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Rethinking Leadership: Do you have the courage to lead amongst rumors and half-truths?

"When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you.  The misinformation will feel unfair, but stay about it, trusting that other people will eventually see the truth, just like you did."

-Jill Blakeway 


I recently received some criticism that was tough to hear.  This can be especially true if the feedback casts you in an either unpopular or untrue light.  However, I’ve come to learn that even criticism about you can become a gift if it prompts you to find a better version of what you can do for others.  Your success as a leader relies heavily on your ability to not only receive feedback but more importantly invite it.  Too often leaders are seen as unapproachable because they either don’t show appreciation for the feedback they are given, or they become angry with those who might provide it to them.   As a result of this behavior over the years, leaders have inadvertently encouraged a forum where feedback now finds its way to them via other channels—often behind their backs.  This type of feedback is characterized more aptly as gossip, as it was never intended to actually serve a helpful purpose.  It is often provided to generate a few laughs at the expense of others, and to fuel the egos of others who are trying to feel better about their current position and selves.  This type and manner of feedback is nothing more than bullying.


Thankfully, the type of people who would rather gossip about and bully the reputations of other leaders are easy to spot based on a few common tendencies and characteristics:  


  1. Rarely do they engage their target in professional conversation to offer feedback.  Instead, they speak about people behind their back, often talking with newer members in groups to try and find support amongst those who are too new to know any better.  

  2. When confronted by the person they are talking about, they are quick to deny any responsibility, and may even attempt to throw another person under the bus in order to move the spotlight off of them.

  3. They often lack integrity.  Similar to a chameleon changing colors to adapt to its environment, so too will bullies change even their most firmly held beliefs if they sense they are losing support amongst their audience.

  4. Seldom, if ever, do they try to make things better for others.  However, they will spend an enormous amount of time and energy to justify their often misinformed or irrational positions to others, rather than choosing to build consensus or improve understanding.

  5. Unfortunately, even leaders can resort to bullying.  When this occurs it is at an extreme cost to the other leaders credibility, often creating a stark division in the beliefs and morale of the organization’s rank and file.


Were you able to picture anyone who fits the description above?  Is there a chance it was you? Unfortunately, we are all guilty at some point in our career of entertaining a rumor about someone without much thought for what might actually be true.  With experience comes maturity, and with this maturity, leaders are able to develop a leadership spine in which to stand up to others who choose to act as bullies in our organizations.   People cannot become leaders until they are willing to weather the experiences that give them the scars from which this leadership spine develops.


Make no mistake, if you choose to stand for truth, you are a target for these bullies.  However, sitting in silence against a rumor you know to be untrue lacks the same courage as telling the lie in the first place.


Call to Action:


  • There is a need for the good natured ribbing of each other including leaders.  It helps keep everyone's ego in check and can create opportunities for improvement.  But this type of feedback is lofted as jabs, not haymakers.  It also comes from a good and fun place, not a place meant to intentionally hurt or harm.  And it certainly always comes delivered to the person's face, not in their absence.


  • Don't confuse popularity with credibility.  Credibility comes from consistently doing the right thing for others.  Popularity is nice, and can make things easy for a leader--but it is ill-gained and becomes an empty accolade if it comes at the sacrifice of doing the right thing.  


  • For you, the one with the scars, stay the course.  Chances are you have an insatiable appetite for fairness and creating opportunities for others, which draws you in the crosshairs of critics frequently.  Those who are talented and mean well are often in front of others trying new things, and with being in unknown territory comes the tendency to make mistakes.  Bullies will use these mistakes to generate production in their rumor mills.  Pay it no mind, and keep making more mistakes.  In doing so, you gain experience which will help others avoid making the same ones.  These mistakes serve as the seeds of credibility if you are willing to learn from them.  It may take more time than you would like, but ultimately you will grow more credibility and influence in your organization than you could ever imagine. Maintain the courage to continue to make more mistakes in the name of leading and helping others.


  • For you, the bully and critic, you can try to poison the soil in which others are planting their seeds of credibility by continuing to reintroduce the same lies and half-truths. However, eventually, these leaders will show up in the lives of your audience as they really are.  And the same audience you’ve been gossiping to will have to choose: Do they believe you--the chameleon and fraud; Or is it impossible for them to now refute how much this same leader has now positively impacted them personally. Enjoy your audience while you have it, and do so knowing full-well that this course of action eventually results in losing all of your credibility.



    The conversation about leading against critics continues here....

Benjamin Martin is a Lieutenant with the Henrico County Division of Fire, currently assigned to the training section. He has over fourteen years in public safety and speaks nationally on leadership.  He is a member of the National Speakers Association and  International Society of Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI).  He is presenting at FDIC 2018: "Intoxicated Leadership:How to avoid leading under the influence of your emotions."  He has published as a contributing author Honor & Commitment: Standard Life Operating Guidelines for Firefighters & Their Families. He has written leadership articles for Fire Department Training Network (FDTN), International Society for Fire Service Instructors (ISFSI),  FirefighterToolbox, and FirefighterWife. He is the owner and operator of the leadership training featured

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