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Monday, October 28, 2013

Lessons from the Boxing Ring

I got my @$$ handed to me in the boxing ring.  Forgive the vulgarity, but it is the only way to adequately describe what occurred.

When a sergeant from my department asked me if I would be interested in participating in an exhibition boxing match for charity against a female commander from another jurisdiction, I happily agreed.  The words “charity” and “exhibition” drowned out the words “boxing match” in my head.  I was expecting oversized clown gloves and putting on a fun show for the crowd.  I couldn’t have been more wrong.

I heard much trash talking from the other side of the county but I really thought it was just hype to generate ticket sales for the event.  

Since I’d never boxed before, I sought out a boxer, MMA fighter and overall “badass” to help me with some basics so I would, at the very least, punch and move properly.  In hindsight, I should have trained much earlier than 2 weeks out because my opponent was doing just that.  

When I stepped into that ring, I was prepared to entertain the crowd.  When she threw the first punch into my face, I knew it wasn’t for fun.  Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face, right?  I don’t remember much from my bout.  In fact, my trainer was apparently screaming from my corner telling me to “get out” and “block” and I can honestly say I didn’t hear a word.  I never felt pain, either.  I could see her fists coming at my face and I knew she was making contact, but it didn’t hurt at all in the moment.  That’s the beauty of adrenaline.

I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to talk myself out of a lot of fights over the course of my career.  For the ones I couldn’t, the scenario always ended the same way:  the bad guy ended up in handcuffs.  If I started alone in a fight, I knew there were more of my brothers and sisters in blue on the way to assist.  In the ring, I couldn’t call for back up.  At one point, she hit me so hard that I reverted back to my police training and I instinctively turned to find cover.  In a ring, there is nowhere to go but back into the fight.

I held my own.  I stayed on my feet.  I endured 3 rounds.  I lost by majority decision.  But I learned a few things for which I am grateful.

The first of which is to be prepared.  I think if I’d have taken this bout as serious as my opponent, I might have prevailed in at least one of the rounds.  I have no one to blame but myself for making the assumption that this was a game.  Those who prepare don’t need luck.  They win because they put in the time on the front end so they are ready for the moment.  

This isn’t as much about boxing as it is about life.  For police officers, you can never know when you will find yourself in a dark alley with a bad guy who is ready to sacrifice it all to get away and hurt you in the process.  You must train for those moments where life meets circumstance.  Train for the unpredictable so you get to control the outcome.  Those who are unprepared will find themselves wishing they’d have trained harder for the fight that really matters - if they live to tell about it.

For those who don’t face criminals in dark alleys, life it still about preparation.  It’s about committing yourself to constant self improvement.  Take the classes you’ve been putting off, read the book that will make you better at what you do, start training your body.  Take on a new challenge that moves you out of your comfort zone because when you come out on the other side, you will be better.  Never miss an opportunity to improve yourself because you can never know when it will pay off.

That was my second lesson.  I had never boxed before and as the fight grew near, I was legitimately terrified.  But I committed to the event and I asked myself the question I ask every time I get nervous about an upcoming challenge:  “What is the worst thing that could happen?”  I came up with the following answers:  I could lose.  I could get publicly humiliated in the process.  I could actually get hurt.

The funny part is that getting hurt played the least part in the equation.  I’m not sure why but I’m not scared of getting injured or being in pain.  I’ve endured pain before and I know it’s temporary.  I wasn’t even particularly worried about losing.  I knew going into this bout that my opponent was bigger and stronger and thus, I had no delusions or false confidence.  So public humiliation was the only lingering barrier and I figured I could live with that!  Once I formulated the answers to the questions and accepted the worst case scenario, I was able to move forward.

I stepped far outside my comfort zone and in the moment, it really sucked.  I wanted to revert back to my safe place.  But I’m glad I stayed in and endured.  And now that I’m on the other side, I’m better for having done it.  Even with the loss and the humiliation.  I’m better because I tried.

Photo by Ed Corral Photography
I couldn’t give up because it would render pointless every lesson I’ve ever taught my children about failure and resilience.  Much of life is showing up and if you end up taking a beating, that’s okay as long as you get up again.  It’s about perseverance and staying in the fight.  

And finally, I learned that the people in your corner are the ones who matter most of all.  

The actual fight is a blur to me but one thing I do recall is looking out to see the faces of my friends and family cheering me on.  The ones who showed up are the ones who will still be there without a winning title and when the rest of the crowd goes away, they’re still in my corner.  They don’t make trophies for that.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

The Courage to be Authentic

I entered this profession in 1991 at a time when it was progressive enough that women in policing had already secured a place, but not progressive enough that women held leadership positions.  In my state, we were accepted into the thin blue line but we would maintain our positions within that line for awhile and not out in front leading the line.

