When leading a team through change, people often encounter adversity. I firmly believe that if you ever lose your will to fight someone with fight still inside of them will control your life. The “will to fight” can sometimes be described as stubbornness, and for that reason stubbornness can sometimes be a good thing.
Leaders need to stand their ground when outside forces are trying to destroy their team. People with integrity need to do the same when it’s time to say “enough is enough” and right a wrong. History would be different if our Allied forces weren’t stubborn when they stormed Normandy during WW2. These are all examples of the type of stubbornness that you, as a leader, will need to possess if you intend to take on the bullies who try to take what’s rightfully yours. Sometimes our biggest obstacles come from within. Consider the “because that’s the way we’ve always done it” mindset that often prevents organizations and teams from reaching their full potential.
With the right beliefs and intentions, stubbornness can be a great asset but far too many people occupying leadership roles these days haven’t embraced the concept that the best ideas have to win (even if those ideas are not their own). In other words, Stubbornness without reason is toxic and always ends badly for the holder.
I was disappointed when my 8:00 PM flight from Milwaukee, WI to Newark, NJ was cancelled the other day. Being asked to present Step Up and Lead at the Milwaukee Fire Training Officers Association on 9/11 was one of the highlights of my speaking career. It was a blessing to be able to share this much needed message in today’s world, and there is no better day to honor our service and those who have made the ultimate sacrifice than on Patriot Day. Spending time with people who understand what the fire service is all about and are dedicated to carrying the torch, protecting the weak, and providing the best service possible is invigorating. I love what I do, but after the seminar my goal was to get home quickly and spend some quality time with my family before my next shift. Cancelled flights do not help me achieve that goal. My 8:00 PM flight was cancelled because the crew timed out. It’s a reason I can accept. I was upset when I heard the news, but I was happy when a representative of the airline told us we would be rebooked on another flight later in the evening. Hours passed and finally our incoming flight and crew landed. It was shortly after 11:00 PM. The other nineteen travelers and I watched 60 passengers walk off the plane and past us. Some of us were tired. Some were frustrated. Some were both. We lined up and were ready to finally board when a flight attendant passed us. Her head was down. She moved quickly without making eye contact, her suitcase in tow.
“That’s not a good sign,” I thought. My situational awareness was on high alert. Her body language and the fact that there was no other flight attendant in sight was all the information I needed for me to assess the situation and revise my strategy. I needed to be proactive, so instead of waiting on line for the flight, I walked over to the young woman working at the gate counter and asked, “Is this flight going to be cancelled?”
The woman hesitated before cautiously looking up and quietly replying, “Yes sir. It is. The crew called in and said they were fatigued. There is nothing we can do when they make that call.”
It was obvious that no more flights would be arriving or departing that evening. The twenty of us were the only ones in the terminal. The best option I could hope for would be to get on an early flight the next morning. Was I disappointed? Extremely. Was I mad? Maybe a little. I mean it’s the anniversary of 9/11. We all wanted to be with our families and I’m being told that a couple of pilots are too fatigued to sit in a cockpit and fly a plane. Take five and go to rehab! Change your tank and get back in there like my brothers and sisters do every day. Fatigue? Geez. Yes, I was a bit steamed, but arguing or crying about something I can’t change is pointless. I consider myself to be a problem solver so it was time to direct my attention to finding a way to get home. And honestly, what would be the point in getting mad at the young woman who was clearly upset that she was thrown into the Lion’s Den. My plan was to be nice. The man behind me decided to take a different strategy – an aggressive offensive attack.
“WHAT? Fatigue? Are you f@%#ing kidding me?” He barked.
“I’m sorry sir. There is nothing we can do.” She repeated, knowing this conversation wouldn’t be as easy as the one she and I were having.
I decided to play interference and try to help her get out of the IDLH environment, “When is the earliest flight out tomorrow?” I asked, redirecting the conversation.
“7:15 AM Sir.”
“WHAT!?” The man snapped, “That’s too late. I have to be home earlier. What about the other airlines?”
Another woman who worked for the airline, most likely a supervisor, approached the man and said, “Sir, I can help you over here.”
Mr. grumppopotamus followed the woman to the next station with the intentions of booking an earlier flight on another airline. I proceeded to book my 7:15 AM flight to Newark. What happened next was a lesson on stubbornness worth sharing.
The supervisor moved her fingers quickly across her keyboard and without taking her eyes off the screen said, “Sir, I can get you out at 4:45 AM, but you will have a layover in Atlanta. You wouldn’t land in Newark until 1130.”
The man put his hands up to stop her and said, “Just tell me, is that the earliest flight you have?”
