Real Life LEADERSHIP Lessons

CarolinaFireJournal - By Ken Farmer
By Ken Farmer
04/24/2015 -

Are leaders born or is leadership a skill that can be learned? That seems always to be an age old question. For me, leadership is something that you learn. You learn by watching. You watch mistakes; you watch people who are masters at it and you watch and read lots of different sources.


You must have one to two people you trust 1000 percent or you will implode from the tension. As a leader you must pick these people very carefully.

“Scandal” is a political thriller television show on ABC. Interestingly it is based on a former White House insider who clearly has some keen insight into what happens in Washington. From what I can find on various television show sites on the web, it debuted on ABC on April 5, 2012. The main character is an amazing actress named Kerry Washington. Her character, Olivia Pope, is partially based on a former George H.W. Bush administration’s press aide Judy Smith, who serves as the show’s co-executive producer.

The show takes place in Washington, D.C. and focuses on Ms. Pope’s crisis management firm, as well as the staff at the White House. As of this writing, the show is ongoing and has been renewed for the 2015 season. Many of the plots are taken from recent news. The story is fictional, of course. Nothing like this ever happens in Washington D.C. But it makes for great thriller TV, as you never ever know what will happen next.

I admit to being a bit of a political news junkie. I read four news sites the first thing of every day and listen to two to three different news broadcasts during the day and evening. I did not even discover this show until about a year ago. This was when the show was well into its fourth season. I now admit that I watch it for the entertainment and learning factor alone.

I have lived near Washington D.C. for over eight years. As a kid, I came to D.C. and did the tourist tours. I was fascinated with the town — including both the history and the power.

Politics is the bread and butter of this town. It’s on the news 24/7 and it determines many issues. From the local level of your government to the very top, politics is reality. The good news is that most of the time, it works well and we, the people win. The bad news is that sometime we lose. Most of the time, we never fully know if some of these issues are a good or a bad thing.

I have always been a student of the political scene. I took courses in government in college; I have worked at the local, state, and now national levels in government. It remains a large learning curve and I will never complete the full learning cycle. The reason for that is that just about the time you think you have it figured out, things change. Elected officials change, appointments change, the political climate — sometimes the political “stomach” changes. Regardless of why or how, no one stays in power but for so long.

We often think of politics as negative. I believe it’s not. We would all like to think it should be pretty, neat, and wrapped in a big red bow. That may be the way it is displayed and that is the way it is often written about in history books. The real truth is that it is often brutal and disappointing. Our job is to understand this and learn from the process. Where we can, we should change it and make it better. That said, I remember reading a saying, we have three choices in a difficult situation:

  1. Leave and walk away. You give up your power and your control of the results and the end game.
  2. Give up and choose not to play anymore. You are no longer a player in the game and you are now an observer and no longer a player.
  3. Continue to stay in the game or play on the team. Make changes and improvements where you have control and impact. You can make more of a difference inside than outside.

Your choice now is which one will you choose?

Now, back to the show! Recently I took some time and watched three seasons back to back thanks to Netflix. Many things jumped out at me. For what it is worth, here are some lessons learned by me about leadership from the show:

  1. The main character is a very strong person and a very weak person, both at the same time. This makes her real. As a leader, you have both sides inside of you.
  2. You must solve problems. People bring their problems to you for a reason. Step up and figure out a solution. That is why you were selected for the job. Sometimes the solution is good and sometimes bad. Accept it.
  3. You must be a fixer — first, second and last.
  4. A leader “knows” things about other people. You should not always use that knowledge. Sometimes you must. Be very selective.
  5. Politics and life may sometimes be dark and dirty. There are always casualties and injuries in a political process.
  6. There are highs and lows in life. They often come in waves and sometimes knock you down to your knees. Both the highs and the lows hurt, but in different ways. Get back up and go to work. Staying down does not solve anything.
  7. You are the leader of your team. They need you. Keep your pain and hurt inside at all times while you are in front of them. Never let them see your pain. They need you to be strong and you need them to succeed.
  8. Speeches are one thing. Reality is something else. Don’t ever mix the two.
  9. Always police your brass. The shell casing for most bullets used to be made of solid brass. Any soldier or police officer knows that you must pick up your leftover shell casings after shooting your gun. In this case it means you should pick up and clean up after a big event. Try to leave as little behind as possible.
  10. Technology will always give you up. Cell phones, the Internet, email, social media, or something like it will allow things to come out you don’t want to be seen or heard. Think analog, not digital.
  11. You must have one to two people you trust 1000 percent or you will implode from the tension. As a leader you must pick these people very carefully. Oh, yes, don’t forget most people probably want your job.
  12. Sometimes you are driven by basic primal urges. Do not betray yourself or your true morals and standards. Ever.
  13. When people decide they plan to win, they will say and do anything and everything to win. Don’t be surprised at what happens.
  14. Lie and you will be found out at some point. It will not be pretty.
  15. As a leader, sometimes you don’t ask about why or how. Just say thank you.
  16. You will always be amazed at how things turn out in the end. Sometimes you win and sometimes you lose. Either way you will be amazed.
  17. Sex is always a factor. It may not be the root cause, but it is always a potential reason. Always consider it.
  18. When you wear the white hat, you have the power. Use it but don’t abuse it. It is a privilege and not a right.
  19. It does not matter how people find out the truth. Expect that to happen and plan for them to find the truth.
  20. Your duty as a leader is to deal with the truth. People expect and demand the truth. It will not hurt as much as the lie.
  21. Emotions, however valuable to you, are not part of leadership. Put them away, lock them in a box and lose the key. They only get in the way of making the best decisions.

This column has been a challenge to write. It brings up many memories and experiences from my past. Some good and some bad. Some I would prefer not to remember. Some of these are about me and some are about friends and enemies. To every rule I have written, I can speak to a personal challenge I have faced. Some were up close and some were from a distance. Each one has changed me and my life in various ways.

Use this list as you see fit. Hang them on your wall, put them in a frame, put a note in your pocket and pull it out when you have a tough decision to make. I don’t have all the answers, just some of the same pain and past experiences.

Lesson to remember — leadership is something you learn. Good luck.

Ken Farmer is Section Chief, Leadership and Fire Risk Reduction at the National Fire Academy, United States Fire Administration in Maryland. Email him at [email protected].
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