready to come down on whatever or whomever was in the way of our progress, and not afraid of being the hatchet man, so to speak.

But as time went on, I started learning more about myself and exploring my own faults, my own strengths, and understanding that I was trying to be someone I wasn't most of the time, unwilling to see myself for who I am.  Ironically (again), my personality type is none of those other things: my personality type is the extroverted thinker, the ENTJ. The ENTJ is called "The Field Marshal", the organizer, the strategist. As I grew, I began to understand more about what I was comfortable with and that which I needed help with. I also began to realize that the "leadership" I was modeling was often based on another person learning from someone else who might have ben as clueless as they were.

These realizations caused me to delve more into the aspect of how to lead people, and how to serve rather than to demand. Of all of the things I thought I was doing right, had I been true to my personality as I am now, had I followed my gut instead of what I saw from other "leaders", I might have come to that realization much earlier.  But then, the experiences I acquired while I "found myself" have proven to be invaluable in and of themselves.

The most valuable thing I learned about myself was that I was just fine being who I am.  I could put my ego aside, because I am comfortable being me.  I don't have a need to impress anyone.  If you want to hear what I have to say, great, if not, there are others who do. If I become a Chief of Department, it wouldn't be for me anymore, but because I would want to influence even more than I do now.  But I could be happy being a tailboard firefighter right now because I have come to an important place, the place where I learned that the harder you reach for something, the more it will elude you.  I don't need power.  Power comes from within. I have it already.

We have been told our whole lives that in order to succeed, you have to compete. Perhaps there is another way, in that perhaps the more people you help, the more you succeed. Wouldn't that be an amazing irony in our world, if instead of standing on the hands of the people below you, helping them up the ladder actually got you somewhere?  Success can be measured in many different ways and success in leadership may not necessarily involve the best promotion or the most money.  Those things are nice, but I have seen first hand that when you put other people first, oftentimes you rise to the top.  It is an interesting dichotomy and something we'll go into further.

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