Leadership That Matters, Part 15: The Bag of Tricks

Emma, my oldest, wants to know all the secret Daddy tricks to winning in Monopoly.  She is 11, so advising her on strategy probably isn't going to be really effective, but she is a smart girl.  She might even already understand strategy but doesn't realize it as such, after all, she is becoming a pretty good chess player.  I don't know that I want to teach her my outlook on it, though, because I can be quite the cynic.

The problem is that Monopoly is a game that relies on the roll of die, on the actions and inactions of others, and your intellect is maybe but a percentage of it all.  Don't get me wrong; you can blow it.  You can screw things up so badly that you are bankrupt before you have spent an hour on the game.  Others can sense your weaknesses and exploit them.  If Caroline or Honora were to play Emma (they are 8 and 6, respectively), she could have their money in minutes.  But if, for some wild chance, Emma were to roll badly and regularly enough, there is only a certain amount of control you would have and others, if they are perceptive enough, could eat you alive.

I have, however, played Monopoly before with people who were not interested in winning.  In fact, I have played before where the goal was to be the first one to blow all your money and interestingly enough, if everyone is giving you chances to make money, literally throwing it at you, it is still possible to "lose" the game.  But it sure takes a lot longer.

We all have employees, subordinates, or colleagues that no matter how hard we throw opportunities at them, they still manage to screw them up.  We all probably know of a few people who have been given a hundred second chances and they still manage to miss the boat. You really have to say to yourself, at some point, how many passes is this person going to get before someone pulls the plug?

I said before that transformational leadership really depends on the ability of the follower to understand it.  They have to see that they are being given opportunities to grow, you are willing to guide them, but to be transformational, they are going to have to do something with what they have got.  Altruistic behavior on your part is great, but for it to be transformational requires the recipient to have a clue.  In light of this kind of failure, you probably should have some ability to push them in a direction in which the lesson becomes apparent.

When you are a middle to upper level manager like a Battalion Chief or an Assistant Chief, you have to rely on your subordinate officers to do their jobs.  I have had varying degrees of enforcement apparent from one officer to the next before, and surprisingly enough, that degree of variance isn't obvious.  Likewise, just the nature of certain personalities sometimes are enough to provide compliance where another officer isn't able to achieve the same.

Case in point: Years ago, I had the opportunity to walk into our old administration building at the same time a firefighter was about to be let go.  I was a pretty new officer and I had seen how this individual wasn't a high performer, but I felt like I could at least give working on him a try.  I intervened with the Deputy Chief at the time and asked if I could have a shot at it, to which he agreed to permit.

We gave the individual a few days off without pay to reinforce their narrow escape from termination and I digested their personnel jacket.  I saw some patterns that were troubling, but I was young, full of energy, and I wanted to prove my ability to turn someone around.  I was also armed with a bag of tricks that come from a long enough period of observing leadership styles and lots of understanding of strategy.

When the individual returned and reported to me for the first time, I laid it all out for their benefit.  This individual had been on the department for a number of years before I had been hired, he was older, and he was skeptical.  I explained some of what had transpired, including the fact that they were very close to being sent packing.  I also reinforced that I was the only thing that was standing between him and the door at that point.

Granted, that kind of explanation for most people should trigger the reaction of gratitude, but in this case, it was more along the lines of resignation. "Why?" he asked me, "Do you want to 'save' me?  I don't even know you that well."  I told him the truth: I saw some of the "leadership" exhibited by his most recent officers and I felt like their approach was not very effective. I felt like my leadership style might make a difference and I was not interested in seeing someone lose their job for reasons not entirely their own.  "Plus", I said, deadpan, "If I pull this off, I'll probably be regarded as a star."  While I said it for a little shock value, he laughed pretty hard when I told him that.  He stopped laughing when I told him that I wasn't sure that I COULD pull it off.  I explained to him that without his efforts, I knew I would NOT pull it off.

And I wasn't sure, to be honest with you because in reality, it comes down to the effort of the individual.  But I was willing to try, so I expressed my views on what he needed to do to improve, I explained my rules and my modus operandi, and I laid out my expectations.  When I was done, I asked him if he thought he could manage all that.  He looked a little beat up, 

So I'll talk in the next post about how it went and hopefully you'll tune in for the outcome.  See you tomorrow.

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