By the very nature of human adaptation, we sought to “fit in” so much so that we bartered away our uniqueness for a place at the table.  When I was a brand new police officer, I acted the way I thought I was supposed act and I emulated those around me. 

This was a stretch from the person I actually was.  I was a chubby kid throughout my childhood and I’m kinda grateful for my parent’s lack of knowledge about nutrition because with every slice of pizza I shoved into my face, I learned to be funny to compensate for my husky waistline.   The summer before my senior year of high school, I discovered exercise and health and lost the weight.  But I was still funny.  I was voted “Class Clown” by my fellow classmates because I had mastered quick-wit and humor as a way to draw others in.  I was usually the loudest person in the room, and quite frankly, I don’t know how to be any other way.

So when I fulfilled my dream of becoming a cop, I stifled that part of me and applied my proverbial mask that I dubbed my "street personality”.  My small stature magnified my insecurity so I overcompensated by being over the top.  

I used to believe that this phenomenon was exclusive to women but I’ve since realized that it is not gender-specific.  We all spend much of our time watching social cues and emulating others so we don’t stand out too much.  We are innately designed so that we adapt to our environment.

For the first year on the job, I was a poser.  I pretended to be tough and I talked a big game.  That is, until a criminal-type ran from me on a traffic stop.  I got a much needed lesson that my skills and stature were nothing against a 6’3’” muscle-man.  I gave chase but failed to consider my gift of being pretty fast when I needed to be.  As the gap between he and I was closing, I recall having the semi-conscious thought: “What am I going to do when I catch him?”  

So I formulated a plan to to pounce and tackle him to the ground, then cuff him.  I got within 3 feet and sprung on him with Tigger agility and grabbed his shoulders.  

But.he.didn’t.fall.  His footing wasn’t in the least bit affected by my acrobatic feat.

I didn’t have a “plan B” because it never occurred to me that my “plan A” would be thwarted by physics.  I never made a conscious decision to hang on to him - it just happened.  So as I was riding this guy’s back through the backyards  of a neighborhood on the east side of Aurora, my “tough guy” act fell away and I said to him:  

“We both know you could really hurt me if you wanted to.  But you won’t -- because it won’t increase your street cred given my obvious proportion.  And it certainly won’t help my reputation among my fellow officers.  So let’s just end this and I’ll arrest you for your warrants which is inevitable sooner or later anyway.  I won’t charge you with fleeing and we’ll call it a day.”  

He stopped.  Just like that, he stopped abruptly.  I slid down his back and handcuffed him with no issue whatsoever.  

He said, “Ma'am, no one has ever been real with me like that.”  

He also said, “You dropped something back there” which turned out to be my radio that had bounced out of it’s holder.  So we walked together and he showed me where I dropped it (no kidding).  I picked it up and said in my most confident voice over the air, “Subject in custody”.  

I ran into that guy many times throughout my career and he never gave me a problem.  He gave other cops a problem -- but not me.

After that incident, I started being me.  I brought MY personality to my job and I started making great successes.  I learned that when you treat people with dignity and respect and never look down on them (even when they are literally laying in the gutter), they will cooperate and even help you.  

I was a successful police officer because I stopped trying to be what I believed I was supposed to be and started being authentic.  I diffused situations with humor and I didn’t withhold compassion like I thought I was supposed to do.  I was me.  

Then I got promoted to sergeant and the same thing happened again.  I started acting the way my bosses over the years acted because I thought that was how authority was supposed to look.  Fortunately, I was conscious of it and I forced myself to remember the lesson I learned 9 years earlier.  

It’s a struggle to go against the “norm” and it’s much easier to attempt to live in the contrived notion of what others believe a Chief, a Captain, a Lieutenant, a President, a Board Member (insert any title here) should be.  

Whose template are we trying to fit?  We should be more concerned with results.  Are we getting the job done?  That should be the litmus test and should matter more than anything else.  What’s wrong with adding personality to the process?  When it’s time to put our game faces on, we always do.

It’s so counter-intuitive but the fact is that when we start using the skills and the gifts that are unique to us (humor, passion, compassion, creativity) -- when we begin being more of who we really are -- this authenticity makes us better at leading people.  It does so because we aren’t borrowing power from our position.  It does so because we don’t have to try and remember to be a different person at work.  Humans aren’t built to compartmentalize the different facets of our lives.  I’m always astounded when people tell me they are a different person at home than they are at work.  That must be exhausting to try and remember who to be based on where you are!  

I know what stops us from being who we really are.  We are worried what will "THEY" will think.  What will EVERYONE think?  

