"Of course, I'm going to take it! I'm the fire chief!" declared Chief Jones.
"But it's against the rules," replied Deputy Chief Smith.
"I've worked hard to get where I am, and I deserve it! Besides, it's my rule, and I can break it," fumed the Chief.
"But we've always told the guys not to accept anything from vendors," countered the Deputy Chief.
"Well, rank does have its privileges," stated the Chief with an air of finality.
As a successful leader, it is easy to begin to feel as if you earned both your position and the perks that become available with a position of influence. One of the first things you notice is that those around you begin to treat you differently, usually with a higher degree of respect. While, in the back of your mind, you know that the respect is directed at the office, it's easy to shift some of that respect to you, as an individual. The next shift in perception occurs when the leader begins to feel that the organization's or team's performance is a direct result of his individual efforts. In other words, the leader is the main reason for success, or so he believes. The final step in this egocentric slide is the feeling of indispensability; the organization will fall apart without my leadership. Since I'm so important, even indispensable, why shouldn't I be entitled to privileges that are unavailable to others?
One absolute in any leadership situation: people outside of your direct circle of influence cannot or do not believe you're as good as you think, especially when those individuals are involved with your business but not necessarily your organization. It also means that those disbelieving observers will take every opportunity to burst the bubble. It's human nature to look for dirty laundry, especially someone else's. America's tabloid press thrives on airing celebrity dirty laundry, and Americans seem to love the lurid details.
Rock throwing will soon follow! It begins as simple disbelief in your abilities as a leader coupled with doubting of your integrity. Generally the rocks become larger and more deadly as the thrower discerns discrepancies in your behavior. When your actions don't match your words, rock size increases dramatically. Simply put, you, as a leader, determine the size and shape of the rocks. Don't give your critics big, sharp rocks, because those big, sharp rocks will kill you when you get hit.
But rock throwing will happen. Everyone won't love you, no matter what you do or how well you perform. You can, however, control the size of the rocks. Being hit by little, round stones may sting momentarily, but they certainly won't kill you. Those little stones result from the times that you, as a leader, have to make the tough decisions. Many decisions are not just about the difference between right and wrong. Often times it's a matter of what is more right or more wrong. Grey, not black and white. The stone throwers may not like your decision, and throwing stones makes them feel better, but in the end they know that your actions are ethically based and not self-serving.
The rocks that kill leaders are typically carved out by the leaders themselves. The feeling of entitlement that creeps in to a leader's persona breeds arrogance. Arrogance breeds resentment. Resentment breeds rock throwers. We've all seen a leader who has allowed the prestige of a position to get in the way of sound judgment. This can be as simple as accepting a gift or perk from a vendor. It may seem harmless, but to the observer with rock in hand, it's evidence of the leader allowing the vendor to "buy" his way into the department's budget. Zing! There goes a pretty hefty rock.
Recent news headlines have told the story of many corporate leaders who have taken, taken, taken. And why not? After all, aren't they entitled? So what's the big deal if you, as a department officer, play a round of golf, and then have a few drinks followed by dinner with a generous vendor? What's the big deal if you use your department vehicle for this event; after all you're conducting department business? It's that attitude that produces huge, extremely sharp rocks. No, you weren't drunk, but Mrs. Johnson, a district resident, sat at the table next to you. She saw you take your clubs out of the department vehicle during the middle of a work day. She saw you with that drink. She saw you drive away in that SUV with it's light bar and Maltese Cross. By the time the story makes it around town, you're buried under a pile of rocks, and you carved every one of them.
As a department leader you cannot expect the same right to privacy as the tailboard firefighter. If fact, you should expect less. Fair or not, it is reality. There is nothing like dirty laundry to sell newspapers and television space. And as a "golfing-drunk" fire chief, you are now prime media fodder and a ready target. Whenever your behavior is outside of the parameters set for your employees, you are playing in a rock quarry, standing in a position to be hit with big, sharp rocks.
Remember, as a leader you are one of the most expendable people in the organization. The only thing you absolutely must do is sign pay sheets at the end of the week, and chances are your superiors can train another monkey to do that job. Do not allow yourself to feel as if you are entitled to anything special. As a public official, you are a prime target for public scrutiny. Don't give the observers looking into your glass house any reasons to throw stones. The relationships you build through the consistent character traits of integrity, honesty, consistency, and humility will insure that when a rock is thrown, it will merely bounce off.