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Painting Rocks

It seemed to be the most mundane of all tasks. The intense afternoon sun was directly overhead, and the heat and humidity surrounded him like a heavy wool blanket. The tropical heat of Florida was unfamiliar to him, and each labored breath he took made him wonder why he had ever come here in the first place. Tiny sweat droplets could be seen gathering on his glistening forehead as the moisture seemed to only intensify the sun’s reflection.

He stood in a field of white sand. He had a shovel in his hand that he would use to dig into the soft dirt, removing it from what appeared to be the beginnings of a hole. Each time the metal spade would dig into the loose sand, the soil around it would loosen and partially fill the hole he had just dug. Over and over this dance continued, dig a little soil and watch the surrounding soft sand partially refill the hole. The unrelenting heat, coupled with the monotony of this task, led to the initiation of a conversation by one of the fellow workers. The other man could not make sense of the repetitiveness of the task and began to complain. In fact, he ceased working, threw his shovel on the ground, and sat in the shade of a nearby tree.

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A conversation ensued between the two men in reference to the fairness of the supervisor. The man who was sitting in the shade saw the supervisor as an unreasonable tyrant forcing them into hard labor in the blistering heat. The man made it clear that he had no respect for the leader and that he no longer wanted such a mundane job. However, it was only his first day on the job, and he was known for moving from company to company, never happy with any place that he had worked. This work seemed to him to be the most ridiculous of jobs and something he saw as being far beneath him.

 

The male who was still digging the holes that partially refilled as he dug had been working for the supervisor for many years, and he truly respected him. He knew that though the work was grueling, the pay was fair. He also knew that though the environment was inhospitable due to the location, he knew the owner did everything he could to lighten the workload.

As the men talked, the man under the shade tree stated that he did not understand why the other man was working so hard and stated that he would be walking away after he had rested. The man then looked up to the other man still consistently digging and asked, “What is it that makes you stay?”

The man with the shovel replied simply, “I stay because I know the man that I work for, and I will do anything that he asks of me.” After a brief pause, the man went on to describe the owner as a man of character, a man who cared when his child was sick and he needed time off, a man who was there when a serious accident almost cost him his life, and a man who constantly supported his desires–even when he asked if he could simply dig the holes for the others who would be planting behind him.

Sitting in the shade, the man was silent for a moment and then inquisitively looked up and asked in an almost stuttering voice, “You want to dig holes?”

“Yes,” he replied gently. “You see, I can no longer operate the equipment since the accident; my eyesight will not allow me. I can no longer plant the large trees because of the strength that it requires and the injuries I sustained.  And can no longer walk great distances quickly enough to move material around.  But the owner knew I needed a job and offered me this one. I owe him everything for his kindness and his caring support. Whatever task he requires of me, I will do with what strength I have left, to the utmost of my ability.” He paused and continued, “You see, digging holes is one of the most important jobs we have. If they’re not ready when the planting crews get to them, then the process is slowed, and it affects the entire operation.”

The man in the shade stood up and quietly walked away. He could never understand the wisdom of the man to whom he had been talking. As he walked away, the methodical thump of a shovel striking sand could be heard behind him.

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I once heard of a supervisor that would ask his people to paint rocks. They were simply brush strokes on native stone for no apparent reason. It’s a task both mundane and thankless. When asked why they would paint the rocks, they almost always replied that it was not because they wanted to paint rocks, but because of who was asking them to paint them.

These stories above are illustrations of the response that great leaders get when they ask for seemingly mediocre tasks to be completed. Sometimes the task is exactly what the person needs and wants to do for their own growth even though the assignment seems lackluster. A seemingly menial task may be the best fit for them and where they are right now in their career. In other cases, the job that is being asked may be truly insignificant or the followers do not have the whole picture, but the person doing the asking is someone that people want to follow.

This analogy is often true in times of war. Though no good leader would intentionally want to lead their people into a deadly scenario, it is a possibility in war that what you are requesting could lead others to their deaths. Why do people follow these men and women into a war zone? In the world of firefighting, why would someone follow another into a burning building? In law enforcement, what would make someone choose to follow others into an active shooting area?