“Yes sir, but the 7:15 flight would get you…”
“I already told you, 7:15 is too late!” He repeated, cutting her off in mid-sentence before demanding, “Put me on the 4:45.”
“Yes sir. If that’s what you’d like.” She said with a slight raise of the eyebrows to match her shrug.
The women gave the man and I complimentary coupons for hotel rooms for the night. I walked outside and onto the designated shuttle. Mr. Snaggletooth followed, grumbling all the way. As we drove to the hotel he was peering down at his itinerary. I was enjoying the moment because I knew what was coming next.
“You’re on the 7:15, right?” he asked.
“Yes.” I replied.
“What time do you land?”
“10:30!? How’s that possible? I’m on the 4:45 and we don’t reach Newark until 11:30.” He cried.
“Your flight has a layover.” I explained, “Mine is direct.”
“What? She never told me that.”
“Actually, she tried to explain it to you but you were pretty mad.” I said. It took a lot to hold back my amusement, but I’m proud to say that I managed to do so.
I can’t write the words he blessed me and the rest of our shuttle partners with on this forum, but it was entertaining to say the least. That evening, I only had four hours to sleep before I had to wake up and head back to the airport. On the direct flight I would be able to sleep for another two hours. It wasn’t ideal, but it sure was better than sleeping for two hours and getting on the 4:45 only to get home an hour later than me because of the layover. Well played, Mr. Cantankerous.
The experience reminded me that many people are their own worst enemy. This man was stubborn to a fault. I want to encourage you to consider how this applies to those of us who occupy leadership positions in our profession. I was speaking to a friend of mine who has been a firefighter for twenty years and an officer for half that time. He told me his crew was working a cockloft fire in an unoccupied one-story 100’ by 60’ commercial building with tin ceilings. The smoke was pushing out the eaves when they arrived. The firefighters were having a difficult time trying to get the ceilings open to hit the fire, but they were determined. They were stubborn. One of the officers on scene assessed the situation and suggested a different option – opening the eaves and knocking the fire down from there instead of allowing it to continue to grow. They implemented that plan and knocked down the main body of fire within seconds, which bought them more time to get the ceiling open to complete the job. Sometimes leaders choose a strategy, but fail to adapt when that strategy isn’t working. We cannot allow our egos to prevent us from adapting when necessary.
This isn’t only a problem we encounter on the fire ground. Some leaders are stubborn to a fault when it comes to “any” change. We in the fire service are famous for responding to questions with the answer, “Because that’s the way we’ve always done it.” We have to do a better job of identifying the best ways to do things, and when we find those ways we need to make every effort to simplify things to avoid bogging our people down with unnecessary tasks. If you find a new, better way, remove the old way. If you fail to do that you will become the “Department of Redundancy Department”. When a person is task saturated their situational awareness diminishes, and that’s never a good thing.
The main point I want to stress is that we have all been in a position where we were stubborn to a fault. A buddy of mine has been having marital challenges. The other day we were speaking and he said, “My wife and I argue all the time. I don’t even know what we are arguing about, but we do.” Let’s do a better job of understanding that stubbornness has its place, but there is a fine line between being determined and becoming like my travel friend, Mr. Grumppopotamus. The story also reminds me that most of the problems we have in life can be a direct result of poor or ineffective people skills.
Besides those lessons there was another silver lining to this experience. When I arrived at the Milwaukee airport early on September 12th, I was blessed to come across more than 100 WW2 and Korean War soldiers who were preparing to board their Honor Flight to Washington. One hundred men who helped define the greatest generation - True heroes who were stubborn in a different way and for all the right reasons, Thank God.
Side note: This morning I had the opportunity to speak to 200 Real Estate agents at a regional seminar. I began by talking about people skills and customer service and I started by telling them the cancelled flights story you’ve just read. The response after my keynote was all positive except for one woman. She approached me and said, “I’m a retired flight attendant and you should know that fatigue in ‘airline terminology’ means the crew had more than 14-16 hours active duty.”
I thanked her for explaining that to me. The conversation was cordial until she turned it up a notch and added, “No one would want a firefighter to try to perform their duties without appropriate rest.”
I smiled, and asked. “Do they always cancel flights after crews work those many hours?”
“Yes.” She said.
So I politely asked, “If they knew they were going to cancel my second flight three hours before they did, why do you think they had us wait in the terminal for those three hours before telling us?”
After a moment she said, “I don’t know. That would be a customer service issue.”
He shoots. He scores! I had learned a long time ago that instead of raising your voice, improve your argument. Thanks for reading. It’s time to Step Up and Lead!