By Jim Spengler, MTI Contributor
Over a decade ago, I started a post-college professional career as an athletic trainer. My first position was working within a Division I collegiate sports medicine department. My job-title was the lowest in the hierarchy of the 20 person department. Working with high-level athletes seemed prestigious and could serve as a jumping-off point for the rest of my career. Also, the head of the department was well respected industry-wide. From the outside, it appeared to be a wonderful organization.
However, I was too naive to see the early warning signs of poor leadership and the resulting harmful work culture. Now, years and another career later, I have the necessary perspective to reflect on my errors responding to this particular instance of bad leadership. The experience provided me with wisdom I have carried into my firefighting career. Instances such as these are formative and shape how I lead within my current role.
Descriptions of what constitutes good leadership are plentiful. Depending on the source, common aspirational traits emerge, such as humility, job competence, decisiveness, and adaptability. These behaviors mean little without a strong sense of morality and ethics. Good leaders are not all the same, nor are they always at the top. Given enough time and experience, I would argue most members in an organization could identify good leadership from bad.
Experience, however, was not on my side. This shortfall caused me to remain in an untenable situation longer than necessary. Troubling behaviors were clear during my interview process. For example, the department head likened himself to a military man, stating that had he not pursued this career, he would have been a general. In the same discussion, he described his professional role model. The role model in question would throw staplers at people who met his displeasure. When I spoke to staff members who had left this department, they reflected with nostalgia upon the boss’s frequent bouts of yelling when task performance was substandard. But, ignoring all this, I accepted the job offer. Going further with this leader’s military theme, they acted as if new employees were undertaking a selection process. There was only one right way, and it was theirs. I was frequently at the end of statements such as, “Do you want this bad enough? You should quit. You don’t know shit!” Of course, these have their place in a military-like selection, not so in a sports medicine field. All fault finding was done publicly in front of athletes and staff. This leader even went so far as to mock another employee’s religion and life choices.
However, as in any organization, leadership is not exclusive to the top position. There were staff members senior to me who served as mentors and desired to see their subordinates succeed. My level of real job experience in this field was effectively zero. Any perceived competence on my part stemmed from classroom experience and zero-jeopardy clinical observation. I was unconsciously incompetent. When my boss said, “you don’t know shit,” he was absolutely right. I met this statement with defiance and arrogance. The attitude trickled down to other people trying to provide me mentorship. Corrections were seen as a threat, not an opportunity to learn.
In hindsight, I had no passion for the job. Although the exclamations of “you should quit!” and “do you want it bad enough?” were the least tactful, they were correct. My lack of passion made me a target for the leader. It also most likely made me an undesirable individual to mentor. Alienating myself from most of my superiors, I applied similar tactics to my peers. I did not attempt to forge meaningful relationships with those at my level. As I observed others excelling and finding ways to succeed in the environment, I flailed. This reeked of injustice because I did not perceive this situation as “fair.” This mindset further set me apart from most all in the organization. Without a support structure, the poor leadership behaviors from the top continued to take a severe toll.
Instead of learning a humbling lesson, I responded with a prideful demeanor. Even though I was not committing fireable offenses, I was not helping the organization by remaining. Handing in notice was the right answer, but quitting was failure and to be avoided at all costs. Too much time had been invested and therefore would be lost. It was not professional to remain for obstinate reasons. What could have been a few short months turned into a year due to feet dragging and self-pity.
Reflecting on this experience proved how difficult it can be to put theory into practice. On paper, I may have been able to identify the best actions in this leadership environment. My responses were surprising and out of character. Other conclusions were:
- Determine what is controllable: The only response you control is your own. I granted others too much sway over my own mind.
- Fail quickly: Time is a finite resource. Staying in a job for no tangible benefit only served to waste my time.
- Being unread is a severe impediment: At that stage of my life, reading for professional or self-improvement purposes was not a habit. It would have served as a buffer for my youthful inexperience. Not having perspective or scope compounded my feelings of victimhood.
- Don’t take anything to seriously: Not taking a wide lens view of life contributed to a terrible mindset. Everything was catastrophized.
- Length of time in a job means nothing: My supervisor had decades of experience in their field. They were in charge and the most senior in the organization, but they were not a leader.
As my short lived athletic training career progressed, I encountered another long-tenured leader. This supervisor shared many qualities to the first such as airing grievances in front of all and moodiness. If it was not done their way, it was wrong. Initially, my decision making suffered. A plan of care for an ACL rehabilitation would be dictated by, “what would my supervisor want?” regardless of its actual efficacy. However, in time, responses to these behaviors adjusted, and were in stark contrast to my first experience with poor leadership. Importantly, there was intrinsic alignment between the job mission, duties and my preferences. Passion is arguably difficult to fake and the authenticity was infectious. It cut through the moody attitude. Genuine discussion could occur since I did not take corrections, public or private, personally. There was a true desire to learn. Instead of rankling at the “do it my way or else” approach, I asked myself, “what do they know that I don’t.” In addition, I was able to share knowledge from professional reading and research. Habitually reading at least one scientific paper per week created opportunities to develop a rapport. A constant stream of new knowledge kept any arrogance at bay. Also, I was developing tenure of my own. Thankfully, any egotistical notions were suppressed by the experiences of my first role. I aimed to not squander time with complacency.
In totality, the second example became one of the best professional relationships during my athletic training career. It showed me that poor leadership is not a death sentence to an organization. Success or failure hinges upon collective individual responses, driven by a humble desire to do the work well.
Jim is a career firefighter for a department in the DC metropolitan area. Jim completed a M.S. in Exercise Science in 2013.
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