Growing up living on the other side of the tracks, I often ventured across for a slap of reality as just a few miles away there sat an entire city of epic poverty, unemployment and crime. I believed the world was no bigger than a few square miles of rusted steel mills and ugly “company houses” surrounded by middle class subdivisions. It was a place where the mafia and crooked unions destroyed an entire community and left wounds that would never heal. It was so bad that for a few years Youngstown, Ohio was known as the “murder capitol of America.” The unrelenting crime and unscrupulous leadership of our community eventually left generations of immigrants with nothing more than empty rusting steel mills and cracked brick row houses.
By the time I was old enough to understand what a “Youngstown tuneup” was, most of the crime families had been arrested or moved operation to another city, leaving only a wake of destruction. Looking back, as young boys there were really only a few types of heroes we had to admire: professional boxers, football players and crime bosses. Goombah’s like “mo man” Harris and “Charlie the Crab” and legends like Franco Harris and Ray Boom Boom Mancini filled both our dreams and nightmares. Little did I know that both provided an unattainable or misplaced example of leadership, but it was all we had.
As I grew older I began to understand who the true heroes were. They were the common men and women who suffered through the intimidation, bribery and destruction of their community and then moved to the suburban neighborhoods to raise their children hoping that we would have a better future than they knew each of us would most likely face.
It’s a sad, overwhelming enlightenment watching an entire community self-implode. As wild-eyed teenagers we would climb to the roofs of the rusted buildings and walk the empty train tracks always wondering what happened and how it happened so quickly. I witnessed my grandfather fall from a proud paycheck earning crane operator in the steel mill to a humbled security guard at a community college making minimum wage. The union leaders had destroyed his future by embezzling his pension and sending jobs overseas with greedy demands. These leaders put their own needs and desires above many countless others and the end result would be generations of unemployment and poverty that still exist today.
I truly believe that in the beginning the “families” had the right idea but unfortunately the wrong intentions. They wanted to protect the immigrant workers from the steel tycoons and for a while everyone was prosperous. But eventually their greed, selfishness and ignorance turned a good idea into something terrible.
Like these goombahs who almost destroyed a culture of people, how often do we see leaders take the selfish approach as they look for any opportunity to gain more power and control at all cost. They fail to recognize their short-term gain will only result in long-term failure. It’s so very easy have a good intention turn into a disaster because the leader is really focused on his goals and not those of the larger purpose.
Often in public safety we see egos, attitudes and insecurities destroy an organization or compromise the success of a mission. It’s no different in the private corporate world or even on the sidelines of a children’s soccer game. Great leaders somehow see through the immediate gain and recognition then inspire us to follow them past the attainable and towards the unforeseeable future. As Jim finished his sermon today he talked about Jesus the warrior returning home to gather his army to celebrate victory. But he also reminded us that until that day we will be endlessly tempted with money, sex and other worldly distractions that someday just will not mean anything.
It’s hard to look into the unknown future and then back at your current struggles maintaining hope and faith. My experiences as incident commander or operations chief on emergency incidents constantly remind me of this. Many times you have to look ahead and past the obvious which is very difficult when chaos, death and destruction stare you in the eyes. During the flooding, I had to make difficult decisions that would stop rescue operations because of the danger to the rescuers. Losing rescuers would only create more chaos and trying to find the fine balance of saving innocent lives versus losing rescuers' lives was a constant struggle. Many in our profession walk in thinking they want to be a hero, but when the choice of sacrificing their life for another’s is presented it's not so simple. Often they get tunnel vision and lose understanding of the bigger picture ultimately causing more harm than good. More often they freeze in place unable to make the choice before it’s too late. These decisions haunt you as a leader; and only through understanding that there is a larger goal, can you come out the other end in one piece.
It’s much like raising children and disciplining them for something they don’t understand fully but yet you know it’s best. There is no easy answer and no simple explanation. We as leaders must have character and wisdom, and our followers must have courage and humbleness. I think a lot about how better to close this gap with Aspen, Kim, my staff, friends and family. How do I both lead with wisdom and follow with courage? I find what works best is to ask the right questions at the right time. How did we get here? What are we trying to do? What do we want it to look like when we are done? Great leaders constantly ask these three questions to continually evaluate their end state and verify their objectives. Next time you have a tough conversation with your child, a subordinate or spouse try to slow down and ask yourself these questions. I’m sure you can look back as you read this and think of an instance you should have paused and answered these questions before you moved forward. Thinking about these questions first, your conversations will flow seamlessly and confidently as a leader who has vision for something greater.
Spend some time slowing down, remember to ask yourself what it should and can look like when you're done, and I’m sure the result will be greater than your wildest dreams.
Jay C Stalnacker