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Leadership Forum: Leading by example: Do your actions stack up?

I continue to be amazed by the actions of seemingly intelligent people who do unbelievably dumb things. I am talking about accomplished public- and private-sector officials who are considered to be talented leaders yet for some strange reason they do something that is totally embarrassing and/or dishonest. As a result, their career and reputation ends up in the tank.

March 19, 2008
By E. David Hodgins

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edavidhodginsI continue to be amazed by the actions of seemingly intelligent people who do unbelievably dumb things. I am talking about accomplished public- and private-sector officials who are considered to be talented leaders yet for some strange reason they do something that is totally embarrassing and/or dishonest. As a result, their career and reputation ends up in the tank.

Considering the number of wacky reality TV shows out there, here’s my idea for a show: I would call it: Leaders and the Dumb Things They Do. The program contestants would be a group of recently “fallen” leaders competing for the grand prize of Win Back Your Career and Reputation. Like the popular TV show, America’s Funniest Home Videos, the audience would pick the winner (the dumbest thing a leader has done) based on the majority of votes. Do you think there would be a sufficient number of individuals to run this show weekly? Chances are, as you’re reading this, somewhere there is a person in a leadership position doing something stupid. And as Forest Gump said, “Stupid is as stupid does.”   

Based on the number of illegal and improper incidents that are routinely exposed involving both public and not-so-public individuals, it would appear that inappropriate behaviour is quite common. What causes leaders to go astray? Is it a character flaw inherent in a certain percentage of the population generally and the leadership population directly? Does the power and influence that comes with leadership go to the boss’s head? Or is it just greed? And what about the stupid things officials do in the pursuit of romance?

Here are a few examples of dumb things leaders have been caught doing recently: using the corporate credit card for personal purchases for even small stuff like cigars; charging expenses for a business trip, when no business was conducted; claiming meals while attending a conference or seminar when meals were provided and paid for as part of the registration fee; not following corporate contracting policies or procedures in providing work to a friend or family member; circumventing recruitment policies to hire friends or family members; using one’s position to influence a car sales-person to give a special discount and allowing the salesperson to tell prospective customers that purchasing from them is the right thing to do because you (pick a big title) bought from them; using corporate assets for personal gain (the fire captain uses the fire truck to purchase some home renovation items at the hardware store); shoplifting while on duty or in uniform (yes, there have been occurrences of senior officers from emergency services disciplines being charged with thievery).

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Here are some of the reasons that are offered:

  • The system owes me;
  • They won’t catch me;
  • I need to get even to right a perceived wrong against me;
  • That will teach them to mess with me;
  • I need to make it look like a business trip so that he/she will not find out what I am really up to;
  • The organization will not give me a raise so I will compensate in other ways;
  • I hire family members while ignoring the policy because family comes first;
  • My boss does it, so it’s OK for me to do it; I can get away with it because I am in uniform;
  • Times have changed and it’s OK to do this given today’s permissive society.

Remember, a fundamental principle of leadership is to have others follow – that means they will copy the leader’s behaviour. What behaviours would you have your direct reports and others follow?

As a leader – and remember, everyone, regardless of rank fits into this category – you have an opportunity to influence the work environment in a positive way. Just as a journey of 1,000 miles begins with one small step, your steps in the right direction will have a direct influence on the action of others. 

When in doubt, ask yourself, “What would my mother tell me to do?” and then do it.  I challenge you to demonstrate good character and responsible behaviour.  Your reputable actions, however small, will have a positive influence on the behaviour of the people you impact.

David Hodgins is the managing director, Alberta Emergency Management Agency. He is a former assistant deputy minister and fire commissioner for British Columbia. A 30-year veteran of the fire ser­vice, he is a graduate of the University of Alberta’s public administration program and a certified emergency and disaster manager. E-mail: David.Hodgins@gov.ab.ca


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