Leadership Forum: Noise versus performance
By Matt Pegg
Coming out of high school, I went to work as an apprentice mechanic at Gary’s Service and Towing in Keswick, Ont. This was also the home of both P&P Performance and Custom Engine Service. It was while working here that I would also begin my career as a volunteer firefighter, opening the door to my career in the fire service shortly after earning my mechanic’s licences.
Working in this busy, modern and well-equipped shop was an amazing experience. I had the opportunity to work on some extraordinary high-performance machines, including drag cars, race boats and street rods. Anyone who has ever been around these high-performance vehicles knows that regardless of the brand, configuration or set-up, they all have a few things in common. They are almost always loud; and for the enthusiast, the louder the better. To this day, the unmistakable sound of a nitrous-injected street rod or all three supercharged big block engines coming to life in an offshore race boat is the stuff dreams are made of.
But as my experience grew, and I learned more as a technician, I began to understand that the amount of noise a performance vehicle made was not actually connected to how well it performed under pressure.
Many times, I would watch these impressive looking and sounding machines fail to actually perform at the track or on the water. Sure, they sounded great and turned many heads, but only until the crowd saw them race for the first time as it became clear that they weren’t actually powerful and fast – they were simply loud.
I have met many leaders like this as well. Those who talk the talk, look impressive and who move through their careers making a ton of initially-impressive sounding noise. Leaders like this can amass a following, albeit short-lived, as they project themselves as being the real deal and the ones to watch. In reality, they tend to be distracting and even intimidating to those around them, as the noise and general chaos they create can easily overpower everything and everyone around them.
In leadership, just as with high-performance machines, actual performance is not related to the amount of noise and chaos produced. In fact, the best and highest-performance leaders amongst us generally go about their work quietly and efficiently, with impressive results seemingly appearing out of nowhere.
Above all else, the best leaders instill a sense of calm in everyone around them. When they walk into a room, the level of anxiety reduces. Their calm, focused attention is palpable and inspires confidence in others. In other words, high performance leaders achieve demonstrable results, absent of the tornado of chaos that surrounds those who tend to best resemble the Looney Tunes’ Tasmanian Devil.
We have all met, observed and likely worked for people in leadership positions who seem to bring 25 litres of gasoline to every small problem “fire” they encounter, almost immediately turning even the smallest of issues into a loud, chaotic, multiple-alarm event. Only after they escalate the situation, oftentimes simply to enhance their personal visibility, do they actually begin to address and resolve the issue at hand. What could have been calmly and efficiently addressed, managed and resolved in the first place now requires much more effort, many more people and a much heavier lift to achieve the same result.
I chose my words very carefully above when I referenced “people in leadership positions,” as there is a profound difference between people in leadership positions and leaders. Please allow me to be very clear about one thing – I am not suggesting that leaders don’t make mistakes. Every leader makes mistakes. But the best leaders are extremely conscious of their own actions and behaviour, and especially aware of their impact on the people around them. Real leaders learn from mistakes and commit to not making the same mistake again.
There is an incredible need for calm, consistent, competent and reliable leadership today, a need that is only going to grow moving forward. Those of us privileged to hold leadership roles, and those who aspire to in the future, must remember that achieving performance and producing noise are two very different things. High performance doesn’t need to be loud. We only need to watch a Tesla efficiently blast from 0 to 100 kilometres per hour in less than 3 seconds, and in complete silence, to know how true this is.
Matthew Pegg is the chief with Toronto Fire Services, having previously served in Georgina, Ajax and Brampton, Ont. He is currently the incident commander for Toronto’s COVID-19 response. Contact Matthew at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @ChiefPeggTFS.