How Sheepish Leadership Suffocates Courage

You are what you do, not what you say you’ll do – Carl Jung

Recently, a senior ranking firefighter in Atlanta made a split-second decision to rush into a burning home to rescue a 95-year-old woman.  It’s reported he could see here inside on the floor surrounded by smoke and flames.  He entered the building, pulled her out and tried to resuscitate her.  Tragically, she died.  At a very basic level, this is what firefighters do.  The story could stop here as it is exactly what we expect from them, courage and calculated risk-taking.  That being the case, it may surprise you to learn that this firefighter was punished with a 40+ hour suspension, without pay, for violating a departmental policy having something to do with entering a burning structure without more team members.  It’s important to understand that this was not some rookie firefighter, this was a veteran captain who’s team was actually tasked to perform the search.  

So, he’s a leader and expected to make the tough decisions in the middle of chaos.  And, for all intent and purpose, he made a call on the ground without the luxury of hindsight.  Now, if I did not have an intimate knowledge of Atlanta-area government bureaucracies from having worked there as a cop, I would say there may be more to the story.  That said, I have had this type of thing happen to me more than once and have witnessed it happen to many fellow officers; it is a motivation-killer.  So, why in the world would the firefighter be punished in this scenario?  In my opinion, weak leaders who lack character and competency, then use liability-driven polices to punish valiant and enterprising subordinates.  The result, bold and enthusiastic workers become detached, demoralized and depressed.  Furthermore, teams deteriorate and overall mission success is jeopardized.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating for reckless and impulsive behavior, or what firefighters call “freelancing” during a structure fire.  I’m advocating for strong leaders who encourage bold actions and calculated risk-taking.  Leaders who reward initiative and spotlight acts of bravery and selflessness.  Those who lead with moral authority and when something goes sideways, take accountability, then objectively look at the totality of the circumstances before making a decision on an incident involving a subordinate.  And, maybe most importantly, seeks to create an environment where those special attributes like courage and audacity are protected and cultivated, not suffocated and extinguished.

Led by the Sheep or Led by the Lion

In occupations like firefighting and law enforcement, weak and sheepish leadership makes for less safe communities and can sour bold and intrepid officers, making some second-guess or hesitate when it counts, for fear of reprisals.  As a society, we rely on these types of individuals to create a safety bubble that allows us to thrive in everything from family, industry, science and more.  Strong leaders, aka “Lions”, recognize this indomitable spirit in their people, this benevolent yearning to conquer all things that aim to harm others.  Instead of crushing this spirit, Lion-leaders protect it, harness it, develop it and mentor it.  It’s this very spirit that pulls people out of burning buildings, rescues hostages in enemy strongholds and hunts down evil predators in the dark of night.

If you risk nothing, then you risk everything

One experience I had with weak leaders using policies to punish the audacious occurred when I was a sergeant in an investigative unit.  During a night operation, one of my plain clothes detectives got into a foot chase and pursued a felony suspect into a wooded area.  He caught the perpetrator but lost his police radio somewhere in the woods.  We searched the area but never recovered it.  When the news reached my Lieutenant and Captain, they attempted to coerce me into punishing the detective and have him pay for the lost radio.  The detective was young, motivated, bold and proactive.  In my eyes, he innocently lost a piece of gear while doing the bidding of the taxpayers, a cost of doing business.  In the eyes of my two superiors, he was negligent and they wanted to make an example out of him, citing a departmental policy about damaging or losing agency property.  I made it clear that I would not write him up or make him pay hundreds of dollars for an unfortunate byproduct of chasing a dangerous suspect into the woods.  

They were not happy in the least bit and went as far as to draft the disciplinary action and summon me back into the captain’s office to sign it since I was the detective’s immediate supervisor.  I refused again, but this time explained my philosophy on strong leadership.  This enraged both of them and I was kicked out of the office in a scene reminiscent of some sort of cop movie.   In the end, the Chief of Detectives backed my play, but the Lieutenant and Captain got their pound of flesh when writing my next performance evaluation.  Oh well, it was worth it.

Courage can’t Exist without Action

Like with the Atlanta firefighter, there has to be flexibility in policies that account for exigent circumstances.  Additionally, the leader must look at the totality of the circumstances before dropping the hammer just because they have the power to do it and can merry it to a violation in a policy.   Imagine if the military wrote a policy ordering war-fighters not to jump on hand grenades while trying to save fellow squad members, then punished them if they survived, or even worst, took away survivor benefits to the family if they died.   

While the military does not encourage diving on a grenade, they do cultivate an environment that breeds courage and selflessness.  So, instead of sending a message of punishment for bold action, we recognize that war-fighter for their sacrifice and bravery; just like we did with Medal of Honor recipient, Marine Kyle Carpenter.  Like strong leaders, we cultivate that fortitude and harness it like a powerful team of Clydesdale horses.


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