The best moment of my life came after I finally asked myself, “Who is this THEY that I’m so worried about and why do I give them so much power?”  The answer is actually really simple.  I keep a list of the “they’s” in my life whose opinion really matters to me.  I call them my “Personal Board of Directors” and they are comprised of my family, friends, and mentors with strong values and high expectations of me.   When I begin to worry or the criticism starts to get to me, I refer to my list and as long as I’m doing right by them, the noise falls away.  

If there is a time where I know that my “THEY” would not be proud, I know that I have to make some changes.

And if you find yourself on the other side as one of the critics or the one who stands in judgment, stop.  Check yourself.  Be introspective enough to question your own judgments of others and instead of criticizing, seek understanding.  I have found that my biggest critics are usually people who don’t even know me. 

You are never going to satisfy all the critics (especially the higher you ascend in an organization).  That’s okay -- that’s where COURAGE comes in.  You could be the ripest, juiciest apple in the world, and there’s going to be someone out there who hates apples.

There are those moments when I struggle and am tempted to fall prey to the criticism that suggests I don’t act (or even look) “Commanderly”.  And then I think of the men and women in my department and the results they produce and the relationships I have with them that are based on mutual respect and I realize I’m doing something right.  I’ve gotten this far in my career by being me and I’m proud of that.  And I’m not going to change to fit someone else’s template.  

We all need to find the courage to be authentic and even vulnerable at times.  Vulnerability is not for the weak -- it’s for the strong.  It takes courage to stand out because it’s much easier (and safer) to fit in.  

You will have critics and people will judge you but as long as you are right with the “they” in your life and as long as you are doing the right thing, for the right reasons, and at the right time, you should be YOU as much as you possibly can.  

Thursday, October 10, 2013

Love and Fear in Leadership

Do you think leaders should be loved or feared?  This leadership question has been debated over the years with different surveys and trends that reveal many opinions on the matter.  

Some believe that fear is a motivator and that people, when left to their own devices, will not perform without the threat of discipline or punishment.  Instilling fear then, is a motivator unto itself.  The fearful leader rules with an iron fist and order is achieved through the genuine belief that discomfort will result should they not perform.  Police officers can sometimes fall back on their position of authority and use their badge to motivate through fear.  Parents do this by using the “Because I said so” approach.

The problem with being feared is that people don’t develop intrinsic motivation to perform (motivation that comes from within us).  When people perform out of fear, they soon become resentful and that results in a revolt against authority over time.  When a police officer instills fear when they could have used influence, defiance occurs.  

On the opposite end of the spectrum is the leader who is loved.  This leader gains the admiration of his or her people based on affection.  This leader typically craves being looked upon favorably by those they lead.

A leader who is loved may become so accustom to the feeling of admiration that it clouds their thinking.  It feels good to be loved and it’s easy to get caught up in the warm and fuzzy throes of positive emotion.  As result, the loved leader will make decisions based on the need to hold onto that feeling and thus, will attempt to appease their people rather than risk upsetting them.  The consequence is that these loved leaders will soon turn to others to make the tough decisions so they don’t have to be the “bad guy”.  In parenthood, this results in being more of a friend than a parent.

Many say that leaders should be both loved and feared.  I disagree and argue that they should be neither.  Instead, they should be respected.

Respect is born out of high regard and is elicited by a persons abilities, qualities and achievements.  It is an esteemed reverence for skill but the overarching characteristic for respecting a leader is based on reciprocity.  That is, they genuinely hold their people in high regard and honor them for their contribution to the organization.  

Leaders who are respected follow a simple formula when making any decision -- whether it be about policy or personnel:  

Am I doing the the right thing, at the right time, and for the right reasons?  

If the answer to any component of this question is “no”, they re-evaluate and formulate a response that is in proper alignment.

A respected leader will always be able to give transparent reasons for the decision they made and will never feel ambushed or insulted when asked to do so.  A respected leader understands that they will not please everyone all of the time and makes peace with that concept because they have followed the formula. 

I firmly believe that you can buy a person’s back, but you cannot buy their heart.  Quite simply, I can force someone to do what I want by threat of punishment (fear) and that method will be effective; but only in the short term.

However, when the heart is fully engaged and people believe that they are valued and respected, they will perform because their purpose and their passion persuades them to do so.  It takes time to build an environment where values and expectations are communicated clearly and where people are appreciated for their skills.  This is no easy feat because it requires honest and open dialogue and transparent policies with constant communication.  

Perhaps we shouldn’t focus on the leaders at all.  Maybe the answer is finding the “why” in what we do so that we perform not for someone but for something bigger than ourselves.