Some might argue a blank follower-ship, a proverbial lemming scenario: they jumped off the cliff, so you jump off the cliff, and so forth, and so on. Though this can be true in some scenarios, I would argue that this is not the case in the majority of situations. When those who survive are asked why they went into the inhospitable environment knowing that they might not survive, they usually respond with some version of, “Because of whom I was following.”

When those who survive are asked why they went into the inhospitable environment knowing that they might not survive, they usually respond with some version of, “Because of whom I was following.”

 

But what does this have to do with law enforcement and holding the blue line? We have all had that one supervisor–the one whose face immediately springs to mind whenever the subject of bad leadership comes up. The first labels that come to mind might be “micro-manager,” “uncaring,” “hard to understand,” and “undisciplined.” We may even use harsher terms or language that describes major character flaws, possibly even unethical or immoral behaviors. We all know and can probably tell a story about a bad leader we have had in our lives, regardless of our profession.

If good leaders are the antithesis of bad leaders, then we can discover what defines them by reversing the traits of a bad leader. If a bad leader is defined by the list above, then the opposite holds true for a good leader, terms such as: “allows for autonomy,” “caring,” “easily understood,” “disciplined” and “ethical,” maybe even “moral.” We all know the signs of good and bad leaders because we have had them in our lives. From the time we were a child, we began to develop an understanding of who we would prefer to follow and why we want to follow them.

In law enforcement today, there is a polarizing effect that takes place when it comes to leadership.  In some organizations we have strong leaders that people will follow into any situation, while in others, we have leaders that no one wants to follow at all.  As with any business, there is a difference between positional authority and leadership. Someone can be given a position of authority–such as passing a Sergeants or Lieutenants exam–but if no one is following them, then they are not a leader. The test for leadership is determined by stopping and seeing who is behind you. Who is it that is charging up the hill towards battle (real or proverbial) with you?  If you glance back and no one is there, then you have no true followers.

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Leadership is something that is essential to a law enforcement organization, from the front-lines to the office of the Police Chief or Sheriff. This is a career that requires you to be able to lead people or at a minimum take charge in a precarious situation where decisions must be made on a moment’s notice. However, this is often determined by positional leadership in the organization and complicated by the chain of command structure. This is an important structure in law enforcement and military organizations but can often lead to an increase in people with positional authority but lacking in actual leadership skills.

The real question is, where are you? What is your role? And why do you do what you do? Do you feel sometimes like you are mindlessly digging holes only to see them partially filled back in with each shovel full you take? Do you feel like you are pointlessly painting rocks just for the sake of changing their color? We all have these tasks, these requirements, that are asked of us. What we must come to terms with is: why do we do them? Is it simply because someone of a higher rank asked us to, or are we following this person because of who they are and where they are leading us? Finally, we must ask the question: if it is solely because of positional authority, then what am I doing differently to be ready to lead when my turn comes?

 

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On the other hand, if we are like the man on his first day sitting under the shade tree refusing to do what is asked, then we are not setting ourselves up for success should the opportunity ever arise for us to lead. That way of thinking will not develop a leader but rather someone who at the best can hope for positional authority should they even stay at the organization long enough to have promotional opportunities.

 

Finally, develop the skills of good leaders in your life, so that someday when you need to ask someone to dig holes or paint rocks, they will simply say, “I do it because they asked me, and they are the kind of man or woman I want to follow.”

In the coming weeks, I encourage you to begin to take notice of your organization and your role in it. Observe those who are leaders you want to follow and what sets them apart, and begin to emulate their actions and reactions. Notice what defines a bad leader, and be vigilant to refrain from those traits in your own life. Finally, develop the skills of good leaders in your life, so that someday when you need to ask someone to dig holes or paint rocks, they will simply say, “I do it because they asked me, and they are the kind of man or woman I want to follow.”

 

THIS POST FIRST APPEARED AT ON THE BLUE LINE, MARCH 2019.